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.