Mike Rose, UCLA professor and author of a series of books that champion public education, opportunity, equity, and excellent teaching, has just published a revised and expanded, 2014 edition of Why School?.
Why School? is a philosophy of education, a reflection on the public role of our schools and our responsibility to these schools as members of the public. Rose writes: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.” “As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.”
In the 2014 edition, Rose has revised, updated, and expanded Why School? It now addresses the impact of President Obama’s Race to the Top program and other federal programs that have emerged since 2009—including problems with the waivers now being granted to address the lingering effects of the the No Child Left Behind Act, long over-due for reauthorization. A much expanded chapter on standards and accountability now explores the goals of the Common Core Standards as well as Rose’s worries about the Common Core testing and implementation.
Three new chapters speak to issues that have emerged since the first edition of Rose’s book. “Being Careful About Character” examines books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed with their thesis that schools can help overcome poverty with programs to strengthen character. “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.” Another new chapter examines the wave of MOOCs and other on-line education, exploring the learning assumptions we rarely discuss and raising serious questions we ought to be asking before we thoughtlessly adopt these technologies.
From my point of view the most important new chapter is “The Inner Life of the Poor.” “The poor,” writes Rose, “are pretty much absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the socioeconomic status index—or as a generalization: people dependent on the government, the ‘takers,’ a problem.” “More than a few of Barack Obama’s speeches are delivered from community colleges, but the discussion of them is always in economic and functional terms… I have yet to find in political speech or policy documents any significant discussion of what benefit—other than economic—the community college might bring… To have a prayer of achieving a society that realizes the potential of all its citizens, we will need institutions that affirm the full humanity, the wide sweep of desire and ability of the people walking through the door.”
Readers will still find the thoughtful critique they remember in the original chapters, some updated, others unchanged. In the chapter titled “Business Goes to School,” for example, Rose wonders about business leaders who promote their own “Principal for a Day” photo ops but at the same time “lobby, litigate, and proselytize against tax increases, minimum- or living-wage laws, and a whole range of policies that would help poor and working-class families better prepare their children for school…” “Instead, what we have is an erosion of broad-based economic support and, in its place, a selective philanthropy—which, I’ll be the first to admit, is better than selfish, opulent capitalism. But such generosity is targeted and partial.”
Late last week I got my copy of the 2014 edition of Why School? I intended to spend an hour skimming the chapter titles and maybe glancing at some of the new material. But the book captivated me and I read the whole thing over the weekend. Because I am increasingly troubled about the direction of education “reform”—school closings—privatization—blaming school teachers—our society’s refusal to address child poverty, I found myself delighted to discover that the new edition is even tougher and more hard hitting than the original.