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, March 31, 2010

My (Imaginary) Beer Summit with the President

A few weeks ago I did a “blog talk” with The National Writing Project, (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/nwp_radio) and one of the participants posed this teaser: If I were to have a few beers with the President, what would I say to him about education?

Once the Budweiser relaxed me, I think I’d ask him about his own education. What does he remember about elementary school or middle school, particularly those teachers who made a difference? And what books mattered? Was there someone in high school who helped him see things in a new light? When did he begin to sense that school could enable him to use his mind in the world? What issues in law school most caught his fancy? Can he think of ways to bring those issues into the elementary school classroom?

I imagine that the answers from this exceptionally thoughtful man would be vibrant with ideas and feelings. One more Bud, and then I’d ask him how the spirit of these answers could better inform his education policy.

For several decades now, education policy has found its justification in preparing the young for the new economy. The civic purpose occasionally gets a nod, but the overwhelming rationale for reform is an economic one. Of course mass education in the United States has always had an economic motive, but in a democracy it has other powerful goals as well, and I suspect that this fuller range of goals would emerge in the President’s own history.

I realize that policy works at the level of broad structures and incentives, the level of administrative mechanisms rather than the particulars of lived experience. But if a policy doesn’t emerge from and embody a rich and grounded understanding of the issue in question, it won’t work – as one failed agriculture and urban development policy after another have demonstrated.

My second reason for asking the President about his education is this: The Department of Education rightly affirms the importance of good teaching. But the depiction of the teacher in key Department documents (Race to the Top guidelines or the Elementary and Secondary Act blueprint) is pretty much that of a cog in the vast Standards-and-Testing Industrial Complex. It’s hardly a vision that inspires new recruits or fosters engagement for the long haul. (What does professional development look like in such a system?) My hope is that the President’s reflection would get him to see the real limitations in his administration’s approach to teaching…and to learning.

(This blog is also being published online by Educational Leadership to accompany my April 2010 article “Reform: To What End?”.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Race to the Top of What?, Part II

The results of the first round of competition for Race to the Top funds came in last week, and my home state of California wasn’t one of the lucky 16. This failure has caused much consternation. After all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan paid special attention to California, and Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature engaged in serious political wrangling to clear the way: we removed our cap on charter schools and removed the firewall between teacher evaluation and student test scores. Secretary Duncan praised these moves. Yet we didn’t make the cut. Some states that didn’t go as far (like New York and Kentucky) were among the early winners. God knows how the decision was made, though that will be revealed in April – presumably not April 1. So California policy makers are trying to decipher the tea leaves to gear up for the next competition.

It was interesting to read the commentaries that followed the decision. Lots of puzzling and head-scratching – both in California and elsewhere – and some finger pointing: mostly at teachers unions and recalcitrant districts that didn’t sign onto the state’s plan. But I didn’t read any commentaries that raised more basic questions.

I don’t for minute want to deny that California (as do the other states) desperately needs the money. And I wish we were still eligible. But this whole “race” business, this fevered competition pitting state against state is public policy madness, a pretty unenlightened way to think about the public good.

Hardly anyone in the mainstream media is pointing out that Race to the Top itself is flawed policy filled with contradiction. The Department of Education stresses the importance of “research-based” and “data-driven” education policy. Yet so much of what it champions – and has been promulgating through the carrot of Race to the Top dollars – is not built on a solid research base. Take charter schools, which the Department characterizes as “engines of innovation.” A number of research studies demonstrates the kind of variability one finds in many public school districts: there’s some good charters, some bad ones, and lots that fall in between. (See Jeffrey Henig’s wonderful Spin Cycle for a balanced summary.)

Or consider the politically popular proposal to link teacher evaluation to student test scores. Again, the research complicates this seemingly straightforward move. As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, research from a number of sources (including an economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors) raises doubts about both the technical aspects as well as the practical outcomes of evaluating teachers through student scores.

Another discordant feature of Race to the Top (and of NCLB before it) is the way it stresses the importance of good teaching while disparaging, even insulting, the current teaching force. The initiative embodies a terribly reductive model of teacher motivation and development, a one-dimensional, punitive one: teachers don’t try hard enough and the way we’ll make them try harder is to tie their professional awards to test scores.

Hand-in-glove with the above is the absence in Race to the Top language of much deep, on-the-ground knowledge of classrooms, of teaching and learning. The thin understanding of the act of teaching and the teaching profession is a case in point.

So, no wonder the results of the Department’s March 4th announcement are confusing. You’ve got a contradictory, flawed policy embodied in a high-prize competition. The Department of Education noted that the decisions were based on a complex point system. Perhaps it will be released in April. That release might clarify the confusion about the awards. Or it might reveal an elaborate machinery of compliance. And remember, it was an elaborate and contradictory machinery of a different sort that characterized NCLB.

Bottom Line: It’s just so disheartening. School boards are faced with further reducing the number of days in school or closing schools to make their budgets. Teachers are getting laid off. Tuition rates are going up in colleges, and colleges are cutting classes. And here we are with our local policy makers arranging and rearranging the bits and pieces of reform around an uncertain racetrack, getting ready for one more sprint to the top.