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, October 30, 2013

Bringing Technical Expertise into the Public Sphere

            I teach in the Social Research Methodology Division of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (it’s a mouthful, I know), and students come to us to specialize in statistics, or educational testing and measurement, or program evaluation, or qualitative methods—the kind of thing I do. Some students pursue research projects that draw on several of these approaches. Our students are very sharp and decent and hard-working, and a number of them are pursuing their studies after having taught school or worked in some kind of public policy setting. They want to become expert at research methodologies that will help them better understand what goes on in and around schools, and, in some cases, what they have witnessed while teaching or doing policy work. They want to make a difference.

            As in any field—medicine, geography, dance—the further along students get in their studies, the more specialized their work becomes. Though our students’ work might well have broad implications—for example, in testing or in evaluating educational programs—their professional vocabulary and procedures can become esoteric, understood by peers but opaque to most others.

            So it was unusual and significant when a small group of them decided on their own to start a blog that drew on this technical knowledge to address educational issues in a plainspoken way. It is called The Teaching Diablogue, and its goal is to “create a dialogue between teachers and researchers about how to measure and improve teaching and learning.” All four founders either taught, or worked in policy, or both before coming to UCLA.

            There has been talk for decades about the need to “bridge research and practice,” and, more recently, real effort on the part of some in education to embed research into practice, that is, to challenge the historic distinction that has separated (and elevated) research from the work actually done in schools. What our students did by initiating their blog certainly plays out against this backdrop, but they also did something else that I think is desperately needed: they are trying to find a way to bring the technical expertise they’re developing out into the public sphere—where it has immense relevance.

            A number of school reform initiatives that have emerged over the past decade—high-stakes standardized tests, value-added teacher evaluation schemes, the evaluation of teacher education programs—are built on statistical and measurement techniques that, more often than not, are misapplied and/or poorly implemented. While there are heated debates and criticism of all this within the various communities of educational researchers, little of the discussion makes its way out into the world. There are important exceptions: the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, A Sociological Eye on Education, Computing Education Blog, and Granted, and…thoughts on education among them.

            We live in an age enthralled with technology and with technocratic solutions to complex human problems—and education reform has been imbued with the technocratic mindset. So we need people with the technical chops to analyze these technocratic solutions and to help us use statistical, measurement, and evaluation technologies in an informed and sensible way. These researchers would see their involvement as part of what they do, not an add on, not a little slice of public service, but integral to their work as statisticians, experts in program evaluation, and the like. I think that’s the way the founders of Diablogue see it, and I wish more educational researchers saw their roles this way and developed the skills to engage the public sphere.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Important New Book: Comprehensive Revision of The Undeserving Poor

            Sometime in the early 1990s, I found historian Michael B. Katz’s book The Undeserving Poor, which had been published a few years before. I still remember sitting in my small back bedroom—a makeshift study—scribbling notes all over the pages of the book as Katz described and analyzed the ways Americans have defined and discussed poverty. He had me hooked from the first sentence: “The vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.”

            The Undeserving Poor was not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas were complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy. As someone who had a background in literature and in psychology, I certainly was trained to appreciate the power of language, but Katz helped me see the intimate connection between words (and the ideas driving those words) and specific social attitudes, political positions, and legislative initiatives. The book was eye-opening, and it would have a profound effect on my own way of understanding social issues and writing about them.

            The Undeserving Poor has just been reissued by Oxford University Press, and Katz has used the occasion to revise the book in major ways, not only updating it but adding a good deal of new material to it. Let me admit that Michael Katz is a friend, and we have recently written together, but my initial impression of The Undeserving Poor was formed years before I met him. I thought it was a hugely important book when I first read it, and I think this new edition is hugely important as well. Especially now. We as a nation pretty much ignore poverty as a public policy issue. The ideas in the air regarding poverty in the U.S. are, to use Katz’s 1989 phrase, “impoverished.” The solutions that have political sway are either market-based (during the last election some conservatives were suggesting that the poor needed to start their own businesses) or involve educational or social-psychological interventions, such as helping the poor develop mental toughness or “grit.” There is no serious talk about jobs programs or housing or expanded social services or restoring the safety net. Within such comprehensive policies, educational and market-based interventions would make more sense and have a chance of succeeding.

            More than any book I know, The Undeserving Poor helps us understand why Americans talk about poverty the way we do and why our public policy—sometimes noble, sometimes mean-spirited—takes the shape it does. It is one of the important social science books of our time.

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