Rank Order

Dear readers,

Alan Singer sent out an e-mail entitled “Let’s Rank Everybody.” The scary thing is when satire seems like reality. With doctors being ranked by mortality rate of patients, police on recidivism of arrestees (or maybe that should rank prisons?), sanitation workers on how clean the streets are an hour after, and on and on. Actually we know what happens when “merit” pay goes to cops who arrest more people. It is interesting to think of who would rank where on other such metrics.


Lani Guinier once presented data that demonstrated that lawyers with lower LSATs do MORE pro bono work than lawyers with high LSATs. So maybe that’s a rank order we should turn on its head—if we’re thinking about the common good.

Once one is “required” to differentiate people in a way that can produce a rank order—or in the old days, a normal curve—the deck is stacked. Anything will do, or… How can one prove that any of these are valid?

In another article describing the problems with choice, a researcher notes with surprise that parent don’t always choose higher achieving schools. Why?? But in most cases that “higher achieving” simply means schools with more White and rich people taking the test. It is not the school that has a higher score, but it is students. And we know what that higher test scores correlates with directly—income and above all total wealth.

It might be interesting to rank order the percentage of their income that people give to charity. Gates and company might not look quite as generous as the nice little old poor black lady who gives regularly at her church. We also know that old lady may well be paying a higher portion of her income to keep the nation floating, that is paying her taxes (both income and sales).

Hands Behind Your Back

Dear readers,

I couldn’t resist this excerpt from an article in Teachers College Record, entitled Hands Behind Your Back by Samina Hadi-Tabassum  in the January 27th on-line edition. This commentary addresses turn around schools in Chicago.

“Throughout the day, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African American children are taught to obey. In one particular school, my graduate student had to go to the restroom so I walked her students down to the cafeteria. Even in the cafeteria, children are not allowed to talk to each other. I made the foolish mistake of having a conversation with a table of first-grade girls when another teacher came over to me and yelled out “you do not talk during lunch.” At first, I was going to laugh aloud thinking the teacher was being sarcastic. It was quite disheartening to realize after a few minutes that this young Caucasian teacher had been indoctrinated by her school to think African American and Latina/o American children should not be allowed to talk at the lunch table. Whenever the students are given any time to actually act like children on the playground, they are often admonished for “acting like animals” when they return back to their prison-like classrooms.”

She describes, in contrast, the public schools her own children attend and the reactions her students who are assigned to this particular school.  They are horrified but afraid to say anything.

Where did this ideology come from?  It’s old and I thought long since discredited.  It’s hardly consistent with the idea of students who have grit, independence, self-initiative, can handle uncertainties, engage in critical thinking, and collaborate with their peers, etc.

Why not try it out for a week in Winnetka, or Scarsdale, or on Obama’s or Duncan’s children before imposing it on mostly poor Black children.


Dear Readers,

I have been getting annoyed at the casual references to Occupy’s failure.

I think they were, by all and any measure, an incredible success.


Many years ago, my colleague Ted Sizer, when asked what he hoped the Coalition of Essential Schools’ influence would be five years down the line, said: “We’ll be having a better conversation about American schooling.” That was 1985. Maybe he was victorious five years down the line. We thought so, at the time. But alas today the important ideas that drove the Coalition of Essential Schools are decidedly less popular than they were when he made that point. We have moved very fast away from what Ted sso persuasively (we thought) was arguing for.

Now, I don’t know whether the founders of the Occupy movement expected to change the world, but they did what Ted had hoped for. They have had a remarkable impact on the language of the world, the conversation, the metaphors—the way we see things. They introduced, dramatically, the “99% vs 1%” thought! Now it, or variants of it, are on everyone’s lips and appear in all the pie charts, et al. They have made a powerful impression. Now we have to figure out how to capitalize on the fact that this dramatic unfairness is getting worse, not better. But, at least, it has been named.

Thanks, Occupiers of the world.

Snow, Disasters and Boredom

Dear readers,

Sitting here as the snow comes down, feeling a bit disappointed that we’re not getting as much snow as predicted. It is the child-like side of me that comes out every time there is a natural disaster, a hang-over from childhood when I bore no responsibility for getting things done. I imagined floods as a chance to dive out of my window into the water, etc.

Disasters always seemed exciting, and for some foolish reasons, not threatening. (Probably a sign of a very lucky life—although I still experience a panic when the phone rings at an unreasonable time of day or night.)

I suspect many young people share this. especially when they are in school. Disasters augur a break in the boredom! Do most get over it, unlike me? As John Goodlad noted many years ago—the primary problem facing our schools is BOREDOM. Kids aren’t kidding when they say, “It’s bo-or-ing!” And, adults who sit in K-12 classes, concur.

It leads me to my number one criteria for judging a school. Is it an interesting place for the teachers and the students and every other person who must spend 5-8 hours a day there. If it is, productive learning will take care of itself—or, at least, have a fighting chance. Otherwise, forget it.

The End of the Rainbow


I am underlining virtually everything in this new book I just got sent from the publisher (New Press), The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools.  It is by another friend, Susan Engel.


It says it all. Including a wonderful and rare to find chapter on alternative approaches to what and how to measure success. It is rare because Susan defines well-being, happiness, and leading a good life as at the core of what a good education should help lead us to. She describes how, historically, we got to viewing education as a road to making more money—which, she argues, is a recent phenomenon! It is not often enough that I get a truly new idea—but I found this fascinating. Her “hard” data about the relationship between money and happiness is also intriguing and worth a pause as we are consumed by the hyper-materialism of our time and place. She provides a different framework for rethinking these ideas.

It is a gem of a book. Susan has so many good anecdotes to demonstrate her points, based on her many years of work as a teacher of teachers, time spent in school, and in raising children. Order it today!!!



Dear readers,

I saw the movie SELMA. It left me stunned. I just couldn’t let go. Yes, I was there—for the last march—the celebratory one, which may have given it extra power for me. But most of the audience seemed similarly overwhelmed. It brought back a period that is sometime hard to remember in the gut. We need that energy again to tackle the critical issues we face today.


I found, to my surprise, that the way Lyndon B. Johnson was dealt with was very positive and hardly deserving of the uproar it has caused. Goodness gracious! It shows a man with good intentions, not to be taken for granted given his background, but also a practical political mind, not eager to engage in losing battles or losing powerful allies. Is that unfair to LBJ? It is what we admire about him and probably what created King’s successful effort to get a voting bill passed. Perhaps, I am trying to recall, the movie suggests that LBJ may have sent the FBI after King—which maybe he did? Or didn’t?

But of course it gets a lot of things wrong. The SNCC leaders, who are miffed at being overwhelmed by King’s plans, were hardly children. In fact, I am reminded, they were more or less the same age as King, and it was their work made that event possible. That does not come across in the somewhat patronizing scene where King lectures them about real life. For those who probably know the story best, there were probably omissions that distort the history of the times more seriously than the way it shows LBJ.

It strikes me as odd that this is where so many critics have spent their energies. Maybe why it was easier for the Oscars to ignore the film? Yes, this is decidedly a film that “glorifies” the civil rights movement—showing it mostly at its best. (Meanwhile, millions of dollar are made by a movie that glorifies war—The Sniper.)

My thanks go out—wholeheartedly—to those who enabled me to have that renewal of hope by remembering what we once did. And must do again. We need a new voting rights act as much as we did a half century ago. Our new and “improved” system for counting votes—not to mention who gets to vote—has made a mockery of that great victory at Selma. It is past time for us to imitate the actions of those SNCC workers, and of the many heroes who made Selma and the Voting Rights Act possible.

A Bitter Sweet Season

A Bitter Sweet Season
by Jane Gross


I just finished rereading a book I avoided taking seriously four years ago when it was first published—because it’s about dying. It is written from the viewpoint of the daughter caring for her aged mother, but….  It is as useful for the reverse. I literally could not put it down unless sleep overcame me. It is also a useful reminder for me of how to combine the personal and the how-to. I am trying, just beginning, to do something like that regarding caring about schooling. So what? Jane’s book left me feeling much better, actually, about the fact that I will, indubitably, die some day. I can see how it might be done.

As a child and in the early years of my adulthood I had incredibly strong fears about “not being.” I had a special friend who would call me or I would call her when overcome by one of these panics. It has somehow almost entirely dissipated—even before reading Jane Gross’ account. So, maybe avoid this book until you come to that stage. It’s author is a good friend who I spent many hours with in the course of this tale.  She wrote for the New York Times for many, many years and initiated and continues to blog as The New Old Age . And for Yankee fans my age, she is also the daughter of the NY Sports Columnist we read regularly in our youth.

Thanks, Jane.