About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sitting at the Kitchen Table: One More Round on “Why Go to School”

Again, I have to say that I’m humbled by the thoughtfulness of the readers’ responses.
In writing about the impediments to robust, humane schooling, readers mention the ill-effects of high-stakes assessment and narrow notions of achievement; centralized, top-down administrative control; the size of schools; and a hyper-competitive culture that turns education into a mad scramble for advantage. Though alluded to in several posts, I would add and underscore the continued presence of discrimination (often evidenced in beliefs about the ability of children from particular backgrounds) and the effects of poverty and intensified economic inequality.
Most of these issues are addressed in an important new report from The Forum for Education and Democracy entitled “Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education”. (The title plays off the earlier report “A Nation at Risk” published twenty-five years ago.) I highly recommend it, and maybe in future posts we can discuss it.
(By the way, “Ms.” asks about school size, and I’d recommend reading Deborah Meier– one of the contributors to the “Democracy at Risk” report–on that topic, if you haven’t encountered her yet. You’ll find a kindred spirit.)
One thing that a position paper like “Democracy at Risk” can’t do, or can’t do well, given the nature of the format, is provide the lived particulars of experience, the deeply felt reasons people have for sending their kids to school, what they want for their children. What I appreciate about so many of my readers’ posts over the past few months is the fact that they draw on those particulars, drawn from a parent’s desire or a teacher’s life in the classroom.
At the beginning of The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama describes traveling house to house, county to county as he was running for office in Illinois. Whether or not you support Obama, the description rings true, and, I think, is familiar to any politician of any persuasion who willingly or not has to spend time at kitchen tables, at local diners, at small churches, at civic clubs, at school boards. This is where, over time, you hear what’s on people’s minds, their fears and hopes. I had my own version of this experience as I traveled across the country to write Possible Lives, and it was unforgettable.
In my case, we spoke mostly about education, for that was the purpose of my journey. But, of course, all the things that affect schooling–from local economy to local youth culture–came into the mix as well.
Parents and teachers time after time, community after community wanted young people to be prepared for work, and usually work that was more secure and less physically demanding than the work of their parents. This goal is in line with current policy discourse about preparing a better educated work-force. But parents wanted so much more: for their children to be valued, their talents encouraged, their limitations addressed. Parents wanted their children to learn how to get along, how to be fair and respectful of others. Parents wanted their kids to know things, to get involved in subjects and learn how to learn. Parents wanted their children to apply what they learn, make good judgments. And so it went.
All this was specific, grounded, referring to an individual child in an individual place. It was real and immediate. But when I heard it in home after home, town after town, I couldn’t miss how widespread it was. Measurable achievement and economic security are absolutely at the center of parents’ concerns. But there is much more that they want from school or, maybe a better way to say it is that economics and accountability are webbed in a number of other deeply felt concerns.
The politician who can understand and express in policy those concerns will tap into something powerful in the country. I hope that such talk emerges as we move further down this year’s campaign trail.

A personal note and tribute. We write a lot in this blog about promise and possibility. I’d like to raise an imaginary glass in memory of a friend whose promise was cut terribly short in an automobile accident two weeks shy of her 34th birthday. Here’s to Polly Mae Tolonen, a sharp, sassy woman with a big laugh and a good heart.


  1. When we at The Forum for Education and Democracy released 'Democracy at Risk' we hoped it would stir discussion like that which Mike raises in this post. I helped write the paper, and all through the work I was thinking about how, if we took a new approach to federal (and state for that matter) support for our public schools, the lives of the kids in my school would be different.

    A little background might help. For the past 16 years I have been principal at a school that serves primarily low-income, rural, Appalachian kids. We have done a great deal to make the school a more humane and engaging place--advisory, long class periods, internships, senior projects, graduation portfolios, lots of student democracy. And our kids are pretty successful after school. It looks like nearly 100% of those that applied to college this year got in--including Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown and a host of private and state schools. And in a transcript study we have found that our kids average about a B+ in college. More importantly, I live among our graduates and they are great neighbors and citizens.

    But we could do so much more for them if the nation really cared about every child. Too many of my kids come to school in physical pain from toothaches or untreated illnesses. So many of them rely on us for their only hot meal of the day. And they come to a school that spends about 2,000 per child less than the state average. A school that has lost a couple of great teachers because we could not pay them enough to make it possible for them to pay their college loans. A school that, try as we might to ignore them, still is judged by our state soley on standardized test scores rather than by the performance of our graduates.

    We need to keep fighting for equal educational resources for kids like the ones I will great at our school house door tomorrow. And we can do it...today if we want. As we point out in "Democracy at Risk", all the things we propose would cost less than one week of the war in Iraq.

    Thanks, Mike, for noticing the report. I think it may have some traction in Washington. But more importantly, thanks for your voice that tells the story of kids like mine, kids whose lives are on the boundary.

  2. Colegas,

    Man, what beautiful posts.

    Primeramente, I bow my head in honor of Professor Rose's friend.

    George Wood, no te conozco, but I imagine it would be an honor to meet you given the work you do, the people you serve.

    I don't want to say much, for reals, I feel a kind of reverence for what has already been written. The only thing I can think of now is to say a brief little something about literacy over the life span, literacy being one of the central legacies of the schooling experience. Perhaps if we knew more about it we might have a true "measure" of the efficacy of schooling.

    Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, writes of "friendship"--friendships of utility, of pleasure, and the perfected friendship. We implicitly "measure" our own friends (and hopefully ourselves) by how closely we enact the virtues of the perfected friendship: "Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally..."

    I wonder if we could say the same about our literacy? Does literacy, como buen amigo, stand by us in time of need? En la cama y en la carcel/In sickness and through imprisonment? What are the limits of literacy's virtue? What can it not do? What social factors trump literacy? And then, most importantly in my mind: what kind of social magic, exactly, does literacy make possible?

    orale, hasta the next time

    Manuel Espinoza

  3. Manuel, I love your post. My Dad read all four papers in L A every day, and we kids waited in total silence for him to finish each one so we could have the funnies because he was Irish, and we didn't make noise when he was home. He brought us "Little Golden Books" from the his daily runs to the liquor store and paid my library fines. He read "Life," "Look," and the "Saturday Evening Post." We stacked them up in the living room and read them over and over in front of the TV. Our treat when we finished Saturday chores was a ride to the library. We walked absolutely everywhere else but Mass and Confession. There are ten of us, and we all read, even the crazy ones. I don't know what any of this has to do with anything, but maybe we need to stop looking at literacy as some sort of chore we "high stakes test" and put books everywhere: comic books and books they made movies out of. Maybe we need to make reading evenings available for families who work with food and coffee and treats for the kids, in Spanish and whatever languages. We could use the public schools. I've thought for a long time I'd like to have a "Paolo Friere" school where we could all learn together, adult literacy and how to make Menudo and speak Spanish correctly. Dr. Rose, this is great. Mary Jimenez