Q+A: Mike Rose on America’s public schools

February 24, 2010 § 3 Comments

"The question for me is how we might develop a critique appropriate to public education. How to craft an approach and language that is critical without being reductive, that honors the best in our schools and draws from it broader lessons about ability, learning and opportunity, that scrutinizes public institutions while affirming them."

From assassinations that go to the heart of government and power grabs by narco-despots we turn — for what it’s worth — to the minutiae of modern American life. Namely, schools.

As both Republicans and Democrats barrel down the warpath to privatize the nation’s sprawling but remarkably inequitable public education system, the Obama Administration is preparing to dole out billions of dollars to states who embrace experimentation in their schools. Meanwhile, post-secondary education is becoming increasingly inaccessible as was underscored by student upheaval in California when the state proposed drastic tuition increases. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act is being appraised for its successes or lack thereof and the burgeoning home schooling movement as well as the big tent that is the charter school movement outlines that what is really at stake is our very conception of American democracy.

To make some sense of recent developments I exchanged emails with Dr. Mike Rose. A professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former teacher, he is the author of a number of books with the most recent being Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. Slim but poignant, I highly recommend it.

The Obama Administration has made their “Race to the Top” program the cornerstone of their education policy, offering over a billion dollars to states that pledge to improve accountability and embrace experimentation in their public schools. What do you expect from this program?

I applaud the attention being paid to the schools and the unprecedented amounts of money the administration will invest. Also, as was the case with NCLB, it is good and long overdue that particular attention goes to the significant number of kids, many from low to modest income families, who are not doing well in school. Finally, let’s be honest, a number of school districts are locked in their own long histories of dysfunctional politics and ossified bureaucracy, and a jolt from above might shake them up a little. So part of me is hopeful about the possible outcomes of “Race to the Top.”

My concern is whether or not Arne Duncan has learned from the shortcomings of NCLB. I mean really learned from NCLB’s problems. To be sure, “Race to the Top” as well as the proposed changes to NCLB that Secretary Duncan announced at the beginning of February are improvements over the earlier law. For example, the new NCLB guidelines would eliminate the “adequate yearly progress” mechanisms that created such havoc.

But reading the documents coming out of the Department of Education, I’m still left with the sense that the policies don’t reflect a deep knowledge of teaching and learning. This is something that I and others have been writing about: the absence of classroom knowledge in policy formation. Ideas that seem good in the abstract can turn out to be disastrous in implementation. Take, for example, NCLB’s focus on language arts and mathematics – a seemingly reasonable focus, given how central to achievement these skills are. But tie them to a formulaic standardized test and amp up the pressure and you get a well-documented narrowing of the school curriculum: math and reading are hit hard while the arts, literature, social studies and a whole lot else recede in importance. A lot of educators predicted this outcome. Secretary Duncan is aware of this problem with curriculum narrowing and has publically stated that he wants to avoid it with his department’s new legislation.

Still, I’m left with this worry: Given the technocratic orientation of the Department of Education – coupled with the seeming paucity of knowledge about teaching and learning – and given the desperation of the states scrambling for Race to the Top funding, we could see a regression toward reductive or reckless policies. I would love to be wrong, though I’m already reading about some states’ proposals that have a questionable research base and are simply pulling out the jams to out-innovate everyone else – since innovation is a core precept in Race to the Top.

As an education student, I have to say I’m alarmed by the trend of “gap year teaching” wherein college graduates teach for a year or two and then go on to get their law degrees or MFA’s and never shadow the door of a classroom again. Increasingly, we are putting less emphasis on pedagogy and training and instead buying into the idea that “anyone can teach.” Do you agree and what does this mean for our public schools and the teaching profession?

This “gap year” phenomenon has long been with us. What I suspect is alarming you is the emphasis it’s getting from some high-profile school reform types. And you’re right, the disdain for teacher education, for schools of education generally, is palpable.  The assumption is that all you need is someone with subject-matter knowledge and good grades, and you’ll have the teaching issue solved.

If you’ll allow me, I’m going to excerpt sections from a commentary I published in Truthdig last August that directly addresses this issue though the example of Teach for America.

Let me begin by stating that I admire Teach for America and the public service spirit that drives its recruits. And my own introduction to education came via an earlier alternative (though training-intensive) program, Teacher Corps. So my concern is not with Teach for America itself but with the way it has been defined as yet another educational wonder drug, the ingredients of which are the idealistic energy of youth and an elite education. Sadly, Teach for America has become a weapon in the education wars, rather than a laudable vehicle through which young people can contribute to the education of a nation.

I’m all for idealistic, hardworking, enthusiasm, and I welcome into the nations’ classrooms these graduates of fine schools. But most of them teach for two years (and possibly a third) and then move on to the careers they went to college to pursue. Many who champion TFA seem to affirm an idiosyncratic model of professional development: that these young people’s elite undergraduate educations and their energy trump extended training and experience. There is no other kind of work, from styling hair to surgery to the pro football defensive backfield, where experience is so discounted. No TFA booster, I’d wager, would choose a med student fresh out of a cardiology rotation over a cardiologist who had been in practice for 15 years.

I also want to consider the assumptions about knowledge and teaching here—or more precisely the use of the status of one’s undergraduate institution as a proxy for being able to teach what one knows. Knowing history or chemistry or literature is essential to teach these subjects, but—again this is common sense—knowing something does not mean you are able to teach it, as countless undergraduates who have sat through bad lectures can verify.

Let’s consider this elite-school proxy for pedagogical expertise from one more perspective. I went through two books that profile first-rate teaching: my Possible Lives and Karin Chenoweth’s How It’s Being Done. I also looked at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year program. Only a handful of these top-flight teachers got their bachelor’s degrees from institutions typically defined as elite. A number hail from state universities. And a considerable number come from small local colleges with teacher education programs. Expertise in teaching is more than a function of one’s undergraduate pedigree.

New York City’s education director is on the war path to expand charter schools much to the chagrin of many public school teachers and parents. What do you make of this fracas? Am I even correct in describing it as a fracas?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our nation’s tendency to look for an educational miracle cure: that one magical structural change that will pull the lever, tip the scales – pick your metaphor – and lead to broad-scale transformation of our schools. The charter school has become one such miracle cure. It is referred to as an “engine of innovation” in numerous reform documents, including Race to the Top.

I’m all for having structural alternatives in big district bureaucracies, and there are a lot of good charter schools out there. But as report after report has now demonstrated, there are also a lot of average charters, and there are some that aren’t very good at all. This is the kind of variability you’d expect if you didn’t see the charter school as a cure-all.

By the way, for a fine book that explores how the charter school – this alternative form of school structure and governance – got to be such a politically hot-button issue, take a look at Jeffrey Henig’s Spin Cycle. He also nicely summarizes what research does tell us about charter schools.

You ask about New York, and here I must admit some ignorance. I know that a recent study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes was overall positive about charter schools in New York City. That’s good news. I’ll leave it to those of you closer to the ground to judge. But I can make one observation. From what I understand, charters in NYC have gotten strong political support and a good deal of operational guidance. It would be nice to see other public schools get that kind of support – and see what difference it might make.

The public school has a unique place in the American narrative. We look to our schools to remedy inequality and provide opportunity to the masses. The idea that we can all go to school and get an education and make something of ourselves fits snugly into our sense of individualism but also seems rather misguided given the glaring inequalities that pervade our schools and our society. While realizing the role our schools should play, shouldn’t Americans look beyond the classroom to remedy issues like racism, poverty, and crime?

You’re putting your finger on an important – and to my mind unfortunate – dispute going on right now in school reform. Your statement seems obvious and commonsensical: that schools can make a difference – and we should try as hard as possible to create schools that make a difference – but it also seems undeniable that the conditions outside of school are going to affect academic performance. Yet in some circles to make that statement is to be pegged as “making excuses” for poor teaching, or as an apologist for unequal education.

If you’ll indulge me one more time, let me offer an abridged passage from Why School? that addresses this conceptual logjam. The passage is tied to NCLB but has a more general application.

NCLB is driven by a masterful rhetoric that casts dissent from its agenda as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” There can be “no excuses” for the low performance of poor, immigrant, and racial and ethnic minority kids, as measured by the tests NCLB supports. I appreciate this “no excuses” stance. Our schools have an unacceptable record with the populations targeted by NCLB, and the way we perceive the ability and potential of these populations, what we expect of them intellectually, is a key element in their achievement. But it is one element, a necessary but not sufficient condition. What is troubling on a public policy level is the way the rhetoric of “no excuses” shifts attention from economic and social conditions that affect academic achievement. Poverty is a case in point.

What NCLB has exactly right is the assertion that children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But it is likewise naïve or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child’s life in school. Yes, there are a number of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But their stories are never simple, and, as any teacher who follows her students’ lives will tell you, their achievement can be derailed by one bad break.

It seems hard for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. We tend either to lighten the effects of economic disruption with self-help platitudes, or we see only blight and generalize it to intellectual capacity. What we need is a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that affords both damage and promise, that enables one to be mindful of the barriers to achievement and still nurture the possible.

Building on that, America’s teachers seem to be public enemy #1 when it comes to reforming our schools. Educators are blamed for the failings of a system in which we have placed a great deal of faith as our nation’s answer to egalitarianism. But when politicians, parents, and the press criticize our schools for their shortcomings in solving the problems facing today’s youth, it seems they shirk from their own responsibility. I suppose what I am asking is: how does our discourse on public education correlate with our idea of public life and shared obligations?

For all the talk about the importance of “highly qualified” teachers, many high profile school reform efforts have embedded in them the assumption that teachers aren’t trying hard enough or are not that talented. This broad-scale characterization of teachers, as you suggest, goes hand-in-glove with a sweeping language of public school failure. And this belief in wholesale public school failure runs across the ideological spectrum: You’ll find it in the pages of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard or at a convening of left-leaning high-tech entrepreneurs interested in education.

There’s wide variation in the teaching force. How could there not be with so many people, over one million? As with lawyers or journalists or plumbers, you’re going to find a range of competence. Same with schools. So added political pressure to address incompetence and improve the status quo is a positive thing and essential in a democratic society. But that kind of targeted attempt at reform is not what you’re getting at in your question. You’re talking about a standard story line, a reigning discourse of despair about teaching and the schools. And it’s troubling – and dangerous.

I don’t know if we fully grasp how harmful this language of failure is. It provides the conceptual platform, the ideological foundation to dismiss public schools, to seek free-market solutions or structural or technological miracle cures.  So well-to-do parents don’t send their kids to public schools. Wealthy donors direct their money elsewhere. Young people have second thoughts about a teaching career.

In Possible Lives, I make the connection you’re suggesting between this dismissal of public education and a retreat from the public sphere and public institutions. Now, of course, there’s a lot wrong with the schools in some districts, and poor kids particularly are not well-served. And, of course, these districts and schools particularly should be the focus of reform. But, as I try to argue in Possible Lives, the sweeping language of public school failure does not provide the basis for an adequate response. “We can all agree,” writes a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, “that American public schools are a joke.” This is our new common sense, but it doesn’t even leave us with a problem to solve.

The question for me is how we might develop a critique appropriate to public education. How to craft an approach and language that is critical without being reductive, that honors the best in our schools and draws from it broader lessons about ability, learning and opportunity, that scrutinizes public institutions while affirming them.

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§ 3 Responses to Q+A: Mike Rose on America’s public schools

  • Developing a critique without including the clientel, and only the educators, is why Cali is in the mess it is. Kids today are different than the kids we were. There are indigo kids, crystal kids, and new kids, who have different attention spans for a reason…and we, in a pre-digital age contruct, think teachers need better training. Time is different to these kids. Parkinson’s law says you fill the space you have…more time allowed, less done…these kids fill up gap time well with chicanneries, because they can.

  • Thank you, Mike, for mentioning my book in the same breath as your own–I consider that a great honor.

    More than almost anyone, you appreciate the complexities of this issue. I, too, recoiled from that blanket statement in The Weekly Standard that declared public education “a joke.” It is not a joke. It should be–and often is–the one institution that offers all Americans a fair shake and an opportunity to take hold of their future.

    We are at a crossroads where those of us who believe in the power of public institutions to make a difference for American citizens are obliged to do what we can to ensure that those institutions work well. If they fail to do their jobs, we will be overrun by those who believe there is no role for public institutions but only for a variety of private institutions.

    It seems to me that there are educators who demonstrably know how to do this work–who know how to organize instruction so that children in poverty are helped rather than harmed by their schools. It is up to the rest of us to try to find those educators and learn from them.

    I know that’s what you have spent much of your life doing, and it is a valuable body of work.

    Thanks again.

  • Rodger Kroell says:

    Neither Rose nor Chenoweth, much less Duncan, are willing to speak honestly about what they must surely realize is the core problem not addressed in all these discussions of public education, charter schools, privatization, home schooling, and so forth. The public has unrealistic, utopian expectations which professional apologists for public education feed with all their warm and fuzzy dedicated educator rhetoric.

    The public should be told repeatedly, and with emphasis, something much closer to the truth, something that corresponds with the facts on the ground, or in the trenches. Namely: schools in the U.S. have never successfully educated to grade-level more than about 10% of the population they serve. This has remained a constant since the 1840s. To successfully educate to grad- level even 20% of our students, much less 40% or 50%, would require a monumental restructuring of the institution, massive investment, and a near wholesale abandonment of what we now have.

    This kind of investment is not something the public will support. Our current capitalist social order — and the competitive, free-market, individualistic ideologies which hold up the notion of crush-or-be-crushed as natural law and the self-interested pursuit of material gain as a final good — cannot serve as a foundation for an egalitarian educational system. We do not live in the kind of world in which a majority of our students will ever be given the means to succeed in school. So the education reformer’s energy, and the apologists’ theories and practices, are all directed at changing the system in small, incremental steps.

    To create anything even remotely resembling a successful egalitarian educational system would require a social revolution. It simply cannot be done in our current social order. It is utopian to imagine it could be. This is what Rose, Chenoweth, and people like them are unwilling to admit, perhaps even to themselves.

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