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.


  1. where are schools? The same place as teachers. Left out. Incidental to the plans of the so-called reformers.

    The irony is that those so-called reformers accuse people like us of wanting to keep the status quo, when the kind of "reform" they advocate has been the status quo of policy advocates for more than 2 decades - testing, accountability, standards, and all that crap. They fail to recognize that they have created some of the very problems about which they now complain, and yet we are supposed to listen to them while the voices of those who have continued to work on behalf of our students are shut out of the discussion.

    You want real reform? Look at what Deborah Meier did both at Central Park East and Mission Hill. Look at what Lori Nazareno is doing in Denver with a teacher-led school - Math and Science Leadership Academy.

    Thanks for the post, Mike. Glad to know you are still keeping the faith.

  2. I keep wondering, Mike, where the good, old-fashioned, all-American outrage at rule by oligarchy has gone. Gates, Buffett, Bloomberg, Zuckerberg, the barons of billions, now call the shots in education and a big chunk of the American public falls in line behind them???

    These are the people who relentlessly crush small-business, creating too-big-to-fail corporate entities that hold the welfare of the country in their fists!
    These are the people who treat employees paternalistically, allowing them as little voice and protection as possible while stacking up the billions that those workers create!
    These are the people who take every advantage of the infrastructure provided by government and take every advantage of all the tax breaks which they can force upon us (“If you make us pay our fair share of taxes, we will move out of city, out of state, overseas.”)!
    How can the American people believe that they have anything but their own interests in mind? How can the American people not say, “Yes, give us your money for education, but we will do what we think is right with it and not dance on the strings that you pull?”

    I really don’t get it. What has gone so wrong that we willingly abandon the lessons of 200 years of fighting the corrupting influence of power and wealth? How much damage will we allow these people to do before voices like yours, Deborah Meier’s, Diane Ravitch’s, Linda Darling-Hammond's, and Nicholas Leman’s and 6 million teachers’ finally get heard?
    By the way, I couldn't get to the Leman article through your link so I'm adding this one in case someone else has the same problem --http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/09/27/100927taco_talk_lemann

  3. Marykim: Please read Dr. Britton Gildersleeve's Open Letter to Oprah http://neatoday.org/2010/09/24/a-teachers-letter-to-oprah/

  4. Thank you, Mike. I've sent the Lehman piece to my co-workers. I knew you would have the critique that I needed before seeing the movie.

  5. Thank you for articulating the position of so many of us during this latest trend of flashier, less student-centered reform. While it's gratifying in a way to see attention (any, any at all!) given to the systematic problems in American public schools, the focus on testing/passing/accountability seems to me to be a few short steps for more "shunting through".

    I work in a tutoring center in Newark, NJ, and the discussion of the Zuckerberg donation is still hot stuff....the educators that live in the city are angered at control of education being ceded to government...the educators that come in to teach and then scoot out again (I admit I'm one!)generally think an influx of cash is just what's needed. But I'm with your commenters here - it worries me.

    Cash is not enough, firing/hiring is not enough if noone ever thinks to actually teach. In a city like Newark, the only way to undo the damages caused by neglect and mismanagement is to truly put the students first, contributing to an improvement in the city's educational culture. *That* would be a thrill to see, even with swooping reformers and passionate rhetoric.

    One of the common notes in the adult students I've worked with is that noone took the time to sit and teach them when it was easy, and they were young enough to easily apply their lessons. If I had a dollar for every "they just passed me", I'd be able to fund this program singlehandedly! I'll admit that is enough to keep me up at night, the fallout from decades of talk and spending. What's worrying me even more is the possibility that the current "trending topic" of reform is just starting the cycle all over. I don't want to see today's "kids" in that office in 5, 10, 15 years.

    Thank you for that discussion, and keep it up! I'll be circulating this 'round the office!

  6. Thanks for addressing this issue Mike and I will check out "Playing for Keeps." Rhee and Gates and a few other suspects were interviewed in the film "Waiting for Superman" which I hope you'll have the opportunity to check out at some point.