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, September 30, 2019

Small Thoughts on Giving Money Away: A Modest Proposal for Educational Philanthropy

            I am reading letters of appreciation with a friend of mine who directs a small educational foundation. He recently established a program to award one-time grants of $500 to $1000 to community college students in need. These letters are from recipients, students in nursing or a STEM field, professions the donors wanted to support.
            The letters provide a view into the lives of successful students, people who are close to completing a two-year degree, or are about to transfer to a university, or are finishing a nursing program and preparing to take the licensing exam. They made it. American Dream stories. The money will go toward the nursing licensing exam, or books, or transportation, or simply keeping a roof over their heads and food on their tables. A number of the letter-writers discuss overwhelming healthcare burdens and costs. In several cases, it is the letter-writers themselves who have dealt with serious diseases like cancer, but in fifty percent of the letters, it is grandparents, parents, siblings, or children who are afflicted with cancer, Parkinson’s, strokes, diabetes leading to amputation, brain injury, and in one awful story, a mother in ICU from a gunshot wound in the chest—the outcome of domestic violence. In addition to the shock and sadness these traumas cause, they also create extraordinary financial burdens, in some instances leading to lengthy interruptions in education. The average time it takes for community college students to complete degrees and certificates is a big policy issue right now. If you want evidence of one reason for the time-to-degree problem —and also want a line of sight on the state of healthcare in our country— read these letters.
            The letters convey a detailed, vivid sense of how precarious these students’ lives are. Money for the bus or gas for the car is a big thing. People don’t get their textbooks on time because they are searching for the lowest price. Balancing school, work, and family is intensely demanding, and, more often than not, it is school that suffers. (An aside: A just-published report from the College Futures Foundation reveals that among students in California two- and four-year colleges, housing and food costs—not just tuition—are increasingly becoming barriers to college completion.) Almost all of the letters reveal a web of responsibilities to other family members beyond one’s own spouse and children. The letters are graceful, and brimming with gratitude, and exude drive and determination and immense strength, but they also reveal how one mishap, one piece of bad luck—an accident, a lost job, illness—can jeopardize what these people have worked so hard to attain. The evaporation of their American Dream.
            Except for those few foundations that award scholarships or fellowships, most typically do not give one-time awards to individuals to pay for expenses. They want to give their money to programs that will change the status quo, create interventions or new structures. There’s a solid logic to this way of thinking. You want to use your money in a way that will have the broadest effect on the issues that matter to you. If you want to increase the number of first-generation college goers entering the nursing profession, for example, then you invest your money in programs that recruit and prepare them, or better educate them, or lead them more effectively from training to employment. You try to change the system through which these students become nurses. If you just use your money to provide short-term fixes for individuals in need, then, as one head of an educational foundation put it, you’re “simply writing checks” and not making sustainable change.
            But what the lives of the letter-writers get me to ponder is this: Foundations and other state and federal agencies could create programs that do change things systemically, yet students could still be knocked off course by a single destabilizing life event—thus undercutting the effects of the program. The success of systemic change is intimately linked to the individual economic difficulties of the program’s participants. As we attempt to widen access to more low-income and first-generation students, we also have to confront the economic instability of their lives, especially in a time of widening inequality and continued threats to an already compromised social safety net.
            The causes and scope of this economic insecurity, of course, are way beyond what can be remedied with a small grant. A few hundred bucks will not alleviate chronic housing or food insecurity. But a quick, targeted award can help in an emergency: can repair a car needed for school and work, replace a stolen computer, pay for food or rent during a time when a breadwinner is recuperating from surgery. Or the funds can be used for one-time expenses that are crucial for students’ careers. A number of the letter writers will use their award to pay for their nursing licensing exam, several noting that without that award, their certification could be delayed.
            All this makes me wonder about the wisdom of thinking of funding for systemic change and funding for individual, short-term needs as two separate and distinct mechanisms, the first generally valued more than the second. Rather, we can also conceive of these two approaches to funding as interlinked. I very much understand the desire to change current structures and practices to make them more effective over time and, one hopes, affect more people. But I also know how easily someone’s progress toward a desired goal—even in the best of programs—can be sabotaged by a single life event. So if we can remedy that interrupting event, and do so with a small award that has a big impact, shouldn’t we do it for the sake of the person and the program? In fact, the philanthropic Believe in Students is giving such awards through its FAST Fund program, and several larger educational foundations are now distributing both emergency funds and traditional grants.
            And since I’m offering one modest proposal here, may I offer one more? As my friend at the foundation was reading those letters of appreciation, he began to see—as though a veil had been pulled aside—not just the immediate need discussed by the writers, but the massive need surrounding them, for example, the extraordinary healthcare demands they face. As noted, there’s not much his small foundation could do to help on that front. But foundations are in a unique position to make public what their projects reveal. They could discuss more broadly the pain and challenge they see, take a civic and moral stand. Provide resources and provide witness.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

My Immigrant Grandfather Stood on His Own Two Feet – Until He Lost One of Them in American Industry

          Because of the continual violence waged by the Trump Administration on immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers – the most recent being the denial of flu shots to migrants in detention – an assault from a week or ten days ago is already old news, fading into memory. Excuse me, then, for going back into the archives to August 13, 2019 to reflect on a news event that even by the grotesque standards of Trump and Company’s approach to immigration stood out in its mix of the cruel and the absurd.

            Ken Cuccinelli, the Acting Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, was explaining to NPR reporter Rachel Martin the Administration’s plan to reduce legal immigration by placing a broadly expanded “public charge” test to applicants for citizenship. Essentially immigration officials will estimate the likelihood that applicants would be unable to support themselves because at some point they drew on social safety net benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid.
            Given this proposed penalty that the government would place on people for legally utilizing public services when they are in need, Ms. Martin asked Mr. Cuccinelli what we are to make of the most quoted lines from the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “…Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

            Without missing a beat, Mr. Cuccinelli repeated the couplet and added an administrative proviso that had me – and I’m sure had tens of thousands of other listeners – tapping our radios in disbelief. “Give me your tired and your poor,” the Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extemporized “who can stand on their own two feet and not become a public charge.”

            My grandfather, Anthony Meraglio, was among the four million immigrants from Southern Italy – most were poor and minimally educated – who flowed into the United States between 1880 and 1920. Many of the men entered the basic labor force of the heavy industries that would contribute to American economic preeminence by mid-Twentieth Century. Tony found work in the expansive yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania, clearing waste and debris, hauling materials, coupling and uncoupling freight cars. As was the case with other ethnic groups, Tony lived in an enclave of countrymen, spoke little English, fathered some of his children overseas (my mother among them) and some in the U.S., traveling back and forth to Italy until he could afford to bring my grandmother and his family to the United States. Contemporary politically conservative Italian-Americans like Mr. Cuccinelli like to look back on this period of immigration and depict people of Tony’s generation as model assimilationists who “lived by the rules,” “waited their turn” to become citizens, and so on. The truth of their daily lives was far from this mythology. And the kind of ugly bigotry currently directed toward people seeking entrance to the United States was directed toward Italians, who were both feared and despised, seen as being among the “lesser breeds.” “There should be a law,” says a woman quoted in Waiter Wyckoff’s 1898 book The Workers “to give a job to every decent man that’s out of work…And another law to keep all them I-talians from comin’ in and takin’ the bread out of the mouths of honest people.”

            One day in 1921 in the main yard of the railroad, Tony was standing under a locomotive’s ash pan that had been secured to a crane. As the pan was being lifted, it slipped loose and caught Tony across his leg, resulting in an injury so severe that his leg was amputated. This was before the protections of our country’s social safety net existed – the kinds of protections Mr. Cuccinelli wants to restrict, or penalize people for using. My grandmother, Frances, went into crisis mode: taking in boarders, pulling my mother out of school in the 7th grade to tend to the house, getting the other kids, some still in the primary grades, into the work force. Theirs was a hard, grinding life.

            Public assistance as we know it wasn’t available in 1921, and I can’t say if my grandmother would have used it if it were – though given her wily resourcefulness, I suspect she would have. The Meraglio children might have had a different life. Would my mother have been able to stay in school? Go to high school? Those who advocate for significant restrictions on immigration, targeting especially poor people with limited formal education, voice Mr. Cuccinelli’s worry that such immigration will create a burden on society. Even with their minimal opportunities, the children of Tony and Frances would grow up to become a machinist in the Pennsylvania Railroad, a supervisor at General Motors, a small business owner, a suburban councilman, and a waitress – the work my mother did that made my life possible. And their children would become a research scientist at Bell Labs, a recipient of the Purple Heart, a high school principal, a lawyer, a graphic artist, two executives in banking and financial services, a college professor, and several small business owners. These are the progeny of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. 

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Who Isn’t Writing About Education —and Should Be?

            There’s a rock in my shoe, a small thing, a really small thing that I started noticing years ago and can’t shake loose. An irritant that has grown in significance. Over the last 20 years, The New Yorker magazine has published 60 articles under the banner “Annals of Medicine,” and 38 of them, 63%, are written by medical doctors. During that same period, the magazine has published 17 articles under the banner “Annals of Education,” and not a single one of them is written by a professional educator, nary a classroom teacher or educational researcher among the authors. To pick two examples of omission, life-long teachers and writers Deborah Meier and Vivian Paley, both recipients of door-opening MacArthur “Genius Grants,” have never graced The New Yorker’s pages.
            O.K., I told you it was a small thing. I mean, after all, who cares who this toney magazine contracts to write its articles? And let me admit that I’m a subscriber, and I’d happily read Jelani Cobb or Rachel Aviv or the other regulars who produced these education pieces. They are terrific writers. But this disparity in authorship, this absence of people closest to the remarkable act of educating, has come to represent for me a much bigger issue having to do with the place of education in our society, for the example I offer with The New Yorker is, to some degree, replicated in other elite media outlets. I realize that with the proliferation of new media and Internet platforms, there are many, many venues for educators —from the primary grade teacher to the college professor to the neighborhood parent activist— to make their voices heard, and in some cases to influence the public conversation about education. The backlash against widespread standardized testing and the recent wave of teacher strikes provide rich examples. I’m focusing here on traditional high- and middlebrow media, for they still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinionmakers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.
            To begin. I and others have been writing for some time about the negative effects our nation’s education policy has on the way we think and talk about school, and the central ideas and vocabulary of that policy reach the general public primarily through traditional print and broadcast media.  For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like. This economic-managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education. If the dominate language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.
            But I believe there’s more than sterile policy talk at play here, and let me admit that though my thoughts are based on a long career in this business, I am speculating about a cultural phenomenon, something that even in the best, most empirically grounded of circumstances is a risky thing to do.
            When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor —medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion— we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics. We rarely see this treatment of education, which seems to have become an extended and engulfing institutional rite of passage, increasingly crowded with assessments and benchmarks. There is no majesty or mystery here. Publishing houses produce tips for teachers, or guidebooks for students, or recipes for school reform. There is an occasional journalistic account of a colossal policy failure, or of a day, week, or year in a beleaguered inner-city school, or a memoir of a child’s heroic ascent from the ghetto or rural poverty to the Ivy League. But you’ll be hard pressed to find reflections on the extraordinary human drama that daily unfolds as people, young and not-so-young, ponder and struggle to understand told by those closest to it.
            Consider this observation by the eminent American philosopher, John Dewey:
The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks, or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.

I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery —or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach —what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars— move them to want to teach it? How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them —and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students? And what inspires or vexes them about the human condition after years of participating with people as they come to know something new about themselves, about others, and about the world opening up around them?  
            I acknowledge that with some exceptions, classroom teachers are not trained or encouraged to do this kind of writing, and that a lot of research in education suffers from the opacity that plagues academic scholarship. But in my experience, there are also beliefs and biases about education—about the people who do it and those who read about it—that are barriers to the production of first-hand accounts of the everyday wonder that so moved John Dewey.

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