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?


  1. I think that Mike has set a courageous example of how educational scholars and writers CAN create a richer public discourse around education. This is a collective responsibility, and all too often academic writers and researchers don't immerse themselves as fully into the messy waters of a public dialogue about education.

    Writers and researchers working more from the "right" embrace the mantra of scientifically based research that excludes everyday voices and cultural concerns. But those from the academic "left" can veer in the opposite direction -- toward a language drawn from cultural and critical theory that again excludes everyday language, narratives, and lives. I think that it's very challenging to find a language that can address complex ideas and questions without "dumbing" them down BUT that seriously engages with our system of public education. Maybe if more researchers and scholars tried to engage in a wider public discourse we'd be a little further along. I wonder if a lot of folks haven't been so turned off by the current political climate and the restrictive rhetoric of NCLB that many of us have just quit trying. We should get back in there, perhaps using this time of political flux and change to create a new kind of public AND intellectual conversation. -- deborah hicks

  2. Keep up the good work Mike. You are an inspiration to all of us.
    Sam Wineburg

  3. Mike you've posed a question that I've thought about all through grad school..one that continues to occupy my thoughts.

    I was just at the annual AERA meeting where much discussion on education took place...but as you well know...it's an internal discussion. except for one case...I went to a session on hip hop in education, and the researcher brought in some of the high school students who were part of his study, and had them present on the work he did at the school...it was a breath of fresh air. Getting the participants of studies to be part of the "formal" discussions on findings might be at least one way, non? I'd like to hear your thoughts...

  4. Mouna, you ask for my thoughts about bringing the participants of educational studies into the mix. I’d like to see others respond to this – especially Meno – but my short answer would be the richer the discussion the better. The discussions at scholarly meetings can sure get insular. I’d be curious to hear more from you about the session. What did the student say that struck you? And what in their presentation should make its way into the broader arena this election year?

  5. Dear Mike,
    I'm really enjoying your blog, and appreciate your raising of this question, which has been very much on my mind during the recent public debates over literacy teaching in England. In particular I am interested in the two questions at the end of your post, regarding the limits of the mechanisms of public discourse and how education researchers and practitioners can improve the quality of deliberation in the public sphere. I attempt to address both these issues vis-a-vis the English context in an article forthcoming in Teacher's College Record (currently available on-line at http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=13450). Would love to hear what you think about it, and look forward to following your future posts.
    Adam Lefstein (Institute of Education, University of London)

  6. Comment to Adam Lefstein

    Adam, I read your article “Literacy Makeover: Educational Research and the Public Interest on Prime Time” (from Teachers College Record) and thought it was terrific. I recommend it to readers of this blog who are also interested in the issue of communicating about educational issues with a broader audience. Your analysis is right in line with my own experience. Thanks for calling our attention to your article.

  7. It is unfortunate that we base the intellectual achievements of our students solely upon the measurement of a test. Once tested, students are often grouped and instructed according to the results. The tests are designed to determine a student’s competency in grade level subjects. Therefore, one infers a high score is a high performance. High performance is then equated with intellectualism. It is unbelievable how we give such high honor to these tests. As educators, we claim the test is only a portion of the picture we use to determine a student’s intellectual ability. If we are honest with ourselves and others, once we have seen a student’s test scores, opinions of their capacity to acquire knowledge begin to take shape. Those students with high scores are considered capable of higher forms of knowledge, while those with low scores have a much smaller possession of intelligence. It is illogical to maintain that intellectual ability can be determined from a test.

    As Rose was able to provide, we must consider a student’s ability to reason beyond the ceiling of their test scores. As he looked outside the scores to how students take on the tests, a much clearer picture of ability appears. His results were extraordinary. Finding out how students try to cope with the test and what they do to figure out a test item, gives us a better view of what students need in order to be successful. Students need skills and strategies designed to complement their intellectualism.

    Recently, I bought one of those in the box bookshelves. Opening the box, I laid out all the pieces and began. I decided I did not need the directions. I am a visual person. I could visibly see the picture on the box of what the shelves should look like. About half-way in to the thing, it was not going well. I had kept my eye on the product’s picture on the box, but could not seem to get it right. Finally, picking up the directions, I re-started following the steps. Yet my eye remained on the picture of the finished product. I likened my experience with the shelves to Millie’s experience with the test. Once she knew where she was headed and how to get there, her results changed.

    I agree with Thorn’s comment that tests will never completely vanishing from our schools. It is hopeful their weight might diminish. Until that time, students will continue to “bubble in” proof of their abilities and students and teachers will be judged by the results. Rose discussed how many students are able to communicate effectively through the written word and brought up a great point, “The sad thing is that we have few tests of such naturally occurring competence.” If we continue to use testing to define student’s abilities, maybe the tests can be changed to reflect the natural way Rose spoke of. Using Rose’s portrayal of how students think and process information; we can change the situation for the better. As teachers, we can forgo cramming our student’s heads with rote information. This type of instruction is of no use when teachers are committed to building a student’s intellect. We can think “outside the bubble” by preparing students with contextual thought processes. Through continual instruction in this way, we can influence the effect of how students answer questions.

    What we see as typical solely based on scoring, limits student’s possibilities. As educators, we can broaden our view of student’s intellectual ability. Once we begin to look beyond the answers to the tests to the thought processes that naturally occur while
    students answer questions, we will begin to see clearer the true picture of a student’s intellect. This portrait will enable us to better navigate students to success.