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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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Purpose of Public Schools Is Lost in a Language of Failure and Money

We can all agree," wrote a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard not long ago, "that American public schools are a joke." This way of thinking and talking about our public schools has been with us for some time: cynical and despairing. It was what led me, in the early and mid-1990s, on a cross-country journey to observe a wide variety of public schools that had been judged by their teachers, students, and parents to be good and decent places of learning.

I took side roads, stayed overnight with families, consulted local historical societies, and spent hundreds of hours in remarkable classrooms. The journey was both geographical—recording actual classrooms and communities across the United States—and philosophical, trying to gain a lived, felt sense of what public education means in a democracy. It was a powerful journey, and it seems that the same kind of reflective journey is more needed now than ever.

In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school.

Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools – from the tangles of school politics to the terrible things often assumed about the abilities of kids from poor communities. I don't dispute that, have taught in the middle of it, have tried to write about it. And I surely don't dispute the legitimate anger of people who have been betrayed by their schools. But the scope and sweep of the negative public talk is what concerns me, for it excludes the powerful, challenging work done in schools day by day across the country, and it limits profoundly the vocabulary and imagery available to us, constrains the way we frame problems, blinkers our imagination. This kind of talk fosters neither critique nor analysis but rather a grand dismissiveness. It plays into equally general and troubling – and equally unexamined – casual claims about the schools' responsibility for our economic woes and social problems. And this blend of crisis rhetoric and reductive models of causality yields equally one-dimensional proposals for single-shot magic bullets: Standards will save us, or charter schools, or computer technology, or the free market or, big-time in the last six years, broad-scale testing programs like No Child Left Behind.

And what will the magic bullets do? Reaffirm our economic preeminence and assure our children's competitiveness in the labor market.

The economic motive has always been a significant factor in the spread of mass education in the United States, and as someone from the working class who has achieved financial mobility from schooling, the importance of the link between education and economic well-being is not lost on me.

But this economic focus can restrict our vision of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development, for both individuals and for a democratic society. This narrowing of discourse, this pinching of what we talk about when we talk about school is evident in the public sphere, the national and regional discussions of education, its goals and purpose.

We need public talk that links education to a more decent, thoughtful, open society. Talk that raises in us as a people the appreciation for deliberation and reflection, or for taking intellectual risks and thinking widely — for the sheer power and pleasure of using our minds, alone or in concert with others. We need a discourse that inspires young people to think gracefully and moves young adults to become teachers and foster such development.

I'm not simply longing for rhetorical flourish here, although a little scholastic uplift would be a welcome thing. Public discourse, heard frequently enough and over time, affects the way we think, vote, and lead our lives. I worry that the dominant vocabulary about schooling limits our shared respect for the extraordinary nature of thinking and learning and lessens our sense of social obligation. So it becomes possible for us to affirm that the most meaningful evidence of learning is a score on a standardized test, or to reframe the public good in favor of fierce and unequal competition for a particular kind of academic honors. Education is reduced to a cognitive horse race.

When was the last time you heard extensive, deliberative public talk that places school failure in the context of joblessness, urban politics, a diminished tax base, unequal funding, race and class bias? Or heard a story of achievement that includes discussion of curiosity, reflectiveness, uncertainty, a willingness to take a chance? How about accounts of reform that present change as alternatively difficult, exhilarating, ambiguous, promising – and that find reform not in a device, technique, or structure but in the way we think about teaching and learning? And that point out how we need a language of schooling that, in addition to economics, offers a vocabulary of respect, decency, aesthetics, joy, courage, intellect, civility, heart and mind, skill and understanding? For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of a commitment to public education as the center of a free society. We need a richer public discussion than the one we have now.

An important project over the next few years – and though I focus on schools, this applies to a range of social issues – will be to craft a language that is critical without being reductive, that frames this critique in nuance and possibility, that honors the work that good teachers do daily and draws from it broader lessons about ability, learning, and opportunity, that scrutinizes public institutions while affirming them.


  1. Mike, thank you for initiating this difficult, yet critical conversation. More and more, I find knots in my stomach whenever I see a headline about education. As you mention, the way we talk about education is so important and powerful. With this being said, it can also be harmful. I am especially weary of the word and concept of 'accountability'. The focus of so many educational 'reforms' centers around a lack of trust in our current teachers. How can we move past this distrust to truly move forward?

  2. Mike,

    Deb Meier sent notice of your latest project. Welcome the blogosphere. Have your blog call my blog sometime (http://360.yahoo.com/michaelklonsky) and maybe do lunch. I will put you on my blogroll. Seriously, nice launch. Defining the purpose of schooling cannot be left to the Ownership Society wags.

    Mike Klonsky

  3. welcome to the world of blogging. There are of course far too many blogs to keep track of, but when someone of the stature of Deb takes the time to tell me about something, I am surely going to take the time to follow up.

    I look forward to your future posts.

  4. Mike,
    Thank you for your comments. I always like to point out that while people talk about the so called school failure, on most standardized measures they are doing better then they ever have before. And maybe they are doing what they were designed to--create separate classes with different expectations.

    This talk of school failure is maybe a way of distracting us from asking the kinds of questions you are asking about schools--what do we really want them to do.
    Looking forward to your continued ideas!
    -Nick Meier

  5. Man, what a trip. Pinche Mike Rose with a blog. Maybe it's not such a trip since you practice your craft on the daily and maybe it was a matter of time before the blog-pedo insinuated itself into your practice. ¡Watcha, yo también quiero un blog!

    A grip of people have blogs--that's the democratic nature of the web, que no?--but not everybody's blog is, well, como te dire: interesting. Knowing Mike though--thoughtful, critical, artistic--it will be one of the few that I subscribe to and plagiarize.

    So, let's blog. Since Ms. Goldberg (hey Jen) referred to all of this as a "conversation," allow me to play something of Devil's Advocate in regards to our adherence to the idea and ideal of public schooling.

    Mike, con todo respeto, I think we do need to spend a bit more time on the "negative" dimensions of public schooling. Brother, "underachievement" is produced by the ton in public schools. And here is the seamy side of things--that school failure, that mediocrity, that leaching of capacity (a nod to Tillie Olsen) has a skin color, a below-subsistence-level income, and a sexuality. I, too, believe in the ideal of public schools. But can we blame folks for looking elsewhere and taking public schooling to task?

    I'll end my little post with a question (for Mike, for us, for future rumination, or if it ain't interesting, for no one at all):

    After generations of educational malpractice and neglect, what is the intellectual justification for continuing to support the idea of public schooling?


    AKA: El Profe
    AKA: Ursa Mexicanus
    AKA: El Veneno

    PS: Much love Mike.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work on the web Mike. I am very glad you are using this medium for your thoughts... Yes, anonymous post-er says, many folks have a blog...but frankly, not everyone has access to solid conversation about as deeply important an issue as public education. I especially appreciate this now that I'm no longer privvy to the conversations that routinely take place at Moore Hall and other similar places. The blog in itself is a step towards democratizing the "hallowed" knowledge of academia on education. So, Kudos!

    That said, I am continually amazed at how many people are not just engaging in negative discourse, but taking action by replacing public schools with private schools, charter schools (ok sorta public), and home schooling lately. The discourse has evolved into a movement of sorts...I think people need to be reminded of why public education is so crucial for the health of a democracy, and what happened when societies had no public education.

  7. Mike: Thanks for setting up your blog. As a former literature major who's teaching college comp classes in NE Ohio, I struggle with some of the issues you've mentioned, especially assessment. I look forward to seeing more of your ideas!!

    Your Ohio fan club,

  8. Congratulations on taking the giant leap into cyberspace! Thanks for creating a forum for discussion.

    Many schools deserve to be described in the positive ways you mentioned in your posting, but unfortunately, some don’t warrant praise. As a resident of Atlanta, I have been shocked by the local news about the possible loss of accreditation of schools in nearby Clayton County.

    I’ve been reading articles in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about students who face life-changing consequences if their school district is deemed inferior. They are grappling with problems young people shouldn’t have to tackle: losing the chance to get Georgia’s Hope scholarships, being ineligible to apply to many universities, having to move to other school districts, and suffering frustration and disappointment at school administrators and government officials who have failed them. Students’ parents are scrambling to get answers, and they are also subject to financial setbacks because their houses will be devalued in a school district that isn’t up to par. (Yes, there could be economic fallout.)

    Mike, you rightfully value and support the magnificent benefit of American free public education. (I was a product of public schools, and that foundation has served me well.) All across the nation, countless teachers and administrators strive to provide meaningful educational resources that build our workforce and brain trust, not mutually exclusive entities. If only the school administrators in districts in jeopardy would consider your focus on “respect, decency, aesthetics, joy, courage, intellect, civility, heart and mind, skill and understanding.” Unfortunately, Clayton County has many children who might be left behind.


  9. Thanks, Mike, for the invitation to enter this conversation. I am torn after reading your webpage as to whether I have feelings of admiration or outrage, respect or disgust, hope or despair, whenever I think of the educational situation in this country. I think the best I can do is say that I feel all of these things, which is overwhelming in and of itself. I felt torn almost every day in my nine years as a teacher, so I focused on my students and the potential for positive change that stared me in the face through their (usually) bright eyes and compelling need to believe in themselves. I understand the premise of Possible Lives because I, too, was looking for a vision that could sustain me. This isn't to say that I didn't also entertain the idea of driving to the Oakland Unified office in the middle of the night and burning the building down, when I thought about the corruption that went on inside. I love the teachers who give passionately of themselves, and I despise those who injure students because they do not care. I respect administrators whose leadership supports positive work, and I shame those whose lack of leadership prevents it. I could go on, but my point is to say that the success stories matter as well as the failures because they remind us that students and educators sometimes refuse to give up the fight.


  10. Mike, thanks for beginning this conversation. Considering my own scholarship with technology, it is only appropriate that I take this opportunity to note that this blog will be a great tool towards democratic conversation in times when we are separated by time and distance. I am so excited you joined the cyberworld to initiate this dialogue virtually!

    With that being said, I just had my Oregon students read Possible Lives for my Urban Schooling class. Our conversation mirrored your blog posting. After introducing the plethora of problems that plague urban schools, my students were understandably disheartened about any sense of hope, and indeed, possibility. In our class discussion following the reading of Possible Lives, however, these student teachers began discussing the importance of language, of humanizing students and teachers, and of critically examining any "quick fixes" that solve the "problems" of particular children, educators, and schools. Beauty was a theme that kept emerging in this conversation; beauty in your writing, beauty in teaching, and beauty in learning. Why don't we talk about beauty when we talk more about powerful teaching and learning? Why does our dialogue often focus only on the problems and reductive fixes for these problems? This reading and the subsequent dialogue left my students feeling much more empowered to provide a caring, rigorous education in the classroom, while maintaining a larger critique of the exterior political pressures than influence their ability to do their job. Thanks for providing the language, and concrete examples of expert pedagogical strategies, for this inspirational discussion.

  11. Jen, Meno, Mike--
    Thanks for the thoughtful posts. Made me think.

    Seems to me that the mistrust of teachers and the production of underachievement in schools are part and parcel of Western ideologies that value individualism above all else. I don't think we'll ever achieve the promise of mass public education because of ideological roots in individualism.

    Here's why: individualism spawned the systemic problem children of private property, competition, and capitalist greed. Here's a chestnut from Senator Henry Dawes who, upon returning from a visit of the Cherokee in Oklahoma, found we would never be civilized because we held our property commonly: "There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization." Our Cherokee public schools educated both genders earlier, longer, and more thoroughly because we didn't have that notion of selfish individualism. What we needed, Dawes argued, was a notion of private property to foster competition with our neighbor. (And we all know the legacy of private property contributing to school funding.)

    Here's a thought— What if instead of "No [individual]Child Left Behind", we had "Together We Achieve" policy?

  12. It's great--you and I are almost entering the modern world. Is that good?

    Thanks for doing this, Mike. The issues you raise are so critical. So I shall respond soon with some questions I'm struggling with. Look at the draft I wrote for Forum for Education. On governnce. I'm not sure I agree with myself, so I need feedback.


  13. Dear Mike and all,

    I guess I'm really inept in this. I wrote a long missive, pressed the button and then my great thoughts went out to the ozone, but not to the blog. Oh, well.

    I'm so glad you're doing this, Mike--moving the conversation about education towards a more complex understanding about what education is. That's what is so powerful about your books and why I've been using Lives on the Boundary in class for so long (and why Joanna uses Possible Lives)...preservice teachers and new teachers are thirsty for a someone with a complicated understanding of what teaching is.

    As to what Meno, Bobbi and Bronwyn said: I, too, get very angry about schools that have failed kids for decades, for teachers who are disengaged, etc. but I am also angry about administrators (like in NYC) who have no knowlege about education and who treat teachers like automotons or defective pieces in a machine.

    One thing I feel very strongly about: I think that once the Democratic nominee is chosen (and who knows when that will be?)it's important that people like Mike, Debby, Mike and all of us reach out to that person and educate them about what is important in education. (NCLB, but not just that.) Yes, it's going to be hard to turn back the last 8 years (in so many ways!) but I think it's really important that we talk to that person/campaign and get our views across.


  14. To Jen. Jen, regarding the question you pose at the end of your comment about trust. A big question for a later blog, but for now let me recommend Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust. She’s quite thoughtful on this issue.

    Thank you for that lovely post. And thank your students, too. You know, it’s so odd, I was just thinking about beauty yesterday morning, and how utterly absent from our thinking notions of beauty are when it comes to education.

  15. I'd like to respond to Meño's question, "What is the intellectual justification for continuing to support the idea of public schooling?" I teach at a for-profit college, and naturally, the economic motive for education, obviously, both in the students and in the administration is far stronger than what I've encountered in the public schools. In practice, this means even lower pay and even fewer benefits and facilities and professional development for overworked teachers as the for-profit corporation hovers over its bottom line. It also means lower academic standards both in admissions (as every student admitted means more profit) and in what counts as acceptable, passable work. Students can pass the pass/fail classes with a 60%, which is barely above a semester full of lucky guesses on true-false tests. When I engage those students in discussions about moral and civic issues, many of them make appalling comments expressing a greater concern for money and things than their fellow man. Clearly, this selfishness or materialism is not simply a problem with the for-profit school but it certainly does seem a function of our prevailing flight from public responsibility toward privatization.


  16. I am happy to see you on the Web Mike, and happy to join in this conversation. As a teacher educator in MA, I find myself pulled between the sense of despair/frustration that is shaping public education (from high stakes testing, standards, minimizing of families and community voices) and the glimpses of light that come from unbelievably thoughtful teachers, who DO exist. As we continue to expand the vocabulary of what is happening in public schools, I do think we need this "good news" side of the equation. That is not to turn a blind eye to the reality of school dysfunction, but to prove to the naysayers that there are educators who provide shining examples of a democratic education. The more I am out in schools, the louder the cry I hear for government/ policy makers/ businesses to get out of our classrooms and stop attending to that which they have no expertise. Teachers are disgusted; many of the best are leaving because they refuse to be patronized. How do they collectively share their voice?


  17. I like this format Mike--it's easier to use than some. I need to pick your brain.

    Kerri's letter repeats what I hear everywhere I go these days, Of course, I'm speaking and meeting with a selective sample. But we need to both keep each other feeling sane and supported while also thinking of how to influence the political discourse. Let's all write Obama and Clinton and McCain? Let's all write our local state and federal representatives. Once a month? More? Let's write letters to our local newspapers. And yes, yes--let's celebrqte the best practice we run into.

    Thanks, Mike.


  18. Good Morning to you all!

    What is the purpose of public schools?

    I find it much easier to say what different educational theorists say than to articulate an even-handed, hopeful, and critical vision.

    Mike, you write:
    "Public education demands a capacious critique, one that encourages both dissent and invention, fury and hope. Public education is bountiful, crowded, messy, contradictory, exuberant, tragic, frustrating, and remarkable."

    In a nutshell, I'm beginning to understand that NCLB and other politicians usually claim that public schools should lead to individual economic advancement.

    Durkheim (1922) would say public schools serve to socialize society’s young people. In other words, preparing them to participate productively in society.

    Dewey (1916) would say public schools purpose is to provide the space and preconditions for a deliberative democracy where the social ills are addressed through public social inquiry, from the bottom up.

    Freire (1972) would say public schools should end oppression through problem-posing education that encourages dialogue, reflection and action towards social change.

    Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, president of the Republic of Tanzania from 1965 to 1985, argues: “Education has to liberate both the mind and the body of man. It has to make him more of a human being because he is aware of his potential as a human being, and is in positive, life-enhancing relationship with himself, his neighbor, and his environment. Education has therefore to enable a man to throw off the impediments to freedom which restrict his full physical and mental development” (Nyerere 1974: 3).

    My sister says the purpose of schools, is to teach youth.

    My question is to teach youth what? To what end? By what means?

    I agree that the language in public discourse around public schools is limited, but what is the core belief behind it's purpose? I think the answer is two-fold. What has the purpose traditionally been and what purpose are we working towards? As teachers, we don't drag ourselves out of bed early in the morning, after staying up late to write the perfect lesson plan, just because we want to be agents of social reproduction in the classroom. We hope for something more.

    At the dinner table this weekend with our loved ones, what do we tell them?
    "So you are working on education, you are teaching, researching, writing..." Why they ask? What do you really want public schools to do?

    I would like to develop with all of you a very clear answer. I think it is necessary, but I wonder if it's possible?

  19. Amen to Jen.--although I don't see her full remarks here or at least the ones I'm referring to!--so folks should read the whole thing. Oops, it's at the bottom. (I think these blogs should work in reverse order with the newest responses at the top). I like the way Jen summarizes Dewey, and thanks so much for that even broader definition of Nyere's which I never heard before. What's the citation from, Jen? I love it. I'd like to use your column and this particular comment somewhere in my Blog with Diane Ravitch on Ed Week--Bridging Differences.

    We were derailed by A Nation at Risk--they beat us to the punch with their shabby definition of purposes back in the mid 1980s--and their accusation that public schools and teachers had done the work of a foreign enemy!! We let the accusation go and it spread its poison. It's time for a new call to action.


  20. I greatly appreciate your comments on the language of discourse on public education. Historically, these issues have focused on K-12 education, but more and more I am seeing the same trend in institutions of higher education. Recently I have been introduced to a public university system that is led by individuals holding master’s degrees in business administration. Faculty members are now required to attend meetings to discuss graduate level curricula in terms of franchises and market-share - the kind of language that gives nightmares to many of us academics and that has certainly lost sight of the purpose of higher education.

    The development of a new language to discuss public education – one that addresses its broader purpose with less focus on failure and money is sorely needed. But, can we overcome a language in which we have been entrenched for decades? Criticism of such language and the ideas they convey have been raised before, at least indirectly. For example, in 1980 Lee Cronbach and colleagues wrote “A demand for accountability is a sign of pathology in the political system,” explaining that the focus accountability is to assign blame rather than to guide future improvements This financial concept of accountability, continued to be emphasized in talk of education both here and in other countries. Two decades after Cronbach’s statement, British comics, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie parodied an English politician’s emphasis on “standards of accountability” in a television sketch. Despite progressives’ frustration with this focus and language, we are still inundated with talk of accountability and standards. Why are we still stuck with this language?

    Perhaps it is that the language of public discourse is dictated by those in power. Or perhaps the problem is that we are all just waiting for someone else to come up with this new language. It seems that a failure of our society to reflect on and discuss the broader purpose of our public education system is at least in part to blame. I recently worked with an elementary school teacher on a little research project on the reasoning of five year olds. In individual interviews, he asked each of his students “Why do you come to school?” Regardless of their answer, he probed into their response by asking “Why?” Finally, he probed deeper into their reasoning by again asking “Why?” My guess is that these kindergarten students have now spent more time reflecting on the purpose of education than most people in our society – certainly more that the contributing editor of The Weekly Standard who you quoted in your blog.

  21. Reply to A.E. Marshall:
    You are absolutely right, higher education is awash in corporate language these days. At my university -- and at many others -- there are people in the development office and in media relations whose job it is to help the school define and advance its "brand". You raise important issues in your post that I hope others pick up -- and I will as well. In the meantime, check out Patricia Williams' "Where Credit Is Due" in the April 21st issue of The Nation.