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, February 24, 2010

Race to the Top of What?: School is about more than getting a job

This week’s blog is a reprint of a commentary that I published last week in Truthdig. Again, let me give a shout out to that online magazine. It tends to print opinions and points of view that are hard to find in regular media.


The race is on. Forty-one states have just finished the mad dash to submit proposals for the Obama education initiative, Race to the Top. Now that the first round of competition is over we should be asking the basic questions that got lost in the flurry: What is the true purpose of all this reform? What should it be? Why do we send our kids to school?

The answer given for decades – from the national to the local level, from Democrats or Republicans – is that education prepares the young for the world of work and enables the nation to maintain global economic preeminence. There is an occasional nod to the civic purpose of schooling in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, but that goal pales next to the economic justification.

To be sure, economic prosperity has long provided a potent incentive to fund and improve schools in the United States, but it is only one of multiple goals of education in a democracy. The architects of public education knew this. In a landmark report to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1848, Secretary of Education Horace Mann did make the economic argument – original at the time – that education is the great equalizer, fostering social mobility and national prosperity. But this economic goal was embedded in a celebration of the physical, intellectual, civic, and moral goals of schooling.

We need to reclaim that broader vision, for we have terribly narrowed our thinking about school. Our tunnel vision is dangerous because the reasons we give for education affect what we teach and how we teach it. Vocational Education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.

When Vocational Education was being formulated in the first decades of the last century, some proponents had an egalitarian conception of a curriculum that integrated the manual and mental to foster intellectual, social, and civic development. But as VocEd materialized, much of that ideal was lost to a strictly functional job-training curriculum that, ironically, wasn’t very successful at preparing students for the new work of the day. A major effort of recent reforms of Vocational Education (now called Career and Technical Education) has been to recapture some of those earlier goals. The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity – and that gets at all of this through a range of human expression, from mathematics to the arts.

Economic preparation is a primary goal of every nation in the world today, repressive societies included. Shouldn’t education in a democracy have a richer set of goals? Even if our policy makers seem to lose track of this broader purpose, students and their parents on the whole do not.

I’ve taught for forty years – kindergarten to graduate school to adult literacy programs – and one thing that has become very clear to me is the multiple purposes and meanings education can have for all involved. To be sure, even young people are aware that school will affect their chance of getting ahead. “Math will take you a long way in life,” a middle-school student tells me. But there are many other reasons that people take to education. It provides intellectual stimulation (“She’s teaching us new things that we couldn’t do before,” another middle-schooler observes). Students enjoy the protected social setting and the connections they establish with adults. Many people, young and not so young, discover a passion. Our worlds get bigger. School is one of the primary institutions where we define who we are.

What is telling is that even in programs explicitly targeted to economic advancement – community college certification programs, for example – there is typically much more going on than job preparation. Students report that they are coming back to school to be better able to raise their kids, or to feel better about themselves, or to open up new options – economic options, but intellectual and social ones as well. In fact, one of the things that strikes me about working with adults returning to school is how often the experience leads them to reevaluate themselves, to see themselves in a new light.

The way we express the purpose of schooling shapes our collective definition of the educated person. If we want our youth to thrive and stay in school – the goal of all current school reforms – then we need an education policy that embodies the full range of reasons people go to school in a free society.


  1. Thank you for pointing out educational goals in a democracy should be quite different from educational goals in repressive countries. In theory it should be obvious but in practice it can be lost.

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  3. Recently, a high school teacher with whom I work, upset at some papers she had gotten, asked me to talk to her students about how plagiarism is viewed in college. I explained that to claim another's contributions as your own is an unforgiveable sin because once you've accepted the university's invitation to join its intellectual community you are expected to use your life experience, and special knowledge and point of view to add to the world's information and understanding. The idea that school was not simply putting in time until you could get a special ticket to a good job was so new to them that were almost speechless. They couldn't focus on plagiarism until they wrapped their minds around this new idea.
    Suggesting that there is something more important at stake in public education than a compliant workforce must seem remarkably radical to many in today's American society.

  4. I really appreciate your post. I have been speaking with my father on just this topic for the past few months. I feel very disheartened and discouraged by the administration's eagerness to jump on this bottom line bandwagon, for many reasons, and your defense of the humanity of education as opposed to its economic utility really speaks to me.

  5. Thanks for putting a clear light on Race to the Top. Sadly, the "Race" represents another in a long list of Obama "centrist" policy failures. Here is an excellent video that explores the history of education politics and how we got to the "top." Interview of Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.


    Love to see you on Democracy Now too, Mike. Sure they'd love to have you.


  6. Mike sad to say you are right and we were wrong for ever letting it gets out of hand. My sons [3] were educated right in a small country school in Oklahoma; I quit a good job to get them in a country life.

    The money was not as good but thru it all we made it just fine. My Youngest son is on his way to being a VP of a Fortune 500 Company.

    Guess WHAT? He has never forgotten his county roots and those fundamentals of him being connected to the land --- have made him a stand out.

    Look forward to your articles.

    Dwight Baker

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