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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Monday, November 15, 2010

Working with Working-Class Students

This week I’d like to shift gears from issues of education policy and school reform and offer something on teaching. I was asked by the editor of “Diversity and Democracy,” a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, to write a short piece on teaching working-class college students. Now I don’t believe that one social group needs to be taught one way and a different social group taught another – that would be much too reductive. Also, one must always be careful about painting any social group with a broad brush, denying the wide variation within the working class, or Latinos, or Gays and Lesbians or, well, you name it.

But there are some things that teachers can do that might smooth the transition to college for some students from working-class families … and, for that fact, from students from other backgrounds as well. Most of what I recommend is pretty simple, hardly pedagogical rocket science – but it can make a difference in some students’ lives.


I've been spending a lot of time lately conducting research in an urban community college, and I'm struck by how readily memories and feelings from my own freshman year come to mind. Like many of the students I'm observing, I was the first in my family to attend college. And as is the case for the students I meet, my first year was a mixture of hope and anxiety, moments of success and moments of being at a loss.

All new college students experience a range of emotions in this unfamiliar place, but chances are that children of working-class families are less familiar than their middle- and upper-class peers with a college's instructional practices and modes of interaction. They are often more prone to wondering if they belong.
I certainly don't want to claim that all students from working-class families experience higher education in the same way. As much variability exists within social class as in any other social category. And though socioeconomic status and educational inequality are closely related, some working-class undergraduate students attended well-resourced K-12 schools. Through school, possibly through enrichment programs, and perhaps through the social capital of extended family and friends, they were well prepared, cognitively and socially, for college. In this article, I focus on those who are having a harder time with the transition.

Sources of Conflict
If a working-class student does feel out of place, the sense of discomfort might well involve more than social and interactional factors. Because of gaps in previous education, there might be fairly basic material that students don't know and skills they don't have. That was certainly the case for me. My knowledge of mathematics or formal analytics was so spare that I had to drop introductory economics after a few weeks of fearful incomprehension.

Less dramatic but equally difficult to surmount are the mismatches between strategies students used to good effect in high school and the demands facing them in college. When I was running the Equal Opportunity Program's Tutorial Center at UCLA, I would regularly encounter students from courses like general chemistry who would labor night after night, highlighter in hand, memorizing facts and formulas--and would then fail a test. The test required students to think through a problem and apply what they had learned to solving it. Demonstrating what they had memorized was suddenly not working.

Related to this mismatch issue is the issue of "doing school"--that is, appropriating the routines and practices of schoolwork but not using them to their most effective end. I saw an example of this the other day at the community college I was visiting. A student in the fashion program pointed to her notebook with pride and surprise and told me that she recently realized that her notes were a resource, that she could return to them and consult them as she struggled with an assignment. Before this insight, notes were something she took in school and used to study for a test, and that was that. They were not a tool or a resource to aid thinking and problem solving.

Some working-class students can be reluctant to ask questions, fearful of calling attention to themselves and appearing stupid. Again, these worries are not held exclusively by less-affluent students, but they can be more acute for those who already feel out of place. We teachers are fond of saying things like "there is no such thing as a stupid question." But let's face it: there are ways to phrase a question that sound smart and mask how little one knows. This is a powerful defensive skill that calls for rhetorical savvy and a sense of academic assurance, the kinds of things that come with a privileged education.

A related issue is a reluctance to seek help. This reluctance can be rooted in pride and notions of self-reliance. It can stem from shyness or embarrassment. But something else can be at play: an unfamiliarity or lack of comfort with help-seeking behavior within institutions. Many middle-class kids are socialized from day one in seeking out resources and engaging members of institutions to help them attain their goals. This seems so much like second nature to most academics that we forget that it is a culturally influenced, learned behavior.

All of the above--the out-of-place feelings, the cognitive-behavioral disjointedness--are complicated by a larger conflict, one central to American cultural history: the tension between book learning and schooling versus practical experience and working in the world. "It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up," a cousin of mine is fond of saying, "and a guy with a high school degree to fix it." Some working-class students struggle with this tension or feel it at home. It's a complex issue. Many working-class families see education as a pathway to economic opportunity, and they bust their backs to send their kids to college. Yet they might also wonder exactly what their kids are learning and worry that advanced education will make their children grow distant, and, at worst, regard their parents' lives with disdain. All these dynamics affect a young person's experience in school, and might well emerge in class or during office hours.

Interactions of Consequence
The good news is that these tensions and reluctances are open to intervention. The teacher in the fashion program I mentioned above intersperses her lectures and demonstrations with specific tips on everything from how to keep track of appointments to how to use the textbook. Instructors can schedule students into office hours, make referrals to tutoring centers, and call or e-mail the centers ahead of time to smooth out the process. On several occasions, I've walked a student in distress to the counseling center. Some problems require substantial interventions (it would have taken a lot of tutoring to get me through that economics course). But some are more easily remedied, like the fashion teacher making tricks of the scholastic trade explicit.

What I and many others find so fulfilling about teaching working-class students is that by making the hidden visible, by putting in a few extra minutes to strengthen a referral, by just talking straight, you can make a difference in someone's life. There were about a half-dozen people who made my journey out of high school and through college possible. I'm not exaggerating when I say I couldn't have done it without them.

And there's something else, something that doesn't get articulated nearly enough. Teaching people whose backgrounds don't fit the mold can be a deeply rewarding intellectual experience. I was tutoring a student who was reading excerpts from Plato's Republic for a political science class. The student was mystified by the passage on the cave. I talked through the passage paragraph by paragraph, situating Plato historically and offering my prepackaged definition of idealism. It didn't work. Frustrated, the young man blurted out two or three questions: How can anyone believe we're like shadows? Why did Plato use fire and a cave to try to convince us of this?

These basic questions made Plato strange to me in a way I hadn't experienced since I was an undergraduate. Frankly, I felt uncomfortable. And then, probably because I didn't know what else to do, I repeated the student's questions, asking them of both of us. That questioning set us off on a more thoughtful consideration of this central Western text.

Moments like these get us to return to basics, first principles, and long-held perspectives. The intellectual unsettling that happens, the fresh take on things, is what brought us to this work in the first place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Threats to School Reform …are within its own program

This commentary of mine appeared in Valerie Strauss's blog The Answer Sheet, a part of washingtonpost.com.


Here’s an all-too-familiar storyline about reform, from education to agricultural development: The reform has run its course, has not achieved its goals, and the reformers and other analysts speculate in policy briefs or opinion pages about what went wrong. The interesting thing is that the reform’s flaws were usually evident from the beginning. As someone who has lived through several periods of educational reform and has studied schools and taught for a long time, I see characteristics of the current reform movement, as powerful as it is, that could lead to unintended and undesirable consequences. But when reform is going strong it can become a closed ideological system, deaf to the cautionary tale.
I have six areas of concern.

Tone Down the Rhetoric. In the manifesto “How to Fix Our Schools” published on October 10 in this newspaper, New York City’s chancellor, Joel Klein and 15 colleagues wrote: “It’s time for all the adults – superintendants, educators, elected officials, labor unions, and parents alike – to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” The collective “we” is used here, but it’s pretty clear rhetorically that the signatories believe that they are already on the side of the angels. Anyone who is not on board with their reforms is acting out of self interest.

This is not the way to foster the unified effort called for in the sentence.
Reformers have been masterful at characterizing anyone who differs from their approach as “traditionalists” who want to maintain the status quo, putting their own retrograde professional interests ahead of the good of children. Teachers unions are the arch-villain in this Manichean tale of good and evil, and schools of education are right behind. I’m reminded of the toxic rhetoric of patriotism that characterized the 2008 presidential campaign. So, if I may, in the interest of the children, I suggest a less adversarial language. Many of the people on the receiving end of it have spent a lifetime working for the same goals voiced by the reformers, and the reformers need their expertise.

There is another language issue, and that’s the unrelenting characterization of public schools as failures. To be sure, this crisis rhetoric predates the current reformers, going back to the 1983 document “A Nation at Risk.” Since then, the language of crisis and failure has intensified. Crisis talk can give rise to action, but heard consistently enough and long enough, such rhetoric can also lead to despair and paralysis.

There is a crisis in American education, and it involves mostly poor children, and thus it is a moral as well as educational outrage. But it is just not accurate to characterize public education itself as being in a thirty-year crisis.

I can’t tell you how many professional people I meet who, upon finding out what I do, erupt with damning statements about public schools: they are a catastrophe, we are doomed, the situation is hopeless. What is telling is that they are not speaking from experience; they don’t have kids, or their kids are in private school, or are grown. They are voicing the new common sense. Unless you’re in the free market camp of the reform movement, this reaction is not good news, for it suggests hopelessness and withdrawal from support for public education.

The Problem with “Cleaning House.”
Some districts are so dysfunctional that clearing them out seems the best option. But the history of reform in education – and other domains as well – reveals the shortsightedness of such action. In even the most beleaguered school district there are good teachers and administrators, and their skills and local wisdom are tossed out in the clean sweep. And in most communities there are grass roots movements to improve the schools, and they are typically ignored. Finally, this approach predictably is going to piss people off, not only those who are part of the problem, but many others in the community as well. No one likes to be pushed around – as the voters in Washington D.C. just demonstrated. Clean sweep reform shakes things up and attracts the media, which might be useful. But these tactics can generate more heat than light. Though it is tedious and calls for great skill, a more targeted and discriminating approach that builds on what is good has a better chance of long-term success.

Careful of the Big Idea.
Reformers are often driven by a big idea, a grand process or structure that will transform the status quo. Not too long ago, the big idea in education reform was turning large schools into small ones. For NCLB it was a system of high-stakes tests that would drive achievement. One appealing big idea today is charter schools. The problem with the big idea approach to school reform is that large-scale educational problems have more than one cause and thus require more than one solution.

The mother of big ideas in contemporary school reform is the belief that we can capture dynamic phenomena like learning or teaching with a few numerical measures. This is the logical fallacy of reification, and the last century of psychological science is filled with unfortunate examples, as Stephen J. Gould trenchantly observed in The Mismeasure of Man.

Though most reformers acknowledge the problems with NCLB, they continue to try to build a better technocratic mousetrap, not questioning the assumptions behind their use of testing and accountability systems. We’re seeing all this play out with currently popular “value-added” methods of evaluating teachers as reformers ignore the concerns raised by statisticians and measurement experts.

One more manifestation of this way of thinking is the attempt to develop quantitative models of teacher effectiveness. In a nutshell, the approach attempts to pinpoint specific teaching behaviors and qualities and correlate them with a numerical measure of student achievement. There’s another logical problem here, the reductive fallacy –the attempt to explain a complex phenomenon by reducing it to its basic components. Even if researchers are able to specify a wide range of behaviors and qualities, the further problem is that it’s likely, given the history of such attempts, that the result will be a small number of significant correlations with the measure of achievement – which itself might be flawed. We’ll end up with a thin composite of good teaching. We just witnessed with NCLB the way high-stakes testing can narrow what gets taught; a reductive model of teacher effectiveness could lead to a corresponding narrowing of teaching itself.

Focus on Instruction.
It is characteristic of contemporary school reform to focus on organizational structure and broad testing and accountability systems, but change at that level is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reform. As Debbie Meier, the maven of the original small schools movement, once said: You can have crappy small schools too. What goes on in the classroom makes all the difference.

It could be argued that standardized tests give us a window onto learning, but it is a pretty narrow window, distant from the cognitive give and take of instruction. And it could also be said that aforementioned measures of teacher effectiveness will bring characteristics of good teachers to the fore. Even if they work, these methods won’t help us think about curriculum, the organization of the classroom, what we want students to do intellectually, how we address academic underpreperation, and so on. Instruction is the gigantic missing element in reform, and without it, all the structural changes in the world won’t get us very far.

Privileging Youth Over Experience. Reformers have a tendency to downplay the value of experience and to celebrate the new. You will rarely see a career public school teacher featured in reform media, but will see young teachers in KIPP schools or Teach for America volunteers.

Furthermore, ask yourself, when in a reform document have you found reference to the rich Western tradition of educational thought, from Plato through Horace Mann and W.E.B. DuBois to the twentieth century treasure trove of research on learning. It seems that the reform movement’s managerial-technocratic orientation has an anti-intellectual streak to it.

I greatly admire the young people who sign up for Teach for America or work diligently in schools like KIPP. I began my career in education via an earlier alternative program, Teacher Corps, so I know the exhilaration and challenge. But I also know how green I was, and how the wisdom of veteran teachers saved me from big blunders.

What I’m concerned about is the way young teachers are used in reform publicity, what they symbolize. The message is not simply the accurate one that we need to attract bright and committed young people to teaching, but that the new and the alternative will save our schools.

In what other profession would such an appeal be made? Can you imagine proposals to staff hospitals with biology majors or the courts with pre-law graduates?

Merit pay could be related to experience, though many merit pay schemes link pay to test scores. The original Race to the Top proposal did mention professional development and career trajectories, though I haven’t read much more since. This cult of the new is interwoven with the reformers’ attempts to remove seniority and to not consider teachers’ academic credentials. However these issues play out in management-union negotiations, reformers are going to have to develop ways to draw on experience and expertise, not with add-on rewards but as central to the reform enterprise.

Don’t Downplay Poverty. Low socioeconomic status does not condemn a child to low achievement. This fact has led some reformers to downplay – and in some cases dismiss – the harmful effect poverty can have on the lives of children in school. To raise the issue of poverty is to risk being accused of making excuses or of harboring “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

I grew up poor and have worked a fair amount of my life with low-income students. To be poor affects everything from health to housing – which weighs mightily on children. There is also the extraordinary gap in educational resources. While a poor kid is trying to work through an outdated textbook at the kitchen table, his affluent peer across town is being tutored in algebra in her own room. Only someone who hasn’t been poor could say that all this can be overcome by school. It is telling that The Harlem Children’s Zone, a rightfully celebrated crown jewel of reform, incorporates health and social services with schooling.

Reformers slip into either/or thinking here. They are right to insist that schools provide poor kids with a top-flight education, but to insist on excellence does not require negating the brutal realities of being poor in America.

If education involves children’s psychological and social as well as cognitive well-being, then we have to address poverty, and the reformers have an unprecedented bully pulpit from which to do it. Wealth and income gaps are widening in the U.S., and no less a figure than Warren Buffet observed that we’re in the middle of class warfare, and the rich are winning.

Which is all the more reason to get school reform right this time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Unpacking the College-for-All Versus Occupational Training Debate

This commentary originally appeared in Teachers College Record Online on September 20, 2010. I apologize for its length, but it took some space to tease out the many issues in this debate.


After decades of effort to undo the rigid system of curricular tracking in the American high school and after the more recent emergence of a “college-for-all” ideology among policy makers and educators, we are witnessing the rise of a strong counter-voice, skeptical about the individual and societal economic value of channeling all young people into post-secondary education.

The skeptics are a diverse group. Many are economists who point to trends in the labor market that reveal a number of good and growing jobs that require some post-secondary training but not a four-year degree. Some are educators (including, but not limited to, Career and Technical Education interest groups) who emphasize the variability of students’ interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the college curriculum. And some are social commentators who blend the economic and educational argument with reflection on the value of direct contact with the physical world, something increasingly remote in our information age. Though these skeptics come from a range of ideological backgrounds, they share a concern that in pushing postsecondary education for everyone, we perpetuate a myth that personal fulfillment and economic security can only be gained by pursuing a college degree.

This debate is an important one and is of interest to me because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all.

The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, from waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue-collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

From these findings I raise questions about our standard definitions of intelligence, the social class biases in those definitions, and their negative effects on education, the organization of work, and America’s political and social dynamics.

Those who use The Mind at Work to champion some type of occupational education over a bachelor’s degree zero in on a core claim of the book: that physical work is cognitively rich, and it is class bias that blinds us from honoring that richness. But I go to some length to tease out the historical and social factors surrounding this core premise, particularly as it plays out in the division between the vocational and the academic course of study. I want to raise these issues again here, and, with the benefit of the time that has passed since the book’s publication, elaborate on them, for the issues can become simplified in the debate between advocates of college-for-all and their skeptics.

It is absolutely true—and anyone who teaches and, for that matter, any parent, knows it—that some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that comprise the typical academic course of study, no matter how well executed. Yet, some of these students are engaged by the topics and tasks found in the vocational curriculum. What is also true is that many of these pursuits are cognitively demanding and can be a source of intellectual growth. Furthermore, they can lead to good jobs that are relatively secure in a fluid global economy. The electrician’s and the chef’s work cannot be outsourced.

The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work. As the authors of an overview of high school Voc Ed (the earlier name of CTE) from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education put it: vocational education “emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And the general education courses—English, history, mathematics—that vocational students took were typically dumbed-down and unimaginative. CTE reforms over the past few decades have gone some way toward changing this state of affairs, but the overall results have been uneven.

The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work, and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work? Few of the economists I’ve read who advocate an expansion of Career and Technical Education address the educational (versus job training) aspects of their proposals.

Another point that the skeptics make is the troubling record of student success in post-secondary education. Do we really want to urge more students into a system that graduates about 50-60% of those who enter it? The reasons students leave are many: from poor academic preparation to unclear goals to problems with finances and personal life. They leave without a certificate or degree that will help them in the job market, and, depending on the college, they might incur significant debt along the way. The skeptics are right about the unsatisfactory record of student success. But their solution seems to fault students more than the colleges they attend and affords no other option but to redirect students who aren’t thriving into job-training programs.

But we need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared. The question is what kind of course work and services does the college have to help them. (And it should be noted that many vocational programs recommended by the skeptics would require the same level of academic remediation.) Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, child care, job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.

Such a solution also smacks of injustice. Right at the point in our society when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of our citizenry, we have the emergence of a restrictive counterforce that is seen by some as an attempt to protect privilege, or, at the least, as an ignorance of social history. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrates that those least likely to attend college because of social class position—and thus, on average, having a less privileged education—are the ones who gain the most economically. For such populations, going to college can also provide a measure of social and cultural capital. A long history of exclusion must be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.

All the above raises the basic question: What is the purpose of education? Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life. I don’t have the space to adequately discuss the issue of purpose other than to say that I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having. How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?

A third option between college and work has emerged in the last few years: Linked Learning, which is also known by its former name, Multiple Pathways. There are various incarnations of Linked Learning, but a common one is a relatively small school that is theme-based and offers a strong academic curriculum for all students; the students then have options to branch off toward a career, or occupational certification, or a two- or four-year degree.

The college-for-all advocates would applaud the emphasis on a strong academic core but worry that this system could devolve into a new form of tracking. And the college-for-all skeptics, I suspect, would applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti-vocational biases would still stigmatize the option. These are legitimate concerns, and many advocates of the Linked Learning approach acknowledge them. The advocates also admit the significant challenges facing such a reform, from faculty and curriculum development to the ancillary academic and social services needed to provide a quality “pre-pathways” education for all students. Still, this is a promising alternative, and some schools are demonstrating success with it.

Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but as well to the economy, the meaning of work, and democratic life. There is the skyrocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of “educating our way into the new economy.” And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality.

On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. We must consider the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. It is important, then, to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Where Are the Schools in School Reform?

Over the last week or two when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and Bill Gates and D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee were on Oprah, I have been reading Deborah Meier, Brenda Engel, and Beth Taylor’s wonderful new book, Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground. The book is a record of children playing during recess at Mission Hill School in Boston. A simple framework and a simple focus: What do kids do when they play? The resulting book, though, is anything but simple, for the authors demonstrate the intelligence and imagination that is tapped during play, and they use this rich record to argue for a capacious and humane understanding of the role of play in children’s lives. And this argument, in turn, is embedded in a broader one about the need to acknowledge this intellectual and imaginative richness in current education policy, a policy that seems hell-bent (my phrasing) on advancing a very different approach to education and child development.

As I read Playing for Keeps, I keep thinking about how little we see in current reform efforts that reflect Meier, Engel, and Taylor’s view of children. You won’t find much of school life in NCLB or Race to the Top; in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single example of a teacher thinking through a lesson or interacting with a child or a child learning a scientific concept or being engaged with a book. What we do have is a technocratic and structural approach to education, and sadly it has become the coin of the realm.

I recently read a school district’s strategic plan that could, with minor changes, have been the plan for a corporation. I saw a document from a major foundation about its school reform agenda, and there wasn’t a classroom in it, not a mention of learning as any teacher I know would define it. I attended a conference on reform and viewed endless flow charts and grids and bulleted power points — and heard lots of talk about systems of electronic technology. I started reading Playing for Keeps a few days after that conference.

I’ve run programs, so I certainly understand the need to think organizationally and to take the broad view of purpose and goals. Of course. But organizational, structural language and ways of thinking have crowded everything else out of the schoolhouse. Ironically, the organizational perspective is not even a forward-looking one. At a time when the best thinkers about organizational life are trying to incorporate an understanding of teaching and learning and the complex human interaction that enables it, education policy embraces older simplistic models.

No doubt, this is an unusually charged time for education; it is big news on many fronts. As a friend of mine said to me last night, all this attention creates many possibilities for things to get better. I take his point. I do. But what eats at me is the fact that without a deep and specific understanding of the way children learn and the skill and art of teaching and how that skill and art develop, all the structural/technical reform in the world won’t be effective. It’s like trying to cure cancer without knowledge of cell biology.

The current crop of high-profile reformers can create a good deal of activity that looks dynamic in the moment but doesn’t take hold and has the potential to create further problems. NCLB itself is a recent example. And parallel cautionary tales about foisting big ideas in the absence of on-the-ground knowledge run throughout the histories of urban renewal and third-world agricultural development programs. Education reformers should be reading that history.

Break big schools into small ones; create more charter schools; wire schools; fill them with technology; test students early and often; link those scores to teacher evaluation; hire ass-kicking principals and superintendents; infuse competition into the system; have districts and states vie for resources – none of this will work if at the center of it all if there is a superficial grasp of education itself.


One of the frustrating things about the current reform program is the way the media, with few exceptions, has either embraced it or reported it with little scrutiny. What a breath of fresh air, then, to read Nicholas Lemann’s lead “Talk of the Town” column in the Sept. 27th 2010 New Yorker.

He writes what a lot of us have been writing and saying for a long time, but it sure is nice to see it expressed so precisely in the pages of the New Yorker.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More Than a Paycheck

This commentary appeared in the August 6 issue of Inside Higher Ed, and I reprint it here.

* * *

In just about every speech that President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan give on the subject, the primary purpose they cite for education, and for education reform, is an economic one. The same is true from statehouses to local school boards. We send our kids to school to enhance their position in the economic order and to secure the nation’s economic future. This appeal is especially true when the president and his education secretary are making a pitch for college, and a fair amount of that effort is aimed at the community college, a site for skilled occupational training or a course of study leading to transfer to a four-year school.

“[T]he power of these institutions [is] to prepare students for 21st-century jobs,” the President said last year at a community college in Troy, New York, “and to prepare America for a 21st-century global economy.”

I am sitting in on an orientation to a vocational program at an urban community college that draws on one of the poorest populations in the city. The students in this program have had pretty sketchy educations, and they read, write and calculate at a ninth grade level or below. The program will both help them improve those skills as well as provide occupational training. If ever there was a population suited for the economic appeal, it is this one. They desperately need a leg up.

The director of the program stands at a desk and lectern at the front of a large classroom. The walls are bare, no windows, institutional cream, clean and spare. Behind her is an expansive white board; in front are 25 or so students sitting quietly in no particular order in plastic chairs at eight long tables. The students are black and Latino, a few more women than men, most appear to be in their early 20s to early 30s, with one man, who looks like he’s had a hard time of it, in his mid-40s.

“Welcome to college, “ the director is saying, “I congratulate you.” She then asks them, one by one, to talk about what motivates them and why they’re here. There is some scraping of chairs, shifting of bodies, and the still life animates.

The economic motive does loom large. One guy laughs, “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.” A woman in the back announces that she wants to get her GED “to get some money to take care of myself.” What is interesting, though -- and I wish the president and his secretary could hear it -- are all the other reasons people give for being here: to “learn more,” to be a “role model for my kids,” to get “a career to support my daughter,” to “have a better life.” The director gets to the older man. “I’m illiterate,” he says in a halting voice, “and I want to learn to read and write.”

The semester before, students also wrote out their reasons for attending the program -- as this current cohort will soon have to do -- and their range of responses was even wider. Again, the economic motive was key, but consider these comments, some written in neat cursive, some in scratchy uneven (and sometimes error-ridden) print: “learning new things I never thought about before”; “I want my kids too know that I can write and read”; “Hope Fully with this program I could turn my life around”; “to develope better social skills and better speech”; “I want to be somebody in this world”; “I like to do test and essay like it is part of my life.”

Over the past eight years I’ve been studying the cognitive demands of physical work. That includes comparatively high-end jobs such as surgery and physical therapy, but mostly blue-collar and service occupations, such as plumbing and hair styling — the kind of occupations the people we just heard from hope to enter. Our society tends to make sharp and weighty distinctions between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work, “neck up and neck down” jobs, as one current aphorism has it.

But what I’ve found as I’ve closely examined physical work is its significant intellectual content. This content is no surprise if we consider the surgeon, but the carpenter and the hair stylist and the welder, too, are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. A lot of our easy characterizations about work just don’t hold up under scrutiny. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

While doing this research, I’ve spent a lot of time in high school and college vocational programs watching people gain expertise. These observations have given me a valuable perspective on current economic and education policy aimed at getting young and no-so-young people back to school, particularly those who are academically underprepared and typically come from a lower-middle class to working-class backgrounds.

People, affluent as well as poor, go back to school for all kinds of reasons, but our current policy incentives and the rhetoric that frames them don’t capture this rich web of motives.

One consequence of this narrow understanding is the missed opportunity to create a more robust appeal for returning to school. As we just witnessed, people sign up for educational programs for economic reasons but also because further education pulls at their minds, hearts, and sense of who they are and who they want to become. The prospect of a good job is hugely motivating, but it can seem far off, especially during the first difficult months of returning to school.

People need other, complementary motivators: engagement with the work in front of you, the recognition that you’re learning new things, becoming competent, using your mind, doing something good for yourself and your family. It’s common in occupational programs — from welding to nursing to culinary and cosmetology — to hear participants express with some emotion their involvement with and commitment to what they’re learning. In the high-testosterone world of the welding shop, for example, I hear one guy after another talk about the “beauty” of a weld and how much they “love” welding. There’s more than a financial calculus involved here.

The second and more troubling problem with the narrow economic focus of the educational policy we’re considering is the way it plays into a longstanding undemocratic tendency in American education policy, and that is a narrow understanding of the lives and work of working class-people. The approach to schooling for them has often been a functional one heavy on job training and thin on the broader intellectual, aesthetic, and civic dimensions of education. And since policy influences the content and philosophy of programs -- new programs particularly -- this narrow understanding can be reproduced for new generations of students.

The most striking and consequential example of this tendency was the split in the curriculum between the academic and vocational course of study as the comprehensive high school was developed in the early 20th century. This split has led to all sorts of problems with the education of the children of the working class, an education that often failed to address a wide range of human learning.

But, of course, working life provides the thought and action sold short in the typical school curriculum. The electrician forms a hypothesis about a faulty circuit and systemically tests the variables. Through a hole in the wall of an old house, a plumber feels the structures he can’t see, visualizing them from touch in order to figure out where a blockage might be. A hairstylist plans a cut as she talks to a client and examines her hair, “and at the end,” as one stylist told me, “you’ve got to come up with a thought: 'O.K. it’s gotta be this length, it’s gotta be layered here, it’s got to be textured there, it can’t have a fringe.' ” Another stylist tries to fix a botched dye job by speculating about what the previous stylist was trying to achieve. A woodworker looks at old desks on a computer to get some ideas as to how to repair a customer’s antique.

And, as we saw with the welders, aesthetic concerns arise frequently and in surprising settings. An electrician rebraids the wires of a perfectly functional assembly because they’re “ugly.” A contractor admires the “pretty” shaping of conduit under the eaves of a roof. A plumber one more time runs his finger over the caulking of a newly installed toilet to “make it look nice.”

These aesthetic concerns are related to a commitment to craft and to what I’d call an ethics of practice. Consider this young carpenter showing me a small flaw along the base of a bookcase; it’s in a place no one will see once the bookcase is upright. But he’s fixing the problem -- a tiny gap where a strip of wood warped -- because “I want it to be right.” Such behavior reflects and reinforces one’s sense of who one is.

Cognition, aesthetics, craft, ethics and values, identity. And this is only within the realm of physical work itself. We haven’t even begun to consider the stuff of a traditional academic curriculum -- art, science, literature, history -- and the ways it could be integrated into, or, for that matter, emerge from work of the hand. We need to work harder than we have yet to create a vocationally oriented education that at its core involves the intellectual, civic, and social goals too often found only in liberal studies. There’s no reason why the tests and essays that earlier student longed to master shouldn’t be imagined as being part of all these students’ lives.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Smithsonian of Basic Skills

This is a commentary that was published earlier this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve been involved in college-level remedial or basic skills education for most of my career, as a teacher, developer of curriculum, program administrator, or researcher. And I am once again participating in a study that includes basic skills instruction. After all these years, I continue to be struck by the way social class biases and disciplinary and institutional status dynamics keep restricting our pedagogical imagination. We need a sea-change in the way we think about instruction in basic skills.

In this commentary I try to jostle us into thinking differently and particularly to see the class bases at play in our society’s typical approach to remedial education. I draw on some of our grand symbols of intellectual achievement—the Smithsonian, Nobel Laureates—to help in this tweaking of perception. See what you think.

* * *

The nation has woken up to the fact that a large number of Americans of high-school age and older are unable to read, write, or do mathematics beyond an elementary level, and that the limitation profoundly restricts their opportunity to pursue further schooling or occupational training. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently completed an in-depth study of the problem in California community colleges, and the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have been committing research-and-development money to help underprepared young adults succeed in college. The issue is also on the agenda of the president and the Department of Education.

But, important as such efforts are, they do not get to the heart of the problem. We need something grander and more comprehensive, something that will lead to a conceptual sea change in the way the nation understands and deals with the issue of academic underpreparation.

I propose that a wealthy foundation or consortium of foundations support with great fanfare a National Center for the Study and Teaching of Basic Skills. Such a center would have a long-term effect on education, social justice, and economic prosperity.

I have worked in and studied what is variously called "basic skills," "remedial education," or "developmental education" for 40 years, and it is clear to me that—on par with inadequate financial support—the biggest problems facing the work are status and status-quo thinking. Many people, particularly in the academic departments where future instructors do their graduate study, see the teaching of basic skills as grunt work. Furthermore, basic skills are taught to the intellectually stigmatized, those students who, unlike their instructors, have done poorly in the subjects and possibly failed them. To make matters worse, a significant amount of basic-skills teaching is done by part-time instructors—people with little status themselves.

Such problems of status and institutional structure interact with flawed beliefs about cognition and motivation that run throughout basic-skills instruction. One of those flawed beliefs is that the way to remedy a problem is to focus on the smallest units of the problem—in the case of writing, it would be rules of grammar, often treated out of context in a workbook or in an entire course focused only on the sentence. In such settings, students don't get to work with language in a way consonant with the intellectual and rhetorical demands of the writing they will have to do in college. Another false belief is that underprepared students' motivation and self-esteem will be hurt by a more-challenging curriculum. That is a one-dimensional, not to mention patronizing, understanding of motivation. There's no scientific basis for such beliefs, but they persist.

I can say without reservation that basic-skills work represents as rich an area of study and as intellectually engaging an arena of teaching as you'll find. If a young adult is having trouble with fractions, for example, how did his misunderstandings and flawed procedures develop? What formal or informal mathematical knowledge does he have that can be tapped? How does one access that cognitive history and lead the student to analyze and remedy it? How, then, does one proceed to teach in a way appropriate to an adult with that history? Suddenly we are dealing not only with a challenging instructional problem, but also with a number of fascinating issues in mathematics education, cognitive science, the philosophy of mind, and social theory.

Furthermore, basic-skills instruction, if done well, requires a serious consideration of disciplinary basics that tend to be taken for granted. In teaching remedial writing, I have found myself thinking about and trying to explain the origins and purpose of the conventions of literacy—such as grammar and other mechanics, and written forms like the list, the chart, and the narrative. And there's the connection between the solitary act of writing and the audience. And the complex relationship between speech and writing. But we tend not to appreciate the intellectual content of the work, because of professional and institutional bias.

Thus we need an institution devoted to basic-skills education that is equal to our great national intellectual and cultural institutions. A Smithsonian of Basic Skills. A National Science Foundation of Remediation. We should start with a news conference at the White House. Place the center in a grand old building. Pack its advisory board with Nobel laureates. Do whatever it takes symbolically to unsettle our entrenched class-based tunnel vision about this work.

But the real action would come once the center was up and running. Educators are doing effective and exciting work in basic-skills classrooms and programs across the country, and the center would document and disseminate those exemplars. The center would also bring together subject-area experts and successful teachers to develop curricula, particularly across disciplines. Today there is great interest, for example, in integrating mathematics and reading-and-writing instruction into diverse subjects—introductory social sciences, health care, the construction trades—but it is hard to do in a substantial way. English majors aren't trained to talk with sociologists, let alone welders, so the center would become a think tank in teaching across disciplines.

Along with the limitations of standard-fare curriculum, underprepared students often get stuck with an ossified sequence of remedial courses. So a number of colleges are experimenting with an accelerated sequence, or with the aforementioned attempts to embed basic-skills instruction into subject-area courses, or with various concurrent-enrollment arrangements with local high schools. The center would provide guidance to colleges trying to create such structural change.

It would also take the lead in bringing to the policy arena the fundamental but neglected issues of teaching and learning, for the basic-skills constituency alone has little political clout. And the center would award teaching fellowships and stipends, both to recruit promising young people into the field and to enhance the career development of those with proven talent.

Like the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the center would support or organize programs for the public. Some of those programs would be regional, perhaps in libraries or occupational centers. And some would be national—including public-radio and -television productions, like documentaries on exceptional basic-skills programs; or, in another vein, animated specials with Pixar-style whimsy: A Brief History of Punctuation or The Short, Happy Life of the List.

Some people will contend that our nation's efforts should go toward eradicating the need for remediation, not enshrining it. Of course we need to be doing everything possible to improve elementary and secondary education. But it is magical thinking to believe that all children will be "at grade level" or "college ready" in a decade, as promised by Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, the two major federal school-reform initiatives of our era. At no time in our history, or the history of any industrialized nation, has that goal been achieved. As long as we have inequality of resources and opportunity in America, we will need to provide multiple occasions for people to gain what eluded them earlier.

If we do this work well, with adequate resources and serious intellectual commitment, we would improve our ability to democratize knowledge without trivializing it, and make it accessible to a broad sweep of our citizenry.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reclaiming the Idea of the Public

Like a lot of people, I have been watching with a mix of amazement and despair the spectacle of American politics over the last year. One of the many issues that has been shredded in the rhetorical meat grinder of our political discourse is the belief in the public and the public good. Anything identified with “the government” is reviled. Public institutions (like schools and libraries) are either ridiculed or abandoned. The old American boogy man of “socialism” is invoked with powerful effect, and communitarian concerns are trumped by declaration of individual liberty.

When I travelled across the country to write Possible Lives – a travelogue of good public school classrooms – I was led by what I saw to think a great deal about the idea of the public and the central role of the public school (and other public institutions) in a free society. About four years ago, I wrote a new preface for the book, and I returned to this concern with public institutions. Things were bad then, but they’ve certainly gotten worse as a potent reactionary force has emerged in our politics.

I’d like to reprint a section of that recent preface from Possible Lives. It predates the fury of the Tea Party, the further rightward lurch of the Republican Party, and the rise of the newest generation of political and media opportunists, from Glenn Beck to Rep Michele Bachman. Reading the four-year old preface in the midst of this political movement, I’m certainly aware of its tone, no match for the firebreathing rhetoric of the Right. I just hope that the version of the public it offers reasserts itself in our political life.

* * *

One of the fundamental issues that frames the events of Possible Lives is the commitment to public institutions and the public sector as an arena of social responsibility. There have been times in our history when the notion of the public has been invested with great agency and imagination. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amidst disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency but more so from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.

Clearly, there are domains of public life that benefit from market forces, and individual enterprise is a powerful force for both personal advancement and public benefit. Furthermore, the very notion of “public” is a fluid one, changes historically, exists in varied relation to the private sector, and, on occasion, fuses with it in creative ways. Finally, we must not simply accept our public institutions as they are, but be vigilantly engaged with them. One way to read Possible Lives is as a critique—though one built on hope—of a central American public institution, the public school.

Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere is much less nuanced. We have, instead, a celebration of the market and private initiative as a cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. “The market is governed by a pricing system,” writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, “that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning, worshipping, associating, socializing, and helping.”

The orthodoxy operates with a good dose of social amnesia, erasing the history of horrible market failure and of private greed that led to curbs on markets and the creation of robust public institutions and protections. The free market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance about all things public. A guy is being interviewed on National Public Radio. “The post office,” he says, “ is the worst-run business in America.” This was within the same week as the opening of the trial of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, with the recent memory of Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and New York’s then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s indicted rogue’s gallery.

This easy dismissiveness of the public also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior—or worse. I think of a talk-show host who labeled children in the Los Angeles School District as “garbage,” and tellingly, sadly, the kids I met during my travels on several occasions said they knew that people thought of them as “debris.”

We have to do better than this, have to develop a revitalized language of public life.

One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there— a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere. This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local affair or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said that his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher thinking back on it all muses on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.” It is in all such moments—moments in public school classrooms—that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.

There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities. They occur daily in private schools, in church organizations, in backyards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence to the science lesson at the forest’s edge or the novel crammed into the hip pocket on the city bus.

The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reform: To What End?, Part II

This is a continuation of the post from June 28.

Learning-Friendly Environments

For me, the bottom-line question is whether a particular reform will enable or restrict the kind of thing we see happening in Stephanie Terry's classroom. The hermit crab episode is, of course, drawn from a few days spent in just one classroom, but it represents some qualities I've seen again and again in good schools—K–12, urban or rural, affluent or poor. Let me delineate these qualities, and as you read them, ask yourself to what degree the reforms currently being proposed—from national standards to increased data collection to plans to turn around failing schools—would advance or impede their realization. Just as the representation of teaching is diminished in current education policy, so is the representation of learning. I have yet to see in policy initiatives a depiction of classroom life anywhere close to the one I just shared.

  • Safety. The classrooms I visited created a sense of safety. There was physical safety, which for children in some locations is a serious consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment. And there was safety to take risks, to push beyond what you can comfortably do at present—"coaxing our thinking along," as one student put it.
  • Respect. Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It means many things and operates on many levels: fair treatment, decency, an absence of intimidation, and beyond the realm of individual civility, a respect for the history, language, and culture of the people represented in the classroom. Respect also has an intellectual dimension. As one principal put it, "It's not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to convey respect. [It] has to be challenging enough that it's respectful."
  • Student responsibility for learning. Even in classrooms that were run in a relatively traditional manner, students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, and became authorities on their own experience and on the work they were doing. Think of Stephanie's students observing closely, recording what they saw, forming hypotheses, and reporting publically on their thinking. These classrooms were places of expectation and responsibility.
  • Intellectual rigor. Teachers took students seriously as intellectual and social beings. Young people had to work hard, think things through, come to terms with one another—and there were times when such effort took students to their limits. "They looked at us in disbelief," said one New York principal, "when we told them they were intellectuals."
  • Ongoing support. It is important to note that teachers realized such assumptions through a range of supports, guides, and structures: from the way they organized curriculum and invited and answered questions, to the means of assistance they and their aides provided (tutoring, conferences, written and oral feedback), to the various ways they encouraged peer support and assistance, to the atmosphere they created in the classroom—which takes us back to considerations of safety and respect.
  • Concern for students' welfare. The students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that these classrooms were salutary places—places that felt good to be in and that honored their best interests. They experienced this concern in various ways—as nurturance, social cohesion, the fostering of competence, recognition of growth, and a feeling of opportunity.

The foregoing characteristics made the rooms I visited feel alive. People were learning things, both cognitive and social; they were doing things, individually and collectively—making contributions, connecting ideas, and generating knowledge. To be sure, not everyone was engaged. And everyone, students and teachers, had bad days. But overall, these classrooms were exciting places to be—places of reflection and challenge, of deliberation and expression, of quiet work and public presentation. People were encouraged to be smart.

How directly do current reforms contribute to promoting such qualities?

The Most Important Question

In an important 18th-century essay on education, journalist Samuel Harrison Smith wrote that the free play of intelligence was central to a democracy and that individual intellectual growth was intimately connected to broad-scale intellectual development, to the "general diffusion of knowledge" across the republic.

As we consider what an altered school structure, increased technology, national standards, or other new reform initiatives might achieve, we should also ask the old, defining question, What is the purpose of education in a democracy? The formation of intellectually safe and respectful spaces, the distribution of authority and responsibility, the maintenance of high expectations and the means to attain them—all this is fundamentally democratic and prepares one for civic life. Teachers should regard students as capable and participatory beings, rich in both individual and social potential. The realization of that vision of the student is what finally should drive school reform in the United States.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reform: To What End?

This is a reprint of an article I had in the April 2010 issue of Educational Leadership. The issue was focusing on the broader topic of "reimagining school," so my article was part of a cluster of pieces proposing different school reforms and perspectives on reform.

Because of its length I'm going to break it into two parts. The second installment will come in about a week to ten days.


We need a different orientation to school reform—one that embodies a richer understanding of teaching and learning.

This is an exciting time for education as the federal government, state houses, and private philanthropies are all focusing on school reform. A lot of good ideas are in the air—thoughtful proposals for ways to change things, to imagine a new kind of schooling in the United States.

The history of school reform has taught us, however, that good ideas can become one-dimensionalized as they move from conception through policy formation to implementation. Also, in the heat of reform, politics and polemics can become an end in themselves, a runaway train of reform for reform's sake. In addition, reforms can have unintended consequences. As a reform plays out in the complex, on-the-ground world of districts, school boards, and classrooms, it can lead to counter productive practices. In the case of No Child Left Behind, for example, we saw the narrowing of the curriculum to prepare for high-stakes tests in math and language arts.

At this moment, when we're focusing so much attention on school reform and so much is possible, it would be good to step back and remind ourselves what we're ultimately trying to achieve. What is the goal of school reform? Most would agree it's to create rich learning environments, ones with greater scope and more equitable distribution than those we currently have.

As we reimagine school, some basic questions should serve as our touchstone for reform: What is the purpose of education in a democracy? What kind of people do we want to see emerge from U.S. schools? What is the experience of education when we do it well?

Happy as a Crab

One example of good teaching I saw comes from my book Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Penguin, 1995/2006), an account of my travels across the United States to document effective public education. This 1st grade classroom in inner-city Baltimore has 30 students, all from modest to low-income households—the kinds of kids at the center of many school reforms.

As we enter the classroom, teacher Stephanie Terry is reading a book to her students, Eric Carle's A House for Hermit Crab (Simon and Schuster, 1991). Hermit crabs inhabit empty mollusk shells; as they grow, they leave their old shells to find bigger ones. In this story, a cheery hermit crab is searching for a more spacious home.

There's a glass case in the classroom with five hermit crabs—which Stephanie supplied—and 13 shells of various sizes. More than once during the year, students have noticed that a shell had been abandoned and that a larger one had suddenly become animated. As Stephanie reads the book, she pauses and raises broader questions about where the creatures live. This leads to an eager query from Kenneth about where in nature you'd find hermit crabs. "Well," says Stephanie, "let's see if we can figure that out."

She gets up and brings the case with the hermit crabs to the center of the room, takes the crabs out, and places them on the rug. One scuttles away from the group; another moves in a brief half circle; three stay put. While this is going on, Stephanie takes two plastic tubs from the cupboard above the sink and fills one with cold water from the tap and the other with warm water. Then she places both tubs side by side and asks five students, one by one, to put each of the crabs in the cold water. "What happens?" she asks. "They don't move," says Kenneth. "They stay inside their shells," adds Miko.

Stephanie then asks five other students to transfer the crabs to the tub of warm water. They do, and within seconds the crabs start to stir. Before long, the crabs are moving like crazy. "OK," says Stephanie. "What happens in the warmer water?" An excited chorus of students replies, "They're moving! They're walking all over! They like it! They're happy like the crab in the book!" "So what does this suggest about where they like to live?" asks Stephanie.

That night, the students write about the experiment. Many are just learning to write, but Stephanie told them to write down their observations as best as they could, and that she would help them develop what they write. The next day, the students take turns standing in front of the class reading their reports.

Miko goes first: "I saw the hermit crab walking when it was in the warm water, but when it was in the cold water, it was not walking. It likes to live in warm water."

Then Romarise takes the floor, holding his paper way out in his right hand, his left hand in the pocket of his overalls: "(1) I observed two legs in the back of the shell; (2) I observed that some of the crabs change [their] shell; (3) When the hermit crabs went into the cold water, they walked slow; (4) When the hermit crabs went into the warm water, they walked faster."

One by one, the rest of the students state their observations, halting at times as they try to figure out what they wrote, sometimes losing track and repeating themselves. But in a soft or loud voice, with a quiet sense of assurance or an unsteady eagerness, these 1st graders report on the behavior of the classroom's hermit crabs, which have now become the focus of their attention.

There's a lot to say about Stephanie's modest but richly stocked classroom and the skillful way she interacts with the children in it. But I'll focus on two important points: what Stephanie demonstrates about the craft and art of teaching and the experience of learning that she generates for her class.

Growing Good Teachers

Everyone in the current reform environment acknowledges the importance of good teaching. But most characterizations of teaching miss the richness and complexity of the work. The teacher often becomes a knowledge-delivery mechanism preparing students for high-stakes tests.

Moreover, reform initiatives lack depth on how to develop more good teachers. There is encouragement of alternative pathways to qualification (and, often, animosity toward schools of education and traditional teacher training). There are calls for merit pay, with pay typically linked to test-score evidence of student achievement.

There are general calls for additional professional development. And, of course, there is the widespread negative incentive: By holding teachers' "feet to the fire" of test scores, we will supposedly get more effort from teachers, although proponents of this point of view never articulate the social-psychological mechanisms by which the use of test scores will affect effort, motivation, and pedagogical skill.

But when you watch Stephanie, a very different image of the teacher emerges. She is knowledgeable and resourceful across multiple subject areas and is skillful at integrating them. She is spontaneous, alert for the teachable moment, and able to play out the fruits of that spontaneity and plan next steps incrementally as the activity unfolds. She believes that her students can handle a sophisticated assignment, and she asks questions and gives direction to guide them. Her students seem comfortable taking up the intellectual challenge.

What is interesting is that none of the current high-profile reform ideas would explain or significantly enhance Stephanie's expertise. Merit pay doesn't inspire her inventiveness; it doesn't exist in her district (although she would be happy to have the extra money, given that she furnished some classroom resources from her own pocket). Standardized test scores don't motivate her either. In fact, the typical test would be unable to capture some of the intellectual display I witnessed in her classroom. What motivates her is a complex mix of personal values and a drive for competence. These lead her to treat her students in certain ways and to continue to improve her skill.

A Human Capital Model

Some professional development programs are particularly good at capitalizing on such motivators. Several years earlier, Stephanie participated in a National Science Foundation workshop aimed at integrating science into the elementary school classroom. Teachers met for several weeks during the summer at the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland, one of several regional training sites around the United States.

The teachers were, in Stephanie's words, "immersed in science"; they were reading, writing, observing presentations, and doing science themselves—all with an eye toward integrating science into their elementary school curriculums. The summer workshop extended through the year, as participating teachers observed one another's classrooms and came together on selected weekends to report on how they were incorporating science into teaching and give presentations themselves. "It gave us a different way," said Stephanie, "to think about science, teaching, and kids."

Because we are in the reimagining mode here, let me offer this: What if we could channel the financial and human resources spent on the vast machinery of high-stakes testing into a robust, widely distributed program of professional development? I don't mean the quick-hit, half-day events that so often pass for professional development, but serious, extended engagement of the kind that the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project might offer—the sort of program that helped Stephanie conjure her rich lesson with the hermit crabs.

These programs typically take place in the summer (the National Writing Project runs for four weeks), although there are other options, including ones that extend through part of the school year. Teachers work with subject-matter experts; read, write, and think together; learn new material; hear from others who have successfully integrated the material into their classrooms: and try it out themselves.

Electronic media can be hugely helpful here, creating innovative ways for teachers to participate, bringing in people from remote areas, and further enabling all participants to regularly check in as they try new things. Such ongoing participation would be crucial in building on the intellectual community created during this kind of teacher enrichment program. All of this already exists, but we could expand it significantly if policymakers and reformers took into account this richer understanding of the teaching profession.

Although pragmatic lifestyle issues certainly come into play in choosing any profession, the majority of people who enter teaching do so for fairly altruistic reasons. They like working with kids. They like science, literature, or history and want to spark that appreciation in others. They see inequality and want to make a difference in young people's lives.

The kind of professional development I'm describing would appeal to those motives, revitalize them, and further realize them as a teacher's career progresses. Enriched, widely available professional development would substitute a human capital model of school reform for the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would positively affect what teachers teach and how they teach it, it would have a more direct effect on student achievement.

[Part II to come]