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, 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.