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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Friday, January 7, 2011

Resolutions someone should make for 2011

I wrote this for The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post (1/5/11) and reprint it here.


The beginning of the year is the time to be hopeful, to feel the surge of possibility. So in that spirit I want to propose just over one dozen education resolutions that emerge from the troubling developments and bad, old habits of 2010. Feel free to add your own.

1) To have more young people get an engaging and challenging education.

2) To stop the accountability train long enough to define what we mean by “achievement” and what it should mean in a democratic society. Is it a rise in test scores? Is it getting a higher rank in international comparisons? Or should it be more?

3) To stop looking for the structural or technological magic bullet – whether it’s charter schools or value-added analysis – that will improve education. Just when you think the lesson is learned – that the failure of last year’s miracle cure is acknowledged and lamented – our attention is absorbed by a new quick fix.

4) To stop making the standardized test score the gold-standard of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. In what other profession do we use a single metric to judge goodness? Imagine judging competence of a cardiologist by the average of her patients’ cardiograms.
As a corollary resolution I would like to have school reformers pledge to read Stephen Jay Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man or just about anything by Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking to remind them of the logical fallacies and scientific follies involved in trying to find a single measure for a complex human phenomenon.

5) To assure that teacher professional development gets increased and thoughtful support. For this to happen, we will need at the least: a) A major shift from the last decade’s punitive accountability system toward a program of growth and development. b) A rejection of typical development fare: a consultant jets in, lays down a scheme, a grid, a handful of techniques and aphorisms, then jets out. c) A replacement of said fare with ongoing, comprehensive, intellectually rich programs of the kind offered by the National Writing Project and the National Science Foundation.

6) To ensure that people who actually know a lot about schools will appear on Oprah and will be consulted by politicians and policy makers. When President Obama visited my home state of California, the person he met with to talk about education was Steve Jobs.

7) To have the secretary of education, the president, and other officials stop repeating the phrase “We are going to educate ourselves toward a 21st Century economy.” It is smart economic policy more than anything else that will move us toward a 21st Century economy.

8) To convince policy makers and school officials to stop using corporate speak (or whatever it is) when talking about education: “game changer,” “non-starter,” “leverage,” “incentivize,” and so on. We would chastise our students for resorting to such a clichéd vocabulary. Education of all places should reflect a fresher language. And while we’re at it, how about a moratorium on this phrasing: “We’re doing it for the kids” or “It’s good for kids” when referring to just about any initiative or practice. Talk about clichéd language; the phrase is used as a substitute for evidence or a reasoned argument.

9) To rethink, or at least be cautious about, the drive to bring any successful practice or structure “to scale”. Of course we want to learn from what’s good and try to replicate it, but too often the notion of “scaling up” plays out in a mechanical way, doing more or building more of something without much thought given to the fact that any human activity occurs in a context, in a time and place, and therefore a simple replication of the practice in one community might not achieve the same results it did in its original setting.

10) To make do with fewer economists in education. These practitioners of the dismal science have flocked to education reform, though most know little about teaching and learning. I mean, my Lord, with a few exceptions they did such a terrific job analyzing the financial and housing markets – something they do know a lot about – that the field of economics itself, according to The Economist, is experiencing an identity crisis. So tell me again why they’re especially qualified to change education for the better.

11) To have the media, middle-brow and high-brow, quit giving such a free pass to the claims and initiatives of the Department of Education and school reformers. There is an occasional skeptical voice, but for any serious analysis, you have to go to sources like The Nation or Pacifica radio. Journalists and commentators who make their living by being skeptical – David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, Arianna Huffington – leave their skepticism at the door when it comes to the topic of education.

12) To have education pundits check their tendency to resort to the quip, the catchy one-liner. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll give an extended example. I believe it was Hoover Institute economist Eric A. Hanushek who observed that if we simply got rid of the bottom 10% of teachers (as determined by test scores) and replaced them with teachers at the top 10% we’d erase the achievement gap, or leap way up the list on international comparisons, or some such. His observation got picked up by a number of commentators. It is one of those “smartest kids in the class” kinds of statements, at first striking but on reflection not very substantial.

Think for a moment. There are many factors that affect student academic performance, and the largest is parental income – so canning the bottom 10 percent won’t erase all the barriers to achievement. Furthermore, what exactly is this statement’s purpose? It seems to be a suggestion for policy. So let’s play it out. There are about 3½ million teachers out there. Ten percent is 350,000. As a policy move, how do you fire 350,000 people without creating overwhelming administrative and legal havoc, and where do you quickly find the stellar 350,000 to replace them? Also, since the removal of that bottom 10 percent one year creates a new 10 percent the next (I think Richard Rothstein also made this point), do we repeat the process annually?
It is this kind of quip that zips through the chattering classes, but really is a linguistic bright, shining object that distracts us from the real work of improving our schools.

13) To have my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, stop advocating for the use of value-added analysis as the key metric for judging teacher effectiveness and return to reporting as comprehensively as it can news about education and employing the journalist’s skepticism about any technique that seems too good to be true. The Times does offer the contrary voice, but in a minor key, and too often from teachers union officials who lack credibility rather than the wide range of statisticians and measurement experts who raise a whole host of concerns about value-added analysis used this way.

14) I’m going to end by repeating my initial resolution in case the universe missed it the first time around: That through whatever combination of factors – from policy initiatives to individual effort – more young people get an engaging and challenging education in 2011.

Remember, add your own resolutions.


  1. Your first and last items, and the structure of your post, inspired me:

  2. Hold ALL teacher education preparation programs to the same standards and auditing practices. If we are going to hold departments and schools of education to high standards and rigorous, often overwhelming, accountability practices then we should also hold alternative programs to the same accreditation practices. And along those same lines, hold schools of business and economics accountable for their training of the thousands of bankers and economists who successfully engineered our current economic recession. If we are going to talk about all of the “bad” teachers out there and how schools of education need to “fix” the problem, then lets also start addressing all the “bad” economists and bankers and how schools of business need to “fix”the recession.

  3. Dr. Rose,
    I recently had the pleasure of reading your book “Why School” and wanted to express my gratitude for the insight you bring to such a difficult subject. Your perspective on education is refreshingly grounded in experience and common sense. I commend you for the ability to tackle such a subject without offering some kind of polarized quick fix proposal.
    When I was in high school we did not have a high-stakes test that determined our ability to move on to the next grade. I had teachers who openly informed us that it was their goal was to prepare us for what we were going to face at the college level; and they certainly did. I feel this freedom from make-or-break standardized tests allowed them to teach us skills that would help us succeed at the college level and in life rather than succeed on a single test. You pointed out the infallibility of judging schools, teachers, and students on one test. As a math major, I now see how many variables are involved in a student’s performance on this test and I find it hard to believe that we could judge an entire system and all of its components on this one test. You mentioned that such a system of measurement narrows the curriculum which restricts the teacher’s freedom to try and reach the individual students and also narrows the information every student receives. I feel that our system as it is now, taking into account my limited exposure and knowledge, is essentially tying our teachers hands behind their backs and then punishing them for dropping the ball. Teachers are the bridge between students and knowledge and yet our society and our system does not give them the respect, freedom, and credit I feel that they are justly due.
    I especially enjoyed your section describing the cultural view of what constitutes intelligence and just how misguided the common definition is. After one year of college I took a break from formal schooling and pursued a more vocational and specialized education in a variety of laborious jobs that are mostly seen in our society as requiring less intelligence. I found through years of working with professionals in such fields as metal fabrication and engine building that these jobs require an incredible amount intelligence and problem solving ability. Although I had taken several formal classes in physics and mathematics at the post-secondary level, I soon realized from these jobs that there is so much more intelligence involved in what they did than I could have ever learned in my years of schooling. They were incredibly intelligent and yet trapped in a culture that did not recognize the magnitude of their ability. I appreciate you shedding some light on this disparity for I think that it is an issue that is often overlooked in our school system. Students need to be developing skills in problem solving, critical thinking, application, and a deep understanding of the material in order to be a successful contributor to our democracy and I feel that students are rather being taught the importance of passing tests which rarely requires any of the above mentioned skills. I very much enjoyed your case studies about those students who took pride in their work and constantly pushed themselves to do things the right way. I feel these values have slipped through the cracks of our educational system and would be most beneficial to our society as a whole.
    Thank you for an eye-opening read,
    Bethany Bagwell
    Mars Hill College, NC

  4. Dr. Rose, I am so grateful to you. I recently read your Lives on the Boundary (and now can’t stop reading your works). I took this book in almost in one gulp, my mouth often literally hanging open, and sometimes with tears in my eyes. I’d previously had no idea anyone else felt this way about our schools and about the lives of students and the work of educators.

    Your books are eloquent, impassioned, well-reasoned, and deeply compassionate. You teach your readers an overview of the history of American education that we get nowhere else; you remind us about what schools have been meant to do: reflect and expand our vision of a democratic society; you inspire me to want to be a part of a democratic educational system, and you make me believe that there’s no more nobel endeavor.

    Lives on the Boundary convinced me that I wasn’t crazy for feeling deeply disappointed in the isolated and disconnected world of graduate study in English literature. Partly because of your book I made myself face the fact that such a life was draining me of the enthusiasm I’d had for literature and the world of ideas. This helped in my decision to switch to a graduate program in post-secondary and adult education. If I had my way, Dr Rose, everyone who opens his or her mouth about American education would be required to carefully read your books and journal articles on the topic. You are my new hero and if I had one wish it would be to work or learn in your presence.

    Amy Warren

  5. Dr. Rose,
    I have to say that I agree with you on pretty much everything that you just posted. Teachers need to not be accountable just because of a student’s test score and that teachers need to have true professional development, not just a moment of here is this and that now that teacher has had some serious professional development. One point that you made was on how young people need to be more engaged, I know from personal experience, that I was never challenged enough as I should have been in school. Instead, teachers drilled the test into us and that was that, there was no learning except what was going to be on test. I had the recent pleasure of reading your book for one of my education classes, Why School? I have to say I loved it, it showed many things, that I have seen in schools, but have not truly thought out. When reading the book, I agree with you when you said that we need to have more vocational and the arts in the schools. I mean where did they all go? Why do they need to diminish? Is reading, science and math the only thing that needs to be taught in schools, even history is not mentioned as much as what it should. I think that really needs to be a resolution, is the teaching of the humanities and of the arts. I also want to say Thank you Dr. Rose for everything that you have written in helping out the public education system.


  6. I agree with this whole blog. However I specifically agree with number 1, 11, and 14. I really like number eleven because it talks about the department of education and school reformers.

  7. Dr. Rose,
    I recently read your book "Why School and I would like to say that it made me begin to see things in a way that I have never before. The introduction to the book struck me right away. When you talk about the custodian that is going back to school to better his financial situation, be an example to his daughter, and be able to better understand the events that are going on around him everyday this painted such a great picture of what education is for so many people today. This man had decided to come back to school because he had a hope of a better life for himself and his family. As you pointed out in your book so much of education today is wrapped up in test scores and how well we stack up against other countries. Another section of your book that I really liked was where you gave examples of young people performing various jobs, all with their hands. These young people exhibited values and took great pride in their work. Many people would never look at a young person building a cabinet or repairing breaks on a car as success, when you pointed this out in your book I was very impressed. Intelligence is found in many different ways and I believe this has been lost somewhere in our culture of testing and competing.
    Shannon Hensley

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  9. I enjoyed your blog "Resolutions for 2011" and your book, "Why School?". I am a senior at Mars Hill College in North Carolina and can honestly say that in 2011 I have created my own resolutions based on some of the ideas that I have generated after reading your work. I am currently working on a research paper to broaden my understanding of standardized testing, accountability, and NCLB. I also have developed an interest in understanding the current removal of vocational schools because this is happening within my community. Thank you for helping me realize some of the problems that our American educational system is facing and for sharing your work through your books and blogs.

    Ashley Hensley
    Asheville, NC