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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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My (Imaginary) Beer Summit with the President

A few weeks ago I did a “blog talk” with The National Writing Project, (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/nwp_radio) and one of the participants posed this teaser: If I were to have a few beers with the President, what would I say to him about education?

Once the Budweiser relaxed me, I think I’d ask him about his own education. What does he remember about elementary school or middle school, particularly those teachers who made a difference? And what books mattered? Was there someone in high school who helped him see things in a new light? When did he begin to sense that school could enable him to use his mind in the world? What issues in law school most caught his fancy? Can he think of ways to bring those issues into the elementary school classroom?

I imagine that the answers from this exceptionally thoughtful man would be vibrant with ideas and feelings. One more Bud, and then I’d ask him how the spirit of these answers could better inform his education policy.

For several decades now, education policy has found its justification in preparing the young for the new economy. The civic purpose occasionally gets a nod, but the overwhelming rationale for reform is an economic one. Of course mass education in the United States has always had an economic motive, but in a democracy it has other powerful goals as well, and I suspect that this fuller range of goals would emerge in the President’s own history.

I realize that policy works at the level of broad structures and incentives, the level of administrative mechanisms rather than the particulars of lived experience. But if a policy doesn’t emerge from and embody a rich and grounded understanding of the issue in question, it won’t work – as one failed agriculture and urban development policy after another have demonstrated.

My second reason for asking the President about his education is this: The Department of Education rightly affirms the importance of good teaching. But the depiction of the teacher in key Department documents (Race to the Top guidelines or the Elementary and Secondary Act blueprint) is pretty much that of a cog in the vast Standards-and-Testing Industrial Complex. It’s hardly a vision that inspires new recruits or fosters engagement for the long haul. (What does professional development look like in such a system?) My hope is that the President’s reflection would get him to see the real limitations in his administration’s approach to teaching…and to learning.

(This blog is also being published online by Educational Leadership to accompany my April 2010 article “Reform: To What End?”.)


  1. Mike, one of the things that concerns me most about the president's educational view is that he appears to believe that everyone learns in a linear fashion as well as he does -- and that success looks pretty much the same to us all. As you stated - "if a policy doesn’t emerge from and embody a rich and grounded understanding of the issue in question, it won’t work" - it seems clear to me that there is very little understanding in our culture of education (what it is now and what it should be) so perhaps the very first step should be a national dialogue.

  2. Good post, always enjoy your perspective. One thing that I would be afraid that Obama would respond with is that these testing and standards are needed to get the lowest performers up to a basic standard. People like himself, who have a mother with a doctorate, do not need the drilling and the "accountability" but kids from the projects do. The educational experience he has chosen for his daughters, whether the Lab School at Chicago, or Sidwell Friends in DC, certainly doesn't conform to the ideal that the Race to the Top sets forth.
    I agree with you that some of the goals of school that can't be easily measured are equally important. Despite my general appreciation of some other aspects of his policies, I wish Obama (and Duncan) would acknowledge this too, and accept their current education policy are very wrongheaded.

  3. Hi,
    I also worry that the president is very critical of teachers and does not understand the reality of the modern day classroom issues confronting teachers today.
    Beyond this I have some questions for you Dr. Rose for my graduate class at Colorado State University. I am making a presentation next Tuesday saying that you are and Chaim Perelman are both heroes, which of course is true for you per UCLA magazine. Both of you seem very concerned with issues of justice and social issues. Perelman is of course concerned with issues of audience. I wonder if you could say anything about these issues from your point of view?

    I am also writing a semester paper for this graduate course on helping the reticent writer become a confident writer by having an assignment oriented on achieving social consciousness through ethnographic writing. I am issuing a challenge to the writers in the name of freedom by confrontation with the common place or trauma, using ethnographic writing. If you have any thoughts about ethnographic writing or social consciousness to help the reticent writer become a confident writer, i would very much appreciate hearing them. I also would be interested in any thought you have about how you would define a reticent writer?

    If you could email me at catmiles2001@yahoo.com I would love to hear from you Dr. Rose. I also have left a phone message

    I would be eternally grateful for any bits of your wisdom.


    Linda Daly

  4. mike,

    first of all, i would hope that you would introduce the president to some good west coast beer instead of a budweiser!

    what's sad about teachers being influenced to teach to the tests is this: if they become cogs in the education machine, they lose their creative sense of selves. and i think creativity is an important element in good teaching. human beings are creative creatures -- didn't our old friend karl marx say that?

  5. One of the things that bothered me most about the last administration was how its ideological blinders limited its field of view. Without the distraction of peripheral vision, all decisions were easy and, in fact, had been made before the questions had even been confronted. The economic disaster that hit at the end could not be anticipated because it came from outside the field of the Bush/Cheney ideological vision.

    One of the things that I have liked about the current administration has been its wide field of vision and flexibility. The health policy, the energy policy and nuclear policy contain ideas from all over the landscape of political ideology. Yet, in educational policy the blinders and the hobbles are back--different from the last administration, but just as limiting and therefore potentially disasterous. The push to set up everything as a competition, thereby automatically condemning the majority of students to have to do without because they had the poor judgement to be born in the wrong state, is a limited vision. The embracing of wholesale firing of teachers as a reasonable response to a school that has been struggling for years is an extremely limited vision! Will any strong, able teacher ever choose to work in a struggling Rhode Island school knowing that she/he may be fired at any moment and seen as suspect for having worked there in the first place? Would Mr. Obama want one of his daughters to start the year teaching in such a place, see her work and struggle to make it better only to be fired and told she is a failure?

    I'm afraid, Mike, as an educator you would never be asked to sit and have a beer with the inclusive, team-building Pres. Obama. No, you would be brought out to the basketball court with the drive-to-the-hoop, take-no-prisoners Obama and too bad if that's not your game because when it comes to education that's the only one he and Duncan are playing.

  6. Joe, well said! I have to add yet more reality to that -- Mike won't be asked to shoot hoops, either - and I think the reason for that is at least a partial explanation of why education's such a mess today - why, in fact, as a nation we're so brilliant technologically yet as a society we're becoming so dysfunctional.

    The administration's policies on health and energy only require the high levels of intelligence of the leaders and the savvy of a very good community organizer - but designing and providing an excellent education to our kids requires much broader qualities than that. Most of us who are working towards reform in this area have spent decades trying to understand and work with these qualities - it's a humbling experience, and I don't believe any president (even this more savvy one) will be willing to go there in our lifetime. In a way, it's sort of a class thing - the sometimes messy ambiguities and subtle contradictions of the grassroots vs the button-down, easily controlled answers of the club members. Having been raised the latter, I am just now realizing there's not much room available for merging those two -- not only will Mike not be invited, I think we'd best save our energy for the work we can do.

  7. With all due respect, Mike, I don't think the federal government should be heavily involved in teaching. The public purpose is mostly in the standardized certification of the results of teaching for the roles of being a citizen or a government worker. The less that any government dictates how the teaching is done the better.

    See my article on some of my proposed educational reforms.