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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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Education, the Media, and the Public Sphere

I am so pleased to see the posts on this issue of the purpose of schooling. I’m continuing to think and write about the issue myself, and I hope this blog becomes a place for lots of people to exchange ideas about the reasons we educate in a democracy. Let me also invite readers who teach in postsecondary settings, job training programs, adult literacy centers, etc. to join in. The discussion of the goals of education has become narrow in those settings as well.

I think there is a two-fold task before us.

The first part, as everyone has been saying, is to offer a richer, fuller list of reasons as to why we educate in a democracy. I think we already have a long list of good reasons, and many of them have been posted by the readers of this blog alone. True, much public discussion and deliberation would be needed to refine them and achieve consensus, but we’re not operating in a conceptual vacuum.

The big challenge right now as I see it is to get this discussion more fully into the policy arena and public sphere. That is the second part of the task that faces us, and I think it is formidable. Let me tell you a brief story.

I originally submitted the essay on NCLB that I referred to in my 3/19/08 post to one of the on-line politics and culture magazines, a place where I had published before. You can read excerpts on the 3/19/08 post or retrieve the whole articles from the “news” section of my web site, but, in a nutshell, I tried to give NCLB its due while explaining its limitations and unintended consequences. So, for example, I explained in non-technical language why a standardized test score is an inadequate measure of learning. This is the kind of thing, I figured, it would be good for the general public to consider.

The editor responded that the piece was too “wonky” and “cautious”. Could I send something that is “faster” and gets to “what works and what should be changed?” I understand the editor’s desire for writing that has some snap to it, but I was also struck by the characterization of the writing as “wonky”, which, to my mind, means overly laden with details that only a policy buff would appreciate. How did we get to the place, I wondered, where analysis equals tedious attention to detail, where reflection becomes “caution”, or, the subtext, boring?

As we continue to try to change the public conversation about education, we need to consider, as well, the limits of the mechanisms of public discourse. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and will have more to say in future posts. But I’m curious about your thoughts and experiences. How do we get more deliberative discussion about the purpose of schooling out into the public sphere?

Friday, March 21, 2008

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Democratic Education, the Election, and No Child Left Behind

I am taken by Deb’s post about influencing the political discourse in this terribly important election year. Her call resonates with other recent posts (for example, Jessica’s). There are people in education who have been talking to key political players–often concerning NCLB–but many more of us need to e-mail our politicians, write letters to the editor, write first-person opinion pieces for our local newspapers, and so on.

As I wrote in my previous two posts, a huge problem that faces us is that the national conversation about education has become so narrow–and has been that way for so long–that it’s hard to find the space to talk about issues other than test scores and economic competitiveness. NCLB, for example, is not only the 800-pound beast in the classroom, but in the media as well. I think of something a seasoned education reporter told me: he could not recall another topic in all his experience that so dominated news about schools.

It’s clear that NCLB is going to continue to hit tough political waters, and in a recent article in The American Prospect, Richard Rothstein predicts its demise. My guess is that NCLB will be maintained in some revised form, but even if it isn’t, the emphasis on high-stakes accountability mechanisms will continue to dominate political discourse on education, along with talk of economic competitiveness. Our challenge in this election year is to insist on holding schools accountable and to affirm the goal of preparing young people to make their way economically, but to do this in a way that opens up the discussion of what schooling is for in a democracy.

If readers are interested, I wrote a short essay on NCLB for Education Week (11/7/07) that is pertinent to this discussion. There is a link to it under the “News” section of my web page.

I excerpt a few paragraphs below:

A score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward indicator of achievement. The score goes up, goes down, or remains the same. But there are, in fact, a host of procedural and technical problems in developing, administering, scoring, and interpreting such tests. (And there are also concerns about how schools and districts can manipulate them.) “In most cases,” writes measurement specialist Robert Linn, “the instruments and technology have not been up to the demands placed on them by high-stakes accountability.” No wonder, then, that there is a robust debate among testing experts about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores about a student’s or a schools’ achievement?...
A teacher I know tells this story. In response to the NCLB mandate to focus on all children, this teacher’s district has issued a page-long checklist on each student to be used in each class the student takes. Every teacher is to mark every time he or she assists a child, asks if the child understands, notes a behavior problem, and so on. This requirement applies to all students, every class–though principals, in an attempt to keep instruction from collapsing under the regulation, tell teachers to pay special attention to their students who are most at-risk. The intention here is a good one, but the means by which it is accomplished is so formulaic and cumbersome that it devastates teaching. Care becomes codified, legalistic, lost in reductive compliance. This kind of thing is not unusual today. It can be ridiculed as a thoughtless local response to good legislation, but the pressure to comply is great and when there are no funds available to mount professional development or changes in the size and organization of schools, or other means to foster attentive and cognitively rich instruction, then districts–in the context of a high-stakes, under-resourced environment–will resort to all sorts of draconian and, ultimately, counterproductive solutions....
I think that one indication of the value of a piece of social policy is the public conversations it sparks, the issues it gets us to ponder. Civil Rights legislation, for example, gave rise to a moral debate in the nation, a self-examination of our history and first principles. NCLB does raise important questions about equity and expectation. But unless the testing program is part of a larger effort that includes other student compensatory and professional development efforts and social programs aimed at vulnerable populations, we get, instead, a focus on scores, rankings, and an elaborate technology of calibration and compliance. More sustained consideration of equality of opportunity, of the meaning of public schooling, of the nature of learning in a democracy–this all gets lost in the machinery of testing....

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Purpose of Public Schools

I want to offer a response to the comments as of 3/5/08. I’m struck by their thoughtfulness and passion, and I’m grateful for them. I hope the future of this blog lives up to them.

Some of the comments express a tension familiar to many of us concerned about education: a desire to defend schools and teachers, yet anger over how awful some teaching and schools can be. One post even raises the legitimate question: with such a history of not doing right by so many kids, why defend public schools at all?

I’ll be discussing the importance of public education in a democracy – and the very notion of “the public” – in future blogs, but here let me say quickly that, as flawed as it has been and is, public education has also produced remarkable results, not infrequently at the hands of teachers and administrators who are committed to their students, who make schools decent places, who, through their wisdom and labor, daily invent and reinvent public education. I suppose I hold onto the belief, the hope in the idea of public education, in a public commitment to an educated citizenry. And I think that commitment is all the more necessary in our time when there is such a strong and successful push on the part of the political right to discredit anything public and to substitute private, market-driven solutions to everything from education to emergency services.

My intention in “The Purpose of Public Schools is Lost in a Language of Failure and Money” was to counter the dominate national vocabulary we’ve heard for the last twenty years or so. For many younger people, it’s hard to imagine another language. The language of failure and money has been the educational policy soundtrack of their lives. And, unfortunately, they’re not hearing much different from the presidential candidates – when they talk about education, which is infrequent.

Let me close with a passage from the introduction to Possible Lives that is pertinent to the discussion we’re having:

I am not trying to ignore the obvious misery in our schools nor the limitations of too many of those who teach in and manage them. Nor have I disregarded the complaints of those whose schools are failing them; they have a strong voice in this book. This is not a call to abandon the critical perspective a citizenry should have when it surveys its institutions. What I am suggesting is that we lack a public critical language adequate to the task. We need a different kind of critique, one that does not minimize the inadequacies of curriculum and instruction, the rigidity of school structure, or the “savage inequalities” of funding, but that simultaneously opens discursive space for inspired teaching, for courage, for achievement against odds, for successful struggle, for the insight and connection that occur continually in public school classrooms around the country. Without a multiplicity of such moments, criticism becomes one-dimensional, misses too much, is harsh, brittle, the humanity drained from it.

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. We need an expanded vocabulary, adequate to both the daily joy and daily sorrow of our public schools. And we are in desperate need of rich, detailed images of possibility.