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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Friday, April 24, 2009

Readers Comment on Education Policy and Educational Possibility

It has been quite a while since I’ve responded to the many posts on this blog, and I apologize. My entries during that time included a commentary on the paucity of deep knowledge about teaching and learning in the formation of education policy (“‘Reform,’ ‘Accountability,’ and the Absence of Schoolhouse Knowledge in Education Policy’”), a reflection on cognition and diversity (1/27/09), and a series of portraits of students thinking through a problem: a student taking a standardized test (2/20/09), a novice cabinetmaker (3/5/09), a freshman writing a college essay (3/19/09), and a class of first-graders engaging a science problem (4/3/09). In all, 57 comments were posted by my readers, quite a few on the policy entry and on the college writer.

The portraits of thinking (and I will be presenting more of them in the months to come) are intended to be elaborations of the main ideas in the entries on education policy and on cognition and diversity: 1) the majesty of human cognition and its many manifestations, especially when the environment invites its display and 2) the loss to education policy when this kind of understanding of thinking—particularly as it plays out in teaching and learning—is absent from the development of policy.

Let me begin with the comments on that discussion of education policy and then move on to the portraits.

Several readers expressed pessimism about change in the machinery and substance of policy development, for so many elements of that machinery—from the legislature to think tanks to universities—are invested in the status quo. There are more than a few times when I share this pessimism: when I consider the continued power of reductive testing and accountability models, the absence of new perspectives among the reigning policy elite, the apparent dismissal of classroom wisdom about teaching and learning, the Orwellian distortion of language and history in our current education politics.

But I hold onto the belief—hope, even—that it remains important to articulate as best as we can alternative visions of education policy. To be sure, power politics are at play here; recently we saw that in full display. But, ideas do matter, as a number of readers argued. They called for a rethinking of “accountability” in terms of “improvement,” “visibility,” and “responsibility,” seeking a new language that represents a more multi-layered notion of accountability built on a robust set of ideas about both professional development and about teaching and learning.

The disconcerting thing—here I have to return to that pessimistic view—is that such a move so easily gets characterized in this political environment as the education establishment’s party line and/or, as another reader observed, as teacher union special interest. This sad fact reminds us that though ideas matter, they play out in a charged political environment. I’ve asked this question before, but I’ll ask it of my readers again: How can we get better at the politics of all of this? How do we get the kind of understanding of teaching and learning reflected in those 57 posts into policy formation?

Let me turn now to the comments on the portraits of thinking.

One of the interesting things about the comments was the range of vantage points represented by the writers. Some wrote as students themselves, sitting for multiple-choice tests or currently taking or remembering writing classes. We get a sense from them of what it feels like—the experience—to be on the receiving end of instruction that seems narrow or rigid or distant from one’s own thinking and motives. Some wrote as practitioners of a craft (for example, crocheting), or to pay tribute to a family member skilled in the manual arts. And some wrote as teachers—novice or experienced—and shared stories about educational practices that enhance or restrict students’ expression of mind.

Collectively, these posts provide a number of perspectives, lines of sight, on teaching and learning and on our current educational and social landscape. What is striking is how absent all these perspectives are from so much current education discourse. You won’t find students or teachers at policy deliberations or the public events that issue from them.

The point here is not that perspectives from the classroom should be the only source of information in policy formation, but that without them, education policy will be stunted—as we have been witnessing.

Perspectives from the classroom provide one more related and powerful benefit. They remind us what education is for. The full potential meaning of going to school comes through in the readers’ comments: the human connection, the development of mind, the nurturing of curiosity and creativity, the sense that one is growing, learning to do something new.


  1. With a new administration, there is always a new opportunity to shake things up. It happens at each level of policy creation. In my own little world of school boards, our biggest challenge is to think long range. A problem comes up, such as lack of funds to offer all the usual elective courses at a high school, and immediately we think of which elective program should we cut. The overall study of curriculum breadth and depth at any level will always be secondary to what is the cost of the final formulation. When an administration at the federal level doesn't create a long term view of things, we will all suffer.

  2. Unfortunately, I am unsure if we can get away from the politics of education unless we pull all children outside of the classroom and homeschool them. Sometimes I think the need for education reform is so big and daunting, those involved even in the think tank can be made to feel like Cicifus. I truly wish that there was a textbook answer for this, but there is simply too much to consider to make a one-size-fits-all plan. In a nation where there can be upwards of 30 home languages spoken by students in the same district as well as a district hosting students from drastically varied economic status, it is too much to do in one fell swoop. Should such an issue be left up to the administration of a particular school? The district itself? Should is be so grassroots that the parents are the ones who get to say what they want for their children? Or should it be coming from a politician behind a big desk who has never set foot in the classroom, much less seen a child in years?

  3. Looking at what is lacking in the politics (and policies formed from these politics), it seems to be a real shame that more power isn’t wielded by the voices that need to be heard the most: students and educators. In a society where academic success is more and more vital for the overall success of a person socially and professionally, it seems that the voice of those being currently educated in our public school system would be greatly valued and acknowledged, yet the voices of policy makers and politicians often times drown out all others. I wish there were a way to get to the heart of the matter regarding education, which is genuine and lasting learning, without going through all of the rigmarole of politics.

  4. As an aspiring teacher, I am a bit new to this idea of political opposition to voices that care – the voices of teachers, students, parents, more. My hope is that these voices will make themselves heard at policy deliberations, and that the politicians will consider and respond to these concerns and suggestions. My hope is that we will at least chip away at this daunting mountain of political opposition by making ourselves heard. Let passion and determination overcome the frustration of what seems to me a backwards (because ideas don’t come from the bottom but the top) and too money-oriented system.

    Besides making our voices heard in the policymaking process, I would further recommend approaching the individual situation with the intent of creating positive change. For example, teachers can use the structures imposed on them from high by being creative in how they teach it. Don’t have students memorize and regurgitate information, but teach so that students understand the complexities of the subject, connect it to their personal understanding, and make it meaningful. Don’t make students good little workers like obedient ants, but engage their curiosity, inspire their thinking, enthuse them with your own passion. In short, don’t let the system get you down – do what you can, change it how you can. I think it was Mother Theresa or Ghandi who said “No matter how small a thing is, it is of utmost importance that you do it.” By chipping away, by making small changes, by tossing a pebble – let it ripple, and change will come. Hopefully…

  5. A real problem with education reform is that it depends much on public policy which, in turn, depends on elected officials – school board members, state and federal legislators, and executives – and those party members appointed by them. In this system, solutions need to be simple – that is, easy for the public to understand and following ideological party lines. The solutions are seen as best if they are “one size fits all,” or should I say “fixes all.” An unfortunate artifact of this system is that the teachers are generally blamed. Thus, the solutions become focused on teacher proofing the system (e.g., prescribing scripted curriculum and instruction) or on fixing the teacher (e.g., master teacher programs). Another artifact is the lowering of expectations and watering down of curriculum and instruction to primarily instrumental level objectives (e.g., high stakes basic skills testing). This watering down impacts primarily those sectors of our population that are most at risk; taking away their opportunity to learn the content and skills needed for success and participation in today’s society.

    In this climate, “portraits” from the classroom – like your “portraits of thinking” – are both needed to impact education reform and excluded from having an impact. NCLB requirements as seen in initiatives like Response to Intervention focus on “scientific-research” bases. We have seen, for example, in the IRA’s annual “What’s Hot” list, the emphasis on this scientific basis. The focus solely on large-scale quasi-experimental quantitative research strips the flesh and spirit from both the problems and the solutions in education. Portraits from the classroom and qualitative teacher action research are needed to display the complexity of the problems and possibilities faced in education today. We need to return the flesh and spirit to the equation and create a living envisioned future for all of our kids – an envisioned future that drives complex educational reform.

    We need to understand that all students deserve to be treated with dignity and have immeasurable worth and potential. The challenges facing our students are complex and varied. The challenges include but are much broader than racism, disparity in economic and social opportunity, ideological hegemony (from both the left and right), the self-induced prison of addiction including substance abuse, and the entrapping patterns of both the criminal under-culture and stereotypical discrimination.

    The vignette of Stephanie Terry is a vivid image of the possible. She sets the stage and provides the framework for the students’ investigation. The situation is alive for the students and they are naturally led to investigate and learn. “She asks them to write their observations as best as they can, and she will help them develop what they write.” We do not get to see how she works with the students – how she deals with those who struggle more than others. But we see her heart is to allow each student to develop.

    Unfortunately, much writing like this is for the teacher. It is inspirational for those of us who may be losing heart or are discouraged with current issues that dominate educational reform debate. It inspires those who are considering becoming teachers to help them catch a vision for what can be. These stories can certainly influence practice by influencing teachers, but my question is how do we use stories of practice to influence policy? How do we add heart and concern for every student to educational policy on the local, state, and federal level? Maybe it is parents that need to share these stories with school board members and other policy makers.

    Personally, I have settled for an individual school and the students and parents there and then the broader community connected to that school. That is as far as I can go in my influence, but I believe that is a start. When I tried to work on a “higher” level, I gave teachers a false sense of a voice and influence. Someone said that “all politics are local.” I believe that true influence is local. The effective school will be the one that provides the type of classroom experiences illustrated in your stories and then shares those stories with the community it serves and influences.

  6. Like you Mike, I am both concerned by and guilty of the pessimism often shared by those of us who are unsatisfied by the machinations of the sociopolitical giant that grinds away at the gears of education. The machine, as many of us have acknowledged through our various posts, isn’t working for many educators, parents and students alike. But, despite the constant obstacles we face, we cannot let dissatisfaction in the system turn into disengagement from the system—quite the opposite actually.

    You pose to us, your readership, a very valid question, and it is one that deserves answering:

    “How do we get the kind of understanding of teaching and learning reflected in those 57 posts into policy formation?”

    While I cannot answer for the others to whom you pose the question, I will answer of my own observations that I have made in my life. I am of the opinion that what matters most is being a political-shaker by being a risk-taker. In such a politically charged climate as that which we both work and live in, it is more important now than ever before that we stand for what we believe in—sometimes that may mean putting ourselves in a position that is vulnerable to attack by the forces that be. Although it is not easy to face the obstacles that we are sure to encounter, there is something to be said about someone who lives in accordance to their values, even when in a position of potential risk.

    As it is often repeated, we need to pick and choose our battles—but picking and choosing does not mean making compromises to our moral obligation of providing equitable learning opportunities for every individual in every community.

    Although I am not an educator as of yet, I have encountered similar obstacles in my professional working life. Having more than once been placed in situations that have conflicted with my morals, I have spoken up when others would not—and I have spoken up at times when my job itself could have been considered at risk for doing so. Despite the conflicts I have encountered, I have been blessed in that my voice has always been well received, partly because of the concern I show in who I am and how I represent the organization I am with. Advocating passionately is furthered more so when it is done both professionally and respectfully.

    As educators, becoming or established, it is understood that the road to success will not be easy. Citing Jonathan Kozol, public education has very much become “the road to Rome.” The metaphor is especially fitting given that we are in a war: one that concerns the disparities recognized in your posts as well as the posts of commentators (social, political, economical, racial, sexual, etc.). But, success cannot be had if we only focus on the larger issues of public education. As the Roman’s recognized, wars are won through the individual successes of each battle, skirmishes both small and large, each leading up to a total victory.

    To quote one of the commentators of this post, bsga2005:

    “Personally, I have settled for an individual school and the students and parents there and then the broader community connected to that school. That is as far as I can go in my influence, but I believe that is a start. When I tried to work on a ‘higher’ level, I gave teachers a false sense of a voice and influence. Someone said that ‘all politics are local.’ I believe that true influence is local. The effective school will be the one that provides the type of classroom experiences illustrated in your stories and then shares those stories with the community it serves and influences.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Act locally, think nationally.

  7. Mike,
    As always both your post and the responses of your readers are thought-provoking, touching on very important points. But although the positions being taken are morally strong, they each illustrate why the voices of educators don’t get heard—they fail to explain how policies that are educationally sound are immediately economically beneficial.

    Support for charter schools, merit pay, mayoral control of schools, high stakes testing, accountability systems, abolition of boards of education and vouchers are all first and foremost about money. So, by the way, are the relentless cries of crisis in education (visit http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/ to see that according to Presidential candidates our schools have been continuously in crisis for over 50 years).

    Unions have a voice because they talk about money. Business leaders, taxpayer groups, real estate brokers, political parties and pundits, school superintendents, think tanks on the left and the right, these all have a voice and a place at the table because they want to talk about money. Educators are denied a place in the conversation because what they want to talk about is education.

    I’ve done some lobbying in Washington over the last four years. When I talk to political representatives about specifics of how my work helps teachers and students learn, eyes glaze over. When I talk about how a small Federal investment is leveraged so that $25 dollars of work is done for every tax dollar invested, eyes come into sharp focus.

    It is not cynical to state that the reason so much political ink is spilled over education is because it is the biggest chunk of the local tax bill. And the reason so much of the talk is about failure and crisis is because those are words that motivate people to act.

    Since we educators primarily care about what works, not what it costs, we might as well be speaking at the same level as a dog whistle because we cannot be heard.


  8. Part of the difficulty of incorporating such views (those found in the 57 posts) into the policies of education seems to be one of vocation; we are drawn to professions that speak to us as human beings. Those with a deep understanding and appreciation for the art of educating youth want to be at the heart of the profession: inside the classroom. Politics, a world in and of itself, is a gulf away from the world of teaching children. A significant obstacle, therefore, seems to be the drawing of individuals, whose minds and hearts rest with the students, into the world of policy and law—a tall order, but not a futile one. The best candidates may be those who straddle the realities of each world, individual who are able to retain a sense of humanity, individuality, purpose—in the face of adversity and challenge. Further, the best candidates may be those whose mental capacity affords them the power of empathy, for at its most difficult the job of policy-maker requires of us the ability to see, with profound subjectivity, into the world of the Other. Ironically, our education system seems unprepared to cultivate such empathy, and therefore, as a society, we are failing to bring into being enough individuals with this ability. My answer to your question, Mike, is that policy making will always be bottom up; teachers in the classrooms have the best chance of affecting change. If they manage cultivate in their students the ability to empathize, while at the same time educate those students about the power structures in our society, about the often unfounded nature of the status quo, we may end up with policy makers who value “the majesty and surprise of intelligence.” We must invest in our students, that they might positively affect the political landscape of the future.

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  10. A problem arises, such as lack of funds in a normal high school courses offer an alternative, and we immediately think of which alternative programs we should cut. Courses at any level of the overall width and depth of what the final cost of construction is always secondary study will be. When the federal level, a long-term vision of an administration not making things, we must bear.
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