Education and the Commercial Mindset

Education and the Commercial Mindset

mindset

by Samuel E Abrams
Harvard University Press
2016

This is book that you should rush out and buy/read. The author, Samuel E. Abrams is currently the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia. When I first saw the title and the source, I did not think it would be a book I would be enthusiastic about.

However, I discovered immediately that the author taught for a number of years at NYC’s Beacon High School, which I know and respect. So I decided maybe my biases were unfair. Indeed I was wrong to be wary. Chapter One should be a must for all those who want (or should want) to understand the period we are in and the issues confronting us. If you can’t imagine reading the whole book—start there. Then decide.

Actually every chapter that follows is important including one on charters with a focus on KIPP—which Abrams is more sympathetic to than I am. But like the rest of the book he presents the issues with lots of documentation and data, and he presents KIPP fairly. He covers considerable territory with some historical background on every topic he deals with for those who love it. His final chapters on schooling in other distant lands focuses on the Nordic nations with a lot, of course, on Finland.

I could quibble with this or that, I won’t until after you’ve had a chance to read it.

The books gave me insights that make me realize the task we face here in the United Statesis in some ways harder. Most of the other countries he describes—and in fact most of the nations in the world—are more homogeneous than the United States. In addition, as Abrams reminds us over and over, none of the nations that get compared with us have anywhere close to the inequality in wealth of the USA, nor the degree of poverty. This shocks me over and over again. It is easier to imagine that what you want for your child should be available to all children when you imagine that all children could be yours. The “others” are too foreign—in all senses—for too many Americans. It is easier to create a sense of grievance—an us versus them mindset in the USA. It is easier to believe that some kinds of families don’t deserve to get the best because they will only misuse it, squander it, or it wouldn’t even be good for them—they need something different (and cheaper).

The countries he describes, he argues, have a very strong sense of the communal good and thus have never had as many alternatives to public education for the rich. And, of course, these are all very much smaller countries and don’t face the additional complications that come with being a nation of sub-nations (states). They are built on assumptions of trust and mutual respect which is far less common in our country. Even the voucher system that Sweden adopted (which startled me) is quite another thing in a nation of so much equality and homogeneity. Of course, this actually suggests we need schools to create trust more than they do. We need schools that help build such trust and sense of shared and common good even more than these nations do but of course are too distrustful to do so on the scale needed. Chicken and egg dilemma.

This accounts, perhaps, for why Abrams never discusses the role of schools in the development of democratic norms and habits. He seems to take democracy for granted when discussing the Nordic school tradition, and perhaps also because democracy is so rarely used as a rationale for or against the current reforms.

Among other reasons to read this book is that it is a good read. He writes well, and while you may choose to skip around here and there, now and then, the power of his story will, I think, reach you—and help you the next time you get into an argument on behalf of the reforms you believe in.

Five stars.

The Annenberg Grant: A Lost Opportunity

 

I just recently reread The New York Network for School Renewal: A Proposal to the Annenberg Foundation. This was the early 1990s. It was quite amazing. It was approved not only by the Annenbergs, but by the then Chancellor, Mayor, State Commissioner, Board Chairman, President of the UFT, and three partner school-based organizations with rather varied political and educational agendas. We were ready to launch an experimental district of 50,000 students at its maximum and 150 or so schools with fiscal support for five years (nearly 100 schools were already launched). We had agreed upon freedom from all but a few Board, City, State and Union rules, a plan for documentation by both NYU and Teacher College, both ethnographic and statistical. We committed ourselves to serving a population demographically comparable to the city as a whole.

But it never got off the ground because a new Chancellor vetoed it. We got the money—50 million over 5 years—but not the agreed upon autonomies to learn what we needed to learn.

It was a lost opportunity, but it sent me on my way to Boston to join a much smaller and more modest plan developed by the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public Schools called the Pilot Project. The Pilot Project was fun, modestly successful, and far less well funded. While it has grown it has lost a lot of its promise as attention shifted to a combination of centralized planning, privatization and anti-union media. I had fun starting a Pilot K-8, Mission Hill, school that is still going strong. No regrets about that. You can see Good Morning Mission Hill on my website and on YouTube for some happy moments.

But we lost the moment to make the case for true accontablity—changes that might change everything that needed changing.

 

 

 

 

Personalization

My latest gripe. How the word “personal” has shifted its meaning so that machines are now programmed to pretend to be people in personal contact with children.

Is there any word or phrase left to us to describe authentic human relationships? And how might we define it so that we can differentiate the one from the other? Meanwhile, BEWARE any conferences, speeches or programs that claim to be promoting “personalized learning.”

Ron Wolk, the original publisher of Ed Week, has a good piece on this in the January 6th issue of his old paper (link).  He describes what we all used to think the phrase “personalized learning” meant and how it was, and in some places is still, practiced. He ends with a warning: “The reason nothing important changes in education is because if one significant change is made, everything would have to change.” That is why Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools laid out ten principles that went together for real change to occur. Many signed on, few got very far, and some of those who went the furthest were murdered along the way. But we need to revisit the ones that have survived and the ones that have started lately. We need a way to keep these principles, and the schools that represent them even incompletely, alive—in one way or another. They won’t all look alike and to live in today’s world they have each made some compromises. But even in a perfect world there would be trade-offs.  That is the ornery and also wonderful nature of institutions designed by the people who will live in them.

 

Democratic Schools project

I am exploring a project that involves describing various real-life descriptions of public schools that have tried to be sources of powerful education in and for democracy.  Maybe a “mom & pop” charter would be useful too.  I am trying to find out more about what their definition of democracy is/was, how they thought about implementing it, and what they have found to be the hardest and easiest to do and revisions they have made over the years.  Let me know if you have ideas of people and schools to contact.

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?

Deb

 

 

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!

Meier

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

Glover

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

Then…

kahlenberg

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.

Michie

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

democraticschools

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.

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

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

Diamond

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.

kindergarten

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

Martin

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.

delorenzo

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.

ochsborn

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.

Deb