Free Market Schooling

“This is a perilous moment. The individualist, greed-driven free-market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about….Working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity — its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.” Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, and I, agree. But the public seems just as suspicious—if not more so—about public institutions as the private ones. Thus the relative lack of alarm over the extraordinary shift in “ownership” of our public schools. We are witnessing more federal intervention at virtually all levels of schooling, more power in the hands of private wealth, and more “market-driven” decisions — at the same time! And there is almost no well-funded opposition, except for teacher unions who are then villainized as being anti-reform, self-interested, too protective of their bad apples.

What epitomizes the latest “true reform” is that it cuts off both teacher professional and parent/family judgment about what goes on in publicly-financed schools. Above all in urban areas, but overtime perhaps to rural and suburban communities too.

Even vouchers are creeping back; but there is no need for vouchers if the same interests and ideology can be served without any clear legislative decision to abandon “schooling as we know it.” It has been slipped in—first as an experiment to shake off old habits. A charter here and there with a new idea that could appeal across geographic boundaries would open up our thinking, courage real innovation—influencing all schools. All it needs is: a friendly Mayor, a friendly President and weakened unions.

Let many flowers bloom, managed largely by private companies, including school chains serving as many pupils as the average school system does now, working under a broad state-wide and federal oversight and boards/trustees selected by the school’s “founders.” Caps? None, they argue. Only proponents of the current “drop-out factories” would want to slow this replacement down, charter fans say.

Meanwhile let there be a national grade-by-grade definition of what young people should know and in what sequence, and back it up with a nation-wide standardized system of testing. (Hardly what the Constitution had in mind.)

The big difference? Everyone studies the same things. What is at stake is who chooses the school’s leadership, its staff, pedagogy, textbooks, sequence, and rules of operation. If money is saved that money becomes profit. Private individuals/groups—some for profit and some not-for-profit—some more inclined to listen to their teachers and families, some less so will run the show. But whether they listen is up to them.

At a time when all the usual and very expert regulatory bodies failed to supervise far fewer banks and investment houses, why assume that regulators can protect hundreds of thousands of schools that serve, above all, our least advantaged students. It is an idea that no one has ever proposed openly, each step along the way having been viewed as just offering slightly more flexibility, openness, opportunity, etc.

And I fell for it myself. Instead of getting the entrepreneurship to open up schools with progressive ideal such as mine, or even those with other particular visions we are getting versions of the old story—vocationalism disguised as academics or academics disguised as vocationalism — organized so that they do not need highly expert employees.

Note, that in the “charter world” this latter mainstream model now has a name — “the no excuses” schools. Three-strikes you’re out, zero tolerance. Shape up or ship out.

We will clearly still need a public sector for the square pegs—those kids who charters kick out—plus, perhaps, public schools for the highly selective winners, those who do not ‘need’ silent hallways and lunch periods, “no excuses policies”, or  rote learning pedagogies focused narrowly on reading, writing and arithmetic.  The  new privately managed charter schools would serve the large majority of  ‘at risk’  children with a regimented 19th century education iin the name of  closing the test-score gap.

In the Harvard course on charters that I attended recently all this came to me as though I had not noticed it before. It seemed starker and clearer. “Those children” need it, “they” are not like “my” or “our” children. I had not as bluntly confronted this language since I began teaching in 1962 when I heard it from both left-wing and traditional conservative teachers. It was the original reason I started Cental Park East and then CPESS in East Harlem—to counter that claim. To show that what was needed was a more intensified progressive education, not a more intensified reform school model. And then to my surprise we hit a moment in history when the idea spread like wild-fire. In 1985, when Ted Sizer’s book appeared, there were literally thousands of schools interested across the country. Not, mind you, “systems,” but principals, teachers and families who wanted or had to stay in the pubic system but wanted something very different. Within less than a dozen years the Coalition itself multiplied a hundred fold, and several other like-minded nation-wide alliances began on a scale similar to the Coalition, alongside smaller geographic coalitions in regions and states based on similar progressive views.

Following Annenberg’s shot in the arm, (we had relatively little support from foundations), increasingly impatient with our snails pace. (In fact, Ted Sizer’s original idea was to model only 15 schools over a decade)—to prove it was not utopian. It was the foundations who insisted they would only support the work if we went whole hog.

Test scores were okay—but the score gap remained fairly stable, and the “bureaucrats” with private money had had “enough.” The bureaucrats with public money never bought in, except on the far edges: District 4 in NYC, some integrated sections of a few other districts, sprinklings of public “pilots” in Boston and Chicago, and in a few states like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But our short-lived spree did not outlast our generation; the new crew of reformers coming from elite universities and colleges, backed by connections to the truly rich, and eager to make their mark in history bought into another utopian grand scheme. And as I listened to the young man who was on the platform with me I saw in him the same enthusiasm and care that I had had—for a very different idea. He took it for granted that the kind of schooling that had worked for him could not work for the kids he was determined to educate well. And by educate well, he, at least, had the same aspirations that I did. Feisty, well-informed and skilled grownups who would defend and extend democracy and equality to our beloved country and planet.

I left both discouraged and elated. If he was right, I would be delighted. If he was wrong, we would “just” have to wait until the new wave of reformers discovered it. Meanwhile, we “just” needed to stay alive until the period of bottom-up reform came around again. Meanwhile, what both sides needed was to thoughtfully explore how we spread sufficient mutual respect and trust to learn from—not convert—each other. That is why I like democracy—it rests, in the end, on persuasion not mandates


Small Schools and Choice Revisited

Dear friends,

Sigh! It’s not the first time I’ve noted how even my good ideas can be “corrupted” for quite different purposes than intended. It’s the story of many of the political ideals I still hold to. Small schools were a tool, not an end. So was the idea of requiring a super-majority in the Senate a way to prevent the majority from railroading the minority. So too, I guess, is democracy itself. We can all bemoan it at times.

A colleague from whom I learnt so much died recently, Seymour Sarason. He always thought I was too naïve, but he never tried to discourage me. I will miss his encouragement.

Two of my favorite ideas: small schools and choice – have become bywords of reform, backed by millions and millions of dollars and the power of the city, state and federal government. As “the grandmother” (or so I am often introduced) of the small schools movement, I should be overjoyed. As the author of an article in The Nation magazine in 1991 called Choice Can Save Public Education, why then aren’t I feeling proud? I was right, and wrong. Here’s my account.

My mistake was forgetting a puzzling fact. (In fact I gloated about it, as evidence that the twain can meet.) These two ideas became popular at a moment when the nation was moving to the right, not the left and when the idea that “the free market place” was the over-riding safeguard of our liberties held sway. I was right to take advantage of every crack that came along to do better for kids, and enjoy my work as well. But, as Sarason said, I was atypically (I claim) naïve. All in all, I don’t regret it. The “small-schoolers” made a difference, and still do, in the lives of many children and restored hope to many adults. That cannot be taken away. But…

My slogan in the 80s and 90s was not just small schools, not just schools of choice, but self-governing small schools of choice, democratic schools where most decisions were made at the place that family, teachers and students met. (Exceptions: issues pertaining to civil rights, health and financial integrity). Richard Rothstein in The Way Things Were reminds us that change has long been needed. We did not face a new educational crisis but just one more educational “opportunity” to rethink practices that have not served us well for a century and more. Change of the magnitude that I believed desirable (leave out necessary—who knows about that?) could not be mandated, I argued. They could not be brought to scale by either the logic of argument or the power of the State. A free people must freely change its mind. We could nudge, and we could set the odds in favor, but we cannot and should not override the opposition through mandates.

I believed, in hindsight maybe foolishly, that smallness was perhaps something however that could be mandated. That’s a fact—I did! Because, I argued, only in a small community of adults could the conversation that was needed take place; only face-to-face could teachers and parents explore their common goals, restore trust. To expect a weekend retreat in which 100 teachers and who knows how many parents will usefully come up with a mission or vision was absurd. Only in a small community could the trust needed be built, so that parents and teachers might ‘experiment” together on the young. . This isn’t to make guinea pigs out of the children—but to allow local committees to use what they know about their own children and students. But, as I used to remind parents, neither were their first born, and there’s some evidence that they turn out “best.” But, to make sure, I also urged, sufficient choice should exist so that all families would not need blind trust. Unfamiliar practices would expand as rapidly as the demand for them grew. (I too, am a free-marketer on many issues.)

I argued that only a small community could focus on the multitude of academic and social needs of the young while also educating them for democracy. Only a small community could dare take leaps—of faith. The balance of forces required frequent revision, we had to stop often to be sure we weren’t leaving some behind in our adult enthusiasms. We also needed external review to help us see what we otherwise might overlook, to restore needed balance. We said we’d do X, are we doing it? We said it would help us do Y, is it?

Starting with many short-lived storefront and freedom schools in the 60s, the exploration grew. Teacher centers blossomed around New York City, for example, run and operated by local colleges full of teacher-talk and experimenting together. Out of these grew programs on with physical sites, such as Lillian Weber’s Workshop Center at City College. We created small communities of teachers within existing schools which had permission to work together around a common corridor, across grade levels, with the support of their principals and assistance from the Workshop Center. (I was an advisor to such sites.).

Out of such programs grew essentially semi-“independent” public schools. Central Park East in East Harlem was one of a great many that came into being in the 70s under the leadership of Anthony Alvarado and Sy Fliegel. (Most were not recognized as real schools for 20 years, and were therefore led by teacher-directors not official principals.) Many teachers got excited at the idea that they could work differently without abandoning the public sector, that public did not have to mean mediocre and lockstep. As the idea took off, it seemed as though the genii could never be stuffed back into the bottle.

We struggled with the idea of how voluntarism would work. We argued about whether such schools could be selective without doing harm to the idea itself, and to the children not selected. We argued about whether the choice was the school’s or the families’? We argued about how far we ought to be able to stray with public money. We proposed, in the early 90s, that we initiate (with Annenberg monies) a large-scale pilot of approximately 50,000 students with a 5-year mission to bring these ideas to scale, while Columbia University and New York University studied our work and an external body of critical friends and experts kept close touch with what was happening (responsible in the end to the Chancellor and the School Board.) The local teacher’s union waived virtually all the contract provisions to further this experiment, as did our then chancellor and the State Superintendent and our local NYC Board. We had everything ready to go, including financial support . And then…a new chancellor and a new state commissioner put an end to it. They did not see themselves as coming to office while their empire was taken apart—even gradually.

Although not followed through in New York, the ideas of small schools and choice was picked up by others. My joy that many a Big Business was also excited by our ideas gave me hope. My paranoiac antenna was overcome by the unlikely friendships the idea seemed to create. When charter schools began I saw them as an offshoot of our ideas. In fact one of the early high schools to break into smaller units was in Philadelphia and they called themselves charters. (See work by Michelle Fine.)

I never had illusions about the voucher idea—of free-market private schools paid for with public funds—which were being turned down in state after state. Charters, I assumed, would be thoroughly public, as in the East Harlem and Annenberg proposal. An example was Ted Sizer’s Parker School in Massachusetts, where for once he could try his ideas out as he had dreamed of them (modified by those who joined him). Friends all over the country got excited and I urged them on. Groups of teachers or parents with their own different ideas and willing to exploit themselves to make them work cropped up in many unlikely places. But so did similar public schools—in Boston, Chicago, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and on and on. I went on to Boston where a smaller scale model of our Annenberg proposal got under way—the Pilot School network.

Well, you all know what happened. Diane Ravitch. in her new book the Death and Life of the Great American School System. has laid it out pretty thoroughly, as have others. Charters became the favorite new toy of businesses and businessmen. Some hoped to make a profit off it, some hoped to find fame and glory, some just liked to be part of the latest fad. They saw testing as a way to relatively cheaply control their quality, and ward off regulators and monitors. They saw teachers and parents as buyers/clients/wage earners. The model was business—and maybe not the best of business at that, as some business reformers warned them.

The crisis talk, our economic shakiness all seemed a perfect backdrop for scaring people into forgetting about our age-old experiment in public education, an experiment that has been adopted throughout most of the world, above all in democracies.

We have installed new bureaucracies, we have recreated too many chain store schools. Decisions were made further and further from school folks. The charter schools themselves also grew larger to accommodate efficiency. In several cities the mayors decided to use them to unload their own “accountability” for public education and replace it with privately managed corporations. Maybe deliberately, maybe not. I’m hoping for the latter, and that they too will take a careful look at what they have created before we cross the line of—well I was going to say “no-return”, but actually history doesn’t end and if democracy remains a good idea, we will grow truly public schools again. And again.

If this privatization fails in the ways I suspect it will, it will have destroyed our public system; and it may be hard to put humpty-dumpty back again. That’s why we need to work very hard to retain the best examples of public education before even the memory of what it meant for us all to have a stake in each other’s children.


P.S. Mike & Susan Klonskly lay out an extended treatment of this issue in their book Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society

Learning: What and How?

Dear friends,

On coincidences? Speaking of Richard Elmore—as I was in the last letter I wrote you. Right after writing that blog, I came across a booklet he wrote for the Albert Shanker Institute in 2002. Almost ancient history. Title: The Imperative: Investment in Human Skill and Knowledge. It reminds me why I have always admired him—and had caveats.

His argument in short is that we need to recognize that performance-based accountability, if it is to do what it was intended to do, ”requires a strategy for investing in the knowledge and skill of educators.”

His definition of “what it was intended to do” is not bad: “improve the quality of educational experience for all students and the performance of schools.” But? To what end? How would one measure “the quality” of an experience or a school? Current tests surely do not do that job. Elmore slips over this issue too quickly. I think that accounts for where we begin to part company.

If teaching is done right, he says, students will learn what has been taught. I hope not! Given how many parents, teachers and other “instructors”(including TV, et al) are likely to be teaching/preaching stuff that is plain untrue, or partially inaccurate, or accurate only in part, the rest “we’ll cover later.” (Think of how what we say to children is intentionally not quite true, but they will get the unvarnished version when they are older!)

The “misunderstandings” that occur between the best teachers and the best students (and mostly we have to contend with less than the “best” of either) are where all the fun of learning actually takes place. This begins at birth. Humans are not only born curious, but they are born with a capacity for rather rigorous mechanism for correcting mistakes. They build and rebuild their “theory” of the world based on trial and error—over and over, with modifications and side paths, and adjustments and sometimes huge revisions! Sometimes this process stops—in face of too much uncertainty or not enough—and we fixate, obsessively, on a theory that never gets revised even when faced with its “obvious” contradictions.

I apologize for getting so “up in the air” with this, but I’ve more and more come to believe that this assumption—which academics call constructivism—that I hold about learning is much more controversial than I wish it were. Not only do some disagree with me about what “being human” is like, but insofar as they agree, they think it is one of those qualities that serves us poorly, a bad habit that gets us into trouble. There are those who think that schooling is needed precisely to eliminate that quality of infantile investment in our own ideas, our resistance at just doing or believing what we are told. Yes, we may have to give some of that egotism up, but we need also to hold onto it as we learn also to conform a bit more. We have to watch out for what the trade-offs are—or the adults in our life have to watch out that we do not give up too much.

If we think that the central core of what publicly supported education is about is passing on the best and wisest of our traditions, but simultaneously questioning and revising them, we have a problem with schools as they are. E.g. Which traditions, and whose traditions? There are many. Personally, I expect schools in the USA to pass on the fragile claim that democracy, for all its faults, is the best form of governance. Even as I know too much about how well or poorly it often (mostly?) works! How to pass on the habits and knowledge that will solidify such a claim is a risky business.

But if that is a central purpose, then we need to beware of the idea that what is taught (especially in school) can be measured by whether the learner agrees with what he/she has been taught.

Yes, it is true that you cannot learn anything new if you have no facts and knowledge to build on. But the accuracy of that knowledge is always contentious—from birth on. Sometimes it seems like ”we all know,” “obviously” and “of course.” How could we finish a sentence if we didn’t accept the idea that there is a consensus on most things. But what do we do when we realize there is not? Those phrases—“we all know” and “obviously” and “of course”—often stop us from revisiting past learning. This is one reason children’s rate of learning so far surpasses that of their elders—there is no shame yet about ignorance. It may be why Richard Elmore’s colleagues turned down his idea of revisiting old beliefs.

Finding the balance between accepted facts and truths and questioning them is an art, and a bit of a science—i.e. informed trial and error. But the problem is that we are easily intimidated from publicly exposing our possible ignorance in ways little children are not. This leads in turn to testing them out, often just in our heads. Or sometimes it means we settle, at least for now, on those that feel most comfortable or more polite. Most damaging of all is when we avoid even any inner doubts or questionings. In short, we learn to become non-learners. Except, ah yes, there are always exceptions. Such as when we are fired up by powerful charismatic ideas, people or “movements” which upset our comfortable old theories. At least temporarily. The joy that occurs when a new ideas clicks in place is sometimes even a signal: be cautious. “Conversions”—when we wholesale drop old ideas for new ones, or sometimes just graft one set of ideas onto another—need revisiting from time to time too

The two authors, of many, that I return to when trying to make sense of this are David Hawkins and Jean Piaget. But my most powerful teacher of all is observing with care children’s experiences in schools and elsewhere, and finding the parallels in my own life.. Then I fall back to a favorite quotation from Eugene V. Debs. “I would not lead you to the promised land even if I could. Because if I could lead you into the promised land, others could lead you back again.” How can we embrace solidarity but not group-think?

When Elmore argued for revisiting—as educators—our old ideas, what caught my eye was his unusual willingness to re-explore—not just changing his mind. I live so much within a world that disagrees with me that sometimes I over-cling to that subset of people and institutions that are on my wave length. Finding the right balance is hard for me.

I’m hoping to use this blog (unlike Bridging Differences with Ravitch) to explore what I believe.

So challenge me (if you keep reading these letters).


I used to, but now…?

Dear friends,

My working table is a mess—piles upon piles of clippings and interesting articles to comment on. I watched a TV show today about pathological “hoarders.” I think that I am one—all the stuff I know I’ll want to use someday in the future.

When I started blogging for Education Week with Diane Ravitch I thought, ah hah—at last. I’ll have plenty of time and space to say everything. But oddly enough it hasn’t had that effect at all. Everything connects with something else and eventually the pile is so huge I can’t use any of it. What’s such fun about education as a topic is that everything leads to so many connections.

In a way, this reminds me of the way a good curriculum develops. Almost any starting point can lead on to so many connections, and by the time we have to call it quits we’ve barely scratched the surface. It turns out that virtually everything is interesting, and that most interesting things find a way of reminding us of other interesting things, that in turn influence how we think…and so on.

Of course, one must make decisions in life as in the classroom. Which means we are all the time acting on our latest and best hunches, and hoping that in the process we’ll uncover new possibilities for when we come back to the same questions again.

This was precisely the basis of our curriculum design at Mission Hill. We designated some broad topics—three per year—and then jumped into them. Every four years we more or less came back to the same questions—when we were all four years older and wiser. In this spirit I recently reread several pieces I wrote for Dissent magazine in the 60s. Then I began to reread the short essays I sent home to parents after Central Park East started in the 70s. What changes could I detect over these 40-50 years?

Why was I so much more optimistic back then? When I think about how discouraging those years were–Vietnam, the bankruptcy in NYC, etc–why do I feel things may be worse now? Many of the issues I now wring my hands over were surely worrisome then too. Like standardized testing. Like top-down decision making, passive elementary school teachers, the shortcomings of the UFT (my union) and the patronizing put-downs I received from folks when they discovered I was an early childhood teacher.

So when I saw Harvard professor Richard Elmore’s essay in the Harvard Education Letter (Jan/Feb 2010) entitled “I Used to Think…and Now I Think” I decided it was time for me to do the same. The most enlightening/amusing point in Elmore’s essay came early: how the idea of consciously revisiting one’s old views was so thoroughly rejected by his colleagues. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall.

Says Elmore:
1. I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think that policy is the problem.

2. I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices. And now I think that people’s practices determine their beliefs.

3. I used to think that public institutions embodied the collective values of society. And now I think that they embody the interests of the people who work in them.

I found myself agreeing with many of his thoughts as he developed them on all three topics. But least of all about #3. So I’ll start my own list with his three. In my next letter you’ll get my “I used to…and now” thoughts. But a few hints.

Grandiose policies avoid the realities of practice. But they are both less and more important than I once thought. The practices/beliefs conundrum intrigues me. When Elmore quotes poet Yeats, who said he increasingly saw the world “with a cold eye and a hot heart” I took a deep sigh… Me too. But unlike Elmore, my heart still goes out to all the constituents of our schools—children, their families, and their teachers. I’m less worried than he appears to be about some kinds of “self interest.” I still believe that we can develop practices and beliefs that bring together the self-interests of at least those most directly affected by schooling. The connecting link between community, family, teacher and child does not seem unbridgeable. I still believe in our potentially shared interest in…well, almost anything and everything, if we believe ourselves powerful enough to have an impact. And finally, I still have a tendency to worry when a “Crisis” is declared and quick solutions demanded. Democracy works best when we have the leisure to do some hard thinking together.

More later….