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, 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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