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, July 22, 2020

What It Means to Care

The passage below, excerpted from Possible Lives, is a reflection on the notion of “care” in teaching. Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.
I’ve been thinking again about this discussion of care in relation to today’s calls for racial justice, particularly the way justice is embodied and enacted in real time, in the moment. Consider, for example, how everyday, small interactions in teaching, many of them unplanned, some lasting less than a minute can serve larger egalitarian and emancipatory goals. I witnessed such interactions in classrooms throughout my travels for Possible Lives.
Let me set the scene for you. The events in this passage take place in Calexico, a city of 40,100 people on the California-Mexico border —the name fuses the Cal of California with the -exico of Mexico. 
The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who also is a mentor to first-year teachers at her school. Carmen Santos and Jessie Carillo are two of those new teachers. One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools. 
What I describe took place before 1998 when California passed Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that in effect eliminated bilingual education in the state. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, which restored bilingual education in California. 


When Carmen and company praised Elena’s “care,” they were referring not only to their mentor’s affection for kids —though that was part of it— but more so to Elena’s absolute regard for children, her unfaltering belief in their potential. “Caring” had as much to do with faith and cognition as with feeling. All children, no matter what their background, had the capacity to learn. And this belief brought with it a responsibility: it was the teacher’s intellectual challenge to come to understand what must be done to tap that potential. 
Every time interns watched Elena teach, they saw these beliefs in action, in even the most commonplace encounters —for it’s often in the assides, the offhand questions, the microlessons that a teacher’s most basic attitudes toward students are revealed. Carlos had written a shaggy dog story. Elena was slowly scrolling down the computer screen, praising the story as she read. Once done, about to move onto the next child, she tapped a key, taking the story back to a line at the beginning in which Carlos described the dog as a “troublemaker.” “You know, Carlos,” she reflected, “I found myself wondering what Penny did that caused so much trouble?” “She tips over garbage cans,” he said. “Good. Anything else?” Carlos giggled. “What?” she asked. “What is it?” “She makes messes!” Elena laughed. “Put that in, too, Carlos. That way your reader will really know what you mean by trouble.” Another time Elena was reading to the class in Spanish the story of a marvelous garden, and she came across a description of a beet that was six inches wide. She paused for a moment and reached across the desk for a ruler, handing it to Arely. “Mija,* show us how big that beet was.” Arely counted four, five, six on the ruler. “Whoa!” said Alex. “Big, huh?” And yet another time, Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: “No.” No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day. 
This affirmation of potential was deeply egalitarian. It did not stratify children by some assessment of their readiness or ability or by judgements based on their background or record. It assumed ability and curiosity; learning, in this belief system, became an entitlement. In Elena’s words, “You can’t deny anybody the opportunity to learn. That’s their right.” Bilingual education gained special meaning in this context. There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated. (Mexican children, one representative educator wrote in 1920, “are primarily interested in action and emotion, but grow listless under purely mental effort.”) The profound limits on the quality of education that stemmed from such practice and perception made all the more understandable the commitment of these Calexico teachers to bilingual education. Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people. It fit into a broader faith that, as Evangelina said before her Teaching of Reading class one afternoon, “all children have minds and souls and have the ability to participate fully in the society, and education is a way to achieve that.” 
On a more personal level, each teacher spoke about a teacher of her own who validated her intellectual worth, who demonstrated to her the power of having someone believe in a student’s ability. For Carmen, it was a Mrs. Self; for Jessie, a Mrs. Hems, someone “who gave me the incentive to try my best.” Also of critical importance was that Elena, Carmen, and the others shared a history and a community. They knew the families of the kids they taught, knew the streets they lived on and the cultural pathways open or closed to them. This familiarity, of course, widened their sphere of influence —as Jessie said, it’s easy to “see a kid on the street and tell him to come by” —but on a deeper level, where heart and instruction intersect, they identified with the children they taught. As Evangelina explained, “When you see that third-grader, you’re seeing yourself. You think, ‘If someone had done this for me when I was in third grade, how much better my education would have been.’” This was an identification that had significant pedagogical consequences. 
This was surely true for Elena. The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation “low achiever” or, in some cases, “slow learner.” Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. “The first two weeks, it was difficult,” she explained one noontime when we were all sitting around the Writer’s Table. “I’d put them here to write —and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say. ‘It’s your responsibility. I’m here to support you, but you have to do the work.’” It was warm that day, Elena’s sleeves rolled up… She spoke emphatically, with a nod or an exclamation or a quick laugh, her finger tapping the table, her hand slicing the air. “ I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them. But then… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.” Her room was constructed on work and opportunity. “You can’t say ‘I can’t’ in this classroom. You have to try.” And that cut both ways. 
If you believe so firmly in the potential of all your students, you have few ready explanations for their failure. The first line of scrutiny is one’s self. “What you do is not necessarily good for everyone,” Elena would say. “You have to try different things. You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I change that will work for a child who’s not learning!’” When a student was not doing well, Elena would assume she was failing and put herself through a rigorous self-assessment. “Why am I not teaching him,” she would ask, her record book open, the child’s work spread out in front of her. 
Elena’s sense of the role of teacher fit with my own, but spending time with her helped me understand the tension inherent in such a position, the power and the limits of individual force of mind. 
Roberto was a sweet, quiet boy who seemed to understand his classwork, would do it when Elena was assisting him, but would just not complete it on his own. “I don’t know what to do to get him motivated,” she said. “I tried structuring things more, and I tried letting him pursue whatever he wanted. He’s a smart boy —I’m doing something wrong. What am I missing?” One day when Elena was sitting with Roberto, encouraging him to write a little more on a story, he suddenly started crying. His mother had left home, and he was sent to stay with his grandmother. He missed his mother terribly and was afraid that his grandmother, who was ailing, would die and leave him alone. How could he concentrate, Elena thought, when his very security was threatened? This was beyond anything she could influence. It was telling, though, that Elena didn’t entirely let up. She told him he could talk to her anytime he felt sad, and that she would ease off a little —on him, I suspect, more than herself— but that “they both had a responsibility to teach and learn,” and that the best thing he could do was to learn what he could so he would someday be able to take care of himself. “We both have to try,” she said, holding him, wanting to make for him, as best she could, her classroom a place of love and learning. In Elena’s mind, the consequences for Roberto’s future of his not learning to read and write and compute were too great to ignore, even in sorrow… 
All this was what it meant to care. 

*A term of endearment, “my daughter.” 

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Friday, June 12, 2020

To Say A Name

Each of the chants rising up from the demonstrations for racial justice burst with significance: Black Lives Matter, No Justice, No Peace, the various calls to defund police departments. Though only a few words in length, each has a consequential political history. Each speaks volumes. I want to reflect here on one of the chants – Say His Name, George Floyd – because of the many ways it affirms Mr. Floyd’s humanity, a humanity denied him in the last minutes of his life. 
Though I focus here on George Floyd, and therefore the call to “say his name,” the following applies equally to Black women and the violence they face at the hands of the police – which is underreported. For a powerful illustration see critical legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 12/7/2016 TED Talk on intersectionality. See also the SayHerName campaign of The African American Policy Forum. 
Speaking the name of someone who has died is an act of remembering. We read the names on memorials, alone or with others: The Vietnam Memorial Wall, The September 11th Memorial, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. We are keeping a person present in our memory and in public memory. 
Speaking the name of someone is an affirmation not only of the person’s presence on earth, but of life history and identity. To lack a name, or worse, having your name removed or torn away, is to erase your life story. 
Speaking a name asserts a person’s dignity. If you come from a faith tradition or are non-sectarian, you might believe in different ultimate sources of this dignity, but to say a person’s name in chant or softly in reverence is to assert the person matters philosophically, spiritually in the grand scheme of things. 
When a person’s name is spoken to protest a crime against that person, in this case an unspeakably casual murder of an incapacitated Black man by a police officer, then the name gains legal and civic meaning, becomes a call for judgment and justice. 
And when that crime is not isolated, is not an individual act of violence but floods out across centuries of countless Black lives, many of whom have been robbed of their names, then the name of this one person, George Floyd, becomes the name of multitudes, their humanity ripped from them, but, in one way, reclaimed in the voices rising in cities around the world. Speaking the name becomes a collective political and historical act. 

Before my mother got too sick, she would cook a full pot of pasta or stew and carry it two blocks to the back lot of her neighborhood shopping center where some homeless men were living. When I found out what she was doing, I tried to get her to stop, for she was already frail and failing. “No,” she said firmly, “those men are somebody’s sons.” It was that simple and that profound. She was proclaiming the men’s humanity and in a way that connected their lives to hers. 
As George Floyd was drawing his last breaths, he called out for his deceased mother – the woman who brought him into this world and named him. 
Whether we intend it or not, no matter how renowned or common a person we are, our lives make a moral imprint on the world. A person’s life is more than the sum of its parts. George Floyd’s life carries a moral claim, becomes an embodied argument for racial and economic justice. Say his name. 

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Teaching Over the Long Haul

NOTE TO READERS.  I have been working on this blog for a while, trying to meet my end-of-May deadline, but now I am hesitant to post it, given the urgent anguish that surrounds us. I have tried to write about this moment, but I am a slow writer and was unable to produce for you anything that has not already been written, and written with more knowledge and wisdom than I have about the thick layers of pain radiating from the murder of George Floyd and so many before him.
I finally decided to go ahead and post the blog and leave it up to my readers if and when the time is right to read it. I hope it reflects, in its way, the human regard being called for by those raising their voices for equality and justice. 

 Here is the blog for May.


There is a lot of talk these days about teaching. Continually, it seems, someone on broadcast media, or via an internet platform, or informally through Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, someone is expressing with appreciative surprise how difficult teaching is. The terrible COVID-19 pandemic has brought the demands – but only some of the demands – of the classroom into countless parents’ homes. I’m not seeing the cliched pop-culture portrayals of the teacher as unsympathetically uptight or clueless, and thankfully not hearing riffs on the tiresome adage claiming that those who can’t do, teach. 

It’s nice to have the pause button pushed on this stuff, for teaching is extraordinary work. Since my earliest days as an intern in Vi Christian’s wonderful kindergarten classroom (when I actually was pretty clueless) to the present, teaching has been a source of intellectual challenge, endless learning, humor, and self-discovery. And it is the kind of work that leads to reflection. 

I try to capture one small plane of my development as a teacher in the following, written for “Practitioner to Practitioner,” the journal of The National Organization of Student Success. I hope you enjoy it, and, if you teach, that it rings true to you. 


When I was a young teacher starting out many moons ago, I would hear older teachers at conferences or professional development sessions talk about all they learn from their students. I didn’t buy it. I mean, come on, after studying mathematics or literature for four years in college and then in graduate school, you’re telling me that a middle schooler or tenth grader or college freshman can enlighten you about solving for unknowns in algebra or how metaphor works? That sounded like happy talk to me. 
But as I explained and illustrated metaphor with different groups of students, in reference to different poems, I found myself going back to my college notes, to reference books, to other, more experienced teachers. I began to be more articulate in my explanations and more supple in my responses to questions—in fact, was starting to anticipate questions, which led to reading more poetry, looking for just the right examples. And then there were those times when the meaning of a metaphor in a given poem—let’s say an abandoned house, or a clock, or a storm forming in the distance—was well established by critics. We know what the metaphor means and how it functions—and then a student comes up with a credible different take on the poem. Maybe its meaning isn’t so settled after all. I’ll be damned if I wasn’t learning something about metaphor, though not in the way I had naively imagined when I was beginning my career—not simply acquiring more factual information. I was learning about metaphor through interacting with others, trying to help them understanding how literature works and, in the process, coming to better understand and appreciate literature myself, literature as a living thing. Teaching was affording me a dynamic way of knowing.
The longer I do this work, the more I’ve come to appreciate the range of what teaching enables us to know, the wide scope of human experience it opens up to us. Think of all those times in classrooms or student conferences or even in a casual encounter on campus when something revelatory happens: A student has an insight, makes a connection, thinks her or his way into and through a problem, confronts a limitation, discovers something new about a subject, discovers something about him or herself. These experiences are so much a part of the work we do that we might not pay much attention to them in the moment, and semester by semester they likely fade from memory. But the fact is we are witnesses to something remarkable that our teaching helped foster. I can say now with a little more humility but, paradoxically, a little more wisdom than I had at the beginning of my career that, yes, we do learn from our students… and learn about them, learn about each other and learn about ourselves. Our work gives us a line of sight into what makes us human: exploration, challenge, courage, and growth. 

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Tawdry President: Donald Trump, the Public Library, and COVID 19

During the last week that has included President Trump's daily updates on COVID 19, I have been watching Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary on The New York Public Library, Ex Libris. If you’ve never seen a Wiseman film, and if you’re stuck indoors, this might be a good time to start. 
Wiseman has been making documentaries for 50 years —he was 87 when Ex Libris was released in 2017— that cover everything from an asylum for the criminally insane, to a ballet company, to a boxing gym, to the University of California at Berkeley. His films are long (Belfast, Maine runs just over four hours) and the camera lingers, sometimes for quite a while, on mostly everyday scenes, with no voice-over narration, visual cues, or musical score. There is great craft at work here; Wiseman doesn’t simply turn on a camera and leave. His films are the result of careful scene selection and editing, and his genius lies in the way he quietly renders the richness and drama of everyday human reality, often within institutions —such as a library. Though there might well be scenes that shock —in the asylum, a hospital, a public housing project— the overall pacing and feel of a Wiseman film is the slow passing of ordinary events, which, admittedly, can be in a location foreign to most of us. 
Mercifully, Donald Trump’s stints at the podium during the COVID briefings are shorter than Wiseman’s films, and they couldn’t be more different with their disjointed rush of bombast, preening, assault, and mendacity —and the lurch from a middle-school thespian’s impersonation of somber leadership to hot blasts of id. It’s all political theater, of course, to distract and grasp advantage out of chaos, but it is also a compulsive act of self-creation, a vulgar stream of advertisements for himself (he demands, for example, his signature on the federal relief checks), a creation of tinsel and needy hate. 
The New York Public Library is a vast, sprawling institution —92 locations— and it is closed. New York City is ravaged with illness. To my knowledge, the libraries in most states are closed. The virus closed them. The President has denied the virus, called it a hoax, finally acknowledged it, saying he had been handling it brilliantly all along. He effusively touts questionable drugs for it, the availability of tests for it (“Anybody who wants a test can get a test.”), the rapid production of gear to protect us from it —and predicts the imminent end of it, the economy rebounding with a “bang.” A woman speaking at a meeting filmed for Ex Libris says “Libraries are not about books… Libraries are about people who want to get knowledge.” There is barely a trace of knowledge in the President’s remarks —except the occasional fact provided by staff for his impersonation, a fact he will likely distort. 
As we linger with Wiseman in the main branch of The New York Public Library and travel to other branches in Manhattan and some of the boroughs we see public lectures ranging from Elvis Costello showing a rare clip of his father performing a kitschy song and dance routine to a scholar discussing conflict between royalty and Muslem clerics during the 18th Century African slave trade. We observe a piano recital and chamber music and a spoken-word artist riffing on Coltrane and Questlove leading to an appeal to his lover and a reflection on manhood —a baby in the audience cries intermittently as he performs. There are many children being tutored in after-school programs, selecting books, completing sentences, doing arithmetic, and in separate clips thoughtful young staff members discuss how best to reach them. At many points in Ex Libris, library administrators address the budget, community engagement, how to serve the homeless, the shift to digital books, the digital divide. In one scene a librarian is checking out mobile “hot spots” for Internet connection to a long line of patrons. There is a book club on Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and a job fair, and a visually impaired man holding a cane explaining options for housing assistance to a group of people with various disabilities. We watch as employees in a processing center sort returned books on a conveyer belt and listen in as reference librarians with headsets take calls from the public and watch as well as Wiseman’s camera scans slowly over patrons of many ages, many races and ethnicities sitting at computer terminals, searching everything from job information, to medical conditions, to esoterica of all stripes. Things people want to know. 
The President doesn’t want to know anything that doesn’t have immediate payoff for his self-regard. On April 15, Mr. Trump held conference calls with business leaders as part of his much-touted Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups initiative. What he was told was that expanded testing was necessary before Americans could safely return to work, but according to a source quoted on April 17 in The Los Angeles Times, “...the message was largely drowned out by Trump’s determination to solicit praise from the participants.” “It was a joke,” the source noted, “...a complete farce.” 
Throughout Ex Libris there are shots of reference books, encyclopedias and dictionaries, guidebooks and handbooks, rows and rows of them, still physically present but increasingly online. Rows of patrons sit before computers accessing digital words. An American Sign Language interpreter demonstrates for a hearing audience the emotion of signed words, the beautifully dramatic variation in tempo and gestural emphasis she brings to different readings. 
The President ignores words, distorts and mangles them, can’t hear them over the din of his own trumpeting voice. There are many words used to describe this president: ignorant, racist, autocratic, narcissist. A number of his former advisors have used more potent ones. The word that keeps coming to me this week as I toggle between Ex Libris and the President’s daily briefings is tawdry. Synonyms for tawdry: gaudy, brash, low, mean, base, garish, inferior, meretricious. Let’s look up meretricious: pretentious, fake, fraudulent, “…having in reality no value or integrity.” Vocabulary.com adds this: “Tawdry things often have a hint of desperation.” Last week the President falsely accused the World Health Organization of lying and neglect, deflected to them his own lying and neglect, and said he will cut their funding —an act that will contribute to the death of the world’s most vulnerable. Low, mean, base. The tawdry desperation of evil.  
The New York Public Library has its fair share of the brash and pretentious, and as Ex Libris progresses, vast social class and racial disparities among branches and events become evident. Opulent banquet rooms for board meetings or donor celebrations and small, crammed gatherings in poorer communities. And libraries as social institutions reflect the ugliness of their time and place —read Richard Wright’s account in Black Boy of the insult in trying to gain access to library books. Still, the public library is a grand ideal, and one of the virtues of Ex Libris is the way it puts so many faces on that ideal, animates and humanizes it. 
During the last hour of the film, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture —a research division of the library— affirms “the public value of what we do,” how the work of the Center is “mind-building and soul-affirming.” He is talking specifically about the Center, but what he says applies, I think, to the public library generally. To that end, he quotes Toni Morrison, “libraries are the pillars of democracy.” Lofty words, to be sure, but given the Presidential miasma of cheap and dangerous language hanging low over our infected country, we need to aspire. A man in a small branch of The New York Public Library located in The Harlem River Houses complex says that because he was taking care of his kids, he couldn’t afford to go to film school, so learned the basics through his library. In a gentle and deliberate rhythm, Ex Libris offers us image after image of what a public institution can do —and in mid-April of our plague year, that is mind-building and soul-affirming.  

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Risk and Everyday Heroes

In the terrible and constant flow of images related to the coronavirus pandemic, the pictures of grocery clerks at their stations have been catching my attention. The images are so familiar and benign: the clerk tapping keys on the register, or, hand extended, passing packaged meat or a box of soap over the scanner, or leaning over to help a customer insert a credit card. How many times a day is this commonplace human-commercial drama repeated?
But these are not commonplace times, for while countless businesses are shuttered and we are told to keep our distance from each other, and in some cities and states to stay at home, grocery clerks are doing their job face-to-face with a stream of their fellow human beings. Depending on the store, the clerks have as protection gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, marked boundaries, and, as I write this, the promise in one grocery chain of a plexiglass barrier. But in most cases, these protections are inadequate. Still the clerks are at their stations. And, it seems, the nation sees them. And acknowledges the risk they take. And thanks them. 
In terms of occupational rankings, grocery clerk is relatively low in status. One woman in a long radio interview stated flatly that she’s aware being a grocery clerk is considered a “low-status job,” so walking to work she never wore her apron but carried it folded over her arm, in a manner, I assume, that hid the company logo from view. Now, she says, she puts the apron on when she leaves her house. She appreciates the gratitude she receives for the work she does. 
But she and all the other grocery clerks I’ve heard interviewed also express ambivalence, worry, and anger. “We’re lucky to have work,” one clerk told a friend of mine, but as her customers’ isolation and economic distress intensifies, she continued, “people are getting grumpier.” And day by day she worries about exposure to the virus. “I’m just trying to keep my spirits up.” “It’s the same old job,” another clerk says, “but now it’s scary.” Efforts of clerks and their unions to gain more protections and compensation are increasing, with varying degrees of success. Still, grocery clerks show up. One woman poignantly expressed what most must feel in some way: The work is risky, but she has a family to support, so what can she do? An awful dilemma. 
We rightly praise first responders and front-line health-care workers during a crisis. They save lives and put their own lives at risk —a number of them are testing positive for the coronavirus. But as NPR reporter Alina Selyukh keenly observes in a recent profile of a grocery clerk, “in times of crisis, some of the lowest paid jobs become essential.” Though these jobs are not adequately protected or rewarded, they do become visible. And thus, perhaps, we, for a time at least, value the everyday work of the world. 
Let me close by reprinting a related reflection I wrote about my mother, a career waitress, for the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Mind at Work. It is a tribute to her and to all the other workers who, as the poet Marge Piercy puts it, “do what has to be done, again and again.” 


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. 

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Teachers’ Knowledge, Teachers’ Strikes, and Slaying Goliath

Over the past eight or nine months, I have been writing in this blog about perception and knowledge. How we gain knowledge, how background and social location affect that knowledge, whose knowledge counts, how the context or setting from which we perceive and know matters. (This from an earlier blog: “What you see depends on where you sit, and for how long.”) My fixation on this cluster of topics come into play again as I was reading Diane Ravitch’s timely new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and The Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. As you can tell from the title, the book is an account of the growing counterforce against the decades-long assault on the nation’s public schools, presented by Ravitch in terms of the gripping biblical battle between the giant Goliath and the underdog welterweight David.
Goliath is a composite figure, his bone and sinew built of many characters and organizations, from conservative politicians like Jeb Bush, to libertarian think tanks and plutocrats like the Koch brothers, to tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation. These people and organizations are not monolithic in ideology or tactics. Take, for example, the issue of vouchers. Some voucher proponents are small-government conservatives or libertarians, while others are motivated by religious ideology, wanting to redirect education funding to parochial schools, and yet others see vouchers as a means to empower low-income parents, often People of Color, unhappy with their neighborhood schools—Howard Fuller in Milwaukee comes to mind. Some of these actors are local, though not infrequently they gain big-dollar support from wealthy donors who oppose public schools and/or teachers’ unions.
Maybe the many-headed Hydra from Greek mythology is a better figure to represent the assault of multiple critics and opponents of public schools. Part of what has made this assault so daunting over the years has been its unrelenting, multi-pronged intensity. (“Our national discussion about public schools,” I wrote in Possible Lives, “is despairing and dismissive”—and that was in 1995!) When one of the snake-like heads of the Hydra was cut off, two would grow in its place.
What all the critics share, in Ravitch’s analysis, is a desire to significantly alter or, in some cases, dismantle public education—Ravitch uses a term popularized in management literature, “disrupt.” All these people and organizations are “The Disrupters.” The Goliath personification fits in that there is huge money behind many Disrupter initiatives, and along with the money comes a sophisticated public relations apparatus—funding and a control of the narrative. And some of these initiatives got instantiated into national education policy: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards, charter schools. Money, narrative, the force of policy… that is power, indeed. Goliath.
David, too, is a composite figure that does include some actors with considerable political and financial power like teachers’ unions or moral authority, such as the NAACP. But David is also made of bloggers and local activists (often K-12 teachers or college professors and parents) and rank-and-file teachers, particularly those involved in the recent wave of consequential teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and more.
The story told in Slaying Goliath is primarily a story of the clash between the long-dominant Goliath and the emergent and energized David, a story of power and politics, of grass-roots activism, of organizing and mobilizing— and a story of recapturing a narrative. I am also taken by a parallel story that runs through the book, one that is certainly present in Ravitch’s telling, but that, given my current fixation, I’d like to highlight. It is a story about knowledge and power—knowledge about schools and children and the art and science of teaching.
As I wrote earlier, there are multiple actors and multiple motives involved in the so-called school reforms of the last few decades, but one dominant characteristic a number of them share is a reliance on ideas and language drawn from business schools, economics, and the high-tech sector: the use of standardized tests to measure learning; the application of those tests to assess teacher effectiveness through “value-added” methodology; the creation of curriculum standards with the intention of systematizing instruction as well as the development of scripts and routinized behavioral techniques to direct and improve teaching; computer-based instruction to “personalize” learning. This technocratic orientation also encourages a certain kind of systems-level thinking: what are the mechanisms, the “levers” that will yield broad systemic change? The structural or technological magic bullet.
There is value in asking the kinds of questions the critics ask— How do we know students are learning? Can we improve teacher quality? —and certainly value in taking a broad, systems-level perspective on schooling. The problem is that the solutions the technocratic orientation yield tend toward the mechanistic and simplified. As I argued in Why School?, the faith in technology can lead to a belief that complex human problems can be framed as engineering problems, their social and political messiness factored away. Hand-in-glove is an epistemological insularity, a lack of knowledge about social and cultural conditions—or worse, a willful discounting of those conditions as irrelevant. It is telling how rarely one hears any references to history or culture in the technologists’ discourse.  Also minimized is the value of on-the-ground, craft knowledge; experience in classrooms is not as valuable as abstract knowledge of organizational dynamics and technological principles and processes. A professor of management tells a class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management —as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.
To be sure, not all the characters in the Goliath camp share this narrow view and do value the knowledge gained from classroom practice. But many high-profile players regard education with technocratic disdain, do not see teaching or running a school as being that hard. Classroom knowledge is downplayed, and the field of education in general is bemoaned as bereft of talent. A 2012 article in the business magazine Forbes listed fifteen major “education disruptors,” people who the magazine’s editors selected as revolutionizing “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all.” The fifteen were an impressive lot: computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs, a college president, several charter school and online education leaders. But none of them, as best as I could determine, had any notable experience teaching in K-12 schools. Such experience didn't seem to matter to the Forbes editors as they compiled their list of luminaries who will save education by disrupting it.
While there are a number of actors and motives at play in what Ravitch calls The Resistance, it is safe to say that many of the figures are teachers and parents who are close to conditions on the ground, who know the young people in their communities, know their schools and the textured daily life of classrooms, know teaching from the inside, live it, and understand a great deal about the complex social and cognitive dynamics of learning. Some among The Resistance take a broad, systems-level view of schooling as well —they couldn't be political actors without it— but their perspective is more social and cultural and is infused with their day-to-day knowledge of how schools work.
Political action brings teachers’ unions to the fore. Unions exist to advocate for bread and butter issues, though some of them in some labor actions also advocate for other social causes. I think that unions also embody ways of seeing the world that emerge from the work the union represents. They are political and economic organizations but, as well, epistemological entities. They project into the public sphere the work experience of firefighters, nurses, service employees, teachers and argue from that experience for wages, benefits, and protections and, it seems to me, argue for the legitimacy and value of their members’ knowledge, what they know how to do and the contribution that know-how makes to society.
After decades of Goliath’s public relations success in stomping all over the public schools and those who work them (remember that Forbes tagline “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all”), David and his slingshot crew were able to change the story, reach the public with what they knew, with a different way of seeing the everyday life in our schools: Kids without nurses or librarians; overcrowded classrooms; testing gone off the rails; teachers living paycheck to paycheck, if they could make it that far; parents giving first-person testimony about what their neighborhood school means to them. Ravitch is correct in characterizing this shift in perception as remarkable. The story she tells is a compelling political drama, and an account of the formation of social policy, and a master class for activists. It is also an epic tale about knowledge, whose knowledge counts, and what can happen when a kind of knowledge that has long been distorted and discounted gains authority and power. That is quite a story to tell.

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Friday, January 31, 2020

Some Thoughts on Character Education, Non-Cognitive Skills, Grit, and the Formation of Public Discourse about Education

Beginning several decades ago with the discussion of the value of “soft job skills” (punctuality, self-monitoring), we seem to be increasingly concerned with what have come to be called “non-cognitive” skills in the workplace, the schoolhouse, and in life itself. Valuing a wider range of human abilities and characteristics is a good thing, but there are some significant conceptual problems in the ease with which we distinguish “hard” from “soft” or “cognitive” from “non-cognitive” skills, and these problems affect public policy and public discourse about education.  
Over the years, I’ve tried to unpack some of these problems, and since they keep reappearing in new guise and new contexts, I wanted to put together some of my reflections in one place, edited to avoid too much repetition. See if you find this compilation useful.  

“Thinking Harder About Soft Skills”  

Before we had grit, we had soft skills.  From Department of Labor reports to testimonies from business groups, experts for several decades have been underscoring the importance of qualities such as punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others. Though employers certainly mention hard or cognitive skills – from literacy and numeracy to occupation-specific knowledge – soft skills continue to be much discussed and desired as crucial work skills for our time. 
The emphasis on soft skills makes sense, of course.  We all value them in our children, in those we work with, in ourselves.  But let us acknowledge at the outset that soft skills do not play out in a social-economic vacuum.  Showing up on time or managing one’s time, for example, can be affected by unreliable transportation, untreated medical problems, family emergencies, or pure and simple exhaustion. 
There are further limitations with the way we think about soft skills.  One is the very separation of hard and soft skills themselves, as though they are neatly distinct and fixed. But, they are, in fact, intimately connected. You can’t very well manage your time, monitor your own performance, or help others if you know little about the field in question. As part of the research I did to write Back to School, I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding. While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively acquired competence, soft skills developed apace. Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others. 
Furthermore, soft skills are affected by the setting we’re in. I stay focused and persevere when writing something like this blog, but my diligence, not to mention my literacy skills, collapse with tax forms. I witnessed a striking example of the powerful effect of context a while back when I was visiting a high school carpentry program. On the bus over to a Habitat for Humanity construction site, a young man was as obnoxious as could be, mouthing off and insulting other students; several times the instructor who was driving the bus had to tell him to cool it. But the minute he walked onto the job site, his behavior and demeanor changed profoundly. His arrogance and nasty streak disappeared. He was focused on the tasks in front of him, politely raising questions to the instructor, and considerate of the students working with him. The demands of work he cared about brought out the best in him. 
An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity.  If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do.  That work has to have some kind of meaning to those involved.  And it has to provide enough security for them to get to work on time.  

Giving Cognition a Bad Name 

Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or living with someone. But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they’ve used I.Q. or other standardized test scores (like the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From the Latin cognoscere, to come to know, or cogito erqo sum, I think therefore I am, we’ve devolved to a few digits on the AFQT. 
As if that were not enough, there is now emerging on a number of fronts a belief that our nation’s educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum – or on academic intervention programs for the poor – we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character or personality like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility. As much or more than the cognitive, the argument goes, it is these qualities that account for success in school and life. 
It is healthy to be reminded about the fuller scope of education in our test- and grade-obsessed culture, and the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility are indisputable. What concerns me is that the advocates for character accept without question the reductive notion of cognition that runs through our education policies, and by accepting it further affirm it. The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores – like the desired qualities of character – is, de facto, non-cognitive. We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot. 
This downplaying of the cognitive and the construction of the cognitive/non-cognitive binary will have some troubling implications for education, especially the education of the children of the poor. 
To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “non-cognitive” misrepresents them – particularly if you use the truer, richer notion of cognition. Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state – a profoundly cognitive activity. Flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision-making. This is not just a problem of terminology, for if you don’t have an accurate description of something, how can you help people develop it? 
Furthermore, these desired qualities are developed over time in settings and relationships that are meaningful to the participants, which most likely means that the settings and relationships will have significant cognitive content. Two of the classic pre-school programs that have provided a research base for the character advocates – the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects – were cognitively rich in imaginative play, language use, and activities that required thought and cooperation. 
We have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/ non-cognitive binary in light of the history of American educational practice. We have a powerful tendency toward either/or policies – think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language. Given this tendency, we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. And over the past fifty years attempts at character education as a distinct pursuit have not been particularly successful. 
Finally, the focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children, and the cold, hard fact is that many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. There’s a stirring moment in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, a celebration of character education and “non-cognitive skills,” where a remarkable chess teacher decides she’s going to try to prepare one of her star pupils for an admissions test for New York’s selective high schools. What she found was that this stunningly bright boy had learned pitifully little academic knowledge during his eight years in school. It would be tragic to downplay a strong academic education for children like him. 
By all means, let us take a hard look at our national obsession with tests and scores and grades, and let us think more generously about what kinds of people we want our schools to develop. Part of such reconsideration would include a reclaiming of the full meaning of cognition, a meaning that is robust and vitally intellectual, intimately connected to character and social development, and directed toward the creation of a better world. 

“The Rise of Grit 

The meteoric rise of “grit” reveals troubling problems in the formation of our public discourse about education. I and many others have written about our policymakers’ culpability in the formation of this discourse, but here I'd like to consider another dimension of the circumstances that give rise to phenomena like the one we’re witnessing with grit. 
With some notable exceptions, not many journalists who cover education--and even fewer opinion page columnists--have a solid background in the field. The people who review the few books on education that get coverage--most of which are written by other journalists--are often culture critic types who are bright, to be sure, but not schooled on schooling...so they go to school quickly on the Internet, which will yield the mega-hit hot topics (grit, for example) and the people who champion them. This state of affairs hardly generates the kind of knowledge (and more to the point, understanding) that complex topics in education demand.  
 The situation I just described leads to a small and closed circle of voices. The concept of grit got the huge attention it did because it was seen as a way to help poor kids persevere in school and achieve their way out of poverty. When the journalists and other writers I mention above are astute enough to question such claims and want to underscore the challenges of poverty, they will find via their search engines trending books and reports on education and poverty that suffer from the same one-dimensional and hot-topic focus as the treatments of psychological traits and character education.  So we end up with a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of poverty used to counter a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of character. The result is a sober, well-intentioned discussion that glides over the dense, layered web of poverty, schooling, and students’ lives.   

Grit’s rise to glory is something to behold, a case study in the sociology of knowledge.  If you go back a dozen or so years, you’ll find University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth investigating the role of perseverance in achievement.  This idea is not new in the study of personality and individual differences, but Duckworth was trying to more precisely define and isolate perseverance or persistence as an important personality trait via factor analysis, a standard statistical tool in personality psychology.  Through a series of studies of high-achieving populations (for example, Penn undergraduates, West Point cadets, Spelling Bee champions), Duckworth and her colleagues demonstrated that this perseverance quality might be distinct from other qualities (such as intelligence or self control) and seemed to account for between 1.4 to 6.3 percent of all that goes into the achievements of those studied.  (Later studies would find several higher percentages.)  These findings suggest that over ninety percent of her populations’ achievements are accounted for by other personal, familial, environmental, and cultural factors, but, still, her findings are important and make a contribution to the academic study of personality—and support a commonsense belief that hard work over time pays off. 
 It is instructive to read Duckworth’s foundational scholarly articles, something I suspect few staffers and no policy makers have done.  The articles are revealing in their listing of qualifications and limitations: The original studies rely on self-report questionnaires, so can be subject to error and bias.  The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality.  The exceptional qualities of some of the populations studied can create problems for factor analysis.  Perseverance might have a downside to it.  The construct of perseverance has been studied in some fashion for over a century. These qualifications and limitations rarely make it onto the Opinion Page. 
Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct “perseverance” or “persistence,” they chose to call it “grit.”  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train That Could. 
Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as a way to improve American education and, more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit. 
 I’ll get to that last part about poor kids in a moment, but first I want to ask some questions few policy makers are asking.  What is an education suitable for a democracy?  What kind of people are we trying to develop?  What is our philosophy of education?  With these questions in mind, let’s consider some items taken from the two instruments Duckworth and colleagues have used in their studies.  The items are listed under grit’s two subscales, the factors that comprise grit: 

Consistency of Interests Subscale: 
·    New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones. 
·    I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest. 
·    I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one. 

Perseverance of Effort Subscale: 
·      Setbacks don’t discourage me. 
·      I finish whatever I begin. 
·      I have achieved a goal that took years of work. 

These items are answered on a five-point scale: 
Very much like me 
Mostly like me 
Somewhat like me 
Not much like me 
Not like me at all 
Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic. But at certain ages and certain times in our lives, exploration and testing new waters can also contribute to one’s development and achievement.  Knowing when something is not working is important as well.  Perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes.  Again, my point is not to dismiss perseverance but to suggest that perseverance, or grit, or any quality works in tandem with other qualities in the well-functioning and ethical person.  By focusing so heavily on grit, character education in some settings has been virtually reduced to a single quality, and probably not the best quality in the content of character.  The items in the grit instruments could describe the brilliant surgeon who is a distant and absent parent, or, for that fact, the smart, ambitious, amoral people who triggered the Great Recession. (Macbeth with his “vaulting ambition” would score quite high on grit.)  Education in America has to be about more than producing driven super-achievers.  For that fact, a discussion of what we mean by “achievement” is long overdue. 
But, of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students.  Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face.  Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot. 
Can I make a recommendation?  Along with the grit survey, let us give another survey and see what the relationship is between the scores.  I’m not sure what to call this new survey, but it would provide a measure of adversity, of impediments to persistence, concentration, and the like.  It, too, would use a five-point response scale: “very much like me” to “not much like me.”  Its items would include: 
·        I always have bus fare to get to school. 
·        I hear my parents talking about not having enough money for the rent. 
·        Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor. 
·        We always have enough food in our home. 
·        I worry about getting to school safely. 
·        There are times when I have to stay home to care for younger brothers or sisters. 
·        My school has honors and Advanced Placement classes. 
·        I have at least one teacher who cares about me. 

My guess is that higher impediment scores would be linked to lower scores on the grit survey.  I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship.  Anyone who has worked seriously with kids in tough circumstances spends a lot of time providing support and advice, and if grit interventions can provide an additional resource, great.  But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either 
 The foundational grit research primarily involved populations of elite high achievers—Ivy League students, West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants—and people responding to a Positive Psychology website based at the University of Pennsylvania.  It is from the latter population that the researchers got a wider range of ages and data on employment history. 
 I was not able to find socioeconomic information for these populations, but given what we know generally about Ivy League undergraduates, West Point cadets, etc., I think it is a safe guess that most come from stable economic backgrounds.  (In one later study, Duckworth and colleagues drew on 7-11 grade students at a “socioeconomically and ethnically diverse magnet public school” where 18% of the students were low-income—that’s some economic diversity, but not a school with concentrated disadvantage.)  It is also safe to assume that the majority of the people who are interested in Positive Psychology and self-select to respond to an on-line questionnaire have middle-class employment histories with companies or in professions that have pathways and mechanisms for advancement.  So the construct of grit and the instruments to measure it are largely based on populations that more likely than not are able to pursue their interests and goals along a landscape of resources and opportunity.  This does not detract from the effort they expend or from their determination, but it does suggest that their grit is deployed in a world quite different from the world poor people inhabit.  
It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when the jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections.  This certainly doesn’t mean that people who are poor lack determination and resolve.  Some of the poor people I knew growing up or work with today possess off-the-charts determination to survive, put food on the table, care for their kids.  But they wouldn’t necessarily score high on the grit scale. 
Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.  Are we educators and policy makers creating classrooms that are challenging and engaging enough to invite perseverance?  Are we creating opportunity for further educational or occupational programs that enable consistency of effort?  Are we gritty enough to keep working toward these goals without distraction over the long haul? 

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