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.


Automated Living in U.S. (Part 2)


Dear readers,
Thanks to Larry Cuban, again and again. He helps me see what forces are driving the de-persnalizing of human relationships. The automation of our humanity. Think of all the sci fi we’ve absorbed about this. Yes, it’s related to the profit motive–inexorably, I fear. And it’s moving fast, starting with the youngest who relate now not only “not to people” but not even to dolls–or other people-like or living objects as we replace play with computerized devices and school lessons. It’s a good moment for re-reading Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary–and reminding ourselves of the power of the human touch, the human voice, the human interaction.

Originally posted on Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice:

In Part 1, I pointed out earlier predictions of futuristic schools and one in New York City that offers “blended” and “personalized” learning. A school that uses multiple ways teaching includes software customized to each student’s math knowledge and skills. It is an example of automated teaching and learning that champions of school technology see as the future of schooling. Maybe algorithms will indeed become standard in the next generation so that by 2025, schools will no longer be recognizable. But “maybe” not.

There are fewer “maybes,” however, when it comes to the spread of automation in the U.S. beyond ATMs, supermarket self-checkout counters, and industrial robots. Piloting jumbo jets, self-driving cars,  trading stock on Wall Street, practicing law and medicine, and other occupations  once thought to be invulnerable to automation are either wholly run by software or largely guided by programmed instructions.

Once a job or task from…

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Data and More Data

In the dispute over the revision of NCLB the argument has been made –sometimes by civil rights advocates–that if we don’t test annually we won’t be able to compare. But, what use are such comparison? Let us look at other areas where we do such comparison’s.


Has our knowledge about the increasing differences in income led to actions to close that gap? Hmm, seems the rich are still getting richer, while the poor get poorer.  Is evidence that we spend more money on the education of those at the top than we do on those at the bottom changed how we allocate educational resources? Is health care data that demonstrates that the poor are less well served than the rich changed health care, his it created more general or family practitioners serving poor neighborhoods, for example? Not at all.

What is the “evidence” that more testing, and more comparing of data on the basis of race, class or language will do for schooling what it has not done for other institutional decisions? When it comes to how we spend our resources, data has had remarkably little impact—at least since we ended the short-lived and underfunded “war on poverty.” The data sometimes even confirms racism: “See, ‘they’ just aren’t….smart, hard working, biologically fit.”

In fact, we are spending more money on confirming the data year after year than we do on changing the circumstances that lead to the data.

Two books that provoke

Dear readers,

I haven’t kept up on all the books that are being written about our concerns. Including, and this is new, lots by working teachers as well as recently working teachers. It is hard to do both at the same time—be a full time teacher and find the time to write a book! A friend of mine, Vanessa Rodriguez, a teacher I met first in her classroom, for example, has taken off a few years to further her own education and to write a book. The book, The Teaching Brain: The Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education, is an example.

rodriguezI am known as a skeptic about brain research as a useful field for improving good teaching/learning. But Vanessa has taken the field more seriously, and used some of these insights into exploring the field she knows best—over many years. Of course, the “teaching brain” and the “learner brain” are not separate. But then nothing in the brain is disconnected from any other part of the brain—or really the body either. She uses the topic, instead, to explore her own and others in practice—how our awareness of our own selves as teachers (and we all are, at times) is the kind of “brain research” I appreciate. I think others will find this as interesting a read as I have. (It is a New Press publication; and just out.)

I also have not kept up with talking about a man whose been real hero and model in my life. That man, John Goodlad, has died. The summer before I starting CPESS—a public secondary school in Harlem—I holed myself up on Block Island, near my friend Brenda Engel, to read. I read Seymour Sarason (on why all reforms had failed) and John Goodlad (on the large picture of America’s schools). I do not usually take notes, but I did this time. I soaked up what they said and hoped that their wisdom would help me get through the next few years. Goodlad’s book, The Public Purpose of Education and Schooling is written a decade later, steeled me for the next episode of educational history. It is a collection around the topic I am most concerned about. John and co-editor Timothy McMannon, picked six wonderful authors for the task, with a wonderful final chapter by John. Read him—start anywhere among his 30 plus books.

I will share more books in the future. I am meanwhile trying to write one myself. HELP!!!!


Mom and Apple Pie

Dear readers,

New Year’s eve is also a time for looking back—a bit of nostalgia is appropriate.

So how many of you remember “American as mom and apple pie.” But I would like to suggest that public schools* were almost up there in the short list of what defined us as Americans.** So, maybe mom and apple pie are also on their way out.

Change isn’t always good. The odd fact, for someone like me, is that the CEO’S of the world have become the biggest boosters of globalism, internationalism, and as a result, probably less jingoistic than the average American. Folks like me were always presuming that internationalism would be a characteristic of the working classes of the world (who had nothing to lose but their chains). We could not have been more wrong. The internationalism of the corporate elite surely has however had revolutionary implications. It changed the relationship of corporations to their local, state or national communities— why be concerned with them when a company can easily up and move?

As a result, corporate leaders are not easily taken in by nostalgia. But they do recall some features of the “good old days” when there was no welfare state, no social security, no labor movement, no 40 hour work limits plus overtime pay, and African-Americans were officially second class…. sort-of citizens. It is hard to remember, however, that not so long ago we all also openly admired the idea that the rich pay a higher proportion of their wealth to the common good. Or that when we had wars, everybody had to make proportionate sacrifices. A draft army, as well as higher taxes during wartime, not to mention rationing etc. were deemed “obvious.” The contemporary corporate world do not however have any nostlgia for such features of the good old days. We all pick and choose.

But private education—except for urban Catholics—was rare until almost yesterday and pretty much limited to the wealthy “snobs” of the Northeast (Philadelphia, Boston, New York, plus New England boarding schools). Apple pie, Mom and Public Education stood for all that was America at its best when I was growing up.

I am still for all three, but as we begin to lose public education I fear for the other two also.

My New Year’s wish is that more of my fellow citizens wake up to realize what is at stake and demand that we cherish all three. A toast to “apple pie, motherhood and public schools” of America. ***


*Note: public schooling (American style) has always referred not just to who pays for it, but who has a voice over it. All taxpayers pay for the armaments industry, but they don’t assume that they have much voice in the decisions made by Boeing.

**Yes, yes–“democracy and all that” counted as America too—but on another list of conceptual ideas/ideals of a quite different order. Some might claim they overlap—is there another nation that celebrates Mother’s Day and eats as much apple pie?

***Life these days often seems to be a satire on itself, so I hope readers realize that there is some “tongue in cheek” in this New Year’s reflection.

Why all the ranking?

Have you noticed how the media insists on ranking everything?  Are they responding to a public interes or to their own?  Or some combination.
Must we rank colleges, for example? There is a difference between transparency, and even “comparing” versus ranking and the difference is fundamental.  The vey idea of “the best” involves risks, above all in a democracy where we are trying to honor, not rank, differences.
Ever since my daughter chided me on warm summer day for leaping into my pond and shouting out, “This is the best pond in the world,” I have been getting more cautious.  I now shout it only when I’m alone.

The Rich Get Richer

Over the last two decades the bottom 90 percent of the economy has lost ground while the richest 1 percent captured 70 percent of the income growth. Yes, 70 percent. To achieve this, every major policy – taxes, investment, monetary, trade, finance, regulation – had to be fixed to favor the few.

Even educational policies.

This fable tells the story:

A group of pioneering Americans wanted a way they could, through children, identify their parents SES (social-economic status). Absurd, yes?  But several enterprising companies decided to try to do it. Like ETS, MacMillan, McGraw-Hill etc. At first they called them IQ tests, and then over time they renamed them achievement tests.

And lo and behold they found that they could develop test items that precisely differentiated children by their families net worth.  And they could do this while simultaneously providing test items and alternative answers that were more or less within the domain being tested.  There would be some measurement error, of course.  But probably considerably less than if they sent home a form asking parents to provide this information.

Yes, that is what we have.  It is an amazing feat.

And in yearly pre-tests they make sure that the items continue to fall in the same pre-determined way, providing the same information about SES (and thus sorting the children as early as 4 and 5 years old, into their proper slots).