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, September 28, 2018

Rosie and the Sound of Groceries

I received some lovely email about my last post in which I imagine my mother, Rosie, going back to school. Thank you. If you'll indulge me, I'll offer one more portrait of Rosie, this one not made-up, a vivid memory of the end of her work day at the restaurant. The passage comes from the conclusion of a preface I wrote for the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Mind at Work.


When my mother Rosie came home after a long day waiting tables, she would spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. Old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.
I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, of gas for the car. 
There is a direct line between those tips and me being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.
There are roughly two million home health care workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and a half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelter. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farm workers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.
Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, at times slip out of sight. The Mind at Work documents their ability and pays homage to it.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rosie Goes to School

            When I was finishing Back to School, a book about people seeking a GED or entering an occupational or academic program at a community college, I imagined what it would have been like if my mother, Rosie, had been able to go back to school.
            Rose Emily Meraglio Rose, like so many poor immigrant women of her generation, was taken out of school in the seventh grade to help her mother care for her younger siblings. Though I never heard her speak ill of her mother, my grandmother, life in the Meraglio household was terribly hard on Rosie, laborious and oppressive. She eventually moved to Los Angeles with my father, took care of him as his health failed, and waited tables to support us. After my father died, my mother eventually remarried, and my stepfather had a union job that enabled her to live the rest of her life in relative security and comfort.
            Rosie was shrewd, masterful with people, and endlessly curious about psychology and human behavior. I often wondered what might have happened if she could have stayed in school—or been able to go back. I talked about it with friends of mine who knew her well. We imagined her as a social worker or counselor working with young people. She would have been a natural.
            So there I was, wrapping up Back to School, and one afternoon I let fancy take over and wrote a short sketch about my mother. I offer it simply to honor her—and all the newer incarnations of Rosie.
            It is early in the morning at the local community college. Somewhere in the distance a church bell rings. Students are coming in from the commuter train and a few line up at food trucks. A young woman walks by me cradling a cup of coffee; she takes a sip and lets out a low sigh of comfort. I have spoken with a number of women here who remind me of my mother. They’re the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. They live in crowded households, work in the afternoon or evening, care for younger siblings or nieces and nephews, are wrapped up in demands and worry.
            I imagine Rosie in a place like this. Coming back to school in her twenties, nervous, unsure, but feeling the rush of excitement, a new beginning. Would she enroll in the culinary program? Or child development? Or maybe psychology—her fascination—with hopes of becoming a counselor or social worker? What would have been possible for her? I take the stairs to the second floor of the Humanities Building and sit in the back row of the Freshman English course. Students are coming in both doors, filling up the room. I picture Rosie in the front row. She tentatively looks around, smiles at the woman taking the seat next to her, reaches into the bag she’s holding and pulls out a notebook. She opens it, lays it flat in front of her, and runs her hand over the smooth white paper.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Teaching As a Way of Seeing

             “The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,” says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, “is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.” What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.
            Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.
            A student in a Licensed Practical Nursing Program praises an instructor she would go to when she felt overwhelmed. The instructor told her that “she could see it in me that I was meant to do this,” and encouraged her to not only complete the LPN program but to continue toward a Registered Nurse’s degree, which she did.
            “I was a strange kid,” a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, “but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.”
            A middle school teacher starts talking to a boy serving detention and senses a “hunger” that leads her to invite him onto the school’s fledgling debate team. When I ask how she senses that hunger, she says, “by talking to someone and answering their questions. You can see it in their eyes.”
            A high school Spanish teacher raises the issue of college to a junior whose energies are more invested in soccer than academics, but who has a way with people and exhibits a certain savvy as he navigates eleventh grade. The teacher follows his instincts and connects the young man to a college bridge program. Looking back on it, our soccer player, now a graduate student, says of that teacher, “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
            These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or through some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks. These are important issues to be sure, but they have crowded out so much else that makes teaching a richly humanistic intellectual pursuit.
            One last thought. To repurpose a phrase of Walt Whitman’s, education contains multitudes. There are endless treasures of human experience to be found within the classroom, so we could fruitfully continue the present discussion inside the schoolhouse alone. But given our moment in history, it’s not much of a stretch to think of how the kind of affirming perception I’ve been discussing resonates beyond education with current social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, movements challenging perceptions that dehumanize rather than affirm. Also relevant is the portrayal of refugees and immigrants promulgated by the Trump administration, converting demonizing perception into heartless public policy. In times like these, perception attuned to ability along with a commitment to foster that ability becomes not only an educational endeavor but a civic and moral one as well.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Words Matter

            It was a brief spot, just under 90 seconds, on National Public Radio’s mid-day news program, “All Things Considered.” A post-script to a longer story. You would miss it if you walked momentarily to another room. So I want to dwell on it here, for it was simply, calmly powerful.
            The NPR reporters had been covering the awful events at the U.S.-Mexico border, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ narrowing of the criteria for seeking asylum and the separating of children from their parents. These actions have been defended by various members of the Trump administration and by President Trump himself with their typical word salad of denials, deflections, counter punches, and lies. One element in this linguistic barrage is the clam that child-separation is not an administration policy, but the result of regrettable laws established under previous administrations. We are a country built on laws, they claim, and we have to follow the laws. This is unfortunate for the families, but we have no choice. No matter that over the last few months, key administration actors, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, said on the record that family separation is in fact being used as a deterrent to migrants. No, insisted Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, on June 17, 2018 “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period.” So here we are with the all-too-familiar Trump fare of contradictions, reversals, and edicts—all delivered with propulsive finality.
            Now to that brief spot on NPR. Host Mary Louise Kelly quoted Secretary Nielsen’s statement and then examined it. Her line of inquiry is worth quoting in full. If you’d like to hear it, click [here].

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here’s what Secretary Nielsen told NPR’s John Burnett when he interviewed her on May 10 and asked about family separation.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution.

KELLY: Nielsen went on—if you're an adult with a family and you break the law, you'll be prosecuted. And then she said...

NIELSEN: Operationally, what that means is we will have to separate your family.

KELLY: We will have to separate your family. Previous administrations looked at the same law, though, and decided not to separate families. What the administration argues is that when an adult is prosecuted, they go into federal custody. And any children in tow can't be detained in a federal lockup. So the separation is the result of the new zero tolerance policy, not a policy in and of itself.

Well, we looked it up. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines policy as a course or method of action selected from among alternatives. The Trump administration has selected and is now defending a course of action—in other words, a policy. You can call it semantics, splitting hairs over which word applies. But words matter, which is why NPR is referring to the Trump administration policy of separating families at the U.S. border.

            Political language, as George Orwell reminded us in the middle of the last century, is heavy in distortion and double-speak. The Trump administration does not simply indulge in these linguistic sins; it is built on them. Thankfully, the news media are increasingly calling the administration on their lies and denials. What struck me about this NPR broadcast was that Ms. Kelly also provided listeners with a short course on semantics and logic. Our country needs much more of this, methodologies to help us think and talk clearly in the face of the violent incoherence transmitted daily from the White House.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

“A Nation at Risk” at 35

At the end of April, 2018, National Public Radio education reporter Anya Kamenetz did a story on the 35th anniversary of the highly influential government report “A Nation at Risk.” Issued by the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan, the report had a huge impact and shaped the language of education policy to this day. Here are some of the explosive sentences from the opening two paragraphs. You will recognize them, or you will have heard echoes of them:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

[T]he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

            The diction is urgent, even fevered. Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures. It comes as no surprise that these passages were quoted and quoted again in countless political speeches, opinion pieces, and institutional position papers.
            Support for this catastrophic assessment comes a few pages later in the form of a list of thirteen “Indicators of the Risk.” These indicators included the numbers of college students or military personnel needing remedial instruction in mathematics or English, percentages of Americans who are functionally illiterate, and the like. Over half of the thirteen indicators concern declines in international or national standardized test scores, such as those for the SAT. The emphasis on decline is important here, for it supports a central claim of “A Nation at Risk” which is that we were once dominant but have lost our way. This notion of loss, of a fall from a golden age is a powerful trope in our nation’s social policy, beautifully articulated some time ago by David K. Cohen in the Harvard Educational Review.
            So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Loss of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable claims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote “life-long learning,” and to assure “a solid high-school education” for all. But few people read the full report. What was picked up was the dire language of the opening and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the recommendations of the report that had promise.
            From the beginning there was trenchant criticism of “A Nation at Risk,” analyzing the report’s hyperbolic language and gaps in the logic of its claims and, of key interest, the problems with the report’s evidence. One simple and obvious example: A decline in SAT test scores results from increasing numbers of people taking the test, people who, a generation earlier, would not have considered college. So, yes, the average score might dip a few points, but because a wider percentage of the population was aspiring toward higher education. (For an excellent early compilation of the criticism see the 1985 collection, The Great School Debate, edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross.) It is noteworthy that there were several other government reports written after “A Nation at Risk” that offered a different assessment of American education, but they received much less attention and, in fact, one was initially suppressed. Maybe we weren’t teetering on the brink after all.
            OK back now to Anya Kamenetz’s story on the 35th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk.” Either for this story or for an earlier project, Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of “A Nation at Risk” and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education “on the front page.” They succeeded, big time.
            Kamenetz quotes James Guthrie, a well-known educational researcher who more recently reanalyzed “A Nation at Risk” and concludes that the report’s authors “cooked the books,” presenting only data that supported their bleak vision of America’s schools. But Guthie adds that “seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good,” for the alarm bells focused the nation’s attention on education. Guthrie is alluding to the sad fact that it is very hard to get the attention of policy makers and the public—there are so many issues competing for airtime, and a host of factors, from bias to saturation, can keep a particular issue from registering. One tactic activists have is to frame their issue as a crisis—which is exactly what the authors of “A Nation at Risk” did. Educational researchers like David Berliner and Bruce Biddle have forcefully argued that the crisis was “manufactured,” but the authors of the report would argue in return—and James Guthrie agrees—that drastic measures were needed to put education on policy makers’ radar. Education analyst Marc Tucker picks up from Kamenetz’s NPR story to take issue with Guthrie’s end-justifies-the-means logic and to further argue that the reforms sparked by “A Nation at Risk” have had “a profoundly malign effect on American education,” not the positive effects Guthrie claims. (Tucker’s blog is behind a pay wall, but you can get a good summary of it in Diane Ravitch’s May 12, 2018 post.)
            I agree with Tucker and the other critics of “A Nation at Risk” and the policies it spawned. But isn’t it also true that there are big problems with American education. It is terribly unjust that so many poor children, children of color, and immigrant children receive a sub-par education. It is a serious personal liability for an adult to not be able to read and write beyond a rudimentary level, and if tens of millions of us have a good deal of trouble reading and writing, that has significant civic and economic ramifications. These and other problems with education in the United States should cause outrage and lead to action. But one hard lesson learned from “A Nation at Risk” is that the way problems are represented has major consequences. This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from “A Nation at Risk”:
Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination... We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries, and that, as a result, our position in the global economy is in danger. We are told, by politicians, by pundits, that our cultural values, indeed our very way of life is threatened…

We seem beguiled by a rhetoric of decline, this ready store of commonplaces about how awful our schools have become. “America’s schools are the least successful in the Western world,” declare the authors of a book on the global economy. “Face it, the public schools have failed,” a bureau chief for a national news magazine tells me, offhandedly. “The kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District are garbage,” a talk-radio host exclaims.

There are many dangers in the use of such language. It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction. So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools…

If we try to organize schools and create curriculum based on an assumption of failure and decay, then we make school life a punitive experience. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we lose sight of the fact that school has to be about more than economy. If we determine success primarily in terms of test scores, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning—and, as well, we’ll miss those considerable intellectual achievements which aren’t easily quantifiable. If we judge one school according to the success of another, we could well diminish the particular ways the first school serves its community. In fact, a despairing vision will keep us from fully understanding the tragedies in our schools, will reduce their complexity, their human intricacy. We will miss the courage that sometimes accompanies failure, the new directions that can emerge from burn-out, the desire that pulses in even the most depressed schools and communities.

            One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy. A legacy of “A Nation at Risk” is a way of seeing that obscures the careful vision we need when working to improve our schools.

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