Small Self-Governing Schools of Choice Revisited

Dear friends,

I spent three days last month in Texas with the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) in its new form—much younger (maybe a dozen “oldsters” of whom I think I was the oldest), probably half or more people of color (more Hispanic than Africa-American this time).   While we were kept too busy to reflect together on our experiences than I would have liked, the conversations we did have were both reassuring and insightful. I came away bursting with questions to explore. And with new colleagues and friends.

One thing I was thinking about was how my views about “small, self-governing schools of choice” has held up since the early 1970s when the NDSG was formed.  I think I would exclude the last—choice. It is not that I am now opposed to choice, but I see that my position is really “it depends.” “It depends” is my latest position on many things. But small and self-governing remain—although self-governing has gotten more complicated.  Who are the constituents of that “self”? I have discovered a new word—subsidiarity—that Catholic friends introduced me to. It means that decisions should be made by those most affected by them!

My central purpose through it all has been figuring out what best supports democracy versus what makes it easier to undermine it—while simultaneously educating each other. Inequality of power is our greatest enemy.

It is on the firm ground of communal responsibility, in which all have had equal voice—that democracy rests. When community members know each other and share some critical common spaces—like schools, post offices, libraries, etc.—and some critical common interests—such as what happens to your kids happens to mine—that democracy has a fighting chance. Without such mutuality democracy can simply become a fight over who can win an advantage without regard for the losers.

Is this too idealistic?  Maybe, maybe not. We have to recapture, I believe, the spirit of democracy writ small until we can truly start re-installing it writ large. That is why I have always supported small schools. Small schools make easer that face-to-face communal spirit and realistic communal responsibility for those besides oneself (and those most closely connected). It does not magically cure selfishness and greed, but it gives generosity and trust a chance to take root.

Those “communities” ideally should cross typical racial and class boundaries; but equally important, they need roots that outlast this or that single cause. In today’s world “communities” are too often built on a single interest, be it recreational, occupational or political. But those communities hold together only as long as that single interest holds. ”Home turf” can be a stronger shared turf—which neighborhood institutions (libraries, schools, playgrounds, et al) reinforce. Whether schools should be integrated at the expense of neighborhoods is a complex issue and I am leaning the other way of late. In a largely society, spreading kids—especially Black and Latino kids—around in other neighborhood seems disruptive of democracy and spreading middle class white kids around largely Black and Latino schools seems hopeless.

I am hoping we can do some thinking aloud about this dilemma. In the meantime “choice” has taken on a largely market-place meaning which inevitably increased class and race isolation. Is there a third alternative—since choice has so many obvious attractions?




Books, books and more great books!

Dear friends and colleagues,

I regularly like to promote some favorite books of mine here.

This time let me introduce you to a few of quite a lot of interesting books that have been published lately about schooling and a few that I just recently read but were published some time ago.

Two are close to home and include a chapter by me!


Teaching in Themes, edited by Deborah Meier, Matthew Knoester and Katherine Clunis D’Andrea


The Teacher You Want To Be, edited by Ellin Keene and Matt Glover.



Public School Choice vs Private School Vouchers, edited by Richard Kahlenberg was published in 2003 but it’s definitely worth reading as we move toward voucherization.

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Fearless Teaching, by Stuart Grauer. Accounts of very different approaches to schooling and teaching. You know, for sure, that he’s a teacher by what and how he put this book together.


We Don’t Need Another Hero, by Gregory Michie.  Exactly my point. Chapter 13 is entitled, “Race to the Top of What? “  Maybe democracy?


You might follow it up with an oldie (2007), Democratic Schools edited by Michael Apple and James Beane—which includes an essay by me and Paul Schwarz.


Schooling Beyond Measure, by Alfie Kohn is a new and precious collection of his current topic I enjoy thinking about.


Taking Back Childhood, by Nancy Carlsson-Paige has been reissued. It first came out in 2008 and remains a classic—especially designed for parents.


Teaching Kindergarten by Julie Diamond, Betsy Grob and Fretta Reitzes,  A collection of essays by folks who know what they are talking about, including a Mission Hill teacher (Kathy Clunis DAndrea) and a forward by Vivian Paley and Prologue by Ruth Charney.


While you’re at it read Kinderarten by Julie Diamond about a year of learning—for both Julie and her students.


Making Space for Active Learning: the art and practice of teaching edited by Anne Martin and Ellen Schwartz with a foreword by Helen Featherstone.  Those names should be enough to  catch your attention and each essay is by a teacher I know and admire.


Sketches in Democracy by Lisa DeLorenzo.  He is a music teacher and this book is a treasure; about the role of music in our school lives—or what it can be.


Squandering America’s Future, by Susan Ochsborn is a telling story about the historic changes in the way we view children and how it’s hurting us today.

ENOUGH!  I’ll get back to this because I have a bunch of other books on the chair besides me that I want everyone to read.

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!