Public Education Under Siege

Dec 27, 2013 by

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by Ken Bernstein –

In an important postrevolutionary essay on education, eighteenth-century journalist Samuel Harrison Smith wrote that the free play of intelligence was central to a democracy, and that individual intellectual growth was intimately connected to broad-scale intellectual development to the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic.  As we consider what the reform initiatives might achieve, we should also ask the old, defining question:  what is the purpose of education in a democracy?  The formation of intellectually safe and respectful space, the distribution of authority and responsibility, the maintenance of high expectations, and the means to attain them – all this is fundamentally democratic and is preparation for civic life.  Students are respected as capable and participatory beings, rich in both individual and social potential. The realization of that vision of the student is what finally should drive school reform in the United States.

Those words appear on pages 236-237, in the penultimate essay of the collection in Public Education Under Siege, edited by Michael. B. Katz and Mike Rose, published earlier this year by University of Pennsylvania Press.The book is the product of a request from the editors of Dissent Magazine to the editors for a series of essays on public education, which appeared in four issues of the magazine in 2011 and 2012.

There are Four parts:

I  The Perils of Technocratic Educational Reform

II Education, Race and Poverty

III Alternatives to Technocratic Reform

IV Conclusions

There are 28 authors, including the two editors.  They include well known writers about education who were not themselves educators like Joanne Barkan and Richard Kahlenberg.  There are those scholars in colleges and schools of education, such as Tyrone Howard at UCLA, Pedro Noguero at NYU, Janelle Scott at Cal Berkeley, and David Larabee at Stanford.  There are those who have themselves taught and now serve at universities, such as Rema Reynolds at Asuza Pacific University, and MacArthur Award Winner Deborah Meier at NYU.  Katz is a historian of education, among other things, at Penn, and Rose teaches at UCLA, and has written several notable books about education at a variety of levels.

It is not possible in a relatively short essay to explore ALL of the topics addressed by the book. One can get a sense of what to expect from the Introduction by Katz and Rose  The authors note on p. 2 that

The chapters in Public Education Under Siege build on and help to frame a growing reaction against a reform paradigm rooted in a market model and stressing high-stakes testing.

They oppose “a narrowly economistic view of the purposes of education” (p.2) which they see as

a subordination of the democratic vision of education for citizenship that has been integral to the purposes of American public education since the days of its origins in the nineteenth century. (p.2)

The reform approach has led to an over-reliance on the kinds of testing that now dominate our educational policy, in  large part because of the economistic view of the purposes of education, which ignores what the authors point out:

If there is one lesson from the history of education, it is that there is no silver bullet (ibid}

In this intro, on page 3, Katz and Rose lay out a key idea that underlies the organization of this book, that

Followed to their extreme, market models call for privatization of public education.  The failure to question market models reflects general inattentiveness to issues of political economy and social justice in today’s discussions of school reform.

In the rest of this review, I will explore a number of the essays and ideas of this important book.   I will also offer some observations of my own from my experience as a teacher and as an observer of and commentator upon educational reform and related topics.

In the first part, three essays jumped out at me.  Mike Rose writes on The Mismeasurement of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test,”  Richard D. Kahlenberg on “The Bipartisan, and Unfounded, Assault on Teachers Unions,” and Kevin G. Welner on “Free-Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy.”

Let me start with Welner, who runs the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  This effort takes reports on education issued by various think tanks and subjects them to criticial review by scholars well versed in the subject matters of the reports.  Welner reminds us that

While university-based scholars produce the most research, publications of private think tanks are disproportionally represented in the reporting of major national newspapers. (p. 73)

The problem is that the works most cited tend to be funded by a narrow group of right-wing foundations (Lynde and Harry Bradley; Sarah Scaife; John M. Olin) dedicated to imposing market principles upon education. Welner warns us that this lead to using market forces to distribute educational opportunities, which exacerbates inequality

because markets exist to create inequalities – they thrive by creating “winners” and “losers.”  These forces are already at play in the housing market, and school reform should attenuate the resulting inequalities, not exacerbate them, as see happening with unrestrained school choice. (p. 69)

One problem is the commitment of the right-wing foundations to pushing out their ‘research” with well-funded public relations and publicity efforts, while

few progressive foundations are willing to fund the operating expenses of institutions with strong communications strategies and clear public policy goals.(p.74).

The end result in the public discussions on education is the equivalent of what Gresham’s law says about money – the bad, non-peer-reviewed ‘research’ of the often right-wing and always market oriented think tanks drives out the quality research that is often university based and peer-reviewed (although here I caution about the new phenomenon of those on the right simply buying final review authority over university research:  this is already happening in economics and energy policy, and is beginning to happen with education departments as well).From Kahlenberg, one paragraph jumped out at me as relevant to what is happening right now not only in education but in other areas as well:

It is not an accident that the states that prohibit collective bargaining for teachers or by tradition never had it are mostly in the Deep South, the region of country historically most hostile to extending democratic citizenship to all citizens. (p. 60).

Mike Rose is a generous soul.  I have had occasion to review some of his earlier work, to engage in conversations by phone and email.  His piece in this section is one of several that thoroughly dismantle the rationale of our reliance upon test scores to drive policy, and of the studies purporting to demonstrate the effectiveness of such an approach.  He says of the reformers that

there is no doubt they are committed to education itself, and particularly for those who have not been well served by our schools. (p. 20)

I think that is far too generous given what we know about many of the “reform” organizations.  Yes there are some who are personally dedicated to improving the educational lot of the less well off, but they approach they take is often one of willful blindness to the wrongheadedness of what they are doing, and far too often they are funded by those whose goals are not so generous, but are instead of a larger approach of crushing unions wherever they may be, limiting the teaching of critical thinking and often of science, and producing a compliant pool of potential workers for ever lower wages and benefits to increase the wealth and power of those driving the process.  Pardon my cynicism, but I have been watching this process, and not just in education, since before I entered a public school classroom in 1995.To Rose’s credit, he follows the words I have just quote above with two very important sentences to conclude that essay:

We have a strong belief in our country that to find a measure for something is to understand it: we confuse counting with analysis.  Education reform needs a conceptual framework that certainly would include testing and technique, but both must be embedded in the cognitive and emotional world of the classroom.

I hope by now the reader is getting a sense of the depth and breadth of the material contained in this book.  One can find extensive examinations of the historical record, for example in chapters on equality in school finance reform by Pamela Barnhouse Walter, Jean C. Robinson and Julia C. Lamber; and how economic based reforms have already been tried, as in the chapter on public education as welfare by Michael B. Katz.  Ansley Erickson provides a thorough examination of how the rhetoric of choice and charter schools is leading to increasing segregation in our schools. Heather Ann Thompson discusses how our exploding incarceration rate adds to failing schools, writing on p. 132

if we ever hope to roll back the resegregation and ever-deepening of these sane institutions, we must firsts recognize the enormous price public school children have paid for America’s recent embrace of the world’s most massive and punitive penal state – a vast carceral apparatus that has wed our economy, society, and political structures to the practice of punishment in unprecedented ways.  We must challenge the view that society’s interests can best be met by criminalizing the neediest citizens and the spaces in whih they live, learn, and work.

I feel compelled to add the observation that the increasing presence of law enforcement within the schools has led to a phenomenon where what should be incidental disciplinary issues have been transformed into taking young people into the criminal justice system with permanent consequences imposed at relatively young ages.The third section has, as do the two previous, a number of very interesting essays.  You will read from Tina Trujillo and Sarah Woulfin about how to successfully meet the needs of English Language Learners.  Claire Robertson-Kraft write about what she calls Professional Unionism and the role of how unions can redefine their roles in education reform, although on this I note that there have been strong criticisms of the leadership of both national teachers unions for some of what they have done with respect to reform, and one local leader cited in the piece, Brad Jupp, left Denver and now works as an adviser on teacher initiatives for Secretary Duncan, whose track record has not inspired much support from the teachers I know.

The essay in this section that struck me most forcefully was by Deborah Meier, whom I acknowledge is both someone I greatly admire and a friend.  She acknowledges the problems with the kind of elitism that used to govern our ideas about educational policy but then warns us

The old elitism at least had some relationship to genuine achievement.  The new one is fruitless.  It’s like focusing all driver education on longer and more frequent multiple-choice and short-answer tests, The road test is viewed, at best, as a luxury. (p. 146)

This succinctly describes what many in education view as a basic problem with the current approach to educational policy – that even if test scores improve, learning and understanding do not, because the tests bear little connection with the real-world application of learning and understanding.Like me, Meier is a fan of John Dewey, whose insights she thinks we are now abandoning.  She warns

We forget that democracy is an unfinished project, dependent upon building a citizenry in which all see themselves as members of the ruling class – with an education that befits such a dream. (p. 147)

I want to strongly recommend the chapter by Pedro Noguero of NYU, which is titled “The Achievement Gap and the Schools We Need:  Creating the Conditions where Race and Class No Longer Predict Student Achievement.”  Noguero dismantles a lot of the logic that has been used to justify what has passed for educational reform.  Some of what he says is well-known, such as

gaps in academic performance are closely tied to unequal access to quality early childhood education (the preparation gap), inequities in school funding (the allocation gap), and differences in the amount of support well-educated, affluent parents can provide to their children versus poorer, less-educated parents (the parent gap).  (pp. 181-182)

He also offers some insights from data that are often overlooked, especially in noting that many white students are not high performers, for example

in the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and southern Ohio, African-American students often achieve at higher levels than white students.


policy makers and many educators have overlooked the fact that many white students across the country are not receiving an education that will adequately prepare them for college or adulthood.

Typically, minority students from families that have the least in the way of financial resources receive most of the punishment in school  (p. 186).  Noguero also thinks that we need to move away from the narrow use of standards and accountability:

Rather than lowering standards for some students to compensate for their inadequate learning opportunities, we could do far more to level the educational playing field by focusing policy on the need to create optimal learning conditions for all students.  (p. 189)

Of course, those optimal learning conditions will ultimately require us to do a better job of addressing the overall and unfortunately increasing inequity in American society as a whole, although expansion of access to early childhood education and inclusion of school-based wrap-around services can begin to address some of the disparities  and deficiencies with which students arrive at our schools.  Or as Noguero puts it in his final words on p. 193,

The history of failure in past school reform efforts has made it clear that a strategy based on a more holistic framework that explicitly tackles inequality is the only way sustainable progress in public education will be achieved.

There are only two pieces in the fourth and final section of this outstanding book.  The two editors address the key question of What Is Educational Reform in 17 pages that recapitulate much of what has been addressed in the book.

They start with the apparent lack of a coherent or explicit educational philosophy or learning theory underlying what now passes for education reform.  They acknowledge that what is implied is an economic deterministic approach while reminding us that such an approach seems to ignore the impact poverty has upon education and learning and does little to address the needs many of our children have because of the perpetuating of inequity and disparity of resources to which they have access, including cultural capital.  They remind us that schools as they currently are tend to perpetuate the key inequalities of our society.  They rightly describe the attack on teachers unions as part of a larger approach that is based on a false narrative of what has actually happened in America in the past half century or so.  They then suggest the need for a new narrative, one that does not gloss over real problems in public education, but also acknowledges what the rise of  unions addressed:

terrible pay, insecurity, and gender inequity that that marked teaching as an occupation in the long era prior to unionization.  (p. 229)

They write about power, hope and possibility as parts of this new narrative.  And they raise three basic questions as a touchstone for reform:

What is the purpose of education in a democracy? What kind of person do we want to emerge from American schools? What is the experience of education when it is done well? (p. 232)

I have already quote the final part of this essay, which use the words of Samuel Harrison Smith.If the book were to end here, it would already be outstanding.

But there is one more chapter, and as a teacher, I find it quite appropriate to be the final portion of the book.  Written by Mike Rose, it is “A Letter to Young Teachers: The Graduation Speech You Won’t Hear, but Should.”

Because teachers are the most important school-based factor, it is helpful to listen to the wisdom and insight of someone who has closely studied teachers as part of his life’s work, and who is himself from all accounts a superb classroom teacher.

Let me offer a few brief selections from the two and a half pages (238-240) of this superb “letter” –

Teaching, then, is a special kind of relationship.

Here I note my own view on this has been shaped by the observations of Parker Palmer, who also writes about teaching as relationship, and that understanding very much shapes my own understanding of my role as a classroom teacher.  One failure of much of educational reform is that it ignores or dismisses the importance of relationship in teaching.

Don’t expect things to be reciprocal.  Kids will not always respond, will even shun you.  But stick with it.  Show them that you’re serious and available even when they are not.  This will register.  Young people are hyper-alert to betrayal and consistency.  A veteran teacher I know tells her beginning teachers, “Don’t think that because a kid can’t read, he can’t read you.”

One possible frustration for teachers is that we cannot always perceive how students are reacting, and we cannot always be sure what catches their attention.  We have a responsibility to affirm them, but they have no concomitant responsibility to reciprocate.

Get ready to fail.

If teaching were not a matter of relationship, were it simply peeling back the scalp and pouring in knowledge, teachers would still often fail, because we cannot MAKE students learn.Here I also think of a recent conference I attended co-sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering, focusing on innovation in education.  A key point emphasized over and over was that we need to teach our students to learn to take risks, we need to teach them how to fail successfully.  Any good teacher models what s/he wants the student to learn/do.  As teachers we cannot be afraid to take risks to find ways of reaching those reluctant students, and we will not always be successful.  We will fail, we need to acknowledge the failure and learn from it.

Learning to teach well is a long journey, full of deliberation and self-assessment.  You won’t want to make that journey alone.

Which is why our model of education reform must include both the time to reflect and the time to collaborate.  That collaboration must include the families of the students, because we have a shared responsibility.  And it is a LONG journey, not something in which the teacher reaches her real maximal performance in only a few years and then does not grow further.  If your only measure is test scores, you might be inclined to think this way.  If your goal is the development of the whole child, you continue to learn, sometimes when students come back to you and thank you for things you did not even realize at the time were important.I will end this review with the final words of Mike Rose’s letter.  Before I do, I again want to emphasize that this is an outstanding book, one that offers much material to ponder.  It is full of riches from people whose life work has been meaningful improvement of schools for the more complete benefit of the students they are intended to serve.

We know that schools will succeed not despite teachers, but because teachers are committed to the well-being of their students.  Most of us who take on the sacred task of classroom teaching do not do so for the financial compensation, although it would be nice  if so many were not forced out because of the low pay and benefits, two things some “reformers” have either ignored or dismissed.

This book covers much that is important.  It is appropriate that it ends with a focus on teachers.  And I cannot think of a better ending than Mike Rose provides with these words on the final page:

Every good teacher I have known, regardless of grade level, subject, or style, has the equivalent of what musicians call “big ears”: they are curious, open, on the lookout for anything they can use in the service of some larger goal.  They possess a mindfulness about materials and techniques and have their fingers on the pulse of their students, figuring out if and how something will work with them.  That is what it means to think like a teacher, and that thinking defines the work you are about to begin.

Daily Kos: Public Education Under Siege.

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1 Comment

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    Teacher with a Brain

    In the current, ugly, climate of what passes for education reform: ending tenure, castrating teachers’ associations, evaluating teachers based upon student test scores, privatizing public education…this is a breath of fresh air. Thanks for publishing this view point.

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