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What We Mean By Being 'Well-Educated'


Dear Diane,

I’ve been exploring PISA and TIMSS scores via the Web and the more I know the less impressed I am at how significant it all is, especially with regard to whether we need a more centralized curriculum. For example, on the latest TIMSS there are nine participants above and 25 below us and 11 statistically in the same place. The top nine include one district of China and many quite small countries; and the list of “competitors” who aren’t part of the study at all (like France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Spain) is considerable. Furthermore, some do and some don’t have a mandated national curriculum. But, like you, I am impressed with some of the samples I’ve seen of how math is taught in some other classrooms and countries, and hope we learn from these.

But I want to pursue the issue of what it is we mean by being “well-educated”, as well as “smart”. While I am dubious about the possibility of our agreeing, I’m not dubious about the value of discussing these issues rather than falling back on empty slogans like “all children can learn”. Even phrases like “high-level thinking” or “problem solving” leave me unimpressed.

I just got in the mail a huge two-volume “compendium” called "Battleground Schools" (edited by Sandra Mathison and E. Wayne Ross), which contrasts John Dewey’s views with those of Frederick Taylor a century ago. Taylorism is what I think we’ve returned to in our current reform wave, with its focus on “scientific management”, efficiency, and enthusiasm for testing. The authors say of Dewey's followers that they were “focused on the effectiveness of schools in promoting democratic principles”. They believed schools should “(1) help each individual reach his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs and cultural identity and (2) [aid in] developing a critical, socially engaged intelligence, enabling individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.”

I know, Diane, that it is far more complicated and hardly an adequate description of either. We’d disagree about both the history of progressivism (what happened to both forms of progressivism—Taylor's and Dewey's) and how the best of Dewey’s ideas should have been implemented. What else?

My concern with Dewey lies, in fact, with the first of his goals, and the degree to which he did not rethink some historically commonplace assumptions about individual human “abilities”, “interests,” and “needs”. This failure made it easy for many progressives to see Dewey’s ideas as applicable more to wealthier Americans (thus their enormous influence on private schools or wealthy public schools) than to those at the other end of the socio-economic scale—add in race. This failure made the testing movement seem like a useful adjunct to progressive ideas, and certainly did not lead to a fight against the use of IQ and so-called achievement testing in deciding who got what kind of schooling.

Nor did it sufficiently contest the related idea that “academics” were beyond the reach of the bottom half, nor that even Dewey’s supporters were defining “academics” in a narrow and sterile fashion. That’s where I join Gerald Graff in his critique of “the academy” in "Clueless in Academe" (which I mentioned earlier). And that’s where Ted Sizer’s study of American high schools picked up. “Learning to use one’s mind well”—in Sizer’s terms—turned “academics” on its head in a way that you and I may disagree about. It weakens the rigid boundaries between “practical” schooling and “academic” schooling, between the liberal arts and vocational education. Our vocation as citizens (to go back to Dewey) and as productive members of society can and are best served together. The “how” is still an experiment and should be explored with patience, tentativeness, and respect. The positive side of the 60s-70s was in the start of a number of interesting schools that tried to explore these ideas in action.

In the rush to small schools we probably both decry the ways in which choice lands us back into the same “ability tracks” that Sizer was criticizing and into the same assumptions that underlie them. The names of the new little schools make it easy to guess their demographics—the “school for arts and sciences” versus the “school for x or y career”. In too many places, as if this weren’t enough, many small schools have entrance requirements based on the assumption that “high-level academics” isn’t do-able for all.

I know our beliefs in the capacity of “all children” to learn to be powerful members of society rests on sand when I realize that the currently powerful are extremely hesitant (to say the least) to educate their children in settings which actually match the larger population. This phenomenon crosses all ideological boundaries. It troubled me, and still does, with regard to my own children a half-century ago. Private progressive schools, and private non-progressive schools, do not accept all children (even all those who can pay—on a lottery basis). They rely heavily on “test scores” in deciding who to admit. Between kindergarten and 12th grade they, furthermore, become choosier and choosier. “He’s just not ‘right’ for us,” is an oft-heard phrase in even my favorite private schools—and in an increasing number of public schools of choice.

These are subjects about which there is too much silence. Let’s pursue this train of thought for a while?


P.S. “Dear Josie”, by Joseph Featherstone is still in print and worth reading. Featherstone has a great short chapter entitled “Five Big Ideas” that summarizes what I think he and I mean by a “good education”. But it is not “mandatable”. For a good critique of modern Taylorism, I like Larry Cuban’s "The Blackboard and the Bottom Line Why Schools Can't Be Businesses".


You left out Deming vs Taylor. If you look at Japan which is not a small country they have specific national content standards in math and a system of continuous improvement (lesson study) that incorporates what happens in the classroom to improve the national curricula. That is Deming not Dewey or Taylor. Taylorisim would lay down the one standard and the one “right way” to teach from on high. Dewey wouldn’t bother with a definable math content standard. The effective “middle path” is national standards, combined with improvements in the “classroom practice” and curricula thru collaboration. It is difficult to get effective collaboration if there are no clearly defined content standards. To quote Deming, “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” . That doesn’t necessarily mean standardized tests. If you have one standard for math content the classroom teacher will be able to know where each of their students is on the “learning curve” with or without a standardized test because they see the student every day.


It seems clear to us that small schols, like so many charter and magnet schools, are a continuation of "tracking," and that gets us back to some of the challenges that Dewey (and most of us progressives in his tradition) haven't solved.

But I see small schools, charters, magnets, and the other choices as a train we can't stop, so we need to think seriously about how we serve our poorest kids in the age of globalism and the dominance of market-driven policies. To do so, we need to recognize that we don't have complete answers either.

The first thing we can do, hopefully, is to get choice schools to "tithe" by assuming responsibility of a fair share of the most challenging students. Anything that lessens the critical mass of "at risk" kids left behind in neighborhood schools, helps make our task more doable. Secondly, we should appropriate the research of the Ed Trust and others that show the extreme lack of equity in poor schools, while repudiating their simplistic analysis and their contributions to the blame game.

But we still have to address the problem from hell, which is providing humane, holistic, progressive education to the kids who have been left behind (and thus stigmatized)after all the kids who have choices have been "creamed" off to choice schools. In my experience, the dynamics that exclude our most challenged kids are much more emotional than intellectual, but they are also much more physical. How do we serve kids who can't even make it to school 1/5th, 1/4th, or 1/3rd of the time? Do we sentence kids to generational poverty because they mature more slowly and can't function in the chaos of an urban school? I guess our Taylor-like system could work if we gave every kid who lost their parent(s), sibling(s)and/or "homeboys)" a finite time to mourn and then have them jump back on the aligned curriculum at precisely the right moment.

We had a bad week at our school and in my mind its bracketed between two cries. (our ordinary problems again had to take a back seat to the fallout from another gang shooting.) When a ninth grader was being halled off to the office (for an offense he did commit) he's shouting, "I put it on my dead brother. I didn't do it!" A senior with huge absenteeism problems had the sense to come in early and ask about her son's colic, the maze of emergency rooms and Medicaid, and contradictory statements by doctors and nurse. She pulls it together for a senior level class discussion when the issue turns back to Obama's safety. "What if he dies? No! I'm mean what if my son dies?"

Those are just two of dozens of stories from the last week.

The joke about social workers (and I am one) asks how many it takes to change a light bulb. Answer: just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. When we consider what it will take to change our schools I keep coming back to this. Do we really want them to change?

My most recent aha in the ongoing discussion about school improvement has to do with reframing the way that we look at schools. We tend to see them as not being very good at things like "leveling the playing field" or promoting a democracy based on some notion of equal opportunity. We think that these are the things that our system of public education has aspired to--and perhaps the limits have been reached. I have lately come to believe that we need to turn that supposition on its head and suppose instead that our system of education has aspired throughout history to maintain the existing socio-economic stratification of society. Why else would we create systems that isolate students with the kinds of experiences noted by John Thompson from those only a short distance away who know from birth that they are destined for college and a profession? Why else would we doggedly insist on "local control" (and funding) of schools, particularly when the only defining local features of most communities relate primarily to the cost of housing.

The stratification of "small schools" and "schools within a school," is nothing more than maintaining consistency with the ongoing illusion of meritocracy (teaching those who "really want to learn"). While the feature of "small schools" that is typically credited with improving achievement is theire ability to ensure that each student has an ongoing relationship with one adult who "knows" them well--this is generally overlooked. There are many ways that this can be ensured without major restructuring. But this would be inconsistent with our belief that meeting the needs of "those" kids requires something fundamentally different from (dare I say it?) our own kids--and that stratification is not only the natural state, but good for students.

Beatrice Fennimore (2005) had an interesting article on the topic in Teachers College Record. She recounted her life experience as a middle-class white parent "standing with" the excluded classes and lobbying for equity throughout her children's education. While she could have accessed perks (particularly "gifted programs") for her children that were available to middle class activist parents such as herself, she chose instead to illuminate the inequity with which such resources were distributed.

As a result she was viewed as a troublemaker by both the activist parents who aligned to maintain exclusivity, and the administration that wished to curry their favor. Some of the policy gyrations required to maintain the inequitable state in the early days of Northern enforcement of Brown were quite complex.

The issue of a student's "rightness" for a school has not diminished with the plethora of new options (charter, voucher, choice, etc). As the parent of a student who is seldom considered to be "right," I can testify that the means of barring the door are no longer as overt as they once were--but remain powerful. From laying out complex entry rituals to simple non-cooperation with any students considered to be unfit who make it through the doors, we still operate as if some students are to be educated and others not.

This is more on the topic of the previous post about we can do about the power of rich foundations to control education. I hope you are both watching the conversations at eduwonk and eduwonkette. I'd love to get your take.

This is more on the previous post about the power of rich foundations to control education policy. I hope you are both watching the conversations at Eduwonkette and eduwonk. I'd love to get your take on it.

Ooops. Sorry about the double post.

for Cassandra--yes I have been following Eduwonkette et al, and I can't for the life of me make out what all the shouting is about. Again, I am coming out of social work--which operates far more on the kindness (or whatever) of strangers, than has public education. I am well aware of the Golden Rule (he who has the gold makes the rules). I perused today's post, which linked to a spreadsheet of projects funded by Gates, Broad and Walton. As far as I can tell, there is not a reader of these blogs who has not been affected in some way by a grant from one of the three. Look at the grantees from any national foundation and you are likely to find the same thing. Does this give people with money tremendous power to set the public agenda? Absolutely. Is this anything new? Not at all.

Those of us who work in social services and health care are accustomed to knowing where the dollars are coming from and what you have to do to please those folks. If you are honest and aware, you keep your eyes on the mission and resist the urge to retrench for every financial wind that blows.

I can recall being a part of an organization that resisted dependence on government dollars for the same reason.

The advent of Community Foundations has resulted in some pooling of resources, with benefits and draw backs. On the one hand, grantmaking is simplified and coordinated, with more meaningful amounts available. On the other hand, a smaller number of people are making the decisions. Charitable giving was revolutionized somewhat with what is now United Way. Individual organizations could spend more time on service and less on fund-raising. Over time the UW has become beholden to their largest givers, and their traditional agencies--with the result being various competing funds with different slants. And UW has urged agencies to "diversify," meaning to seek more grant funding from the big philanthropies, or to become more entrepreneurial. School districts are also moving to develop foundations--in order to gain more control over some pot of money.

In short--I don't know that philanthropies becoming involved in the funding of education is anything new or different, and it certainly is not driving the American mindset that he who has gets more.

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