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, December 10, 2009

Some New Books on Opportunity – and a Note on the Threats to Opportunity at the University of California

This week I want to tell you about four new books that have been sent to me; collectively they are on subjects that have played in and out of this blog over the last year-and-a-half: educational equity and opportunity, college teaching, and underpreparation and academic support. Three are focused on college; one on federal intervention to support compensatory education in public schools.

This issue of opportunity is much on my mind these days as the federal initiatives “Race to the Top” and “The American Graduation Initiative” are being developed, one aimed at K-12, the other at the community college. And in my state of California – which is in both political and financial crisis – higher education is facing budget cuts, tuition hikes, reduced classes for undergraduates, and the trimming away of support services. Though perhaps not as dire, higher education in many other states is undergoing the same.

A lot has been written over the last few weeks about the situation in California: from coverage of student protests over tuition to broader rumination about the negative long-term effects the cuts to higher education will have on California’s economy and social structure.

What I haven’t heard much about, though, is the way the cuts – certain cuts particularly – will enable the university to divest itself of some introductory and remedial instruction and thereby further shape itself as an evermore restrictive public institution. At UCLA, for example, the campus-wide writing center has been cut, a center that served students across campus in a wide range of courses. Also there are proposals floating through the UC System to move introductory language courses, or English as a Second Language programs, or freshman composition off campus to nearby community colleges.

I appreciate the fact that the University of California and California State University systems are in big trouble, and I don’t for a moment want to downplay the difficulty – the true double-binds in some cases – of decisions facing college administrators. But it’s times like these in which core values, basic beliefs and assumptions, play out – and a crisis can provide the chance to enact them. What is revealed in these moments is the low status of introductory courses, of the lower division educational mission of a public university. There is a long history of university faculty calling for the removal, the pushing down to another institution like the community college, of introductory courses and even the whole freshman year. Though the removal of the freshman year has never happened, once particular courses and programs are disbanded or moved away, it is very hard to get them back. So the lower-division mission of the university is compromised.

It is timely then to read Charles Muscatine’s Fixing College Education, for his fixes are driven by a very different set of commitments and values. Muscatine, an emeritus professor of English and French medieval literature at Berkeley, has a long history of involvement in undergraduate, particularly lower-division, education, including the important 1970’s Strawberry Creek College at UCB. He has walked the walk and draws on his fifty years of experience in this little book to level criticism at the incoherence and missed opportunity of the typical university curriculum, at the narrow obsession with research, and at a hyper-specialized graduate study. His is a full-throated cry for a revitalized undergraduate education, with a lot of attention paid to introductory and lower-division instruction.

A very different kind of book from Muscatine’s is the statistical analysis of college completion, Crossing the Finish Line by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingas, and Michael S. McPherson. Crossing the Finish Line is a detailed quantitative study of the completion rates at 21 major public universities – completion rates that are less than 60%. And the authors’ analysis reveals systematic disparities in attainment: “Minority students and students from poor families have markedly lower graduation rates – and take longer to earn degrees.” In line with my interests, further findings reveal the importance for completion of financial aid, an environment of success and completion (thus more demanding schools can have higher completion rates), and the need for resources like counseling, faculty availability, and academic support services – all the things threatened in the current budgetary environment. The authors also have an interesting empirically-based discussion of what they call undermatching, which occurs when students “enroll in either two-year or four-year colleges that are less demanding than the colleges for which they were presumably qualified.” Underrepresented minority students from low SES backgrounds were especially vulnerable to undermatching.

From a long, philosophical view of college education, to a statistical analysis of students’ rates of completion, we get to the third book, The College Fear Factor by Rebecca D. Cox, which takes us in close to 34 community college students and their teachers. Cox’s qualitative study focuses on the beliefs and behaviors about education displayed by these students and teachers and the frequent mismatches among them. For example, students’ notions of what constitutes good teaching and effective learning versus the notions held by their instructors. One of the things I like about this book is the detailing and teasing apart of such mismatches and tensions with an eye to how to address them – for it is such mismatches, Cox contends, that contribute to student discouragement and possibly failure.

The final item in this list of books of opportunity is David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt’s The Ordeal of Equality, and it is a study of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal legislation initiated during the War on Poverty to improve the education of children from poor families. The book details the various tensions and contradictions in this ambitious policy and the significant gaps between the intention of the policy and the realities of poor schools – including the idea itself that a federal education policy of modest resources can correct wide-scale inequality in employment, housing, and health care. Cohen and Moffitt offer a careful analysis of the various incarnations of Title I – a history of policy development and enactment – and it’s current expression in NCLB. In doing so, they provide a useful critical perspective on current federal school reform efforts (like Race to the Top), a perspective that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why I Wrote Why School?

A few weeks ago, the book review editor for the Huffington Post invited me to write something on the origins of Why School? Why did I write the book? Some people told me they couldn’t readily find it, so I reprint it below.


We hear so much about education these days – test scores, reform battles – but little that we hear gets to the heart of why education matters. That’s why I wrote Why School?, to get us to think about why we send kids to school and often return to school ourselves. Along the way, I hope readers reflect on what made a difference in their own education.

Education turned my life around – saved it, really – and I’ve taught for close to forty years, so this issue of the purpose of education is close to me, both professionally and personally. It gets me to the writing desk in the middle of the night and throughout the day colors the way I view the world.

I’ve had the good fortune teach in a wide range of settings: kindergarten, graduate seminars, job-training programs, a program for Vietnam veterans, tutoring centers, an after school literacy club for failing students. I’ve visited good schools and bad, have seen teaching that is mediocre and teaching so skillful and fluid that it makes your jaw drop.

In Why School? I wanted to draw on all that experience to take the reader in close to education when it goes well, and I wanted to provide illustrations from the whole broad sweep of education in the United States: from first-graders caught up in a science lesson, to teenagers solving problems in a woodworking class, to college students becoming more astute writers, to adults coming back to school to jump-start a second chance.

I wanted the reader to sit close by as other human beings struggle with a problem, get that flash of insight, and push toward articulation, alone or with others. I wanted to capture the experience of discovery, of learning to do something you couldn’t do before, and, for some, to begin to think of yourself in a new way.

Sadly, little of this vital detail of teaching and learning has made its way into recent education policy or the political speech we hear about our schools. As a result, our sense of what education is has shrunk. What we hear from across the political spectrum is that the reason we send our children to school is to be ready for the 21st Century economy. And the way we measure our success is through a standardized test that is typically far removed from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.

I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. In such a policy environment – one that has been with us for over a generation – school can devolve to procedures, to measures and outputs that constrain what gets taught, how it’s taught, and how we define what it means to be an educated person.

Think of what we don’t read and hear.

There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society.

If we abstract out of education policy a profile of the American student in our time it would be this: a young person being prepared for the world of work, measured regularly, trained to demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge. This is not Jefferson’s citizen-in-the-making. And in my experience most parents of a wide range of backgrounds, though they want their children to develop basic skills and be prepared for work, want much more.

My hope is that Why School? contributes to a more humane and imaginative discussion of schooling in America.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An Excerpt from Why School? for Veteran’s Day: “Soldiers in the Classroom”

Veteran’s Day is approaching, so I thought I would reprint a selection from my new book Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us that addresses education for returning veterans.

Soldiers in the Classroom

What the classroom full of veterans wanted most was, as one of them put it, “to help our families understand what we went through.” The course was in communication, and it was part of an educational program for veterans of the Vietnam war. The teacher – my colleague in the federally funded program – had asked them what they most wanted to learn, and that was their primary answer: to explain to those closest to them the hell they endured.

Our newest generation of veterans will be returning to a warmer welcome than those who served in Vietnam, but the kind of war they fought is similar, and their needs will be as great. By one count, over 30,000 are injured, some severely. Others are or will be torn apart by psychological trauma. And many others will experience terrible distress as they try to find their way with family and community, the economy and education.

What kind of support will our society provide for them? As a young man, I taught English in that program for Vietnam vets, so I got a sense of life after service is over, after physical wounds are healed, after the ceremonies – if there were any – and handshakes have receded into memory. Then soldiers have their lives to pick up or to create anew.

Advocates for veterans brought to public attention the inadequate funding and delivery of health care for newer generations of veterans; less public until the deliberations preceding the new GI Bill were the limited resources for education and the many problems young veterans face as they try to reenter school. The rising cost of living combined with rising costs of tuition, textbooks, and supplies dash many hopes, but even those who can make it financially typically face significant academic and social problems.

The program that contained the communications class could serve as a model for how to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was focused on education, but its philosophy and structure could be adopted to other domains, such as for occupational training, marriage and family readjustment, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The key point is that it treated a complex problem in a comprehensive and integrated way. To respond adequately to educational needs, the program had to address psychological, social, and economic needs as well.

The Veterans Special Education program was a twelve-week crash course in college preparation. The veterans called it academic boot camp. The curriculum included representative freshman year courses in English, psychology, communications, and mathematics, so students got a sense of what lay before them—a reality check—and were able to begin college with some credits, a leg up. The courses also addressed fundamental cognitive and social skills: critical writing and reading, mathematics, human relations, and communication.

The courses were supported with tutoring. A number of the veterans had poor academic backgrounds, so some needed a good deal of assistance with their writing, with reading academic material, or with all the strategies for doing well in school: managing time, note taking, studying for exams. But the tutoring also made the academic work more humane, no small thing, for many of the students carried with them a history of insecurity and anger about matters academic.

They were being asked to write essays analyzing poetry or comparing sociological or psychological theories and to read more carefully and critically than they had before. The challenge stirred strong feeling. Some of the students shut down and withdrew and others erupted. One marine scout I was working with got so frustrated that, in a blur of rage and laughter, he bit off the corner of his paper before handing it to me.

It wasn’t enough for us to do our work within the confines of the classroom. The staff would follow up when a student missed a few days, making phone calls, driving over to an apartment or hotel room, finding someone in awful shape. We had a rich network of referrals for psychological counseling—the nearby V.A. hospitals but also local agencies and civic organizations. And for those who needed it, we had referrals for financial counseling as well. Finally, the program included advising to assist the students in selecting and applying to appropriate colleges and universities. With help from our counselor, the fellow who sank his teeth into that essay got into UCLA, majoring in Sociology and Asian Studies.

All this created a sense of community, something the veterans often noted. For all their social and political differences, they shared the war, and now they were preparing for reentry into the world they left behind. The staff put on social events, but the real community, I believe, was formed through a course of study that was intensive, generous with assistance, and geared toward the next phase of the veterans’ lives.

We have been awash with “support our troops” rhetoric, and politicians use it as a patriotic trump card. One grand irony in all this is the shameful level of health care some veterans have been getting and the resistance a number of conservatives and the Pentagon itself displayed in the face of legislation for a new G.I. Bill.

Rather than patriotic talk, I’d like to hear about programs that are comprehensive and address the multiple needs our troops have when they return home. Programs that provide knowledge and build skill. Programs that are thick with human contact. Programs that meet veterans where they are and provide structure and guidance that assist them toward a clear goal. Programs that build a community while leading these young men and women back to their own communities.

Educational programs for special populations tend toward single-shot solutions: a few basic skills courses, or tutoring, or counseling. But the best programs work on multiple levels, integrate a number of interventions. Such programs emerge from an understanding of the multiple barriers faced by their participants, but also from an affirmation of the potential of those participants. The richness of the program matches the perception of the capacity of the people who populate it.

This is how really to support our troops. And it is how we should think about an education that, of necessity, has to go beyond the classroom.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blinded by Reform... and a tribute to Ted Sizer

This is a commentary I published last week in Truthdig http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20091021_blinded_by_reform/, and I reprint it here for those of you who haven’t seen it. Let me take this opportunity to put a plug in for Truthdig, a lively, Webbie award-winning magazine of politics and culture.

At the end I offer a short tribute to Ted Sizer, who died a short while ago.


Blinded by Reform

It’s gotten lost in the splashier news, but big things are going on at the U.S. Department of Education.

Following on the unprecedented federal reach of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is extending further and putting serious money behind its education initiatives, inviting states and districts to compete for federal dollars. The department wants to increase the community college graduation rate. For K-12, it wants to stimulate the production of better state standards and tests, measure teacher effectiveness, turn around failing schools and increase the number of charter schools. Through a third initiative it wants to spark innovation and scale up the best of local academic programs.

This is a moment of real promise for American education, from kindergarten through college. It has even created the season’s oddest political couple: With the Department of Education’s blessing, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton are about to tour the country for educational reform.

Reform is in the air. But within many of these reforms are the seeds of their undoing.

For example, the Education Department is putting a lot of stock in charter schools as “engines of innovation”—in fact, it will not consider a state’s proposal if the state has a cap on charters. Yet a number of research studies—the most recent from Stanford—demonstrate that charter schools on average are no better or worse than the regular public schools around them. Some charters are sites of fresh ideas and robust education, but so are magnet schools, and career academies, and—we seem to have forgotten this—regular old schools with strong leadership and a critical mass of good teachers. But the reformers’ overvaluation of charter schools seems to dim their view of these varied manifestations of excellence.

Another example is the department’s attempt to link evaluation of teacher quality to student performance. (Merit pay could also follow.) And, again, the department will not consider a state’s proposal if the state outlaws such linkage of evaluation and student performance.

This linkage has a common-sense quality to it, especially what is called “value-added” analysis: that is, the degree to which a class’ test scores improve from the beginning of the school year to the end. Yet among experts in educational testing and measurement, there is a good deal of disagreement over the legitimacy of using these techniques to judge teacher quality. There are a host of factors that can affect scores: the non-random mix of students in a class, the students’ previous teachers, the lobbying of senior teachers for higher-scoring classes or the assignment of such classes to a principal’s favored teachers. There are also technical issues with the analysis of the test data. And there are significant conceptual concerns about exactly what the tests are measuring. In fact, the National Research Council, the prestigious, nonpartisan government agency, has just issued a statement reinforcing all of these concerns.

The Department of Education champions “evidence-based” and “data-driven” practice. Why, then, does the department espouse approaches that warrant scrutiny?

I think there are three interrelated reasons.

Given the immense pressure in politics for a quick result, there is a tendency in social policy toward single-shot, magic-bullet solutions, solutions that are marketable and have rhetorical panache but are simplified responses to complex problems. Charter schools will transform American education, or the linking of student test scores to teacher effectiveness will pressure teachers to change the way they teach and their expectations for what students can achieve.

This magic-bullet thinking is enabled by the paucity of schoolhouse-level knowledge of teaching and learning in the formation of educational policy. Not many policy analysts have taught school and, with few exceptions, those who have taught spent only a youthful year or two in the ranks. More troubling is something I have witnessed over the years: On-the-ground, intimate knowledge of teaching and learning is not valued, and is seen as an imprecise distraction from the consideration of broader economic and management principles that lead to systemic change. It’s like setting up a cardiology clinic without the advice of cardiologists.

The third element involves the rhetoric of reform. The advocates of the current model of test-based accountability have been very successful in depicting their critics as “anti-reform traditionalists,” as “special interests” or, the kiss of death, as members of the “education establishment.”

There is a lot to say about the accuracy of this depiction, for many who are tarred as establishment traditionalists have a long history of challenging traditional school practice and working to change it. But for now I want to focus on the way this demonizing rhetoric can jeopardize the work of the reformers themselves.

Take, for example, the concern expressed by teachers’ unions about linking student test scores to teacher evaluation. It is easy to characterize these concerns as special-interest pleading, but some of the evidence cited by the unions comes from researchers with no vested interest in teachers’ bread-and-butter issues. (One such researcher is a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.) When legitimate concerns about reform techniques are easily dismissed as “anti-reform,” then you have a closed policy system, one shielded from self-correction.

It is good news indeed that school reform has become a top national priority, that the ways schools are structured, children are taught and teachers evaluated have become issues worthy of federal attention. But for reforms to be effective and sustained, they need to be grounded on the best we know and examined carefully and from multiple perspectives.


Ted Sizer, the founder of The Coalition of Essential Schools and the author of a lot of wonderful books, like Horace’s Compromise, died last week. Ted was a smart and articulate advocate for the kind of schooling I hope this blog represents. And, boy, do we need his voice now.

I have a photograph of Ted pinned to the bulletin board over my desk. It was autumn, 1994, and we are caught in mid-step on a dirt path among the trees by Ted’s home in Central Massachusetts. It was during a time when I was having big trouble with some writing, and Ted had invited me to spend a day with him, his wife Nancy, and Debbie Meier away from everything in rural Massachusetts. It was an offer typical of Ted.

The leaves are golden brown, and the foliage along the roadside is thick and rises up into the trees. The sun is falling onto the path and along our bodies in uneven stripes. We’re looking into the camera and smiling. I’m caught in some half-awkward gesture with my hands, like I’m fumbling a small watermelon. Ted has his hands in his pockets, urbane, head cocked, that nice smile. I think all of us who knew Ted will remember his smile.

I’ve been reading the notes and letters I’ve received from Ted over the years. Some of the correspondence is in a thick but elegant marks-a-lot script; some are typed; all, in some way, encourage and assure. It’s finally the assurance that comes to mind of when I think back over my friendship with Ted Sizer. The way he had of encouraging and confirming. It was the spirit behind the Coalition of Essential Schools. It was the quality that made his critique humane and powerful. It’s certainly what I think of when I look up from my desk and see those two guys walking under the trees.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Here is a passage from Why School?, a portrait of a man with a disability in a community college basic skills program. I hope you like it.


Food wrappers and sheets of newspaper were blowing in the wet wind across the empty campus. It was late in the day, getting dark fast, and every once in a while I’d look outside the library – which was pretty empty too – and imagine the drizzly walk to the car, parked far away.

Anthony was sitting by me, and I was helping him read a flyer on the dangers of cocaine. He wanted to give it to his daughter. Anthony was enrolled in a basic skills program, one of several special programs at this urban community college. Anthony was in his late-thirties, had some degree of brain damage from a childhood injury, worked custodial jobs most of his life. He could barely read or write, but was an informed, articulate guy, listening to FM radio current affairs shows while he worked, watching public television at home. He had educated himself through the sources available to him, compensating for the damage done.

The librarian was about to go off shift, so we gathered up our things – Anthony carried a big backpack – and headed past her desk to the exit. The wind pushed back on the door as I pushed forward, and I remember thinking how dreary the place was, dark and cold. At that moment I wanted so much to be home.

Just then a man in a coat and tie came up quickly behind us. “Hey man,” he said to Anthony, “you look good. You lose some weight?” Anthony beamed, said that he had dropped a few pounds and that things were going o.k. The guy gave Anthony a cupping slap on the shoulder, then pulled his coat up and walked head down across the campus.

“Who was that?,” I asked, ducking with Anthony back inside the entryway to the library. He was one of the deans, Anthony said, but, well, he was once his parole officer, too. He’s seen Anthony come a long way. Anthony pulled on the straps of his backpack, settling the weight more evenly across his shoulders. “I like being here,” he said in his soft, clear voice. “I know it can’t happen by osmosis. But this is where it’s at.”

I’ve thought about this moment off and on for twenty years. I couldn’t wait to get home, and Anthony was right at home. Fresh from reading something for his daughter, feeling the clasp on his shoulder of both his past and his future, for Anthony a new life was emerging on the threshold of a chilly night on a deserted campus.

These few minutes remind me of how humbling work with human beings can be. How we’ll always miss things. How easily we get distracted – my own memories of cold urban landscapes overwhelmed the moment.

But I also hold onto this experience with Anthony for it contains so many lessons about development, about resilience and learning, about the power of hope and a second chance. It reminds us too of the importance of staying close to the ground, of finding out what people are thinking, of trying our best – flawed though it will be – to understand the world as they see it… and to be ready to revise our understanding. This often means taking another line of sight on what seems familiar, seeing things in a new light.

And if we linger with Anthony a while longer, either in the doorway or back inside at a library table, we might get the chance to reflect on the basic question of what school is for, the purpose of education. What brought Anthony back to the classroom after all those years? To help his economic prospects, certainly. Anthony wanted to trade in his mop and pail for decent pay and a few benefits. But we also get a glimpse as to why else he’s here. To be able to better guide his daughter. To be more proficient in reading about the events swirling around him – to add reading along with radio and television to his means of examining the world. To create a new life for himself, nurture this emerging sense of who he can become.

Monday, September 21, 2009

One from the Heart

This was a commentary that I published in Education Week on September 2, 2009.

One from the Heart: Helping Young People Reconnect to School
Mike Rose

It’s the real thing when the light goes on.

In the middle of his high school electronics classroom, the teacher had built the frame of a very small house. The frame is bare except for wires running across and through the beams, wires and receptacles, some wall switches, various light fixtures, and a power panel, door open. Students test their skills on this simulated residence, and on this day, two students are hooking up lights and running the wires to the power panel.

There is a group of younger students present, new boys and girls just entering the program. The teacher gets a nod from the two students that they’re ready, so he walks over to the classroom’s central power source and ceremoniously flips a switch. It works! The whole house lights up, ceiling lights, wall lights, floods. “Wow,” exclaims one of the younger students, under his breath. “Man,” he says, “that’s crazy!”

This boy was not much interested in school, but the demonstration caught him. He spoke to the teacher afterward, eager to begin.

Good teachers work hard to create such moments: some activity or object – a science experiment, a power tool, a carefully selected book – that captures the imagination of a kid who is drifting away from the classroom.

What we witness in these moments is the emergence of meaning in a young person’s school life. Whether or not that moment takes hold and leads to a student staying in school depends on a lot beyond the moment: the rest of the curriculum, continued mentoring and counseling, and the circumstances of the young person’s life outside the schoolhouse door. But without that flash of light, actual or metaphorical, the chances are that nothing much will happen.

The nation is turning its attention to young people like that boy in the group of visiting students, high school and college-aged youth – 16 to 26 is the commonly heard age range – who are “disconnected,” who are doing poorly in school, who are at risk of dropping out or have already done so, who, post-high school, can’t seem to find a viable career path. In my state of California – even during our budget meltdown – there are initiatives aimed at this population from government, educational institutions, and philanthropies.

This is good news, for this population typically is not made a top priority in public policy.

The twin driving engines of these initiatives are economic and sociological: a concern about the effect on the economy and social structure of a significant stratum of poorly educated, underemployed or unemployed young people unable to create a decent career for themselves. Therefore, the pitch to them, like the justification for the intervention itself, is an economic one: to offer a means to get young people back on academic or occupational track toward economic success.

What we miss with this appeal, however – and is missing generally from educational policy – is what that boy experienced when the lights went on. To be sure, the prospect of a good job and financial security can be hugely motivating. But it also can be a distant abstraction, something we know is good for us but doesn’t stir feeling or imagination. The economic appeal falls flat unless it connects with something of emotional significance in a student’s life: the palpable hardship of parents’ existence; a commitment to younger siblings or to one’s own new family; a burgeoning interest in some pursuit and a desire for competence in it; a sense of the future and of who one wants to become.

Because of our structural and technocratic orientation to reform, we can get the scaffold of a program in place, but neglect what is most crucial: how to create the conditions for those moments around the small house frame to arise. We don’t see words like emotion or imagination or, for that fact, identity in our educational policy. They are not the language of rigor, of education science.

But perhaps the science that drives our policy is not rigorous enough, not close enough to the real data of engagement with school. There is in the policy literature a recognition of the importance of adult mentoring in the lives of at-risk youth, but not a lot else that addresses the wider human dimension of education.

This limited focus concerns me because we have a history of conceptualizing and intervening in the school lives of disconnected students in reductive ways: solely in terms of their academic deficiencies and/or their threat to the economy and their potential economic rehabilitation. Frequently the result has been narrow academic skills and job training programs.

To avoid this trap, we will have to begin with an intellectually rich and wide-ranging definition of opportunity and occupation, offer a robust course of study, provide consistent advising and mentoring, and create institutional pathways to work and career. And to achieve these goals, we’ll need to affirm the interior as well as economic life of the students in our charge, appeal to the heart as well as to the financial calculus.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A New Book: Why School?

I just had a new book come out, Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. The book is a series of thirteen interrelated essays with an introduction and conclusion. In it, I try to bring the topics of my work over the last thirty years to bear on educational policy in our time.

Below, I reprint the Preface and Table of Contents.

I would sure appreciate it if you spread the word. 

Introduction: Why School?

1. In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling
2. Finding Our Way: The Experience of Education
3. No Child Left Behind and the Spirit of Democratic Education
4. Business Goes to School
5. Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse
6. On Values, Work, and Opportunity
7. Standards, Teaching, Learning
8. Remediation at the University
9. Re-mediating Remediation
10. Politics and Knowledge
11. Soldiers in the Classroom
12. A Language of Hope
13. Finding the Public Good Through the Details of Classroom Life

Conclusion: The Journey Back and Forward


Why School? comes from a professional lifetime in classrooms, creating and running educational programs, teaching and researching, writing and thinking about education and human development. It offers a series of appeals for big-hearted social policy and an embrace of the ideals of democratic education – from the way we define and structure opportunity to the way we respond to a child adding a column of numbers. Collectively, the chapters provide a bountiful vision of human potential, illustrated through the schoolhouse, the work place, and the community.

We need such appeals, I think, because we have lost our way.

We live in an anxious age and seek our grounding, our assurances in ways that don’t satisfy our longing—that, in fact, make things worse. We’ve lost hope in the public sphere and grab at private solutions, which undercut the sharing of obligation and risk and keep us scrambling for individual advantage. We’ve narrowed the purpose of schooling to economic competitiveness, our kids becoming economic indicators. We’ve reduced our definition of human development and achievement – that miraculous growth of intelligence, sensibility, and the discovery of the world – to a test score. Though we pride ourselves as a nation of opportunity and a second chance, our social policies have become terribly ungenerous. We rush to embrace the new – in work, in goods, in the language we use to describe our problems—yet long for tradition, for craft, for the touch of earth, wood, another hand.

We do live in uncertain and unsettling times, but one can imagine all sorts of responses, and we have been taking—and have been led to take—those that are fear-based, inhumane, less than noble. We yearn for more and as a society deserve better. This yearning was one of the forces that drove the election of Barack Obama.

My hope is that the contents of this book in some small way contribute to a reinvigorated discussion of why we educate in America, maybe through a particular story, maybe because of information I can provide from my own teaching and research, maybe from a perspective that provides a different way to see.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Colleges Need to Re-Mediate Remediation

My entry this week is a reprint of something condensed from my new book (Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us) for The Chronicle of Higher Education, published on August 3, 2009. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will recognize some of this text from an entry on remedial writing that I posted in July 2008.


Kevin had a story similar to those of many young men from my old neighborhood. He was a good student in poor schools with dated textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, and high teacher turnover. Seduced by street life, he got into trouble and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special-admissions program. I had helped develop the writing component of that program, and I taught in it. Kevin's first piece of college writing, the placement exam, was disorganized, vague, and peppered with grammatical errors. That is the kind of writing that we see in news accounts of remedial students and that politicians cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised.

And such writing is troubling. If Kevin's writing remained the same, he—like many students taking remedial classes today—would probably not make it through college. But a good part of the problem results from how we approach remediation in the first place.

The traditional remedial writing course typically begins with simple writing assignments and includes a fair number of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage.. The readings are fairly basic, in both style and content. Powerful—and limiting—assumptions about language, learning, and cognition drive such a curriculum, although they might not be articulated: Students like Kevin must go back to linguistic square one, building skills slowly through the elements of grammar.

Simple reading and writing assignments won't overly tax such students' abilities and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic errors. Complex, demanding work and big ideas—college work—should be put on hold until they master the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

At my institution, we created another type of remediation program for students like Kevin—one that held to a different set of assumptions, which we had come to from reading current research on language and cognition and from our classroom experience. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing in all aspects—grammar, organization, style. But we didn't believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly build his skills. And in Kevin's case, we were right. By the end of the 20-week program, he was comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban missile crisis.

My co-workers and I first surveyed a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of assignments students like Kevin faced in that crucial first year. We found similar readings from various disciplines and created assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and made them cumulative: What a student learned in the first week fed into an assignment in the fifth week.

For example, Kevin's early assignments required him to read a passage on the history of eugenics and write a definition of it, and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the United States and summarize it. That practice in defining and summarizing would come into play when he had to compare systematically the descriptions of becoming literate in Malcolm X's and Ben Franklin's autobiographies.

To assist students, we organized instruction to include much discussion of the readings and a good deal of writing in which they could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed. And because many students, like Kevin, displayed all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we spent a lot of time on errors—in class, in conference, in comments on their papers—but all in the context of their academic writing.

That is a huge point, and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: Writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and errors can be dealt with effectively as one works with such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. People who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn't belong. He proved them wrong. Those who hold to a traditional remedial model would worry that our assignments would be too hard and discourage him. He proved them wrong, too.

Some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we have taken. Successful remedial programs set high standards, are focused on inquiry and problem-solving in a substantial curriculum, use a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive, draw on a variety of techniques and approaches, are in line with students' goals, and provide credit for course work.

I have seen that approach work and even experienced it personally. I came out of elementary school with a dreary knowledge of mathematics and didn't pass high-school algebra. I had to take it over in the summer and barely passed it then. My SAT quantitative score was awful, my GRE score even lower. In college I avoided anything even vaguely mathematical.

Then came graduate school in educational psychology and a requirement in statistics. Educational researchers like Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, and Kris Gutiérrez refer to successful remediation as "re-mediation"—that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught material they had not mastered before. My story does not perfectly match the typical remedial tale: I was not retaking a course I had taken earlier in my educational career. But the situation is similar: I had failed, barely passed, or avoided math in the past and now faced a higher-level course with dismal knowledge.

The summer before I entered graduate school, I signed up for an introductory-level statistics course and hired a tutor. Having a tutor provided a major degree of assistance, some of it in basic math, although in the context of statistics. And—no small thing—she offered a relationship built around mathematics, a human face to a subject that had scared me my whole scholastic life. I was fortunate in that my graduate courses were taught by an excellent instructor who distributed to us draft chapters of a textbook he was writing, a clear and coherent text. In the text and in his lectures, the professor continually provided concrete, real-world examples. A few of us in the class formed a study group, providing another social context for learning. And during the first term, I kept in touch with my tutor, providing continuity and further, yes, remediation. I ended up doing just fine, to my great surprise and pleasure. So I know the feeling of re-mediating a subject in a manner that countered a dozen years of failure and aversion.

The key point is that remediation occurs in many ways, on many levels, involving most of us at some time or another. A fairly standard story about remedial students is one of young people with high-school diplomas or GED's mired in remedial math or English courses that they repeatedly fail. But there are other students, with different profiles. Some have mastered the material in question but need to revisit it. Some are immigrants who are building English skills. Others are seeking new careers or have served in the military and need a few basic courses. And some, like Kevin, have a less-than-privileged education but can catch up with the right intervention.

Legislators complain that they are "paying twice" for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with a new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some of us, that makes all the difference in the world.

I don't deny the gravity of underpreparation or the concerns about cost—I spent too many years running programs to be blithe about resources. But the broader, important issue about remediation is the role it plays in a nation that prides itself on being a "second chance" society. An educational system as vast, complex, and flawed as ours must have mechanisms to remedy its failures. Colleges are integral to a rich system of educational development that reaches back through the schools and forward well beyond the point of graduation. It is terrible that so many students—especially those from poorer backgrounds—come to college unprepared.

But colleges can't fold their arms in a huff and try to pull away from the problem. Rather than marginalize remediation, they should invest more intellectual resources in it, making it as effective as it can be. The notion of a second chance, of building safety nets into a flawed system, offers a robust idea of education and learning: that we live in a system that acknowledges that people change, retool, grow, and need to return to old mistakes, or just to what is past and forgotten.

Remediation may be an unfortunate term for all this, as it carries with it the sense of disease, of a medical intervention. "Something that corrects an evil, a fault, or an error," notes The American Heritage Dictionary. But when done well, remediation becomes a key mechanism in a democratic model of human development.

Monday, August 17, 2009

More on Portraits of Thinking, Education Miracles, and the Power of Discussion – Plus a Postscript on New Books and Blogs

It’s been several months since I’ve commented on readers’ posts. During that time, we’ve watched the display of intelligence by a common laborer, a general surgeon, and a middle-school student in a special ed class. We’ve also sat in on a primary-grade classroom and a twelfth-grade Advanced Placement seminar, watching good teachers at work and their students responding. And I posted a commentary on the search for the miracle cure in education, the single magic bullet that various reformers offer up as the solution to our educational problems.

The five portraits of thinking – the laborer, surgeon, etc. – sparked a lot of response, much of it on learning and on teaching itself. There was more than a little lamenting about the way schools can miss opportunities for students to think fully – with particular concern about the way current educational policy might squelch such thinking.

The portrait of the student composing a poem in special ed sparked particularly strong response, celebrating both the intelligence and poetic sensibility of the student writer and, through her, reflecting on the power of curiosity, intellectual spontaneity, and just the pure cognitive force and plasticity of the developing mind. Many of the comments were from teachers, and I’d recommend them to other teachers visiting this blog.

“Of Classrooms and Miracles” also drew a lot of response, elaborating the argument or, in several cases, qualifying it with additional or alternative perspectives. I recommend reading them as well. (By the way, that essay just got picked up by the online magazine Truthdig.)

I want to comment further on several posts to my most recent entry, the portrait of an Advanced Placement English teacher and his wonderful students. The writer of one of the comments offered a memory of her own AP English class in which Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude sparked a vibrant discussion among all the members of the class, “from the overachiever to the quiet group in the back of the class.” (It’s fascinating how often these portraits of thinking triggered memories that readers offered up in rich detail. Our personal history of cognitive growth is thick with memories of family, teachers, objects, and events.)

Another reader, Brian, and I would probably differ about the value – and maybe even the definition – of discussion. He’s right to want evidence that education is occurring as a result of discussion, that, let’s say, Steve’s students are learning something about how Modernist experimental fiction works. I see some evidence for that learning in the excerpt, for example, the students’ observations about narrative structure. But, I’ll admit, I also value the other things occurring here, for example the push to articulate difficult ideas and the attempt to do that with other people. Brian raises a concern about an “anything goes” mode of discussion, but I don’t think that’s going on here. Steve keeps nudging and cajoling his students toward precision with a novel where precision is elusive. I believe there’s something intellectually powerful in trying to be as exact as you can in the midst of ambiguity.

This discussion of discussion takes us to a post by ChicanoAnthro in which he writes about a book he’s reading: The Decent Society by Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit. I will try to summarize ChicanoAnthro’s summary. Margalit is interested in identifying the criteria by which a society can call itself “decent,” and one of those is that the decent society’s institutions do not humiliate its citizens. ChicanoAnthro goes on to connect Margalit to a “paraphrase [of] Frederick Douglass: learning ‘unfits’ a person for second-class citizenship.” ChicanoAnthro sees the exchange in Steve Gilbert’s class – the collaborative struggle to interpret Faulkner’s novel – as a quintessentially democratic event: “the assumptions people hold about each other as they interact,” “the questions people ask of each other (in certain contexts, we only ask difficult questions of people we respect),” and so on.

It is interesting to think that the kind of discussion Steve Gilbert fosters – in addition to what it does for understanding literature, for critical and interpretative thinking, etc. – also has a civic function. Isn’t this finally one of the things we want from education in a democracy: people experience what it’s like to be a thinking, active, engaged human being, willing to deliberate with others and venture into the uncertain, speaking as clearly as possible along the way.

* * *
Postscript: Four New Books

Over the last few months, some new books have come my way, and each of them demonstrates, in quite different manner, the complex but achievable thought and effort that make good education possible.

W. Norton Grubb in The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity calls for a multi-dimensional definition of resources that include not only money but less tangible things like leadership, effective instruction, and a school’s structure and vision. Money matters, but it’s the use of the money in the service of these less tangible factors that contribute most to effective schooling.

Karin Chenowith’s How It’s Being Done (a follow-up to her It’s Being Done) provides case studies of high-poverty schools that do well by their students.

The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching is an anthology of Kohl’s writing over the last forty years. Of special interest given the discussion here is his detailed portrait of teaching as highly skilled cognitive and moral pursuit.

Daniel Wolff’s How Lincoln Learned to Read is as much about learning in school as out of school. Wolff presents portraits of 12 Americans (Ben Franklin, WEB DuBois, Rachel Carson, among them) to demonstrate the many and varied factors – from the classroom to the apprentice shop to the pine forest – that contribute to the education of these influential people.

And Two New Blogs from Readers

LarryTash.blogspot.com. Larry writes as a long-time teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin and studies higher education policy. Among other topics, she writes on the community college and on remediation. Her blog is "The Education Optimists." She also contributes to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s "Brainstorm" blog.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: An Advanced Placement English Class

Over the last three or four months, I’ve been presenting portraits of people thinking – teachers and students mostly, but laborers and a surgeon too – with the intention of demonstrating the richness and variability of cognition.

I’ve done this because there are so few examples of people actually using their minds in contemporary educational policy literature or in media treatments of schooling. We don’t get inside classrooms very much, and rarely see good teachers at work or students thinking things through. This absence is not accidental. To talk about learning (not “learning outcomes,” but learning) or pedagogy in many policy arenas is to be seen as soft, off-topic, beside the point. As for media, learning and pedagogy don’t fit typical media story lines about education: educational politics, funding, or the human interest portrait. We live amid constant talk about education with minimal attention paid to the experience of being educated. It’s telling how many of the readers’ responses to the portraits have addressed this experience. I think a lot of us are hungry for such talk. In my next entry, I will focus on readers’ comments over the last few months.

Now, let’s spend some time with Steve Gilbert, a wonderful teacher I wrote about in Possible Lives, from which this portrait is drawn.

The last portrait I presented of teaching was of the two teachers in an ungraded primary (June 11, 2009). Here we go to the other end of the K-12 pipeline, an Advanced Placement English course in Chicago.

I am especially taken with this teacher’s skill in forwarding inquiry, in pushing thinking, and his admirable ability to be rigorous and supportive at the same time. He listens closely and uses what a student says to frame the next question that will nudge the discussion along. As he does so, he creates the conditions for students to be intellectually adventurous, to wade into uncertainty, and to risk being wrong. This risk-taking is something that sadly has been schooled out of many honors students.

So let’s listen in as Steve Gilbert and his students think their way through William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I’ll begin by briefly setting the context and summarizing the book, then I’ll let the discussion unfold.

I apologize for the length, but I don’t know how else to give you a sense of how Steve and his students work with this difficult novel.

* * *

Before I arrived, the class had read Fathers and Children and Brave New World, two books with an omniscient narrator and traditional narrative structure. As I Lay Dying provided a radical jolt. It was published in 1930, drafted, Faulkner claimed, in six weeks while he worked nights at the University of Mississippi power plant, written, when the furnaces permitted, on the bottom of an overturned wheelbarrow.

The novel consists of fifty-nine vignettes told by fifteen characters, most of them poor rural Southern Whites, some of whom speak in a direct and uncomplicated manner—though in regional dialect—while others speak in a mix of direct address, recollection, reverie, and stream-of-consciousness.

The story is this—though it by no means emerges this readily. Addie Bundren is dying and has asked her husband, Anse, to bury her in Jefferson, her place of birth, some forty miles away. She has asked that her oldest son, Cash, a carpenter, build her a proper coffin, and that he build it outside her window, in her line of sight, so that she can be sure of its quality.

Once Addies dies, the journey to Jefferson begins—Addie’s coffin resting unsteadily in the Bundren’s old wagon—only to be disrupted by a washed-out bridge, where the coffin is almost lost, and a barn fire that nearly incinerates it. The journey provides multiple revelations (and takes so long that Addie’s body begins to decompose), and by the time the family reaches the graveyard, we realize that many of the family had their own private motives for accompanying Addie to Jefferson.

Addie has five children, Cash, the carpenter, takes a craftsmen’s pride in building his mother’s coffin, and is compassionate in a reserved, literal-minded way. Trying to save the coffin in the flooding river en route to Jefferson, he breaks his leg, and, with bones held roughly in place by a makeshift and mutilating cement cast, rattles along in silent pain atop the box he has built for his mother.

Darl is keenly observant and introspective. Though he and Cash share some feelings, we gradually discover that two of the three siblings, Jewel and Dewey Dell, hate him. He is the most frequent speaker, and, at times, seems to be telepathic, becoming almost a central narrator. At the end, however, he is declared insane for torching the barn in which is mother’s body was temporarily stored.

Jewel, the third son, is physical and harsh, but in truth is fiercely devoted to his mother and speaks of her in a language of violence and protection. Dewey Dell, the only daughter, about seventeen, describes things in a sensual and enticing way, but is not wordly wise and is secretly pregnant. Vardaman, a child, is retarded and prone to simplified and confused associations. Fearing his mother is suffocating in the coffin, he drills holes in the top and into his dead mother’s face. Because Addie died on the same day he caught and killed a huge fish, he gradually comes to believe—in a moment that sent Steve’s class over the top—that “my mother is a fish.”


“I like,” Qisha was saying, “the way people aren’t what they seem to be.”

“Can you give us an example?” Steve asked.

“You take Darl,” Qisha continued. “He seems to be the only one who has a lot to say, and we kind of come to rely on him, and then he’s declared insane!”

“Qisha,” Steve said, “given the point you’re making, this would be a good time to return to something you said earlier. You said that As I Lay Dying was not like a traditional narrative, was more like real life. Can you say more about that?”

“Well,” she answered, “there isn’t somebody in your life telling you what to think, someone to organize what you see, what you hear. And, like that, this book just gives you pieces of thought.”

Steve glanced from Qisha to the rest of the class, panning the circle. “One thing we do all the time,” he said, “is tell each other stories. We organize experience into narratives. So if we don’t have a single story, if we have a series of stories, how do we determine truth?”

Ayana, quiet up till then, looked over at Steve, touching her glasses. “We compare the stories, try to determine accuracy that way.”

“OK,” said Steve. “Let’s find a good example.” And he began flipping through his copy of the novel—which was heavily annotated—and read contradictory selections from Darl, from Cora, a sanctimonious neighbor, and from Jewel himself on the topic of Jewel’s feelings for his mother. “Now,” said Steve, “how do we come to the truth about Jewel?”

“What Cora says, that’s just heresay,” Anyana continued. “She’s a busybody. But Darl, he was there.”

“Was he?” asked Steve. “Or are we getting his perception?”

Ayana pondered that. “No, actually, he sees Jewel through is eyes—and he has a funny relationship with Jewel.”

Steve came to class knowing that, at some point in the day, he would go to the board and ask the class to list all the things they thought they knew, the events they felt sure of. And at that moment, when Ayana was pushing on the provisional nature of so much in the novel, he uncurled himself from the desk and palmed a piece of chalk.

“Let’s make a list of what we think we know,” he said, turning to the board to become the students’ scribe.

“Well,” said Brian, “we know Addie died.” Steve wrote “Addie died.” “Dewey Dell is pregnant,” ventured Tequia, speaking for the first time.

“They’re taking Addie to Jefferson to bury her,” Raina said. But, as Steve was writing, Qisha interjected: “Wait, isn’t that a difficult question—I mean, what do you mean, ‘What we know?’ Do you mean what people tell us or what we finally think happened? I mean, people have different reasons for taking Addie to Jefferson—so what each one would know is different.”

“Absolutely right,” said Steve, appreciating Qisha’s tough-mindedness. “Good point. So maybe the best we can do is continue this list provisionally, listing what we think we know.” The class continued: Addie’s body is decomposing; Cash breaks his leg; Addie’s body has holes in it; Darl sets fire to the barn. Steve was keeping a watchful eye on the clock, and just before the bell, he held up his hand, palm outward, and said, “OK, nice going, class. I’d like us to test these ‘knowings’ over the next two weeks.”

And as the bell rang and everyone was wedging books into stuffed backpacks, Brian laughed and asked, “Yeah, but does anyone know why Darl set the barn on fire?”


Fast-forward a few class meetings.

Steve began by asking for someone to “indicate what he or she thinks a central theme might be.”

Brian: “Truths are subjective.”

Steve: “OK, how would you support that theme?”

Brian took a moment, started to page through the book, looked up, and laughed. “Ah, let me get back to you on that.”

Ayana: “How about the fact that Darl and Anse give us different versions of certain events?”

Qisha: “Also, there’s the different reasons they’re going to Jefferson.”

Steve: “Fine. Now let me ask you this. Is there a better way to summarize those examples than saying ‘Truths are subjective?’”

Alastair: “Everyone has their own version of truth.”

Brain: “People perceive reality differently.”

Steve: “OK, not bad. Let’s come back to that. Any other themes?”

Alastair: “It strikes me how religion is depicted in the book. I mean, there’s Addie and the minister; when Cash broke his leg the first time, he fell off a church; some of the townspeople talk piously but are hypocritical.”

Steve: “That sounds promising. There’s also Addie’s belief about deception…”

Alastair: “I’m not sure that’s religious.”

Steve: “All right, good point. Ethics, maybe. Can anyone see a theme developing?”

Alastair: “Some of the people who act religious aren’t religious at all.”

Steve noticed that Tequia wanted to speak. He also knew she was a religious person. “Tequia” he said, “I want to bring you into this discussion. Any thoughts?”

Tequia: “Well, Cash is faithful to carpentry.”

Steve: “What’s he say about carpentry?”

Ayana: “Regardless of the materials you have, you should do it well.”

Tequia: “It’s a kind of philosophy.”

Steve: “Who is the most famous carpenter we know?”

Aisha: “Jesus.”

Tequia: “Some of the other characters don’t realize it, but for Cash, carpentry might be a kind of religion.”

Steve: “So different characters might express religious feelings in different ways? Fine. Other themes, people?”

Qisha: “How about ‘Blood relatives don’t guarantee love.’”

Aisha: “There might be a simpler way to say that.”

Steve: “Give it a try, Aisha.”’

Aisha: “I’m not good at this.”

Steve: “That’s OK; try it.”

Aisha: “Love is tainted by obligation?”

Steve: “That’s very interesting. Can you say more?”

Aisha: [pausing, looking for words] “All the characters in the novel seem to classify their love…uh…I don’t know.”

Steve: “I think you’re on to something.”

Qisha: “That there is no simple way to define love or emotion in general…I mean, usually you can only do certain things that will be thought of as love.”

Steve: “Going back to Aisha’s word classify—is it easy to classify or categorize the emotions in this novel?”

Qisha, Brian, Aisha, Raina: “No.”

Steve: [looking at Brian] “Remember you were talking about truth being subjective?”

Brian: “Yes.”

Steve: “Well, another way to talk about that might be to say that there aren’t easy slots or categories for truth or, for that fact, for emotions. Some of the characters may feel and express something that could generally be called love, but it wouldn’t fit traditional definitions of love. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Qisha: “It’s as though emotions between family members don’t follow guidelines.”

Steve: “OK, but push yourself, Qisha—‘guidelines’ is not the best word there.”

Chris: “How about ‘Emotions can be defined with different vocabularies?’”

Steve: “That’s promising. How about what Brian was working with?”

Brian: “Appearance is not really reality?”

Aisha: “This is really clichéd, but, ‘Nothing is the way it seems.’”

Steve: “What’s wrong with that?”

Aisha: “It’s too broad, I think.”

Tequia: “Maybe ‘It’s impossible to know other people’s reality.’”

Chris: “It’s impossible to know the entire truth about someone’s life.”

Steve: “I think we’re developing some major themes, and they all seem to deal with the subjectivity of knowing, of truth, with appearance versus reality…That was wonderful.” [Turning to me] “Wasn’t that just wonderful?”

And the bell rang.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Classrooms and Miracles

Despite a childhood of incantations and incense, of holy cards and stories of crutches being tossed, I don’t believe in miracles. So it is with a mix of sadness and exasperation that I’ve witnessed a language of miracles – along with a search for academic cure-alls and magic bullets – infuse our educational discourse and policy.


We started off the new century with the Texas Miracle, the phenomenal closing of the achievement gap and reduction of dropout rates through a program of high-stakes standardized tests. (The Texas Miracle would then spawn the federal No Child Left Behind Act.) Politicians and media-savvy administrators have also found the miraculous; the governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, referred to an Oakland charter school as an “education miracle.” And the pundits have appropriated the lingo. A recent New York Times column by David Brooks on the charter school of the Harlem Children’s Zone was titled “The Harlem Miracle.” And so it goes.  


Upon closer examination, some of these miracles turn out to be suspect, the result of questionable assessments and manipulated numbers. The Texas Miracle didn’t hold up under scrutiny. And some, like the Harlem Children’s Zone – which is a commendable place – gain their excellence through hard work along multiple dimensions, from teaching and mentoring to utilizing outside resources and fundraising. There’s nothing miraculous about their success. (See Diane Ravitch’s May 12, 2009 entry in “Bridging Differences” for more on this.)


Along with talk of miracles, we have the belief in educational wonder drugs and magic bullets: single-shot solutions to complicated problems: high-stakes testing, standards, charter schools, small schools, alternative teacher recruitment, slash and burn CEO management, etc. Each of these solutions has potential merit. Standards can bring coherence to a curriculum; small schools can result in increased student contact; alternative recruitment and credentialing bring new blood into the teaching force; some districts need the serious administrative shake-up that managerial house-cleaning can provide. All good. But for these efforts to work, to increase the quality of education, other factors have to be present as well.


The structural change that leads to the small school needs to be accompanied by a robust philosophy of education, a set of beliefs about ability, learning, knowledge, and the purpose of education. As well, you’ll need a decent teaching force with opportunity built in for ongoing development. And what about curriculum? Or a set of ideas on how to connect school with community? The structural move of creating the small school may be central in all this, truly important, but, at its best, it will be a necessary but not sufficient condition for educational renewal. As Debbie Meier once said, you can have crappy small schools too.


Research on charter schools demonstrates the kind of variability you’d expect if you don’t believe in miracle cures: some charters are terrific, some are average and some are awful. The same set of issues I raise for small schools applies here: what you do within the new school structure matters immensely.


The kick-ass-and-take-names managerial clean-up that we’ve seen in places like Washington, DC and New Orleans has indeed disrupted the status quo, and I’ll leave it to those who know those districts well to judge the legitimacy of the shake-up. But what interests me is what happens once the new broom sweeps clean. Then the same weighty questions emerge, questions involving curriculum, teacher quality and development, remediation, school-community connections, etc. To address these crucial issues, the school manager will need knowledge of human development, of teaching and learning, of the wisdom of the classroom. Because few of the new CEO types possess such knowledge – might even consider it less important than structural changes – you have the rush to the magic bullet.


Let me consider one more magic bullet, since recently it’s been making its way through opinion pages and commentaries: alternative teacher recruitment, most notably Teach for America. (See, for example, Thomas Friedman’s April 22, 2009 New York Times column or the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for July 7, 2009.)


I admire Teach for America and the public service spirit that drives its recruits. In the early 90s, I met with founder Wendy Kopp, participated in TFA summer training in Los Angeles, and I’ve taught students who have gone into the program or came out of it. And my own introduction to education came via an earlier alternative program, The Teacher Corps. So my concern is not with Teach for America itself but with the way it has been defined as yet another wonder drug, the ingredients of which are the idealistic energy of youth and an elite education. Sadly, Teach for America has become a weapon in the education wars, rather than a laudable vehicle through which young people can contribute to the education of a nation.


I’m all for idealistic, hardworking enthusiasm, and I welcome into the nation’s classrooms these graduates of fine schools. But most of them teach for two years (and possibly a third) and then move on to the careers they went to college to pursue.


I’m troubled by two more issues related to the magic bullet discourse here. First, many who champion TFA seem to affirm an idiosyncratic model of professional development: that these young people’s elite undergraduate educations and their energy trumps extended training and experience. There is no other kind of work, from styling hair to surgery to the pro football defensive backfield where experience is so discounted. No TFA booster, I’d wager, would choose a med student fresh out of a cardiology rotation over a cardiologist who has been in practice for fifteen years.


I also want to consider the assumptions about knowledge and teaching here – or more precisely the use of the status of one’s undergraduate institution as a proxy for being able to teach what one knows. Knowing history or chemistry or literature is essential to teach these subjects, but – again this is common sense – knowing something does not mean you are able to teach it…as countless undergraduates who have sat through bad lectures can verify.


Let’s consider this elite school proxy for expertise in teaching from one more perspective. I went through my Possible Lives and Karin Chenowith’s new How It’s Being Done, both of which contain a number of first-rate teachers. I also looked at the Council of Chief State School Officer’s National Teacher of the Year Program. Only a handful of these top-flight teachers got their bachelors degrees from institutions typically defined as elite. A number hail from state universities. And a considerable number come from small, local colleges with teacher education programs. Expertise in teaching is more than a function of one’s undergraduate pedigree.


What miracle talk and magic-bullet solutions share is the reduction of complexity, of the many levels of hard, creative work necessary to make schooling successful in the United States.


More so than many other domains of public policy, education is bedeviled by a binary polemics, a tendency to define an issue in either/or terms and then wage a pitched battle over the (exaggerated) differences. So we have the math wars, the whole language versus phonics explosion, the knowledge versus process clash, and so on. These are fierce battles in which each side reduces the other’s argument – often to the point of caricature – and then assails it.


The miracle/magic bullet discourse plays right into this state of affairs, both emerges from and contributes to it. Part of believing in this single-shot causality requires a simplification of difficult issues and a dismissal of other possible variables and remedies. If you have the single truth, then everything else is a target.


There’s one more concern, and that has to do with failure. What happens when the miracle fades, when the magic bullet doesn’t cure the disease?  For some who are ideologically inclined there is despair, a throwing up of the hands and retreat to the dismissal of public education that we’ve witnessed over the past two or three decades.


I propose that we leave the holy cards at the schoolhouse door, that we admit that educational excellence is achieved through dedicated effort along multiple dimensions – structural, curricular, and pedagogical – and that we call a moratorium to the demonizing either/or polemics that create more heat than light. Unfortunately, that moratorium would probably require a miracle – but it’s one I’m ready to pray for.