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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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Giving Cognition a Bad Name

            This is a companion piece to “Saving the Poor with Science.” An abbreviated version of it was published in Education Week on January 16, 2013.


Giving Cognition a Bad Name

            Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or living with someone. But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they’ve used I.Q. or other standardized test scores (like the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From the Latin cognoscere, to come to know, or cogito erqo sum, I think therefore I am, we’ve devolved to a few digits on the AFQT.
            As if that were not enough, there is now emerging on a number of fronts – nicely summarized in Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed – a belief that our nation’s educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum – or on academic intervention programs for the poor – we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character or personality like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility. As much or more than the cognitive, the argument goes, it is these qualities that account for success in school and life.

            It is healthy to be reminded about the fuller scope of education in our test- and grade-obsessed culture, and I must admit a guilty pleasure in watching someone as smart as Nobel Laureate James Heckman (one of the advocates for character education) go after our current Department of Education’s reductive academic policies.

            The importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility are indisputable, but what concerns me is that the advocates for character accept without question the reductive notion of cognition that runs through our education policies, and by accepting it further affirm it. The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores – like the desired qualities of character – is, de facto, non-cognitive. We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.

This downplaying of the cognitive and the construction of the cognitive/non-cognitive binary will have some troubling implications for education, especially the education of the children of the poor.

To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “non-cognitive” misrepresents them – particularly if you use the truer, richer notion of cognition. Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state – a profoundly cognitive activity. Flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision-making. This is not just a problem of terminology, for if you don’t have an accurate description of something, how can you help people develop it, especially if you want to scale up your efforts?

Furthermore, these desired qualities are developed over time in settings and relationships that are meaningful to the participants, which most likely means that the settings and relationships will have significant cognitive content. Two of the classic pre-school programs that have provided a research base for the character advocates – the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects – were cognitively rich in imaginative play, language use, and activities that required thought and cooperation.

A very different example comes from a study I just completed observing community college occupational programs as varied as fashion and diesel technology. As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing and help others do it. You could be by inclination the most dogged or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, you’re tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.

 Also, we have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/ non-cognitive binary in light of the history of American educational practice. We have a powerful tendency toward either/or policies – think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language. Given this tendency, we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. And over the past fifty years attempts at character education as a distinct pursuit have not been particularly successful.

Finally, the focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children, and the cold, hard fact is that many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. There’s a stirring moment in Paul Tough’s book where a remarkable chess teacher decides she’s going to try to prepare one of her star pupils for an admissions test for New York’s selective high schools. What she found was that this stunningly bright boy had learned pitifully little academic knowledge during his eight years in school. It would be tragic to downplay a strong academic education for children like him.

By all means, let us take a hard look at our national obsession with tests and scores and grades, and let us think more generously about what kinds of people we want our schools to develop. Part of such reconsideration would include a reclaiming of the full meaning of cognition, a meaning that is robust and vitally intellectual, intimately connected to character and social development, and directed toward the creation of a better world.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Saving the Poor With Science

A version of this blog was published as "Character Education Is Not Enough to Help Poor Kids" in the January 23, 2013 edition of The Christian Science Monitor here:


Saving the Poor With Science

            The foster care system failed Sam miserably. There wasn’t a nurturing household in his long string of placements. He grew up on his own, got into trouble with the law, kicked around in odd jobs, and found the community college where he turned his life around.

            Sam is 25, a big guy with a full smile who cares deeply about education and leading a meaningful life. Though he’s been sleeping in his car for a semester – we finally got him housing – he’s maintained strong grades, participates in student government, and works on campus as a tutor and in a summer program for middle school kids.

            Sam’s progress toward his associate degree has been stalled, however, because severe budget cuts forced his college to limit course offerings during the year and pretty much eliminate summer classes. He had colds and the flu through much of the time he lived in his car, and illness made it harder to concentrate – though he maintained a full load. And he had to miss classes when his car was impounded because of lapsed registration and parking tickets he couldn’t pay. Still, as he puts it, nothing will stop him.

            There is an emerging opinion about poverty and the achievement gap which holds that we can boost the academic success of poor people like Sam – and younger incarnations of Sam particularly – through psychological and educational interventions that will help them develop the qualities of personality or character that Sam displays in abundance: perseverance, self control, and belief in one’s ability.

            No doubt these are powerful qualities and contribute mightily to a successful life, regardless of how old you are or where you sit on the socioeconomic ladder. Western cultural history – from Aristotle to the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow – affirm these qualities, and they’ve been part of our folk wisdom about success well before Dale Carnegie made millions by promoting the power of positive thinking. But they’ve gained luster via economic modeling, psychological studies, and the technological advances of neuroscience. Because brain imaging allows researchers to see the frontal lobes light up when someone weighs a decision, these claims about character seem cutting edge. It is this aura of the new that contributes to a belief that we might have found a potent treatment for the achievement gap.

            There is a diverse group of players involved in this rediscovery and championing of character, nicely summarized in an engaging new book by journalist Paul Tough How Children Succeed and in a recent airing of Public Radio International’s popular show “This American Life.” Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman advocates early childhood intervention programs for poor kids. Charter schools like KIPP infuse character education throughout the school day. And a whole range of smaller extra-curricular and afterschool programs – from Chicago’s OneGoal to a chess club in a public school in Brooklyn focus their efforts in helping the children of the poor develop a range of mental strategies and shifts in perception aimed toward academic achievement.  I have worked with economically and educationally disadvantaged children and adults for forty years and know the importance of efforts like these. They need to be funded and expanded, for poor kids carry big burdens and have absurdly limited access to any kind of school-related enrichment, especially as inequality widens.

            But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, to not assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes – mental conditioning for the poor – and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

            We have a longstanding shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed… inveterate forwardness and obstinancy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “ earnestness” and “planning for the future.” Sound familiar?

            Some poor families are devastated by violence, uprooting, substance abuse, and children are terribly affected. But some families hold together with iron-willed determination and instill values and habits of mind that middle-class families strive for. There’s as much variability among the poor as in any group, and we have to keep that fact squarely in our sights, for we easily slip into one-dimensional generalities about them. And, one more fact, an awful childhood wreaks damage, but is not destiny. God knows where and how Sam developed the qualities that keep him moving forward. But he has them.

            Sam could be the poster boy for the advocates of character education; he possesses exactly the qualities they are trying to engender in young Sams and Samanthas. But what happens to Sam if after his Herculean effort he leaves the college that has given his heretofore chaotic life structure and finds limited jobs, or none at all. If he slams up against discrimination. If he can’t afford to leave a neighborhood that has weighed on him for years. If he gets in an accident or gets sick. What happens, in short, if the material world around him continues to blunt his drive and hope? Sam has been able to hold onto his dream with stunning tenacity, but what eventually happens to a dream deferred?

            The further question to ask – and we need to keep asking it – is whether it is fair or moral in the United States of America that a young person should have to expend superhuman effort to complete a standard, even basic, education that will in the end benefit both him and society. The exertion required of Sam becomes another measure of inequality. He’s traversing the achievement gap alright, but with a backpack full of lead and a head-splitting level of stress.

            Given a political climate that is antagonistic toward the welfare state and has further shredded our already compromised safety net, psychosocial intervention may be the only viable political response to poverty available. But can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump was discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institute of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the toxic dump itself?
            We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else. We should use our science to figure out why that is so – and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.

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