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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Monday, June 28, 2021

The Desk: A brief memoir on the power of imagination and language


“The Desk” was just published in The Hedgehog Review, a wonderful magazine of culture and politics that comes out of the University of Virginia. The memoir depicts a difficult time in my small family’s newly established life in Los Angeles, and the material and mental resources I brought to bear on what was happening to us. “The Desk” is the story of the protective qualities of a child’s imagination. And it is also a story about the use of language to create and participate in other worlds, finding a refuge in words.

I present the first eight paragraphs of the story below. If you find them interesting, please follow the link to the rest of the story in Hedgehog. And if you like what you read there, would you consider sharing the link with friends?


For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the comfort of the small space, the cubby, a nook. And the box, the cardboard box, and, even better, two of them, arranged so that one opens onto the other, so that you can crawl from one through the other.

As a little boy, there was the soft tunnel under blankets. Once I had the bed to myself, I’d burrow under the quilt imagining passageways to safe mystery.

The cardboard box was recently enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame. “The empty box,” said the curator, “is full of possibilities that kids can sense.” On a loftier plane, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes at length about the intimacy of drawers and chests, and how each of the nooks and corners of the house we are born in is “a resting place for daydreaming.”           

There were no nooks or resting places in our spare rented house.

* * *

Not long after my parents bought new furniture, two men came and took it back. It was “repossessed” my father said. I didn’t really understand what that meant—I was nine—but I remember standing with him in our bare kitchen, a vague sense of shame and threat in the air.

They left some old stuff in the front room—a faded blue couch, a coffee table—and didn’t take our beds. My mother, father, and I shared the small bedroom. Mom had to get up before dawn to make her shift in a restaurant two long bus rides away, so she slept on a single bed by the door. My father and I shared a double bed close to her.

Down the street from us there was a second-hand furniture store that had a hand-lettered sign in the window. It was a dark, cluttered place; if it held a light piece of furniture—blond wood, shiny brass—I never saw it. My father made a deal with the owner: he’d watch the place for a few hours a day in exchange for a refrigerator, for a table and some chairs.

After we got the basics, my father picked out something for me. It was an odd, old-fashioned thing, a mahogany desk-cabinet sitting on four tall, carved legs. I’ve never seen anything quite like it since. The cabinet was maybe two-and-a-half feet high and two feet wide and pretty deep. Two hinged doors covered it. I would turn a chair from the dinner table and lean into it, imagining it as my room.

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Sunday, May 30, 2021

An Evening with Bob Moses in the Mississippi Delta


During my travels around the United States visiting good public school classrooms—which I would document in Possible Lives—I was fortunate to spend time in Mississippi observing Civil Rights leader Bob Moses demonstrating and helping local teachers implement his innovative mathematics curriculum, The Algebra Project, a supplement to the traditional mathematics course of study in middle school.

         Moses envisions The Algebra Project as both a curriculum and a social movement. It attempts to prepare children, all children, at the sixth-grade level for algebra, the gateway to participation in high school mathematics and science, which, in turn, is necessary for college-level work. Moses draws parallels between mathematical literacy and the earlier political literacy fostered by the Civil Rights movement: both are necessary for a fuller, more equitable participation in society. And as with the Civil Rights movement, the curriculum assumes that all people are capable of participation, and, in this case, capable of grasping the conceptual basics of algebra—equivalence, displacement, and so on. The curriculum is built around a sequence of accessible activities: taking bus rides, measuring, rating, comparing objects and events, and playing a range of games. After engaging in one of these activities, children draw or somehow model it, talk and write about it, attempt to translate it into a more formal mathematical language, and develop, through consensus, symbols to represent it. The process aims at making children more adept at and more comfortable with symbolic operations and procedural routines—essential of they are to succeed at algebra when it shows up in the curriculum in grade eight or nine.

         Bob Moses was an early field secretary for The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organizer of Freedom Summer, a voter-registration project in Mississippi that was met with violent white backlash. Approximately thirty years later, he would be launching the “Southern Initiative” of The Algebra Project, taking him back to Mississippi, an effort that, I’m sure, was laden with memory and symbolism for him.

         I’ve been thinking about my time in Mississippi for a number of reasons. It’s been roughly another thirty years since I had the privilege of watching Bob Moses present The Algebra Project to gatherings of Mississippi parents and work with teachers and students to make the Project come alive. I love the idea of seeing the school curriculum as a site for social change, not only by correcting and adding to its content but also by affirming that intellectual mastery of its knowledge and skill can itself be a source of liberation, particularly when the people involved have been denied the opportunity for that mastery in the past. I am also taken by the kind of thing you’ll read about shortly: involving the community surrounding the school in a social activity with intellectual content—and envisioning all this as a political act.

         And, of course, it’s impossible to read anything involving Bob Moses and not think about voter registration. The 2020 election displayed the results of tireless, on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote efforts on the part of countless local community organizers—the current generation of activists exhibiting the same determination that drove those involved in Freedom Summer. And we are now watching yet another backlash as Republican-controlled states are enacting wide-ranging voter suppression laws, relying on legislative chicanery rather than billy clubs and guns to control who can cast a ballot.

         As I reread the passage below in our time—which I have lightly edited—I’m struck by both the beauty and the latent power of the gathering.




         There were well over a hundred people in the gymnasium of West Tallahatchie High School located in Webb, Mississippi: teachers, middle and high school students, little kids, many parents, some civic leaders, including two newly elected county supervisors. It was about six in the evening. Outside, the sun had dipped below the horizon and was suffusing a pink-salmon light over sheds and bare trees and small houses off the road. We sat close to one another at round and rectangular tables clustered along one long wall. In front of us were two small chalkboards on rollers and an easel with a large pad. Webb is in a very poor community, Cass Pennington, the district superintendent, told me. One of the poorest in the South. I would hear from others that it was also one of the most economically and politically entrenched. It was not too long ago that the white county leadership kept discouraging desperately needed small industry because it might threaten the supply of cheap agricultural labor. The two supervisors—who were now being introduced—were the first Black supervisors to be elected in the history of the predominantly African American county. The school was virtually all African American. Many of the parents in this room went to schools that were segregated by law; now school was segregated by demographic fact…

         One of the local teachers, Shirley Conner, walked out to the center of the gym. “I imagine a lot of you already know Mr. Bob Moses,” Shirley said, extending her left hand behind her. Bob walked to the side of the easel… “Hi, everybody,” he said softly. “How are you?” People murmured in response and acknowledgement. “I want to start us off tonight with an activity.” He gestured to the floor of the gym, where he had laid out with masking tape one of the games of The Algebra Project. “But first, a question.” He walked closer to the tables, looking around, a slow gaze. “What is a prime number?” A boy to the far right raised his hand. Bob asked his name: Martin. “OK, Martin, what is a prime number?” “A prime number,” Martin replied, a little nervous but intent and well-spoken, “is a number that can only be multiplied by one and itself.” Bob thanked him. “Does anyone else have anything to add to what Martin just said?” Tyranda, on the other side of the room, raised her hand. “A prime number,” she offered, “is a number that can only be divided by one and itself.” Bob unfolded his arms, cradling his chin in his right hand: “Why don’t you both come up on here.” They did, the audience watched, shifting, scraping a few chairs to improve their line of sight.

         “Pick a prime number, Tyranda,” Bob instructed, and Tyranda wrote 11 on the pad. “Now show me how what you said holds true. But first, repeat what you said, nice and loud.” Tyranda did, then, marker in hand, wrote . “There’s no number that’ll go into 11,” she summarized, putting down the marker. Bob turned to Martin. “Martin?” “Yes sir.” “Demonstrate for me what you said.” Martin took the marker from Tyranda and talked as he wrote. “You can get 11 if you times it by 1, but there are no other numbers you can multiply to get it.” Bob turned to Tyranda. “What do you think of what Martin just said?” Bob’s voice, the whole time, remained at the same pitch and volume, steady, curious. It’s hard not to lead, not to give away a bias when you question, but Bob came awfully close to sounding neutral. “He’s talking about multiplying,” Tyranda observed, “but I’m saying you get prime numbers by dividing.” Though there were glitches in both Martin’s and Tyranda’s use of multiplication and division, they clearly knew how prime numbers worked. Bob saw that, didn’t want to shut things down, wanted to keep inviting talk.

         He turned to the audience, asking for questions and comments. One parent raised her hand. “Are all odd numbers prime numbers?” “Well,” Bob replied, “let’s see.” He asked her to pick an odd number. She picked 9. Bob wrote it on the board and asked her to guide him through a factor tree. As she watched the tree develop she said, “No, no it ain’t a prime number.” A woman sitting at our table thanked Bob and the lady, for, she said, she had always confused prime numbers and odd numbers, too. For some in this audience, math might have been a favorite subject, a pleasure to dust off and revisit, and for others, I suspect, math conjured little that is pleasant. But here they all were: The community was talking about mathematics.

         A man from the side of the room stood halfway up and called the group’s attention back to Martin and Tyranda. “Isn’t the important operation there?” he said, pointing to the work the children had done, “Isn’t it division more than multiplication?” Bob turned to Martin. “Martin, did you hear what he said? He didn’t like your multiplication idea too much. Can you say why?” Martin stated the man’s position but noted that multiplication might still work. Then a parent from the table next to ours, a pencil over his ear, suggested that Martin and company break another number into its prime factors. “It’s been a long time,” he noted apologetically as he sat down, and a lot of people laughed and assented.

         Bob asked the audience for a number. “Eighteen,” someone called out. He turned to Martin, and Martin proceeded to work out a factor tree.

Someone standing along the wall asked if there was another way to do it. Bob handed Tyranda a marker and asked if she saw another way. She thought a moment, then:

A woman sitting by the easel spoke up. “What’s the difference?” she asked. “You still get the same numbers. See what I’m sayin’? You still get two 3s and a 2.” A man sitting by her turned and said, “But what I see is that 18 have other factors other than 3 and 2.” “OK,” the first woman replied, “but you still come out with the same prime numbers…”

         There was further discussion; then Bob had each table choose three numbers and calculate factor trees. Then he turned and gestured to the floor. “I put a pathway on the floor up here, and we’re going to figure out what it’s got to do with prime numbers.” He would soon have some students come up and demonstrate.

         It was about eight when we broke up. The participants remained in clusters, talking: parents, teachers, students, the county supervisors…Bob, head down, listening, was conferring with Shirley Conner. I stood in the doorway, looking out into sweeping darkness, light from a farmhouse or two twinkling in the distance. People were shaking out coats, buttoning up, saying goodbye. “This was wonderful,” a woman said, coming up alongside me. “The parents learned something, too. Math is a scary thing, you know. But…” And here she turned, her eye catching something, suddenly quizzical. I followed her line of sight to a poster with a funny little cartoon cat peering out of a paper bag. “But now,” she said laughing, “the, the cat’s out of the bag! It’s something we all can do.”

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Friday, April 2, 2021

A Brief Reflection on Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and the Use of Data

It is the evening of April 1, and I am listening to “1-A,” the excellent public affairs show that comes out of WAMU in Washington, D.C. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is the guest, and he is explaining to host Jenn White the rationale for his recent decision to mandate standardized testing for this school year. I had high hopes for this man, given all his experience in schools, and I still do, but what he is saying makes my heart sink. In essence, the more data we have, the better able we will be to distribute funds from The American Rescue Plan to the schools that most need them. He then insists that determining need will be the only use of the data, that scores will not be used to evaluate schools or teachers, to stigmatize or to punish.

         There are a number of arguments against giving the tests this year, from logistical and methodological problems to the added stress on school personnel and students during an already stressful time. These and other arguments were unsuccessfully made by hundreds of education experts in a formal appeal to Secretary Cardona. For a thoughtful analysis of why Cardona’s decision is misguided, see Jan Resseger’s blogs of March 29 and April 2.

         In addition to all else that’s been written about the folly of testing, I simply want to reflect briefly on several points made by the Secretary on “1-A”—the things he said that led to the aforementioned dropping of my heart.

         First, in what fantastical world does the Secretary think that this year’s test scores will not be used for any purpose beyond the allocation of funds… and that his Department’s pronouncements alone will function as a magic shield against abuse? Miguel Cardona has been in high levels of educational administration for a long time. He is a political animal. He surely knows better.

         Second, and to me more troubling, is the way the Secretary seems to regard “data” and the quantity of data as an automatic good, as unquestionably worth pursuing. I too believe that gaining more data is generally beneficial for everything from life decisions to policy formation, but one has to consider the quality of the data one is collecting and the context in which it is collected. One also has to ask at what cost the data are collected. Administrators, teachers, students, and parents are facing unprecedented challenges as it is without the added burden of a full-scale, high-stakes testing program, a burden that will be strongly felt in the very schools Cardona says he is most concerned about. The Secretary says that we need this data to pinpoint those in greatest need. My God, as if we don’t already know this! We have multiple measures of educational and economic inequity and need. Few physicians would approve of an invasive and destabilizing test that might yield one small bit of additional data about a patient’s well-established condition.

         I’m left with the worry that our Secretary of Education, for all his gifts, holds a technocratic faith in measures, numbers, data points—a faith that numbers, and more numbers, are always beneficial, overriding considerations of the human cost of collecting certain kinds of data and the circumstances in which they are collected.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“If You Feel Better, Press 1” A Miniature from Our Time

            So I’m in my home talking with my friend of many years, Ed Frankel, a seasoned writing teacher and a beautiful poet. I just read to him a few pages on how the harmful tendencies in education policy and reform (from the over-reliance on standardized testing to rule-focused and routinized training and evaluation of teachers) are legitimized and given a cutting-edge gloss by the technocratic spirit of our time—a spirit that has influenced so much of our lives, from health care to the pursuit of happiness. This is the kind of thing Ed and I talk about. Visit me and I’ll make you a cocktail and subject you to something I’m trying to think through.

            Ed’s got a quietly stern poker face. I’m seated; he’s leaning against my couch, silent. You don’t want silence from Ed. “But,” he finally says, “school’s been like that for a long time, hasn’t it? Like, maybe always? Rote learning? Tests? Formulaic lessons? Man, I was bored to death in school, and that was in the 1950’s,” he says flatly.

            Ed’s right, of course. There is no golden age of schooling. But there were times in our past when other ideas about education were in the air—other ways to think about it and define its purpose. “What I’m saying, Eddie, is that our rapture with high tech and ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ and quantifying everything provides a kind of caché for tired, one-dimensional ideas about how to measure and improve a deeply complex human endeavor like education.”

            Suddenly, my telephone rings, and Ed and I are jolted back onto terra firma, a good six feet apart. I get up from my chair and walk slowly to the phone.


Interlude: Why walk slowly…?

            The rest of this small story requires that I take you back a few days before I read those pages to Ed, which will also explain why he’s in my home.

            I had abdominal surgery on February 25, 2021 to correct a chronic problem that worsened during the last week of November 2020. This physical distraction, by the way, is my excuse for infrequent postings on this blog. (In comparison, Diane Ravitch had a knee replacement several years ago, and kept her blog going daily.) Ed came down from Northern California to shepherd me through the surgery and Netflix-infused recovery. Saint Eddie.

Close Interlude


            It’s a robo-call. From the hospital that discharged me two days earlier. A woman’s voice, youngish, upbeat, even sunny, begins by identifying the hospital and noting my recent stay and hoping I am doing well, because “We at ____ care.”

Then the voice says it has six questions for me:

If you feel better, press 1.

If not, press 2.


If you understand how to take your medications, press 1,

If you have questions, press 2.

You get the idea. Question #6 asks if you have any comments on the quality of your stay. Patient satisfaction. The call ends with “Have a nice day.”

Ed and I look at each other in disbelief. The call itself was laughable, though it hurts to laugh. But, as if on cue, we were served up with an example of the point I was trying to make with my friend: That we have gotten so used to substituting technological efficiency for real and messy human experience that a prerecorded call proclaiming care and checking on sick people’s well-being didn’t strike anyone at a prestigious health-care network as odd. Consider, too the number of people receiving this call who are much sicker, more distraught, and significantly less advantaged than I am.

I understand the context here. Hospital administrators are under immense strain: COVID, financial loss, understaffing, legal and political pressure, and more. This robo-call is an expedient and efficient way to single out recently discharged patients who might need help. I assume a medical professional of some type would make a follow-up call to those who press 2. If I were a hospital administrator in the middle of a long, packed day, I’d probably be all in with the plan.

But what I don’t want us to lose sight of is how commonplace this kind of human interaction is becoming—a representative slice of our time—and how accepting of it we have become. This digitizing of emotion. The automation of care. One parallel in education is the reduction of the rich human experience of learning and discovery to tests and benchmarks and rankings, to scripts and routines that yield an immensely consequential but largely procedural institutional rite of passage. The journey exhausts everyone involved, but it’s hard to get a clear fix on it until something pops us out of the everyday flow of events.

To learn something new, press 1…

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Hope Amid the Ruins

        Along with the violence wrought on so many—including planet Earth—by the Trump Administration, the last four years have brought us one bitter irony after another. A recent one was the giddy celebration over the passing of 2020. Bye bye 2020. Good riddance. See you in the rear-view mirror. The Internet vibrated with farewell memes. Then came the precursor to and aftermath of January 6, 2021. Hello 2021: The death-throes of the Trump administration, and the eruption of a white supremacist insurrection—the ugly, terrifying reality of what many Americans thought was a fringe element, escorted into prime time by an increasingly desperate and deranged president.

        So much has been written about the last four years that there’s not much I can add, except, perhaps, a few observations.

        The insurrection of January 6 has rightly been condemned as an assault on democracy, an appalling event where the Capital was defiled and people lost their lives. But we need to remember that there have been assaults on our democracy from the beginning, racist policies and practices in every sphere of American life, systemic and sanctioned, from housing to healthcare to voting, and these assaults are intimately connected with economic inequality, which has been widening over the last several decades. A whole lot of people in the United States have been living with—and their ancestors have lived with—threats to their dignity and well-being more pernicious and long-lasting than the tumultuous desecration of the Capital, which, shameful as it was, could be cleaned up and at least some of the perpetrators held to account.

        My second observation concerns “the real Donald Trump,” if I can borrow his (former) Twitter handle. As Donald Trump’s behavior became more erratic and bizarre—culminating in his Big Lie about the 2020 election and the inevitable result on January 6, 2021—increasing numbers of commentators, and finally the deplorable Mitch McConnell himself, condemned him and his paranoid fantasies. But every quality Trump displayed through his four years in office was evident during the 2016 campaign: Certainly the racism and xenophobia and sneering disregard for anyone in the path of his ascendence, but, too, the attack on foundational institutions and any means of verification other than his own word. One phrase I’ve heard as Trump has become more delusional is that he lives in an alternate reality (remember Kellyanne Conway’s “alternate facts”?). Why this surprises anyone is a mystery to me, for since his early days he has been fabricating an alternate reality through shady deals, lawsuits, non-disclosure agreements, bankruptcies, and lying, lying, lying. His genius, if I can sully that word for a moment, was realizing the role media could play in the creation of this alternate reality in which he was the starring character, the dazzling centerpiece.

        In an interview a few years ago, legendary editor Tina Brown was reflecting back to her first encounters with a young, brash Donald Trump in the late-1980s. She was at the helm of Vanity Fair and Trump had recently published his ghostwritten The Art of the Deal. Ms. Brown wrote a diary entry noting that Trump had “a crassness I like. There is something authentic about Trump’s bullshit.” Reading The Art of the Deal “you’re nose-to-nose for four hours with an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public will like nothing better.”  Brown would eventually sour on Trump, but with the help of the New York press, he was already in full gear of self-creation.

        It’s chilling to read Ms. Brown’s entry now, for it reflects some of the intersecting obsessions in our popular culture that were hospitable to Trump and his brand of American authoritarianism: Our fascination with celebrity and the grasping for it, with glamour, fading glamour, and bling, and with spectacle—all amped-up and accelerated by the Internet. I tried to get at some of this in earlier posts (“Donald Trump, Celebrity Culture, and the White Working Class” 11/30/16 and “The Tawdry President: Donald Trump, the Public Library, and COVID-19” 4/21/20), the first post written three weeks after the 2016 election, concluding with: “Welcome to electoral politics in the Age of the Kardashians.” We know now that a white supremacist proto-fascism would also be welcome. A thought for the next generation of journalists, editors, and publishers: The next time you encounter someone who reeks of bullshit and clawing desperation, close your laptop and run the other way.




        I’m writing this post on January 22, two days after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the 46th President and Vice President of the United States. What lies before them is daunting beyond belief. Our country is severely damaged, both by the long-standing violations of human dignity I mentioned earlier and because tens of millions of President Biden’s fellow citizens do not believe he was legitimately elected. I wish I could believe in the healing so many are calling for. Or unity. Or appeals to people’s “better angels.” I can’t. I just don’t see it. But I also want to commit to possibility, to hope, for without it, we descend into a despair that leaves us powerless. So here, for what it’s worth, are some sources of my hope.

        It occasionally happens that history creates the conditions for a person to rise to the moment, to display unexpected character and talent. I hope that this flawed man Joe Biden who has been on the wrong side of consequential issues and events—but on the right side of others—becomes one of those people, that this is his moment, his and Vice President Harris’, and the cadre of competent people they are choosing. The early signs are good: A flurry of executive orders on COVID, climate change and the environment, immigration, the Census, and more—and an ambitious immigration bill sent to Congress. This is hopeful.

        The Republican Party is in the midst of a monumental internal struggle that as elections loom will yield a colossal bloodletting. I hope that in the midst of the melee, GOP leaders see it in their own political best interest (there is no appealing to “better angels” here) to not stonewall the entire Biden/Harris agenda. Again, the historical moment with its COVID misery and catastrophic economic effects might force at least an occasional political alignment. One can hope.

        Hope personified: Amanda Gorman.

        My strongest source of hope is in the extraordinary success at voter registration and follow-up efforts to get out the vote. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would likely not be in office without this work, and certainly Georgia would not have elected two Democratic senators. This is long-haul, slow, grinding, unglamorous, tedious labor. A decade-long campaign in one region, one community is not unusual. Do whatever you can with your time or your money to support these efforts. Street by street, door by door, they create hope.

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