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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appreciating Teachers: Responding to Donald Trump Jr.

Recently at the President’s rally in El Paso for his border wall, his son, Donald Trump, Jr., warmed up the crowd with a speech in which he gratuitously attacked teachers: “Bring it to your schools… You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth.”  It is hard to know what all that means, although I suppose we can infer that attacks on so-called socialists are going to be a centerpiece of the campaign if the President runs for reelection in 2020.

Valerie Strauss covered responses to this disgusting ad hominem attack on schoolteachers. Teachers themselves have been speaking up, she explains, on twitter with the hashtag #loserteachers.

Strauss also published a response to Trump Jr. from three teachers—Jelmer Evers (the Netherlands), Michael Soskil (2017-18, Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year) and Armand Doucet (Canada) who co-authored a 2018 book, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice. Evers, Soskil, and Doucet write that for them, Trump Jr.’s speech was a chilling moment: “Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists.  Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.”  “Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red—seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause…  If we can be accused of anything, it is that we are on the front line of democracy.  Education reformer John Dewey famously said, ‘Democracy has to be born again each generation and education is its midwife.’  As members of a global profession, we reject the narrowing of the mind and we stand by our colleagues defending academic freedom.”

President Trump and his son were both educated in private schools.  I suspect that neither has even visited a public school, and I wonder if either one has ever considered what teachers do, or what shapes teachers, or what teachers consider as they work every day with children and adolescents.  I thought it would be important to respond to Donald Jr.’s bullying remark with some additional thinking from people who have thought a lot about teaching and public education.

In his 2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol responds directly to Donald Jr.’s assumption that a teacher’s primary role is to prepare students for some kind of economic function: “(T)eachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way.  I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump ‘added value,’ as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.” (Letters to a Young Teacher, pp. 4-5 [emphasis in the original])

Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and former president of the American Educational Research Association.  Ladson-Billings’ book, The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, is a staple in colleges of education. Ladson-Billings explores what makes a particular group of excellent teachers effective.  Here she explores the importance of experience—teaching experience and life experience—shaping what happens in the classroom: “I wanted to know what was right with African American students’ education and what happens in classrooms where teachers, students, and parents seem to get it right. I searched for these teachers by polling African American parents… I asked principals and colleagues at schools in the district to recommend outstanding teachers to me. If a teacher’s name appeared on both lists… she became a candidate for the study. The most memorable thing about these teachers was that they had such few obvious similarities. True, they were all women, but I presume that to be an artifact of elementary teaching… After three years of working with these teachers I found two qualities that may explain their success. The first was experience. These women were very experienced teachers. None had fewer than twelve years of teaching experience… The second and perhaps more compelling factor was that each of these teachers could point to a transformative moment in their lives that forced them to reassess the way they did their work… These moments of transformation stand in stark contrast to the experiences of well-intentioned young people who come into teaching every year hoping to do some good for those ‘poor Black children.’ In my subsequent study with novice teachers I realized that it was important to select candidates who already had some life experiences that forced them to look closely at their lives and the lives of those less fortunate than they.” (The Dream-Keepers, “Forward” to the 2009 edition, pp. vii-viii [emphasis in the original])

Finally, in Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (1995, second edition 2006), Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, traces four years of travel across the United States visiting and observing teaching in what he had identified as likely sites of excellent public school classrooms. Rose concludes: “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…  (T)eaching well means knowing one’s students well and being able to read them quickly and, in turn, making decisions to slow down or speed up, to stay with a point or return to it later…. This decision-making operates as much by feel as by reason: it involves hunch, introduction, a best, quick guess. There is another dimension to the ability to make judgments about instruction. The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… 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… 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)

I wanted to share these passages from writers who not only teach prospective teachers but also help readers appreciate the real work of teachers. Most of us do not have the opportunity to sit inside America’s classrooms and become aware of the scale of this kind of work—across all of our communities—cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Rose captures the importance of our system of public education with its millions of classrooms: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms… 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… 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)

It’s too bad our President and his son don’t get it.

Mike Rose: How “School Failure” Narrative of “A Nation at Risk” Has Undermined Public Schools

I can’t bring myself to think of Naomi Klein in the same category as Mike Rose, one of my favorite education writers. They are important but very different writers.  There is one similarity, however.  In 2007, Klein responded to Hurricane Katrina and other natural catastrophes around the world with the publication of a blockbuster, thesis-driven social science analysis, The Shock Doctrine, in which she highlighted the swift takeover of New Orleans’ public schools after the hurricane as the very definition of her idea that a crisis from a natural disaster will often be grabbed as an opportunity by business interests looking for a profit. And this week, Rose explains in a new blog post, that his extraordinary book, Possible Lives, was his own response to a “shock doctrine” crisis created by the inflammatory language of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Klein explains “the shock doctrine” in the context of what can happen to a public school system when the interests of privatization are pitched as the best response to a catastrophe: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ schools system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans’ teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.”  (The Shock Doctrine, p. 5)

One person who absolutely absorbed the capitalist possibilities of Hurricane Katrina was a prominent policy maker, who had by, 2010 when he spoke out about it, become our U.S. Education Technocrat-in-Chief, Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community….” A crisis. A disaster. A time ripe for throwing it all away and trying something new.

In his new blog post—to mark the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, Mike Rose explains that he undertook Possible Lives as a response to A Nation at Risk—to the exaggerated, urgent, fevered language in the Reagan era report’s introduction: “Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures.”  Rose continues: “(O)ne hard lesson learned from A Nation at Risk is that the way problems are represented has major consequences.  This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from A Nation at Risk.”

Rose pulls out from the opening two paragraphs of A Nation at Risk the language he describes as framed precisely to generate a sense of educational catastrophe.  He quotes from the opening paragraphs::

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people… If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves… We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

What has followed for 35 years now Rose describes as a response to an existential education crisis created entirely by language carefully chosen and narratively framed to motivate our society to do something radical.  Our response? Test and punish via No Child Left Behind. Grading schools and teachers by their students’ aggregate test scores, including A-F grades imposed by states on their school districts and individual schools. Closing so-called failing schools. And all sorts of school privatization via charter schools, and virtual schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account neo-vouchers—all to give children an escape from their so-called “failing” public schools.

Rose responded to A Nation at Risk‘s manipulation of language and public opinion—intended to create the impression that U.S. public schools were in crisis—by traveling the country for four years, visiting America’s best classrooms, and narrating the promising story of America’s public schools and their teachers. Possible Lives was first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2006. It is one of the most inspiring books ever written about what actually happens inside our public school classrooms.  The fact that classrooms are places most of the public never visits likely contributes to people’s manipulation through crisis-driven rhetoric. While A Nation at Risk turned the public attention to an obsessive examination of outcomes based on standardized test scores and technocratic fixes—stuff that can be easily reported and statistically processed, Rose takes readers right into classrooms to watch how teachers respond to children, how they challenge adolescents to puzzle out and reason, how they design projects that fascinate students and pique their imaginations.

Looking back at A Nation at Risk, Rose summarizes the difference between the language of its introduction—designed to terrify us all if we don’t do something quick—and the rest of the report: “So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Los of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable aims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote ‘life-long learning,’ and to assure ‘a solid high-school education’ for all.  But few people read the full report.  What was picked up was the dire language of the opening; and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the (more promising) recommendations of the report.”

Rose references a recent A Nation of Risk 35th anniversary story by Anya Kamenetz on National Public Radio: “Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of A Nation at Risk and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education ‘on the front page.’ They succeeded big time.”

Rose pulls out his own warning from Possible Lives about this kind of language: “It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture (our institution of public education) is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction.  So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools….”  Prophetic words from a book written in 1995 and reprinted in 2006.

Rose concludes his recent blog post with this warning: “One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy?”

I’ll add that in Possible Lives and the rest of his fine books, Rose has not only used language with precision, but also with a sense of compassion and human understanding. He shows us what happens at school—for children and adolescents and their teachers—without emphasizing the preoccupation of the school reformers—the technocratic measures and incentives and ratings that permeate our society and that always situate our schools in perpetual data-driven competition.

Please read Mike Rose’s new blog post.  And consider adding Possible Lives to your reading this summer.

The Civic Importance of Public Education: Valuing What We Take for Granted

How can we learn to value what we take for granted?

Public schools are institutions we have taken for granted for so long that it’s hard to imagine they could disappear.  In Cleveland’s saddest neighborhoods, I am jarred every time I drive by an empty lot where I used to see a school that has now been torn down.  I still remember the names of each of the elementary schools in my small Montana town.  Schools are the institutional anchors by which I define neighborhoods.  But when people attack public education, as lots of people do these days, I struggle to know how to put into words my defense of this core civic institution.

One way to learn to appreciate the public schools is to read the philosophies and histories of public education.  David Tyack, the education historian, writes: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not.  The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering.  Almost anywhere a school-age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend.  Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff.” (Seeking Common Ground: Public schools in a Diverse Society, p. 182)

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, Harvard economists, share another perspective on the importance of public education in our nation’s history. They identify a set of virtues of public education: “By virtues, we mean a set of characteristics that originated in basic democratic and egalitarian principles and that influenced the educational system.  The virtues… include public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.  These virtuous features are summarized by the word ‘egalitarianism.’ They have held the promise (if not always the reality) of equality of opportunity and a common education for all U.S. children.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 130)

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was designed to hold schools accountable for outcomes. For the purpose of forcing everybody to try harder, No Child Left Behind set utopian and unreachable test score targets.  Schools that could not quickly and consistently raise scores every year until all children were deemed proficient by 2014 were labeled “failing.”  More and more schools were marked as “failing”  every year, and the federal government was finally forced to create waivers for schools from the punishments that were supposed to follow.  But the waivers have not diminished the sting of the widespread label of “failure.”  These days when people think about public education, their minds are driven by the media to the need for turnaround and accountability.  This happens so frequently that I have actually felt compelled to formulate a response: Public schools cannot be perfect, but a system of public education provides society’s best chance for meeting the needs and protecting the rights of all of our children.

Of course, such responses are theoretical; they miss the heart of the matter.  There is one book, however, that explores public schools in a very different way.  Last week in the Washington Post, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Possible Lives, Valerie Strauss printed a guest column from its author, Mike Rose, research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  Possible Lives is a wonderful and inspiring book, the result of a series of Rose’s visits to the classrooms of extraordinary teachers across the United States.  In last week’s column, Rose writes: “Possible Lives is my favorite of my books because of the many encounters and discoveries it afforded me.  I began with the intention of writing about school and ended up writing as well about our country.  About its physical and social landscape…  You can’t really write—or think or talk—about schools in any comprehensive way without writing about all that surrounds them, for schools are so embedded in place.  Schools are porous; whatever is going on outside quickly makes its way into the classroom.  And schools—memory of them, the experience of them—for good or bad shape individual and communal life.”  In this book Rose takes his readers into classrooms from Calexico, California to Chicago to rural Kentucky to a one room school in Polaris, Montana. Teachers in these places and dozens more respect and nurture children, challenge them to think and reflect.  Possible Lives is over 400 pages, but I felt so sad when I finished it.  It is the one education book I can enthusiastically recommend as a great summer read, though its content is serious, or as a good way to mark the beginning of the 2015-1016 school year.

In the preface Rose wrote for the 2006 edition, he points out that this book does not intend to gloss over the problems with our public schools: “Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools.  This book is not a defense of the status quo.  The reader will gain sharp perspective on the ills of public education from the teachers and students in the classrooms we visit.  It is necessary for a citizenry to assess the performance of its public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter… (B)efore we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its variables and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We would also want to ask why we’re evaluating.  To what end?” (Possible Lives, p. xv)

Rose concludes that preface: “Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.  This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent.  It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language.  It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled.  When a local affair or a regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word.  When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward.  When a student said that his teacher ‘coaxes our thinking along.’… There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic.  Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.  As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades.  Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p, xxviii)

The Snobbery in the Teacher Quality Debate

In mid-June, an organization called the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) rated the programs that prepare and certify school teachers across the nation’s colleges of education.  The report has been widely criticized partly because the organization itself, despite its lofty name, is dominated by those on the far-right who advocate for alternative programs for certification, shorter programs that require neither college training in teaching methodology, nor the psychology, sociology, or philosophy of education, nor supervised and mentored student teaching.  Its advisory board includes Wendy Kopp, for example, the founder and chairperson of Teach for America.  But more broadly the report has been castigated because it does not thoroughly examine the experiences and supervision of candidates for certification at the nation’s teachers’ colleges.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, critiqued the report:  “NCTQ’s methodology is a paper review of published course requirements and course syllabi against a check list that does not consider the actual quality of instruction that the programs offer, evidence of what their students learn, or whether graduates can actually teach.  Concerns about the organization’s methods led most schools of education nationally and in California to decline to participate in the data collection… NCTQ collected documents through websites and public records requests.  The ratings published in this report are, thus, based on partial and often inaccurate data, and fail to evaluate teacher education quality.”

Dr. Darling-Hammond’s critique ought to stop us right there, but, perhaps because NCTQ’s name sounds impressive, the report by NCTQ continues to be discussed. Much of the critique of colleges of education also reflects a thoughtless social class bias.

In Reflections on Harriet Ball, Teaching, and Teacher Education, Mike Rose responds to those who continue to lift up the NCTQ report as though it has merit.  Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, is the author of Possible Lives, the story of visits to the classrooms of excellent teachers during a four year trip in the mid 1990s across the United States. In his recent post about the NCTQ report, Rose recommends a video about the late Harriet Ball, a graduate of Huston-Tillotson University, a small Historically Black College in Austin, Texas.  On its website Huston-Tillotson boasts a 90 percent acceptance rate; its mission is to serve as the antithesis of the kind of the kind of elite university where Teach for America is noted for seeking its recruits.  Rose writes: “What is worrisome is that in the drive for improvement, reformers can narrowly define “quality” as, for example, the pedigree of a prospective teacher’s undergraduate institution, or the selectivity of that teacher’s education program. We need to throw a wide net in recruiting teachers, tapping a range of backgrounds and talents.”

Rose continues:  “How about this?  What if all the philanthropies that supported the questionable report from the Council on Teacher Quality contributed an equal amount to a less partisan organization to study excellent teachers who come from modest backgrounds and attend their local (and often less selective) colleges?  How did they get so good?  What did they bring with them and what did their programs nurture?  How can we recruit more like them”

For me Rose’s reflection strikes a personal cord.  My father, and for a couple of years my mother too, taught at the tiny Northern Montana College in Havre, Montana.  In 1960 when my father joined the history department, “Northern” as it was called, was a two-year normal school.  At the time school teachers in Montana were still granted teaching credentials as part of two-year degrees, although four-year certification very soon became a requirement. The epitome of a local and non-selective institution, Northern existed for the purpose of providing the teachers, principals and school superintendents for the tiny towns along Northern Montana’s Hi-Line, the area that tracks U.S. Highway 2 between North Dakota and Glacier National Park.  When I returned to Havre several years ago for my high school reunion, I talked with my classmates, many of them Northern’s graduates who have devoted their careers to public education as the center of their communities. The value of this tiny teachers’ college is so deeply woven into the lives of the people in the region that it is impossible for me to imagine its absence.  In such a context the rankings and ratings of something like NCTQ have no meaning.