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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Monday, October 25, 2010

The Threats to School Reform …are within its own program

This commentary of mine appeared in Valerie Strauss's blog The Answer Sheet, a part of washingtonpost.com.


Here’s an all-too-familiar storyline about reform, from education to agricultural development: The reform has run its course, has not achieved its goals, and the reformers and other analysts speculate in policy briefs or opinion pages about what went wrong. The interesting thing is that the reform’s flaws were usually evident from the beginning. As someone who has lived through several periods of educational reform and has studied schools and taught for a long time, I see characteristics of the current reform movement, as powerful as it is, that could lead to unintended and undesirable consequences. But when reform is going strong it can become a closed ideological system, deaf to the cautionary tale.
I have six areas of concern.

Tone Down the Rhetoric. In the manifesto “How to Fix Our Schools” published on October 10 in this newspaper, New York City’s chancellor, Joel Klein and 15 colleagues wrote: “It’s time for all the adults – superintendants, educators, elected officials, labor unions, and parents alike – to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” The collective “we” is used here, but it’s pretty clear rhetorically that the signatories believe that they are already on the side of the angels. Anyone who is not on board with their reforms is acting out of self interest.

This is not the way to foster the unified effort called for in the sentence.
Reformers have been masterful at characterizing anyone who differs from their approach as “traditionalists” who want to maintain the status quo, putting their own retrograde professional interests ahead of the good of children. Teachers unions are the arch-villain in this Manichean tale of good and evil, and schools of education are right behind. I’m reminded of the toxic rhetoric of patriotism that characterized the 2008 presidential campaign. So, if I may, in the interest of the children, I suggest a less adversarial language. Many of the people on the receiving end of it have spent a lifetime working for the same goals voiced by the reformers, and the reformers need their expertise.

There is another language issue, and that’s the unrelenting characterization of public schools as failures. To be sure, this crisis rhetoric predates the current reformers, going back to the 1983 document “A Nation at Risk.” Since then, the language of crisis and failure has intensified. Crisis talk can give rise to action, but heard consistently enough and long enough, such rhetoric can also lead to despair and paralysis.

There is a crisis in American education, and it involves mostly poor children, and thus it is a moral as well as educational outrage. But it is just not accurate to characterize public education itself as being in a thirty-year crisis.

I can’t tell you how many professional people I meet who, upon finding out what I do, erupt with damning statements about public schools: they are a catastrophe, we are doomed, the situation is hopeless. What is telling is that they are not speaking from experience; they don’t have kids, or their kids are in private school, or are grown. They are voicing the new common sense. Unless you’re in the free market camp of the reform movement, this reaction is not good news, for it suggests hopelessness and withdrawal from support for public education.

The Problem with “Cleaning House.”
Some districts are so dysfunctional that clearing them out seems the best option. But the history of reform in education – and other domains as well – reveals the shortsightedness of such action. In even the most beleaguered school district there are good teachers and administrators, and their skills and local wisdom are tossed out in the clean sweep. And in most communities there are grass roots movements to improve the schools, and they are typically ignored. Finally, this approach predictably is going to piss people off, not only those who are part of the problem, but many others in the community as well. No one likes to be pushed around – as the voters in Washington D.C. just demonstrated. Clean sweep reform shakes things up and attracts the media, which might be useful. But these tactics can generate more heat than light. Though it is tedious and calls for great skill, a more targeted and discriminating approach that builds on what is good has a better chance of long-term success.

Careful of the Big Idea.
Reformers are often driven by a big idea, a grand process or structure that will transform the status quo. Not too long ago, the big idea in education reform was turning large schools into small ones. For NCLB it was a system of high-stakes tests that would drive achievement. One appealing big idea today is charter schools. The problem with the big idea approach to school reform is that large-scale educational problems have more than one cause and thus require more than one solution.

The mother of big ideas in contemporary school reform is the belief that we can capture dynamic phenomena like learning or teaching with a few numerical measures. This is the logical fallacy of reification, and the last century of psychological science is filled with unfortunate examples, as Stephen J. Gould trenchantly observed in The Mismeasure of Man.

Though most reformers acknowledge the problems with NCLB, they continue to try to build a better technocratic mousetrap, not questioning the assumptions behind their use of testing and accountability systems. We’re seeing all this play out with currently popular “value-added” methods of evaluating teachers as reformers ignore the concerns raised by statisticians and measurement experts.

One more manifestation of this way of thinking is the attempt to develop quantitative models of teacher effectiveness. In a nutshell, the approach attempts to pinpoint specific teaching behaviors and qualities and correlate them with a numerical measure of student achievement. There’s another logical problem here, the reductive fallacy –the attempt to explain a complex phenomenon by reducing it to its basic components. Even if researchers are able to specify a wide range of behaviors and qualities, the further problem is that it’s likely, given the history of such attempts, that the result will be a small number of significant correlations with the measure of achievement – which itself might be flawed. We’ll end up with a thin composite of good teaching. We just witnessed with NCLB the way high-stakes testing can narrow what gets taught; a reductive model of teacher effectiveness could lead to a corresponding narrowing of teaching itself.

Focus on Instruction.
It is characteristic of contemporary school reform to focus on organizational structure and broad testing and accountability systems, but change at that level is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reform. As Debbie Meier, the maven of the original small schools movement, once said: You can have crappy small schools too. What goes on in the classroom makes all the difference.

It could be argued that standardized tests give us a window onto learning, but it is a pretty narrow window, distant from the cognitive give and take of instruction. And it could also be said that aforementioned measures of teacher effectiveness will bring characteristics of good teachers to the fore. Even if they work, these methods won’t help us think about curriculum, the organization of the classroom, what we want students to do intellectually, how we address academic underpreperation, and so on. Instruction is the gigantic missing element in reform, and without it, all the structural changes in the world won’t get us very far.

Privileging Youth Over Experience. Reformers have a tendency to downplay the value of experience and to celebrate the new. You will rarely see a career public school teacher featured in reform media, but will see young teachers in KIPP schools or Teach for America volunteers.

Furthermore, ask yourself, when in a reform document have you found reference to the rich Western tradition of educational thought, from Plato through Horace Mann and W.E.B. DuBois to the twentieth century treasure trove of research on learning. It seems that the reform movement’s managerial-technocratic orientation has an anti-intellectual streak to it.

I greatly admire the young people who sign up for Teach for America or work diligently in schools like KIPP. I began my career in education via an earlier alternative program, Teacher Corps, so I know the exhilaration and challenge. But I also know how green I was, and how the wisdom of veteran teachers saved me from big blunders.

What I’m concerned about is the way young teachers are used in reform publicity, what they symbolize. The message is not simply the accurate one that we need to attract bright and committed young people to teaching, but that the new and the alternative will save our schools.

In what other profession would such an appeal be made? Can you imagine proposals to staff hospitals with biology majors or the courts with pre-law graduates?

Merit pay could be related to experience, though many merit pay schemes link pay to test scores. The original Race to the Top proposal did mention professional development and career trajectories, though I haven’t read much more since. This cult of the new is interwoven with the reformers’ attempts to remove seniority and to not consider teachers’ academic credentials. However these issues play out in management-union negotiations, reformers are going to have to develop ways to draw on experience and expertise, not with add-on rewards but as central to the reform enterprise.

Don’t Downplay Poverty. Low socioeconomic status does not condemn a child to low achievement. This fact has led some reformers to downplay – and in some cases dismiss – the harmful effect poverty can have on the lives of children in school. To raise the issue of poverty is to risk being accused of making excuses or of harboring “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

I grew up poor and have worked a fair amount of my life with low-income students. To be poor affects everything from health to housing – which weighs mightily on children. There is also the extraordinary gap in educational resources. While a poor kid is trying to work through an outdated textbook at the kitchen table, his affluent peer across town is being tutored in algebra in her own room. Only someone who hasn’t been poor could say that all this can be overcome by school. It is telling that The Harlem Children’s Zone, a rightfully celebrated crown jewel of reform, incorporates health and social services with schooling.

Reformers slip into either/or thinking here. They are right to insist that schools provide poor kids with a top-flight education, but to insist on excellence does not require negating the brutal realities of being poor in America.

If education involves children’s psychological and social as well as cognitive well-being, then we have to address poverty, and the reformers have an unprecedented bully pulpit from which to do it. Wealth and income gaps are widening in the U.S., and no less a figure than Warren Buffet observed that we’re in the middle of class warfare, and the rich are winning.

Which is all the more reason to get school reform right this time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Unpacking the College-for-All Versus Occupational Training Debate

This commentary originally appeared in Teachers College Record Online on September 20, 2010. I apologize for its length, but it took some space to tease out the many issues in this debate.


After decades of effort to undo the rigid system of curricular tracking in the American high school and after the more recent emergence of a “college-for-all” ideology among policy makers and educators, we are witnessing the rise of a strong counter-voice, skeptical about the individual and societal economic value of channeling all young people into post-secondary education.

The skeptics are a diverse group. Many are economists who point to trends in the labor market that reveal a number of good and growing jobs that require some post-secondary training but not a four-year degree. Some are educators (including, but not limited to, Career and Technical Education interest groups) who emphasize the variability of students’ interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the college curriculum. And some are social commentators who blend the economic and educational argument with reflection on the value of direct contact with the physical world, something increasingly remote in our information age. Though these skeptics come from a range of ideological backgrounds, they share a concern that in pushing postsecondary education for everyone, we perpetuate a myth that personal fulfillment and economic security can only be gained by pursuing a college degree.

This debate is an important one and is of interest to me because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all.

The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, from waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue-collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

From these findings I raise questions about our standard definitions of intelligence, the social class biases in those definitions, and their negative effects on education, the organization of work, and America’s political and social dynamics.

Those who use The Mind at Work to champion some type of occupational education over a bachelor’s degree zero in on a core claim of the book: that physical work is cognitively rich, and it is class bias that blinds us from honoring that richness. But I go to some length to tease out the historical and social factors surrounding this core premise, particularly as it plays out in the division between the vocational and the academic course of study. I want to raise these issues again here, and, with the benefit of the time that has passed since the book’s publication, elaborate on them, for the issues can become simplified in the debate between advocates of college-for-all and their skeptics.

It is absolutely true—and anyone who teaches and, for that matter, any parent, knows it—that some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that comprise the typical academic course of study, no matter how well executed. Yet, some of these students are engaged by the topics and tasks found in the vocational curriculum. What is also true is that many of these pursuits are cognitively demanding and can be a source of intellectual growth. Furthermore, they can lead to good jobs that are relatively secure in a fluid global economy. The electrician’s and the chef’s work cannot be outsourced.

The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work. As the authors of an overview of high school Voc Ed (the earlier name of CTE) from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education put it: vocational education “emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And the general education courses—English, history, mathematics—that vocational students took were typically dumbed-down and unimaginative. CTE reforms over the past few decades have gone some way toward changing this state of affairs, but the overall results have been uneven.

The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work, and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work? Few of the economists I’ve read who advocate an expansion of Career and Technical Education address the educational (versus job training) aspects of their proposals.

Another point that the skeptics make is the troubling record of student success in post-secondary education. Do we really want to urge more students into a system that graduates about 50-60% of those who enter it? The reasons students leave are many: from poor academic preparation to unclear goals to problems with finances and personal life. They leave without a certificate or degree that will help them in the job market, and, depending on the college, they might incur significant debt along the way. The skeptics are right about the unsatisfactory record of student success. But their solution seems to fault students more than the colleges they attend and affords no other option but to redirect students who aren’t thriving into job-training programs.

But we need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared. The question is what kind of course work and services does the college have to help them. (And it should be noted that many vocational programs recommended by the skeptics would require the same level of academic remediation.) Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, child care, job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.

Such a solution also smacks of injustice. Right at the point in our society when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of our citizenry, we have the emergence of a restrictive counterforce that is seen by some as an attempt to protect privilege, or, at the least, as an ignorance of social history. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrates that those least likely to attend college because of social class position—and thus, on average, having a less privileged education—are the ones who gain the most economically. For such populations, going to college can also provide a measure of social and cultural capital. A long history of exclusion must be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.

All the above raises the basic question: What is the purpose of education? Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life. I don’t have the space to adequately discuss the issue of purpose other than to say that I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having. How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?

A third option between college and work has emerged in the last few years: Linked Learning, which is also known by its former name, Multiple Pathways. There are various incarnations of Linked Learning, but a common one is a relatively small school that is theme-based and offers a strong academic curriculum for all students; the students then have options to branch off toward a career, or occupational certification, or a two- or four-year degree.

The college-for-all advocates would applaud the emphasis on a strong academic core but worry that this system could devolve into a new form of tracking. And the college-for-all skeptics, I suspect, would applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti-vocational biases would still stigmatize the option. These are legitimate concerns, and many advocates of the Linked Learning approach acknowledge them. The advocates also admit the significant challenges facing such a reform, from faculty and curriculum development to the ancillary academic and social services needed to provide a quality “pre-pathways” education for all students. Still, this is a promising alternative, and some schools are demonstrating success with it.

Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but as well to the economy, the meaning of work, and democratic life. There is the skyrocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of “educating our way into the new economy.” And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality.

On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. We must consider the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. It is important, then, to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.