Challenges for America’s Forgotten and Overlooked Rural Public Schools

Incompetence and bureaucratic rigidity in Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education is denying the nation’s poorest rural schools the delivery of federal money these districts have already budgeted for essential services.

The NY TimesErica Green reported last week: “More than 800 schools stand to lose thousands of dollars from the Rural and Low-Income School Program because the department has abruptly changed how districts are to report how many of their students live in poverty. The change, quietly announced in letters to state education leaders, comes after the Education Department said a review of the program revealed that districts had ‘erroneously’ received funding because they had not met eligibility requirements outlined in the federal education law since 2002.  The department said it would strictly enforce a requirement that in order to get funding, districts must use data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates…. For about 17 years, the department has allowed schools to use the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals, a common proxy for school poverty rates, because census data can miss residents in rural areas.”

Senators from rural states—Maine’s Susan Collins, Montana’s Jon Tester—have protested, and it looks as though Congress and the Education Department will find a way to solve the problem.  But here is what happened in the school districts that received the notice: “The department’s notifications rattled rural districts, which have come to rely on the program to supplement the costs of services that are far less accessible to rural students, like technology, mental health and guidance counselors, and full-day kindergarten. Congress created the Rural Education Achievement Program, recognizing that rural schools lacked the resources to compete with their urban and suburban counterparts for competitive grants.  The program is the only dedicated federal funding stream for rural school districts….”

It is easy to forget about the challenges for rural school districts, but in November, the Rural School and Community Trust released the newest in a series of reports on the state of rural education across the United States. The numbers are striking: “(N)early 7.5 million public school students were enrolled in rural school districts during the 2016-17 school year—or nearly one of every seven students across the country. The number is even larger when counting students who attend rural schools, including rural schools within districts classified as ‘non-rural.’  By this measure, more than 9.3 million—or nearly one in five students in the U.S.—attend a rural school. This means that more students in the U.S. attend rural schools than in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. Nearly one in six of those rural students lives below the poverty line, one in seven qualifies for special education, and one in nine has changed residence in the previous 12 months… Many rural school districts across the U.S. are very small: The median enrollment for U.S. rural districts is only 494 students, and at least half of rural districts in 23 states enroll less than the median.  In Montana, North Dakota, and Vermont, at least 90 percent of rural districts have fewer than 494 students.”

As our society struggles to crawl out from under the burden of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, it is too easy to forget the complexity of our society’s public education endeavor.  Describing the schools he visited during a four year journey to research the wonderful Possible Lives, Mike Rose describes something we too often forget in an era when data and business school disruption have been pushed as the centerpiece of education policy in the federal government and across the states: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practice. Yet it is also true—and we are not good at tolerating the ambiguity—that this wildly uneven array of schools contributed profoundly to the literacy and numeracy of the nation. Out of local effort and varied conditions emerged the common good.” (Why School? pp. 209-212)

In a fascinating recent NY Times column, Sarah Vowell explores the irony of the case of Espinoza v. Montana, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  It is a case whose tuition-tax-credit-voucher-supporting plaintiffs are trying, ironically, to establish that the Montana constitution’s prohibition of spending public dollars on religious schools interferes with free exercise of religion. Instead the Montana delegates in the state’s most recent, 1972 constitutional convention declared in their newly revised version of the Montana constitution their commitment to limiting the expenditure of desperately needed public dollars to the state’s public schools.

Vowell argues that private school tuition vouchers are fully inappropriate (and the Constitutional convention delegates knew this) in a state which epitomizes the urgent needs of rural public schools. She writes: “Article X Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to ‘develop the full educational potential of each person.’  That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland.  Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system.”  She continues, explaining that in Montana, “the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes.” Vowell is describing the sort of high school with maybe 2 or 7 students in its graduating class; she even depicts an old friend near Bozeman who rode her horse to a tiny school. In Montana, the total public school enrollment across the state in 2018-19 was 161,691 students.

When I read Vowell’s column—being from Montana myself—I remembered Mike Rose’s observation that “schools are nested in place,” and they are vastly different from community to community even in rural Montana. Vowell lives down south in Bozeman, but in my part of northern Montana—on the Hi-Line along U.S. Route 2 and the old Great Northern railroad line—students riding horses to school would freeze to death pretty quickly.  But Vowell is correct: One thing that doesn’t vary from one tiny town to another is that classes are really small and the services for children extremely stretched.  My hometown, Havre, with about 9,000 people, is the largest town along the 564 mile stretch of road between Williston, North Dakota and Kalispell, an area that encompasses four Native American nations and dozens of tiny towns that are cold in the winter. Havre High School enrolled 508 students in grades 9-12 last school year. Shelby, the next big town going west, enrolls 115 students in its high school. In one county between Havre, and Shelby the towns of Chester, Joplin, Inverness and Galata bus their students on a long ride to a unified high school which enrolls 58 students in grades 9-12. (Montana high school enrollment data)

The Espinoza push for tuition-tax-credit vouchers is inappropriate in a state where a town is lucky to be able to sustain even a tiny public school (assuming Betsy DeVos’s Education Department restores the essential dollars it just slashed in an act of bureaucratic short-sightedness).  There are no school choices available in towns in the hundred miles east of Havre—from Chinook to Zurich, Harlem, Dodson, Wagner and Malta—and none in the hundred miles to the West—from Kremlin to Gildford, Hingham, Rudyard, Inverness, Joplin, Chester, Tiber, Galata, Devon, Dunkirk, and finally Shelby.

Mike Rose begins a new and very thoughtful blog post by recognizing the blindness that continues to affect public policy in education: “Over the past eight or nine months, I have been writing in this blog about perception and knowledge. How we gain knowledge, how background and social location affect that knowledge, whose knowledge counts, how the context or setting from which we perceive and know matters.” Referencing Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath, Rose recognizes all sorts of things that threaten America’s public schools these days—from ideology (the Espinoza Case) to incompetence (Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education) to a fixation on the methodology of the business schools and the high-tech advocates. Like Diane Ravitch, Rose asks us to trust the experts, “teachers and parents who are close to conditions on the ground, who know the young people in their communities, know their schools and the textured daily life of classrooms, know teaching from the inside, live it, and understand a great deal about the complex social and cognitive dynamics of learning.”

Billionaire Power? Two Decades of Education Policy Are a Cautionary Tale

Anand Giridharadas’s NY Times analysis of the recent Democratic candidates’ debate is the week’s most provocative commentary.  Giridharadas, author of the recent best seller about the role of venture philanthropy, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, devotes his recent column to The Billionaire Election:

“The Democratic debate on Wednesday made it clearer than ever that November’s election has become the billionaire referendum, in which it will be impossible to vote without taking a stand on extreme wealth in a democracy. The word ‘billionaire’ came up more often than ‘China,’ America’s leading geopolitical competitor; ‘immigration,’ among its most contentious issues; and ‘climate,’ its gravest existential threat… With the debate careening between billionaire loathing and billionaire self-love, Mr. Buttigieg warned against making voters ‘choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.'”

As someone who has been watching billionaire-driven, disruptive education reform for over 20 years, I find it fascinating that the role of billionaire power has become a primary issue in presidential politics. If you haven’t been paying such close attention to the education wars, you might not realize that policy around education and the public schools has for two decades been the locus of experimentation with the power and reach of billionaire philanthropists seizing a giant public sector institution from the professionals who have been running the schools for generations.  The billionaires’ idea has been that strategic investment by data wonks and venture philanthropists can turn around school achievement among poor children.

All this fits right in with America’s belief in the enterprising individual, and an attack on public institutions by far-right ideologues.  Disruptive education reform also arose chronologically with the development of big data, which fed into the idea of management efficiency, once tech experts could manipulate the data and help entrepreneurs more efficiently “fix” institutions to raise achievement.

The other part of the story, of course, is that school teaching is not a glam job. You don’t become a celebrity by teaching second grade, or supporting students trying to conceptualize algebra, or helping five sections of fifteen-year-olds every day learn how to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Teachers work on behalf of children; they are not known for their individualism or for competing to be successful. But the business stars—particularly when they are also tech entrepreneurs—have become marketplace celebrities. And so we have given them a chance.

Mike Bloomberg himself brought the experiment to New York City when he got the state legislature to grant him mayoral governance. He hired a well known attorney, Joel Klein, as his schools chancellor.  Without a a bit of training or experience in education, they took over the schools, opened district-wide school choice in a school district serving over a million students, opened charter schools, colocated charters into buildings with public schools and other charters, tested everyone, rated and ranked schools by test scores, and closed the “failing” schools. It was all about technocratic management and attacks on the teachers’ union.  Many of the charter schools were “no-excuses” experiments with children walking silently in straight lines—schools with high suspension rates to create a rigid culture of obedience.  After Joel Klein left to work with Rupert Murdoch on a tech venture, Bloomberg hired socialite Cathie Black to run the city’s schools.  Black was a magazine publisher at Hearst.  She had no advanced degree and no education experience or training. Unable to show any feeling or empathy for the 1.1 million children enrolled in NYC’s public schools or their parents, Black lasted in the position from January until the first week of April in 2011.

Bloomberg was one of the billionaire, ed tech leaders, but there were lots of others:

  • Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation brought us a bunch of experiments that eventually petered out: small high schools, the Common Core, incentive pay for teachers based on their students’ test scores. And Gates money seeded the vast charter school experiment in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane.
  • The Walton Family Foundation has spent more on charter school expansion than any of the other billionaires.
  • The Edith and Eli Broad Foundation just bought a place in the Yale School of Management for the Broad Superintendents’ Academy that has for years been training school leaders with business management principles.
  • Mark Zuckerberg (the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) has promoted so-called “personalized” learning in which the software is programmed to tailor online instruction “personally” according each child’s needs and rate of learning.

Arne Duncan filled the U.S. Department of Education with staff from the Gates Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund and formalized all the competitive, business-tech theory into a Race to the Top, which was going to reward success and punish so-called “failing schools” with mandated quick turnarounds—firing principals and teachers, charterizing or privatizing schools, and finally closing schools.

It is time to remember several things about the reforms brought to us by the tech billionaires, for these same lessons may apply to the way, if elected, billionaires would “reform” the country just as they “reformed” the schools.  In the first place, No Child Left Behind, the federal program that encapsulated all this ed-reform theory, didn’t raise test scores.  Neither did it close test score gaps between wealthy children raised in pockets of privilege and poor children.

And the turnaround strategy created a mess in the cities where it was tried.  Year after year, New York City qualifies as the nation’s most segregated school district, because marketplace school choice promotes racial and economic segregation.  In Chicago, where Gates money enabled Arne Duncan to launch Renaissance 2010 before he took the same ideas to the U.S. Department of Education in Race to the Top, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing describes the human collateral damage when technocrats forgot about the role of human institutions in real communities. In the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, Ewing documents community grieving for the destruction of neighborhoods when schools were closed:  “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor who has educated future teachers during an entire career writes about the kind of education policies the billionaire technocrats have never understood. After a trip across the United States observing excellent teachers, Rose writes about what classrooms look like when teachers know how to nurture and respect human connections with and among our children:  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Do we really want the billionaires to be able to direct their philanthropy, however well-intentioned, privately to shape public institutions with the money they are not paying in taxes?  Giradharadas concludes his recent column with that very question: “Do we wish to be a society in which wealth purchases fealty?  Are we cool with plutocrats taking advantage of a cash-starved state to run their own private policy machinery, thus cultivating the networks required to take over the state from time to time, and run it in ways that further entrench wealth? Just this week, Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced his creation of a $10 billion fund to fight climate change.  Once, such a gift might have been greeted with unmitigated gratitude. But now, rightly, people are asking about all the taxes Amazon doesn’t pay, about its own carbon footprint, and about whether any mortal should have that much power over a shared crisis.”

An Urgent Issue in Troubled Times: Building the Will to Support Public Education

For this blog, I’ve been tracking the explosion of new vouchers in Ohio, a similar expansion of the cost of school vouchers in Wisconsin, the proposed closure of the storied Collinwood High School by Cleveland’s mayoral-appointed school board, and the protracted negotiations in Lorain, Ohio to get rid of the state’s appointed school district CEO, a man who has brought chaos to the city’s public schools and the entire community. Then, last week, I spent time reviewing the history of corporate, accountability-based school reform as a twelve-year experiment imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, in New York City.  It is all pretty discouraging.  And an added worry is the absence so far of any talk about our public schools, arguably our most important civic institution, in the 2020 Democratic candidates’ debates.

At the impeachment hearings last week, I was struck by the importance of people like William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, experienced career professionals who clearly articulate the institutional norms and goals of international diplomacy. What educator could I feature in this blog, someone who would remind us of the educational policies and institutional norms worth fighting for as a way to protect in our public schools during troubled times?

After an extensive search across shelves of books, I remembered School Reform Fails the Test, an article in which, five years ago, Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, examined America’s long journey into corporate, test-and-punish school reform.  Even if you read this article five years ago when it was published in The American Scholar, and even if you’ve read Rose’s inspiring books, I encourage you to read Rose’s article from 2014 again. Rose identifies important norms and practices in our public schools and explains why, in the midst of all the news swirling around us, we must continue to advocate for strengthening our society’s dedication to universal public education as a right we guarantee for all of our young people.

Rose is not naive.  He explains: “Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.”

Rose suspects that our long, strange, education-reform trip into test and punish accountability may reflect massive and rapid change in our broader society: “School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of our education….”

Here is part of Rose’s analysis of the school reforms that followed, policies which were eventually formalized in the No Child Left Behind Act and which made demands on public schools and school teachers: “A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable….  The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished… An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students.”

But the framers of the law didn’t envision all the consequences which followed, including this one: “The nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those less affluent students at the center of reform. When teachers… concentrate on standardized tests, students might improve their scores but receive an inadequate education. A troubling pattern in American schooling thereby continues: poor kids get a lower-tier education focused on skills and routine while students in more affluent districts get a robust and engaging school experience. It’s important to consider how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.”

In 1995, Rose published Possible Lives, a book about several years of research he undertook by visiting public school classrooms.  He reviews the conclusions of that research in the 2014 article: “During the first wave of what would become the 30 year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.  I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools, college professors who taught teachers, parents and community activists who were involved in education….”

What did Rose notice about the characteristics of the excellent classrooms he visited?  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Rose concludes by lifting up the experiences and traditions within public schools themselves—as an alternative to the corporate boardrooms seen by school reformers as the place to seek answers: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?…  Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.

Even if you know the work of Mike Rose and have enjoyed his books, I hope you will read or reread School Reform Fails the Test.  It is a great review of what has gone wrong. It is also hopeful: Rose anchors school improvement in supporting the work of the professionals who have studied good pedagogy and who know the norms and expectations of the institutions where they spend their days with our children. Rose confirms what we’ve watched now for going on two years, as schoolteachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been striking to drive home the urgent need for nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and small classes. To serve  the collective needs of our children, we’ll have to build the public will for investment to overcome our public schools’ greatest challenges.

What Does Educational Opportunity Mean?

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, has spent a good part of his life examining the meaning of educational opportunity.  In Why School? (2009 and expanded in 2014), Rose considers how students experience opportunity at school: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a much earlier exploration, the 1989, Lives on the Boundary, part of it biographical, Rose investigates the ways educators connect with students and the role of quality literacy and remedial education: “Lives on the Boundary concerns language and human connection, literacy and culture, and it focuses on those who have trouble reading and writing in the schools and the workplace. It is a book about the abilities hidden by class and cultural barriers. And it is a book about movement: about what happens as people who have failed begin to participate in the educational system that has seemed so harsh and distant to them. We are a nation obsessed with evaluating our children, with calibrating their exact distance from some ideal benchmark… All students cringe under the scrutiny, but those most harshly affected, least successful in the completion, possess some of our greatest unperceived riches.” (Lives on the Boundary, p. xi)

In the 2012, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose explores the role of  community college programs to educate adults and provide technical training: “Equal opportunity is something every conservative affirms as a core American value. Yet in no realistic sense of the word does anything like equal opportunity exist toward the bottom of the income ladder… Recent studies show that parental income has a greater effect on children’s success in America than in other developed countries… Many of the students I’ve taught at UCLA who come from well-to-do families grew up in a world of museums, music lessons, tutoring, sports programs, travel, up-to-date educational technologies, after-school and summer programs geared toward the arts or sciences.  All this is a supplement to attending good to exceptional public or private schools.  Because their parents are educated, they can provide all kinds of assistance with homework, with navigating school, with advocacy.  These parents are doing everything possible to create maximum opportunity for their kids, often with considerable anxiety and expense… (P)oor parents would do the same if they could.  But it would require quite a distortion to see young people from affluent and poor backgrounds as having equal opportunity at academic and career success.” (Back to School, p. 21)

In a new blog post just last week, Rose, who has been studying educational opportunity for an entire career, describes how a recent experience expanded his own understanding of the fragility of the lives of the students whose needs are greatest.

A friend who has endowed a small education foundation invited Rose to read letters of appreciation, sent after applicants—students at a community college—were awarded very small, one time grants of $500 to $1000: “The letters provide a view into the lives of successful students, people who are close to completing a two-year degree, or about to transfer to a university, or are finishing a nursing program and preparing to take the licensing exam. The letters convey a detailed, vivid sense of how precarious these students’ lives are. Money for the bus or gas for the car is a big thing.  People don’t get their textbooks on time because they are searching for the lowest price. Balancing school, work, and family is intensely demanding, and more often than not, it is school that suffers. (An aside: A just-published report from the College Futures Foundation reveals that among students in California two-and four-year colleges, housing and food costs—not just tuition—are increasingly becoming barriers to college completion.) Almost all of the letters reveal a web of responsibilities to other family members beyond one’s own spouse and children. The letters are graceful, and brimming with gratitude, and exude drive and determination and immense strength, but they also reveal how one mishap, one piece of bad luck, an accident, a lost job, illness—can jeopardize what these people have worked so hard to attain. The evaporation of their American Dream.”

The emergency grants Rose describes cannot compensate for the depth of overall poverty challenging these students or the explosion these days of structural inequality: “The causes and scope of this economic insecurity, of course, are way beyond what can be remedied with a small grant. A few hundred bucks will not alleviate chronic housing or food insecurity. But a quick, targeted award can help in an emergency: can repair a car needed for school and work, replace a stolen computer, pay for food or rent during a time when a breadwinner is recuperating from surgery.  Or the funds can be used for one-time expenses that are crucial for students’ careers. A number of the letter writers will use their award to pay for their nursing licensing exam, several noting that without that award, their certification would be delayed.”

I grew up in northern Montana, and interested in Montana’s giant, end-of-September snowstorm this past week, I happened to look at my own hometown newspaper, the Havre Daily News.  Once on the newspaper’s website, I kept reading and discovered an obituary describing the life of the very kind of student Rose has written about. This student, Norma Jean King — He Mani Wi, “Mountain Walks”– lived all her life in Hays, Montana, in the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Norma was a proud cultural member of the Little Shell Metis Tribe and embraced her husband’s Assiniboine culture also.” This woman epitomizes determination as well as the impact on the broader community of someone who, in very isolated and what might have been limited circumstances, pursued an education.  After her high school graduation in 1963, Norma Jean King, “worked as a clerk for Kerns store until 1969, when she began working as an aide at the old Hays School. It was there where she decided to extend her passion in education, so Norma worked and went to college all at the same time. She enrolled in the first-of-its-kind in the area ‘distance learning’ program called Urban Rural out of the College of Great Falls. The satellite classes were based at the old Hays School Campus in a trailer. In 1975, Norma graduated from College of Great Falls with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She applied at the Hays School and immediately started working as a teacher as she began her long career in education… In 1988, Norma earned her master’s degree in education administration from MSU (Montana State University) in Bozeman. Norma received many certificates in education and moved from teaching at the elementary level to the junior high and high school levels, eventually working her way up to principal, also in those three levels. She attained working at the highest level as superintendent.”

There is no evidence that Norma Jean King needed the kind of emergency financial help Mike Rose describes in his recent blog, but her life is a reminder that education can be a very complicated balancing act for people who do not come from backgrounds where parents can provide ample enrichment and funding. Her life exemplifies the significance of education not only for her but also for the many students she taught and the schools she led during her long and very important career in Hays, Montana.

The Presidential Candidates and the Press: Missing What’s Important

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noticed something in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates so far: “Now it’s getting ridiculous: four debates among Democratic presidential candidates, and no questions—or serious discussion about K-12 education.”  She notes that Michael Bennet alone made a plea to “fix our school system,” but beyond that imprecise declaration, explains Strauss: “Some candidates made passing references to universal preschool, and moderators did raise college affordability and student debt.  But when it comes to K-12 public education, which many believe is the most important civic institution in the country, nada.”  Strauss blames the moderators, and I encourage you to read her pointed speculation about what they might have been thinking when they ignored our public schools.

The school superintendent turned member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis also asks some tough questions of the press and policy makers, this time about the widespread and relatively unquestioned assumption that standardized test scores are a good measure for the quality of public schools.  While Mathis writes that parents, educators and students all seem to agree that other things matter at school more than test scores, he criticizes: “pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem… Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression… The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.”

Lifelong professor of education and among our society’s finest writers about education, Mike Rose has also been worrying about the lack of a substantive conversation about what is happening in our public schools.  Rose has noticed the absence of the voice of professional educators in the traditional “high-and middlebrow media”—publications that “still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.”

Rose worries about who is doing the framing of the national conversation about our public schools: “When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor—medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion—we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.  We rarely see this treatment of education.”  Rose thinks the absence of the voices the professional educators has constricted our vision, “For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like.  This economic managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.  If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.”

Rose quotes education philosopher, John Dewey: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.”  Rose continues: “I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery—or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach—what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars—move them to want to teach it?  How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them—and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students?”

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist also worries about the absence of what is important in our public conversation. Believing that Donald Trump’s presidency has degraded our politics and the way we talk about important policy issues, Brooks examines our current political dialogue more broadly: “If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal.  If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s.  If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.  But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.”

Brooks continues: “Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything—except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral.  Bernie Sanders… is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind set… The bigger problem is simply the culture of the Democratic Party. ”

Brooks lists five values this election ought to be about:

  • “Unity: We’re one people.”
  • “Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth.”
  • “Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting.  We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”
  • “Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.”
  • “Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.”

I believe that Mike Rose’s concern is about finding space where educators can share broadly the way these same values can be encouraged and enhanced in their classrooms. And Bill Mathis would list these values as the central parts of a fine education that will never show up in standardized test scores.

If our politicians and the press really began to talk substantively about Brooks’ fifth value—opportunity, the educational conversation would have to get beyond Pre-K, free college tuition and college debt relief. Debate moderators would need to begin asking questions like the ones Valerie Strauss suggests: “Is it too difficult to compose questions that get at the heart of major matters confronting public schools?… How about: ‘America funds its public education system largely through property taxes, and federal efforts to close the gap between high-income and low-income neighborhoods have not bridged the gap.  Should there be a fundamental change in the way public schools are funded?’  Or: ‘If the Supreme Court rules, as it may do, that it is constitutional for states to use public funds for religious education, would you take any action as president to override that decision?  Do you believe it is constitutional for public funds to be used for religious education?’ Or: ‘Do you agree with any education move that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made?’  Or: ‘What is the most damaging step Betsy DeVos has taken, and how would you change it?’  Or: ‘Do you agree with Betsy DeVos on expanding charter schools, and if not, where is the disagreement?’  Or: ‘Can you name the three biggest problems facing K-12 education today, and how you would fix them?’ Or ‘What is the role of the federal government in education policy?'”

An inquiry that pays attention to Brooks’ five values would lead the press and our politicians to explore some of the deeper issues in our schools.  What can teachers tell us about the effect of the enormous class sizes we heard about as teachers struck last year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Oakland? What is the role of school nurses and what can teachers tell us about why their presence is so important? What sort of support for students is really needed at school in terms of social workers and counselors?  How much should we pay teachers and how do teachers’ salaries help stabilize a school’s faculty in a way that supports children and families? What can school principals tell us about how a library with a professional school librarian enriches a school or why theater programs and bands and orchestras are so important in high schools?  I haven’t seen serious consideration of the needs of children and their schools mentioned in the plan of any of the candidates.

David Brooks is right: “We need an uprising of decency.” And public education—a human endeavor as well as a matter of public policy—needs to be part of our serious political conversation—including the voices of the professionals who nurture and educate 50 million of our young people.

And, of course, there is that serious public policy question about school privatization that our Democratic presidential candidates keep trying to hedge. Most of them sort of support and at the same time sort of oppose charter schools—when they are for-profit.  And almost none of the candidates seems to realize that it is the management companies, not the nonprofit schools themselves, which are stealing away millions of our tax dollars.  This issue is, at its heart, also a matter of what I would add to Brooks’ list as the sixth important value we ought to be talking about: JUSTICE.  I hope that a presidential candidate will emerge who understands and can explain to the American people why justice cannot be other than systemic.  Any policy that takes from the many to serve a few—or that incorporates competition with winners and losers—cannot answer our society’s needs.  Public schools are the institution designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of ALL of our children.

“Classrooms and Hope” — Mike Rose’s Reflection for the Holiday Weekend

If you care about children, it is pretty easy to get discouraged in a country where state budgets are shorting schools, where we celebrated the 4th of July yesterday with tanks, and where children are being warehoused at the southern border in unsanitary, unsafe, and frightening conditions.

It is the holiday weekend when we celebrate who we want to be as a nation.  Where is there something hopeful we can focus on in 2019?  The UCLA education professor and wonderful writer, Mike Rose contemplates this question in a blog post earlier this week: “What in our lives acts as a counterforce to the dulling and blunting effects of evil, helps us see the good, hold to it, and work toward it?”

Rose, the educator who wrote a book about a four year trip across the United States—a journey in which he visited hundreds of classrooms and observed teachers—answers his own question: “I realized that for me a longstanding source of hope, of what might be, is the classroom, or more exactly, all that the classroom represents at its best: a sanctioned space for growth, learning, discovery, thinking and thinking together,”

In this post Rose describes what his visits to public schools helped him realize: “These trips to Calexico, to Baltimore, to Eastern Kentucky, to a nation within a nation in northern Arizona brought forth new cultural practices, new languages, new gestures.  I was fortunate to have been escorted into so many classrooms, so many homes, to have been guided into the everyday events of the communities I visited, for the invitation eased the unfamiliarity and discomfort that could have been present on all sides. What I experienced was a kind of awe at our variety, yet an intimate regard, a handshake on the corner, a sense of shared humanity.”

Rose continues: “The journey was odd for me in another way, considering my own teaching history.  My work in the classroom has mostly been with people whom our schools, public and private, have failed: working-class and immigrant students, students from nonmainstream linguistic and cultural backgrounds, students of all backgrounds who didn’t fit a curriculum or timetable or definition of achievement and were thereby categorized in some way as different or deficient…. And yet there were these rooms.  Vital, varied, they were providing a powerful education for the children in them, many of whom were members of the very groups defined as inferior in times past and, not infrequently, in our ungenerous present.  What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms, in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society.  These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal. To be sure, this democratic impulse has been undercut and violated virtually since its first articulation… But it has been advanced, realized in daily classroom life by a long history of educators working both within the mainstream and outside it, challenging it through workingmen’s organizations, women’s groups, Black schools, appropriating the ideal, often against political and economic resistance, to their own emancipatory ends.”

“The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.  At a time of profound disillusionment with public institutional life, these people were, in their distinct ways, creating the conditions for children to develop lives of possibility.”

I urge you to read Rose’s new post this weekend.  His column is made up of passages from two of his books. You might want to read or reread these books—Possible Lives and Why School?this summer.

High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. 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 it loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”