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, July 22, 2014

Educational Movements, Not Market Moments

In 2013, Michael Katz and I edited a collection of brief essays on a range of topics that get short shrift in the current school reform discussion, from poverty to English Language Learners. The book is called Public Education Under Siege, and I am happy to tell you that it is now out in paperback at a much lower price: $19.95.

I'm reprinting below one of the essays in the book, Janelle Scott's take on the reformer's appropriation of the language of the Civil Rights Movement, "Educational Movements, Not Market Moments." 


For at least two decades, conservatives have argued that school choice was the last unachieved civil right.  In 2010, some powerful moderate voices echoed their view and invoked the name of Rosa Parks to support it.  At an early screening of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which claims charters are the solution for the persistent failure of urban public schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the film signaled a “Rosa Parks moment” that would initiate a new movement for school choice. 

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

This misunderstanding of the history of the civil rights struggle reveals one of the key flaws in the push for market-based educational solutions.  The top-down, managerial, approaches pursued by leading school reformers ignores the vital, grassroots efforts underway in low-income communities, many of which directly challenge the market approach to schools that embraces competition, choice without equity provisions, and privatization.  These local activists are deeply concerned with a range of problems that prevent public schools from giving poor and working-class children a good education: rampant unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, environmental degradation, and a flawed immigration policy.  They want the state to distribute equitable and sufficient resources across communities, not simply to individual schools and parents.  And they worry that choice stands to further stratify communities by race and poverty. These issues are especially being articulated in the wake of mass school closings and teacher terminations in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.


Advocates for market-based reforms are disconnected from such grassroots concerns.  In searching for spokespeople—exemplars of struggling parents and students to represent the need for market-based reform—they neglect the vibrant efforts of those working for educational equity for entire communities.

A good example of inequity concerns the huge gap between funding for urban and suburban school districts.  In 2011, a broad swath of entrepreneurial school reformers, pundits, and even some from the civil rights community compared two African American women—Kelley Williams-Bolar from Akron, Ohio, and Tanya McDowell from Norwalk, Connecticut—to Rosa Parks after they were arrested for falsifying their address so their children might gain access to schools with more resources outside their urban neighborhoods.  Comparisons to Parks were widespread—a Google search of “Williams-Bolar Rosa Parks” yields over twelve thousand results.  For example, in a February 2011 post, Kyle Olson, a blogger for Big Government, appealed to education reformers to take advantage of the “human face” Williams-Bolar had provided to advocate for an expression of school choice.  His post juxtaposed the classic photograph of Parks being fingerprinted by Montgomery police officers with Williams-Bolar being handcuffed in Akron.

Olson and his fellow market advocates might have thought to ask Williams-Bolar how she saw herself, and why, if charter schools were the salvation, she had bypassed the six community schools (as charters are known in Ohio) operating in Akron.  While she acknowledged that the Copely-Fairlawn school district—the suburban district she had sought out—had higher performing schools, she wanted to send her daughters there so that they could go to their grandfather’s home nearby after school while she had to be at work.  The girls were too young to be home alone.  In fact, on February 3, 2011, she told the Akron Beacon Journal in an article entitled, “Center to File Mother’s Appeal,” “I’m not perfect and I’m not a Rosa Parks.  I’m just a mom looking out for her kids.”  Although better schooling was one issue for Williams-Bolar, safety and security for her daughters, given her need to work and support them, was a key motivation for her breaking the law.  For her and many who seek safer, better schools, there is no real choice.


The problem in part lies in the rigid boundaries decreed by courts, beginning in the 1970s, which effectively exempted suburban schools from the requirement to take part in metropolitan desegregation plans.  With suburban schools off-limits, school choice largely operates inside urban school districts, and market advocates who decried Williams-Bolar’s treatment did not call for a movement to eradicate district attendance boundaries.  Some choice plans, such as magnet schools, mean to facilitate desegregation on a voluntary basis and do, on the whole, promote integration.  Others, such as charter schools and vouchers, offer few ways to promote equality of opportunity beyond individual parental empowerment.  Many urban parents do avail themselves of these latter options.  But this amounts to choosing between problematic traditional public schools and alternatives they have had little role in shaping; they may be participating in an individual moment of empowerment, but their choice making is not part of a broader movement for equality of opportunity for all students.

Contemporary school reformers have not helped matters by undercutting democratic processes.  Most favor abolishing elected school boards and local school councils.  Yet, the latter were hard won by community control activists frustrated by earlier eras of school reform featuring centralized, managerial leadership dominated by white men inattentive to the needs of poor students and students of color.  Both Chicago and New York City recently did away with their elected boards of education and put mayors in charge of their schools.  In many cities, private organizations have been given the power to set up and expand charter schools.

And the making of urban educational policy is shaped by unprecedented amounts of private money.  For example, under Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Robertson Foundation, pledged millions of dollars to underwrite school reform, money contingent on implementation of the reforms.  This practice, increasingly common in cash-starved school districts, stands to distort the policy process and limit the influence of local community movements that have long fought for voice and control under more traditional school governance forms.

Because most elite reformers are disconnected from local struggles, they do not engage the issue of socioeconomic and racial inequality, even as the United States is experiencing the most profound wealth gap since the 1920s.  Parents cannot be solely focused on securing better schools for their children as long as so many are unemployed or underemployed and have neither safe nor affordable housing or access to health care.

Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP have long opposed market-based educational policies that do nothing to address racial segregation and class stratification in minority communities.  This stance brings them into coalition with teachers’ unions, which are portrayed as the prime villains in the accounts of school reformers.  But, in fact, teachers’ unions—often with African American members in the lead—have consistently supported lawsuits to desegregate schools and bring about fiscal equity between urban and suburban districts.


Grassroots activists have also opposed the larger attempt to put private agencies in charge of setting up and managing schools.  For at least a decade, organizers across the country have fought against school privatization in San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities.  Charter schools managed by charter management organizations have expanded in New York City, bypassing the need for parents in existing schools to vote for conversion by starting new schools altogether.  These schools have expended significant resources to market themselves to parents, and, indeed, many of them have been in high demand from parents given the deplorable state of many local schools.  Yet opposition also exists.  More recently, organizers have pushed back against the growth of charter schools in Harlem and the privatization and state takeover of schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Not surprisingly, market reformers have been highly critical of these opposition efforts.  For example, Dennis Walcott, the former Chancellor of New York City schools, accused the NAACP and teachers’ union of playing the “race card” when, in June 2011, they filed suit to stop charter schools from taking up space in existing schools.  Walcott and his supporters dismissed the overcrowding and inequitable distribution of scarce resources by accusing his critics of racial manipulation.

Yet such detractors, who would otherwise lend their support solely to the expansion of market-based schooling options, miss a vital opportunity to collaborate with organizations that are seeking to increase educational opportunity for all students.  Groups like Rethinking Schools, as well as other organizations such as the Education Opportunity Network, Parents Across America, Class Size Matters, New York Collective of Radical Educators, Forum for Education and Democracy, Coalition for Essential Schools, and A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education are examples of organizations advocating for an alternative vision of good public education.  These organizations promote public schools that are open, nested in communities, have excellent teachers and school leaders, and are well resourced, diverse, and democratic.  Despite a lack of funding and political support, they have the potential to reorient current efforts toward more democratic, high-quality, and representative public education.  Their task is to build networks that bridge communities, as the civil rights movement did decades ago.


The current generation of market-oriented school reformers is motivated by good intentions, and they are no doubt sincere in their stated desire to emulate the goals and heroes of the Civil Rights movement.  And there do exist high-quality and equity-minded charter schools that resist market framing of their schools and students. But tensions persist over the advocacy of school choice as the prevailing civil rights issue when its focus is frequently on individual parental empowerment.  We see this focus in the attempt to make “National School Choice Week,” first launched January 2011, an event in which parent and student stories of struggle and triumph in relation to market policies are featured in national and local news media.  The message is that individual rights equate a mass movement.  It is clear that leading school reformers seem to largely view the great civil rights struggle as the work of atomized individuals and consistently denigrate contemporary activists whose ideas of how fix urban schools clash with their own.

Certainly, the liberty and dignity of each individual were key tenets of the civil rights movement.  But freedom activists kept their eyes on the prize of benefits for entire communities and worked to democratize schools and other institutions so they would not continue to be ruled by those who already enjoyed the privileges of wealth and a place at or near the top of the racial hierarchy.  Today, when the economic crisis has eroded the gains of the black and Latino middle classes and deepened the poverty of other Americans of color, and when the Supreme Court recently vacated a key provision of the seminal Voting Rights Act, school reformers continue to insist that poverty, disenfranchisement, and unemployment are “no excuse” for not performing well on standardized tests and deride critics of the privatizing and segregating effects of some choice policies as being defenders of an unequal status quo.  In fact, these market critics seek a much more equitable schooling system that would disrupt what Jonathon Kozol famously termed, in the title of his popular 1991 book, Savage Inequalities.

Can we imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, or Rosa Parks marching on Washington to secure the right for parents to compete in lotteries for spaces in free-market schools?  Rather than these figures, the managers of such reformed in fact seem to be emulating another iconic cultural figure: Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist whose 1962 best-selling book was entitled Free to Choose.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Sabotage of Higher Education

            A shorter version of this post appeared in the June 2, 2014 edition of Boston Review online as “The Broken Higher Ed Compact.”


            It is early in the morning on a hazy Southern California day, and students are walking or riding old bicycles into the community college campus, headed for 7:00 a.m. classes in English or math, nursing or automotive technology. The college is packed into twenty-five acres on the economically depressed periphery of the city’s thriving financial core, and it draws on one of the poorest populations in the area. Men sleep under newspapers and blankets in doorways right outside the campus. One block away a line is already forming along the wall of a social service agency. The short, bare walkway into the campus is for many a luminous road into another world.

            This campus could serve as ground zero for Suzanne Mettler’s important new book Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.
A political scientist, Mettler analyzes the policies and politics that over the past thirty years have diminished postsecondary educational opportunity, particularly for students in the lower half of the income distribution. If they are not deterred from attending college, students face soaring tuition, inadequate financial aid, and increased loans and debt. To make matters worse, most states have been slashing higher education budgets, resulting in fewer classes and services. That trend is beginning to reverse this year, though spending is below what it was a decade ago, and is still inadequate to the demand. At the community college I just described, few students can get by on their financial aid allocation, which often comes well into the term, making it difficult to buy books and supplies. In addition, these students’ progress is often stalled because they can’t get the classes they need, delaying their time to an occupational certificate or degree. Their tutoring centers and other services have been trimmed back; their counselors have student loads that are way over 1000.

            One of Mettler’s contributions is to analyze what she calls the “policyscape” of the last several decades, demonstrating the ways that our extreme political partisanship and increasing influence of big money have contributed to this mess. In essence, Mettler explains, policies are not inert; they need maintenance. There can be flaws in a policy’s originating legislation, for example, inadequate mechanisms to deal with cost increases. Policies can also have unintended consequences, for example, financial aid can be inordinately consumed by for-profit colleges. And other, unrelated policies can negatively affect education policy, for example, the huge drain on state resources by health care and the prison system draws money away from schools. When partisanship is as intense as it is in our time, legislators rarely come together across party lines to address these issues and maintain healthy policy. One exception is when special interests with considerable money—for example, for-profit colleges—intercede to engineer or block movement on a particular policy, often to the detriment of overall education policy and those most in need.

            The elements of inequality that Mettler addresses—inadequate aid, diminished student services—interact with the broader dynamics of social and economic inequality in our time: income disparities, unstable housing, food insecurity, cutbacks in social services. There’s an awful synergy here as each sphere of inequality intensifies the other, making it increasingly difficult for low-income students to enter and succeed in college.

            I spent two years in the above-mentioned college interviewing students, observing classes, talking with teachers and administrators, and the overall picture I got was one of profound possibility and profound need. As would be expected in an open-access college, students exhibit a wide range of motivation and skills. Those who are drifting through with low skills and ill-defined goals don’t last long. But what is striking is that even those students who are doing well face a series of obstacles that limit the benefit of the college experience and delay their time to completion. I want to focus on them, for their stories illustrate just how hard it is for low-income students to succeed.

            Money is a constant worry. All the successful students I met receive financial aid, yet all but one have to work, in some cases work a lot, to make basic expenses. Those who live with parents or relatives contribute to the household, and those who live on their own or with others are frequently right on the edge, barely making it month to month. One of the students I followed ended up living out of his car for half of the school year. Transportation is also a big concern. Either students don’t own a car or have one that’s old and unreliable—and often they are short on money for gas. Many students don’t have a computer or, if they do, lack reliable Internet access. I know from trying to reach them how often their phone or Internet service is cut off.

            Along with worries about money, obligations also press on these students. The idyllic portrayal of college as a respite from the demands of the world, a time of exploration and growth, is as distant as a medieval fable. They have jobs, or childcare, or family responsibilities—younger siblings to be picked up from school or ailing parents to assist. These constraints reduce the opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities that could broaden their education and help them establish potentially helpful connections with faculty, staff, and other students. The bigger problem is that these constraints make it harder to see faculty outside of class or to regularly work with tutors and other student services personnel. And they need the help. The majority of the students on this campus repeat a well-documented pattern: Those who attend two-year colleges that serve a poor population tend to come from under-resourced, struggling schools. Almost all the students I worked with had to take remedial math and English, and some were still stuck in the math sequence, their progress toward a degree stalled. They put in the time, agonize over their textbooks at home, and try to get help from friends. But they need the kind of ongoing, systematic assistance that a faculty member or tutor can provide.

            There are times when the demands get so intense that they have to reduce their course load or temporarily leave school to work one or more jobs to relieve debt. These students have no health care to speak of, so a medical emergency can be devastating. Their families have few resources, so a mother losing her job, a father injured, a sibling getting in trouble places big burdens on them. One young woman who was close to completing her Associate of Arts degree and transferring to a four-year college had to leave school for a year to pay a $10,000 hospital bill and help her mother keep their household afloat. Parents, particularly single parents, are sometimes faced with the terrible choice of continuing their own education or compromising the care of their children. “I want to succeed in life,” one woman writes, “but I will sacrifice anything for my child.”

            The leadership and many of the faculty are aware of the weight carried by their students and are committed to helping them. As one occupational instructor put it, “the fact that some of our students get here daily is a success.” But, as I noted earlier, the college is being slammed by the political and economic forces Mettler analyzes. The state’s allocations to its community colleges have been shrinking over the years (down more than 20% over the past two decades) while community college enrollment has been increasing—and shot further upward during the recession. The college has had to cut courses and greatly reduce summer offerings, a time when many students pick up general education courses needed for an Associate degree and for transfer. Tutoring and other services have been significantly reduced; the writing center staff has been cut in half over the past five years. Students wait in line two hours to see a financial aid counselor—and sometimes have to leave without a meeting because of work or childcare. This situation would be bad enough for anyone, but imagine the added burden placed on people with the obligations and limited resources of this population. I don’t know a single student who completes a certificate or degree in two years. Most take much longer, increasing debt and forestalling occupational mobility.


            The subtitle of Mettler’s book states that inequitable education policies sabotage the American Dream. One of the surprising things I found as I got to know the students at the college was the degree to which they are driven by some version of the American Dream. Many are cynical about politics and politicians. And some hold strong views about race or the power dynamics of American society in general and the workplace in particular. Yet, to a person, they believe in the value of working hard in school and that their hard work will pay off. These students have lots of reasons to be skeptical about what education can do for them, for many had an awful history in the classroom. They might complain about a certain teacher or about the problems with getting a class or with the financial aid office, but, overall, they believe in school as a way out and up.

            I’ve seen this same optimistic commitment in so many similar students. Let me take you to another part of the city and a very different kind of institution, a prestigious research university where you will find far fewer of the kinds of students enrolled at the community college. But there are some.

            Roberto came to the United States at 15 from a small rural town in Guatemala knowing only a few words of English. Through extraordinary effort he learned his second language, excelled in his working-class high school, and was admitted with full financial aid to the university. In line with Mettler’s analysis, however, his aid package included, along with grants, work-study allocations and loans. He was able to live on campus for his first two years, but the last two had to move back home, all the way across town to a two-bedroom apartment that, during this time, held between seven and eleven people. He worked in a restaurant during the morning, took classes in the afternoon, and stayed in the library until 10:30 at night. He graduated one year ago in political science with a 3.3 GPA and $27,000 debt, which is close to the national average.

            Roberto’s goal is to work in education or some type of social service, helping people who are in need. (Somehow, while at the university, he found the time to run a student program that provided tutoring to students in a low-income, predominantly Latino community.) He can’t afford to enroll in a teaching or social welfare graduate program right now, and has not been able to find full-time employment other than the restaurant work he’s done for years. The double shifts on the restaurant floor are getting to him, and he feels the bite of disappointment when a job prospect falls through. But a deep hope sustains him. He shares with the students at the community college a resilient optimism that his education will yield a better life.


            We have a longstanding belief in America that once access to opportunity is provided, the fuel of mobility is hard work and determination. This belief is central to the nineteenth century Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, and it runs through the current interest in helping underprivileged students develop “grit,” the ability to persist in the face of difficulty. Roberto and those at the community college possess grit by the truckload, and they have made an educational compact with themselves and with society. What will we do to honor that compact?

            It’s worth remembering here that even in the Alger novels, the hero’s mobility isn’t triggered solely by his own effort, but by a wealthy benefactor who assists and guides him. In our country’s preeminent myth of self-determination and success, opportunity for the poor is made possible through intervention. During the mid-twentieth century, we created a cluster of policies that facilitated educational opportunity. Those policies have been compromised. Our already limited social safety net has been compromised as well, further diminishing the educational experience of low-income students. The students we’ve met persist in spite of it all. They are admirable. But is it fair or moral in the United States of America that young people should have to expend superhuman effort to complete a standard, even basic, education that will in the end benefit both them and society?

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