The Danger of Conflating Public School Stability with Preservation of the Status Quo

Two major education organizations have recently released public opinion polls describing—after last year’s disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic—Americans’ opinions about public education in general and respondents’ views of their own communities’ public schools.  It is fascinating to compare the sponsoring organizations’ interpretations of the meaning of the results they discovered.

Phi Delta Kappa International describes its mission: “Established in 1906, PDK International supports teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”  As an organization supporting public school educators, this year PDK probed how the pandemic affected parents’ attitudes and more broadly the opinions of adults in general toward public education.  PDK’s executive director Joshua Starr interprets the new poll results: “For 53 years, PDK has polled the American public on their attitudes toward the nation’s public schools…  (A)s we all know, the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical. So, we decided to take a different tack, setting aside our usual approach to the survey and… zeroing in on the questions that matter most right now: How have the public schools performed during the pandemic, and what are Americans’ main concerns about the coming 2021-22 school year? The results offer a rare glimmer of hope at a difficult time. Not only have the nation’s educators persevered through the hardest school year in memory, but according to our findings, most Americans—especially parents with children in the public schools—remain confident in their local schools’ ability to provide effective instruction and leadership.”

In contrast, several of Education Next‘s corporate reformers describe the new poll from the point of view of that publication. Education Next is edited by  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Peterson’s program, a pro-corporate reform think tank, is housed in the Harvard Kennedy Center and is separate from Harvard University’s department of education. Education Next is the house organ for Peterson’s program.

Here is the spin of Peterson and three colleagues as they describe the results of the new Education Next poll: “Calamities often disrupt the status quo… Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change… The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919.  In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K-12 schooling…  In the political sphere, expectations for large-scale innovation are running high…  Our survey results should temper expectations for major shifts in any political direction and post a warning to advocates of any stripe. At least when it comes to education policy, the U.S. public seems as determined to return to normalcy after Covid as it was after the flu pandemic a century ago… The shifts are not large enough to be statistically significant for some items: in-state tuition for immigrant children, higher salaries for teachers when the respondent is informed of current pay levels, testing students for accountability purposes, tax-credit scholarships, and merit pay.  On other items, such as preschool education, the survey does not include information on the state of opinion in both 2019 and 2021, but we find no evidence of a surge in demand for change and reform.  All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

The Phi Delta Kappa poll should reassure those who have been worried that masses of parents have given up on public schools disrupted by long sessions of virtual schooling and hybrid in-class/online schedules.  “Majorities of Americans give high marks to their community’s public schools and public school teachers for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.  Further, the public is broadly confident in schools’ preparedness to handle the challenges ahead in 2021-22. Teachers fare especially well in these assessments.  About two-thirds of adults overall, and as many K-12 public school parents, give their community’s public school teachers an A or B grade for their pandemic response.  Parents are almost as positive about their community’s public schools more generally, giving 63% As or Bs, though the positive rating slips to 54% among all Americans… People whose public schools mainly used a hybrid model are 7 to 17 points more apt than those with fully remote schools to be confident in their schools’ preparedness to reopen fully this fall…. Confidence on catching up on academics and dealing with social-emotional impacts is higher still among those whose schools mainly used in-person learning.”

Education Next compares polling results from its 2019 poll to this year’s survey, and points to declining support in every single category of policy change, from the kind of reforms Education Next supports—merit pay for teachers, annual testing, Common Core state standards, national standards in general, charter schools, universal private school tuition vouchers, low-income vouchers, and tuition tax credits; to reforms public school supporters prefer—more school spending and increased teacher salaries, to reforms in higher education—free public four-year college and free public two-year college. The Education Next poll even asks respondents about the impact of teachers unions: “A plurality of Americans (50%) say unions made it neither easier nor harder to reopen schools in their community.” “In short,” explains Education Next, “The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty. Enthusiasm for most, perhaps all, policy innovations has waned… All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

It is significant that these polls highlight something that neither organization names explicitly: Public schools are the only widespread institution outside the family itself that parents can count on to support their children, to shape a dependable family routine, to support parents as they learn to understand and appreciate their children’s challenges and gifts, and simply to introduce children to their broader community in a safe and structured setting.

Despite the worries reported in the press that parents might have lost faith in their public schools due to the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19 and some reports speculating that children will leave in droves to online or private alternatives, PDK’s poll affirms that most people will return their children to the public schools they continue to count on as the essence of their communities.

Education Next‘s spinners, determined to impose their set of technocratic reforms, forget to identify public schools as essential institutions and forget that public schools represent the identity and the history of each community. In describing the poll, Education Next conflates the meaning of stability with something else entirely: returning to the status quo.  People who love the stability of their community’s public schools may desperately want school improvement, but they generally don’t choose the kind of technocratic change Education Next supports and includes in its new poll: merit pay, annual standardized testing, the Common Core state standards, national standards, privately operated charter schools, and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents and members of the community whose grandchildren and neighbors attend public schools more likely define essential change in the context of particular improvements needed for safety, security, and educational opportunities for the community’s children and adolescents: the return of a shuttered school library—small classes to bring more personal attention for each child—the return of a school nurse—an art program—a school orchestra—enough guidance counselors to ensure that all high school seniors have help with their college applications—better chemistry labs and a Calculus class at the high school—an additional school social worker—Community School wraparound services to support families who need medical care, better after-school programs, and summer enrichment.  Most families don’t look to find this kind of reform in a privatized charter school or by carrying a voucher to a private school.

Education sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us, “What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up.”

Recently as I explored the books of the late Mike Rose, a profound advocate for the importance of America’s system of public education, I found this passage examining what ought to be the definition of school reform. Rose was not a fan of the status quo; instead he was a strong believer in the need for ongoing public school improvement: “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 that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination.” (Why School? p. 203)

Rose continues: “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

Mike Rose would have been reassured by this year’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, which demonstrates that parents are sticking with the public schools—not leaving in droves as some people had feared.  Rose would have called us all to keep on fighting to ensure that our public schools are well resourced to ensure that every child discovers opportunity at school.

Remembering Mike Rose

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, died in August.  Those of us who value thinking about education practice, education philosophy, and education policy will deeply miss Rose’s blog and his wisdom. But we will continue to have his books, and now is a good time to revisit some of them.

Rose was an educator, not a technocrat. In our society where for a quarter of a century education thinkers and policymakers have  worried about the quality of the product of schooling as measured by standardized test scores, Rose calls our attention to the process: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate— or constructed at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?”  (Why School?, p. 14)  In Why School?  Rose explores a very different philosophy of education than what was embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34)

In the mid-1990s, Rose spent several years traveling around the United States visiting the classrooms of excellent teachers. The product of this work is Possible Lives, perhaps the very best book I know about public schooling in the United States and about what constitutes excellent teaching. Rose begins the book’s introduction: “During a time when so many are condemning public schools—and public institutions in general—I have been traveling across the country visiting classrooms in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized. These are classrooms judged to be good and decent places by those closest to them—parents, principals, teachers, students—classrooms in big cities and small towns, preschool through twelfth grade, places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning… Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination. I visited schools for three and a half years, and what struck me early on—and began to define my journey—was how rarely the kind of intellectual and social richness I was finding was reflected in the public sphere… We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries… We are offered, by both entertainment and news media, depictions of schools as mediocre places, where students are vacuous and teachers are not so bright; or as violent and chaotic places, places where order has fled and civility has been lost.  It’s hard to imagine anything good in all this.” (Possible Lives, p. 1)

Here, however, are Rose’s conclusions in the book’s final chapter: “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: a 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… 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.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)  In his stories of four years’ of visits to public schools, Rose presents our nation’s system of public schooling as a defining American institution.

Rose appreciates and celebrates the work of public school teachers: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable.  They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… A teacher must use these various kind of knowledge—knowledge of subject matter, of practice, of one’s students, of relationwithin the institutional confines of mass education. The teachers I visited had, over time, developed ways to act with some effectiveness within these constraints—though not without times of confusion and defeat—and they had determined ways of organizing their classrooms that enabled them to honor their beliefs about teaching and learning… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms. Thus the high expectations they held for what their students could accomplish… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With his strong interest in the life of the classroom and the experience of education, Rose definitely does not ignore education policy, but he looks at policy decisions from the point of view of the students, their families and the community.  Here is how he examines one of No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s strategies: —school closure as a turnaround policy: “Closing a school and transferring its students is unsettling in the best of circumstances… For low-income communities, the school is often one of the few remaining institutions. Transfer also brings to the fore issues with transportation, with navigating streets that mark gang turf, with shifting kids from the familiar to the strange. And all this happens in communities already buffeted by uncertainty about employment, housing, health care, and food on the table… Race to the Top… raises broad questions about innovation in public education and makes funding contingent on change… But the model of change has to be built on deep knowledge of how the organization works, its history, its context, its practices. The model of change in Race to the Top seems to be drawn from ideas in the air about modern business, ideas about competition, innovation, quick transformation, and metrics—an amalgam of the economistic and the technocratic.  This is not a model of change appropriate for schools….” (Why School? pp. 63-65)

Rose was not, however, a fan of the status quo; he was a believer in the need for ongoing school improvement, but not the technocratic, top-down, ideological school reform imposed in recent decades: “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 that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.” (Why School?, pp 203-204)  “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

In the age of Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as her senior project at Princeton for the purpose of inserting brainy Ivy Leaguers into classrooms because their privileged backgrounds were thought to be gifts to the children of the poor, Mike Rose’s perspective is countercultural.  Rose instead wrote about the experiences of students discovering higher education as the first in their families to enroll in college. Lives on the Boundary and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education examine the work of community colleges, the challenges their students face economically as they struggle to pursue an education, and the personal meaning of their experiences apart from the job training they may acquire. And in The Mind at Work, Rose explores the intellectual demands of so-called blue-collar work.

I urge you to read or re-read some of these books as a way to celebrate Mike Rose’s legacy. None of these books feels dated. Rose’s writing is fresh and lucid. He will challenge you to examine the importance of public schooling in these times when corporate, test-based school accountability and school privatization continue to dominate too much of the conversation about education in the United States.

Good Teachers Will Know How to Help Our Children Thrive after a Year of COVID-19 Disruption

This spring has been filled with a debate about whether or not standardized testing in public schools should be continued or cancelled. And right now there seems to be a widespread obsession with measuring students’ “learning loss” in this disrupted COVID-19 year. A lot of this anxiety about whether the COVID-19 generation will ever be able to catch up has less to do with the students themselves, however, and more to do with the fact that many people don’t really know what teachers do. Some people think of teachers essentially as babysitters; others imagine teachers merely lecturing all day in front of classrooms of students taking notes or dozing as they sit in rows of desks. Lots of people seem to imagine that teachers won’t know what to do with their students unless they see the scores on the federally required standardized tests in English language arts and math.

Back in the winter, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a letter from 74 national public education advocacy organizations and ten thousand individuals to the recently nominated education secretary, Miguel Cardona. In the letter asking Cardona to cancel standardized testing in this year of COVID-19 school closures and disruption, the writers concluded: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

Last week, as part of a series of columns this spring on how teachers can support students once back in school, Valerie Strauss published a wonderful piece by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

As he reflects upon the students who spent much of the current school year online or on hybrid in-person/online schedules, Ferlazzo supports research showing that remedial classes—which go back and start with the basics one step at a time—are a bad plan. Ferlazzo agrees with researchers who have demonstrated that “accelerated” learning is a good idea, but he advises school districts not to spend a lot of money at the publishing houses and online companies promoting their expensive “accelerated learning” products:

“‘Accelerated Learning’ appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword—‘learning loss.’… I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of ‘accelerated learning’ products and professional development over the next year and more.  And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about. It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!”

Of course, Ferlazzo is not writing about some of what teachers do in classes for non-speakers and non-readers of English. He isn’t writing about pattern practice drills or conversation “dialogues” that reinforce the rudiments of English syntax and help students learn the nuances of conversation. These parts of English language classes are more like mind-numbing remedial education.

Instead, Ferlazzo writes about something more complicated and more subtle: “ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content. (They might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions.)  During the pandemic… all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.”

Ferlazzo suggests that good teachers know “how to look at their students through the lens of assets and not deficits.”

He suggests that good teachers will build their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and explore. They will make “students feel they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality” including well designed writing assignments and homework options. Good teachers build confidence instead of threatening students about falling behind: “Research says that no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not….”  Good teachers make their classrooms into settings for relatedness, “where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect” including the teacher and other students through group work.  Finally, good teachers know how to make the subject matter of the class relevant to students’ lives, to their personal interests, and to what’s happening in the world.

Good teachers activate and provide prior knowledge. “Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching… (W)e are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.”

Ferlazzo adds that good teachers make students comfortable emotionally by emphasizing supportive relationships, and organizing classes according to predictable routines. Good teachers use all sorts of “formative assessments”—“low stakes tools” that show the teacher what students can do and where they need help. Good teachers provide study organizers—charts and graphic organizers, note-taking strategies, writing frames and other techniques to help them be independent learners.  And finally, Ferlazzo advocates the use of some adaptive online instruction tools, though in this case, he is very clear: “Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place… Really, if we were going to be able to ‘technify’ ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?”

I am struck with the similarity of Ferlazzo’s definition of great “accelerated” learning as students return to school post-pandemic with education professor and writer Mike Rose’s basic definition of good teaching. Rose’s book, the 1995, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (with a new edition in 2006), is the story of a four year trip he took across the United States to observe excellent teaching.  Possible Lives came right before our nation fell into the trap of No Child Left Behind and the era of corporate, test based school accountability.  It is the very best book I know about great teaching.

Nearly 20 years after the publcation of Possible Lives, in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform, Rose summarizes what he has learned about teaching over a career of observing great teachers: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. 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…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

Mike Rose, a scholar who has studied good teaching over a long career, and Larry Ferlazzo, an experienced and thoughtful high school teacher, warn us not to underestimate what good teachers know how to do.

Our Children Need Us to Bring the Pandemic Under Control: Only Then Can Public Schools Fully Reopen

Widespread disarray as schools struggle to figure out how to reopen is a catastrophe we have permitted to occur this summer as we all watched. Most of us failed to pay enough attention. On some level, I have begun to worry that, in the midst of all the current partisan political upheaval and the stress of the pandemic, America has forgotten to care enough about our children.

State budgets, which are a primary funder of U.S. public education, collapsed last spring due to a COVID-19 recession. On May 15, to shore up state budgets and public education, the U.S. House passed the HEROES Act, but the U.S. Senate is only now taking up the bill. President Donald Trump has denied the seriousness of the pandemic and failed to coordinate a plan to bring infection levels under control. School leaders have been left scrambling just weeks before school is supposed to start.  Will students be in school full time, or will they learn online as they did last spring, or will schools be forced to create hybrid in-person/online schedules to ensure social distancing in classrooms and on school buses?

Do we in America value our children?  Do we need a reminder of the vision the American philosopher John Dewey described in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.  All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Suddenly in the past couple of weeks, the reopening of public schools this fall has become a big deal, because school district leaders are up against a deadline. But all summer, we just sort of forgot to pay attention. With Congress back in session this week, money for starting school this fall is part of a coronavirus relief bill being debated, but it seems agreement may take several weeks. If Congress finally appropriates billions of dollars, when will the money become available for superintendents to hire teachers and school districts to retrofit ventilation systems?  Nobody knows.

Yesterday, in an analysis published jointly by the NY Times and Chalkbeat, Chalkbeat‘s editor Sarah Darville summarizes what many do not fully grasp: the complexity of reopening public schools this fall:  “Of all the American institutions the pandemic has shut down, none face pressure to reopen quite like schools do. Pediatricians exhort schools to open their doors whenever possible or risk developmental harm to kids. Working parents, particularly mothers, are in crisis, worried about having to leave the work force altogether in the absence of a place to send their young children each day. And President Trump is campaigning for schools to reopen, threatening to withhold funding if they don’t.  The pressure has mounted as school districts have made it clear that they can do no such thing. Across the country… schools are preparing their students and staffs for a continuation of the ‘remote learning’ that began in the spring. In New York City and Chicago, where the virus is more under control, schools are moving toward a hybrid option with remote learning some days, in-person school others. Even in places like Detroit and Memphis, where districts plan to offer in-person school for those who want it, local leaders could change course if the virus cases rise…. The people left to figure it out are superintendents, school board members, teachers and parents, for whom that simple word ‘reopen’ actually entails a dizzying array of interlocking problems.”

Here is how Darville describes what schools do: “Let’s start with child care, which translates, at the barest minimum, to providing every child with a safe place to go so their patents can work and so that they can learn. For schools to play that role, they require two basic ingredients, sufficient physical space and willing and capable adult caregivers… In addition to child care, there is food—another resource schools provide that is both much more necessary and much harder to deliver because of the pandemic.  In normal times, U.S. public schools provide 30 million free or nearly-free meals a day… Our failure to get schools fully open means that meeting students’ mental health needs is even harder. And organizing hybrid schedules or remote learning may sap energy that schools need to serve students’ continuing needs.”

Near the end of her summary, Darville comes to the issue of the necessary funds to open schools safely and at the same time ensure that staff are not laid off in the midst of the serious recession that is currently depleting state school budgets: “Making schools functional will also take money, as states are facing projected shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion over the next three years thanks to the spiraling pandemic.”  Darville cites data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Two other organizations have made serious attempts this summer to raise public awareness about the severity of the fiscal crisis: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Nearly three-fourths of the way through her article, Darville reminds readers about the educational role of public schools: “If taking on the child care, food, and the mental health challenges facing American children this fall were not enough, there is also, of course the matter of making sure those children learn.  Providing any form of education this fall means reckoning with an extraordinary version of what educators call ‘summer slide.’… Heading into this school year, these constraints are profound.  After school buildings closed this spring, teachers offered various forms of substitute education from paper packets to video classroom gatherings.  Nevertheless, a small but significant share of students went totally unaccounted for as they struggled to connect to online lessons without reliable internet, took on child care responsibilities for younger siblings, or just tuned out without the familiar support of teachers and counselors. Over all, the best estimates from teachers are that six in 10 students were regularly engaged in their coursework.”

Darville does a good job of summarizing a mass of concerns, but I don’t think she conveys what many of us worry will be missing this fall when too many children will be unable to be back in school full time with their teachers.  Schools are institutions where adults care for children, but it isn’t merely a matter of emotional support or free lunches or childcare that enables parents to go to work.

In a new blog post this week, Mike Rose, the UCLA education professor and fine education writer, explores the pedagogical implications of What It Means to Care. Rose explains: “Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.”

Rose shares a passage from Possible Lives, among the most profound and inspiring books written about education.  Rose wrote Possible Lives to share four years of visiting and observing fine classrooms across the United States.  In the book he reflects on the qualities of the excellent teachers he observed. In the passage Rose shares in his blog post this week, he describes a visit to a school in the border town of Calexico, California: “The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who is also a mentor to first-year teachers at her school… One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools.”

Rose describes Elena Castro’s determination to demand much from her students and always to make school more challenging. He describes a very simple way Castro demonstrates how much she cares about a student’s learning: “Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: ‘No.’ No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day.”

Rose continues, affirming the capacity of good public school teachers to counter biases and stereotypes that limit children: “There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated… Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people.”  Rose continues, describing Castro’s classroom: “The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation ‘low achiever’ or, in some cases, ‘slow learner.’  Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. ‘The first two weeks, it was difficult,’ she explained… ‘I’d put them here (at the Writer’s Table) to write—and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say… I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them.  But… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.’  Her room was constructed on work and opportunity.”

The public conversation this month about reopening school in the midst of what is still a raging pandemic omits the kind of reflection Rose provides about the real meaning of education. We need to insist that policymakers do everything possible to ensure that students can return soon to full-time, in-person school. It isn’t a mere matter of the need for childcare or school lunches. Rose describes the kind of caring teacher every child needs.  It cannot happen remotely or via ZOOM.

Public schools cannot fully reopen, however, until the pandemic itself is brought under control.

A Public School Evaluation System That Fails to Account for What We Value

What really matters in public schools?  There are some very different definitions of the purpose of schooling. Proponents of business-driven, standardized test-based school accountability, the system mandated for two decades by the federal government, say we must use data to measure the quality of the student products turned out at high school graduation.  Educators—and I believe parents and children—agree that what matters is students’ experience of learning while they are in school.

In these months when our children are at home because the pandemic has closed their schools, parents, children, and teachers have all been talking and writing about what they are missing—what is most important for them in the daily experience of of formal schooling.  But lots of education policy wonks seem worried about whether schools can quickly get back on schedule with the standardized testing regimen we’ve come to expect since annual testing was mandated in 2002 by No Child Left Behind.

In an important new reflection in The Kappan, Educational Accountability Is Out of Step—Now More than Ever, two professors of education, Derek Gottlieb of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and Jack Schneider of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell reflect on what today’s school closures are teaching us about the value of schooling. Gottlieb and Schneider worry: “State governments… may have waived standardized testing this year, but once their public schools reopen, they’ll go right back to measuring them by the same few metrics they’ve used for more than a generation: test scores in reading and math, high school graduation rates, and, in some cases, student attendance… We… need to change the ways in which accountability determinations are made.  At present, accountability scores are calculated via algorithm (metrics in, ratings out)—a mechanical process that leaves no room for human judgment and deliberation about each school’s strengths and weaknesses, or the particular challenges it faces.”

What are some of the important things schools do? This spring parents can name a lot of very basic functions of school.  For children, going to school sets up a comfortable routine for each day and for a five-day week plus a weekend.  For parents, schools care for their children during six hours when parents can comfortably participate in the workforce without paying for child care, and parents can be reasonably sure their children will be well cared for and intellectually stimulated.  Schools are the primary institution that socializes children. They are places where children find friends, learn how to respect others and get along.  And they are places where children have fun learning.  Gottlieb and Schneider add: “Americans have… come to recognize the many vital social services schools offer, including mental health care, occupational and physical therapy, and the delivery of regular meals for low-income students…”

Gottlieb and Schneider also name important school experiences that teachers learn to provide as they pursue the academic courses to prepare themselves for certification: “Educating young people involves far more than getting them into their seats and raising their scores.  We expect our schools to motivate students, care for them, and keep them safe.  Schools introduce young people to the wider world, help them discover their talents and their interests, and alter their life trajectories.  Of course, teaching academic skills that can be measured via standardized test is important, but that can’t be all that matters.” “As so many Americans have come to appreciate, schools pursue a broad range of aims: not just to teach academic content but also to cultivate social skills and critical thinking, prepare young people for work and citizenship, foster creativity, and promote emotional and physical health… ”

At the end of an inspiring 2016 book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator, Steve Nelson publishes what he calls an Educational Bill of Rights, defining the school experience all children and families ought to be able to expect their teachers to provide: “Recognize the broad consensus that early childhood education should be primarily dedicated to free, imaginative play. Provide arts programming, recognizing that the arts are critical to all learning and to understanding the human experience. Provide ample physical movement, both in physical education classes and in other ways… Exhibit, in structure and practice, awareness that children develop at different rates and in different  ways… Acknowledge the large body of evidence that long hours of homework are unnecessary and detract from children’s (and families’) quality of life. Exhibit genuine affection and respect for all children. Honor a wide range of personalities and temperments. Encourage curiosity, risk-taking and creativity. Cultivate and sustain intrinsic motivation rather than relying on elaborate extrinsic systems of rewards and punishment. Understand that brain research supports active learning, engaging all the senses. Understand that children are intelligent in multiple ways… Listen to each child’s voice, give them real experience in democratic processes, and allow them to express their individuality. Know each child well, appreciate the unique mix of qualities each child brings, and never demean, discourage or humiliate any child.” (First Do No Harm, pp. 244-245)

Finally, UCLA education professor and writer, Mike Rose, spent several years visiting and observing classrooms across the United States as the basis of his wonderful book, Possible Lives. In an article for The American Scholar, Rose describes the qualities that defined 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.”

Not all classrooms, of course, exhibit these standards of excellence every day, but the descriptions by Derek Gottlieb and Jack Schneider, Steve Nelson, and Mike Rose are a way to share what the experience of schooling ought to encompass for every child as well as being a standard toward which every teacher should aspire. Students are missing many of these experiences this spring while their schools are closed. Certainly virtual schooling on iPads, Chromebooks, or computers may help children stay in touch with their teachers and their peers and, to some degree, continue with educational activities designed by their teachers or their school district. But what’s happening over the internet, for those students who are lucky enough to have broadband access, cannot compensate for the in-person educational experiences the children are missing. Most children will eagerly anticipate getting back to school.

None of these reflections by educational experts on the experiences schools regularly provide for children has anything to do with the standards-based, test-driven school accountability our federal government continues mandate. When public schools reopen, it’s time to reject the kind of school accountability that counts children as though they are products turned out at graduation.

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.