Democracy and the common good

Dear friends and colleagues,

Well, it’s been nearly three months since I have written here.  But I am about to change my ways.

I am debating/discussing structural vs cultural change with Harry Boyte on Bridging Differences.  Tune in.

I am thinking a lot about math education since reading a pre-publication of Andrew Hacker’s The Math Myth.  I can’t wait until it hits the stands.

I am taking note of all the ways we are privatizing our society and abandoning our belief in democracy,  the “common good”, the public space, call it what you will. The New York Times (Nov 2nd) had a front page headline on the “Privatization of the Justice System.” We have always known it helps sway the judge and jury if you are rich, have top lawyers, etc. But this is about the many areas in which people often unwittingly agree to give up their right to ever see a judge and jury if they have a grievance, but are forced to use private arbitrators and cannot sign on to any class-action suit.

The more egalitarian our definition of citizenship the more concern there is by some about the “idea” of one person, one vote.  Too many of the choices the privatizers are now suggesting open up more possibilities for some than others.  The choice of going to a private school with a voucher is not actually a choice if you haven’t the means to pay the difference or aren’t “chosen.” Yes, you have a choice of cars to buy…but. The data I have read about the number of poor people who do not have the choice of a lawyer to represent their interests. No surprise: some choices cost a lot ore than others.

The idea of democracy comes out of an idea of the “common good”—a way to hold rulers accountable to all. However who belonged to that “all” was not everyone.  Sometimes it was, in fact, a very small proportion of the entire population.  But it assumed that among those who had full citizenship there was good reason to have considerable trust. It assumed that most citizens had their peers interest at heart, even if they interpreted it differently. It assumed free speech, free assembly, and mutual respect— win some, lose some. It was an answer to royal inherited power—instead “the people” had the power.  When we expanded full citizenship to include men without property, women, former slaves, etc. it naturally become harder to identity what our “common interests” were.  Some “wins” seemed too dangerous to those with more power to let free choice play itself out. It was not obvious to some parents, for example, that “their” precious child was of equal interest to those who determined school policy.

That is what we are struggling with these days in school “reform”—and it will not be easily solved in a society that holds private space as more precious than public space, especially when some have a lot more private space than others have, in the order of thousands of times more.


The Time Has Come…

The Time Has Come…

…to get back to writing about what’s happening. I am preparing for my granddaughter’s wedding a week from Sunday (at my place in Hillsdale). I am working on a project (book) with Emily Gasoi that hopefully takes a useful look at the past half-century of school “reform” as it relates to democracy. And just got a copy of a book edited by Matthew Knoester, Kathy Clunis D’Andrea and myself called Teaching in Themes, An Approach to Schoolwide Learning, Creating Community and Differentiating Instruction. TC Press, just arriving in the store(s).

Then yesterday an old friend dropped by—Fred Bay—and obsessed with me about the state of the planet Earth. He is right—it is not an issue that can wait until we better educate another generation. It is this generation of adults or else.

So why am I ignoring it? It doesn’t even matter what/who “caused it.” The only thing that matters is who is going to turn it around if not us. Why do I avoid it?

Because I find it much more comforting to stick with what I know best, and which seems do-able: creating schools that might protect the future of the democratic idea.

But if there’s no future…..?

So I have five immediate projects: (1) enjoy my granddaughter’s wedding, 2) work on the book Emily and I are writing, 3) figure out how we can better define what a public education is and how we can defend it—and maybe how that can fit into our thinking about the future of the Coalition of Essential Schools, 4) think about my health—as well as being sure to swim every morning, and now…FIVE

Putting some part of my energy and mind to saving the planet for humans and other living things.

Suggestions welcome.


Is the Common Core killing kindergarten?

Read this article from the Boston Globe

By Chris Berdik   June 14, 2015

Last spring, Susan Sluyter quit teaching kindergarten in the Cambridge Public Schools. She’d spent nearly two decades in the classroom, and her departure wasn’t a happy one. In a resignation letter, Sluyter railed against a “disturbing era of testing and data” that had trickled down from the upper grades and was now assaulting kindergartners with a barrage of new academic demands that “smack of 1st or 2nd grade.” The school district did not respond to a request for comment.

But Sluyter’s complaints touched a national nerve. Her letter went viral, prompting scores of sympathetic comments by other frustrated teachers and parents. Sluyter’s letter was fresh evidence for groups of early-childhood educators who oppose the kindergarten expectations for math and English Language Arts, or ELA, set by the new Common Core, the academic benchmarks for K-12 that most states have adopted to replace the historic patchwork of standards.
(read the rest here)

Civil Rights and Testing: Response to Haycock and Edelman

By Marc Tucker
June 10, 2015 11:00 AM
From EdWeek blog Top Performers

Two weeks ago, I published a blog post suggesting that some leaders of the civil rights community might want to reassess their support for annual testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since then Kati Haycock and Jonah Edelman, two ardent supporters of annual testing, have taken issue with me. In this blog post, I respond to their comments.

Haycock says that she is astonished at my arrogance in attacking the leaders of a civil rights community that is “unified” on this issue and accuses me of “baiting” them. What she does not do is rebut any of the arguments I made or offer any evidence that would call my arguments into question.

The civil rights community is not united on these issues. A recent piece by Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera is titled “DC civil rights organizations fail to represent education civil rights agenda.” In it the authors, all respected figures in the civil rights community, take issue with the civil rights leaders who signed on to annual testing and take positions on the issue very similar to those I have taken. They are not alone. Far from being unified on this issue, the civil rights community is rather divided.

I have great respect for the leaders of the civil rights community. But I often disagree with people I admire and they often disagree with me on particular issues. The charge that I was out to “bait” the leaders is outrageous.

Haycock is certainly entitled to her own views on these issues. But I think she owes her readers more than a personal attack on me as a response to what I have written. She owes it to them to respond to the points I have made with counterarguments of her own, point by point, and she owes them solid data and research to support the positions she takes. I argued that there is no evidence that the tough accountability measures contained in NCLB, including annual testing, have worked. I argued that the research shows that poor and minority children have been harmed by the systems required by NCLB more than majority students. I argued that a different testing regime with fewer, higher quality tests could provide data on the performance of specific groups of poor and minority students every bit as effective as the results obtained from annual testing, and that poor and minority students would be much better off if that happened. I offered solid evidence for all these propositions.

As I said above, Haycock offered neither rebuttals to my arguments nor evidence that would refute them. Until she does, I stand by what I wrote.

[Click here to read the rest of the blog]


As usual, Mike Rose, is spot on. Grit comes in many forms: some attractive and some not. Some imposed by adversity and some supported by affluence and safety. Because, in fact, I have always thought of “grit” as an ally to “street smarts”—sticking to one’s self-initiated task given one’s recognition of reality. I thought that the “grittiest” kids in my class were usually some of the kids with least advantages in terms of wealth and support, who somehow insisted on “smiling” through it, “gritting” their teeth (which I assumed the origin or partial definition of the word) and designing a new path given the circumstances. Not just sitting down and having a tantrum. But the tantrum often is successful—depending on the circumstances. Ditto with “gritting one’s teeth”—”it depends”. What “it depends” on is not easy to figure out, but rests on an array of flexible talents that often go by the name of “street smarts.” If we stop and think about it, I think we would see that “perseverance” is maybe more vital for poor people in underserved communities more than it is for those of us growing up with many resources , good health, lots of second chances, etc. If we did a little better at leveling the field we wold all benefit by grit, but we wouldd also make having it count more if everything else wasn’t already so uneven.

See Mike Rose’s Blog:

    One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet—and all the hype and trite lingo that bursts up around it. One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with “grit,” a buzz word for perseverance and determination. Readers of this blog are familiar with my concerns and can read my earlier posts by clicking here, or go to a 2014 report on character and opportunity from the Brookings Institution in which I have a brief cautionary essay.

            In a nutshell, I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction. I also question the easy distinctions made between “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” skills. And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.

            In this post, I would like to further explore these concerns—and a few new ones—by focusing on “grit,” for it has so captured the fancy of our policy makers, administrators, and opinion-makers…

(click here to read the rest of his blog)

Yes, Mike, you are right right right. But, furthermore, the poor exercise plenty of grit every single day they stay afloat. They have to use a lot more of it just to survive much less to use it for getting ahead. If we made it easier to survive, imagine what the grit I saw daily would have done for their futures!


Lewis-Botstein invite

For more information and to order your tickets, please go to

Whose rights do they think they are protecting?

I’ve been puzzling about why so many respectable civil rights organizations have got school reform so wrong.  It’s not the whole story but this piece by Wayne Au is worth reading. 

Just whose rights do these civil rights groups think they are protecting?

By Wayne Au

On May 5, 2015, a group of civil rights organizations released a statement in opposition to the growing movement to opt out of the current wave of high-stakes, standardized testing. This testing lies at the very heart of current education reform efforts because it provides the fuel that the current education reform machine relies upon: data. Without the numerical data produced by the tests, there is no way to make simplistic comparisons, there is no justification for the corporate entry into public schools, there is no way to shape education along the logics of a competitive marketplace.

Because it challenges the validity of the tests and the data, the opt-out movement strikes at the heart of the reform movement. I feel this sharply here in my home city of Seattle as powerful men including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, and Seattle Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland threaten local test resisters with punishments. Opting out scares those in power because it undermines the education policies being done to — not by — our communities, particularly communities of color. Indeed, many of us have taken great pains to highlight the racially disparate impact of corporate education reforms, especially high-stakes standardized testing, specifically on communities of color.

(link to full article)