Monday, December 7, 2009

Strategic Communication and Schools

Peter Levine, a philosopher and researcher on civic engagement (he directs CIRCLE at Tufts), put up an interesting post today discussing the leaked emails from climate scientists. The emails reference statistical "tricks" used to present data to make it more convincing to the public, and refer to climate skeptics as "idiots." These emails have, of course, been fodder for people predisposed to disbelieve in human-caused global warming and to fight political-ecological efforts to slow it down or diminish its effects.

Levine argues that what these scientists were doing was engaging in strategic communication. Using Habermas, he states that climate scientists were trying to effectively communicate a very specific set of messages in order to convince the public of the truth and implications of climate change. Strategic communication simply is better for this purpose, and climate change is a scary proposition for the world's future.

But as Levine states, strategic communication is "unethical" because it uses the listener or reader as the means to an end. It tries to manipulate the reader for what the speaker considers to be justified ends. Manipulation violates trust; Levine writes that
"our views of matters like climate change depend fundamentally on trust. I cannot directly sense changes in the climate, let alone their causes. Neither can scientists--despite their fancy equipment. An account of how and why the climate is changing requires aggregating the research of many scientists and collaborative teams. To use the aggregated information, you must trust all the contributors. Then, to make matters even harder, people like me don't read any of the scientific literature on climate. We read what we regard as high-quality news coverage of the scientific literature, which means that we must trust some reporters, as well as the scientists they cover. And we must trust the reliability of the relationship between them."

Scientists, he says, are not supposed to try and manipulate us; they should "explore the truth in the company of their readers. To the extent that they communicate strategically, they are just interest groups, basically like all the others. They have goals; they may be willing to negotiate; but they cannot persuade on the basis of trust."

All this reminds me of the dilemma that public school leaders find themselves in today. A great many interest groups, pundits, think tanks, and organizations today are explicit in their anti-public-school views and agendas. Groups like the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation conduct specious studies to forward their agenda. And have plenty of resources to play the media game to their full advantage. They are part of what Bracey called the “schools- are-awful bloc” that use “misinformation, distorted information, deliberate attempts at obfuscation, sloppy thinking” to break public support for government-run schools. I am not saying the public schools are always perfect, by a long shot, but typically the concerns of many of these groups are more based in ideology and politics than in actual balanced views based in evidence-based accounts.

In response, many public schools have tried to become experts at strategic communication. Most districts today have public relations experts on staff, whose job it is to boost the public image and perception of the district. Districts hire marketing experts whose job it is to "re-brand" the label of public education. They attempt to "get the truth out" about public schooling in the face of many unwarranted (and warranted) public attacks today.

This response is understandable, but it only serves to further erode public trust and the legitimacy of public schooling. School officials must have the trust of the citizens who fund, support, and attend their schools, but if they are viewed as strategically communicating with those citizens, trust is diminished. Nobody can sniff out marketing like Americans; we must be the world's experts, given the amount we are bombarded with today. And citizens of public schooling are no different. They can smell "re-branding" a mile off, and it smells like a used car salesman trying to sell a old Buick.

Levine contrasts strategic communication with Habermasian dialogic communication. In such communications, schools leaders and educators convene for dialogue and deliberation around school purposes, aims, and priorities. This doesn't mean that citizens tell teachers how to teach, or superintendents how to balance the budget, anymore than it means that citizens can tell climate scientists how their research should be done. But it would imply that school leaders are not marketers, nor simply managers, but public leaders whose job it is to listen to and speak with those publics to whom they are responsible. Yet the conditions for that kind of communication are exceedingly difficult, posing a challenging dilemma for any school leader who wishes start building public trust rather than simply playing public relations.

Friday, November 27, 2009

School to Prison Pipeline

Cross-posted on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog

In the excerpt below, ACLU staff attorney Rose Spidell discusses "The School to Prison Pipeline." This term describes a disturbing national trend in which school policies and practices are increasingly pushing students out of the public school and into the juvenile justice system. It refers to the current trend of criminalizing our students rather than educating them and the disproportionate effect it has on different student populations, especially, students of color. Spidell also describes some case studies out of Washington state. The excerpt is taken from the 2009 Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum held at Western Washington University on April 29th. The forum is an annual event sponsored by the Journal of Educational Controversy. Readers can view the entire forum on our journal's website.

View the full video of the forum here:

To learn more about "The School to Prison Pipeline," visit the ACLU's website here:

Monday, November 23, 2009

"The boa constrictor, in its filthy slime...": G.F. Thayer's Lecture on Classroom Courtesy

From time to time, in my rummagings through the historical detritus of 19th century education, I come across something interesting. A few months ago, while sorting through some material on school hygiene, I found an extraordinary lecture entitled "On Courtesy."

"On Courtesy" is an address was given by G.F. Thayer in August of 1840, at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction. In the lecture, Thayer bemoaned the lack of courtesy that plagued the schools of the day, and offered a list of requisitions and prohibitions that would help to remedy the problem. Some of Thayer's "requisitions" were quite bracing--consider the following comment on order in the classroom:
The first of the four [requisitions] relates to the scholars' taking their
places, on entering the school-room. This is a right step,
and the only safe one. If they wander about, they will
probably fall into temptation, and be led to do something
they ought not to do.
I have seen children, on a person's going into a schoolroom,
quit their seats, gather about the visitor, and stand,
with mouth ajar, drinking in, with the most intense interest,
every word said to or by the stranger, as if the communications
related to the falling of the sky, or some other
equally wonderful phenomenon. What in deportment
can strike a delicate mind with more surprise and disgust
than this ? In some schools, Lancaster's tablets, containing
the suggestion, "A PLACE FOR EVERY THING,
occupy a conspicuous situation. It should not be disregarded.
There are a number of other interesting requisitions (keeping the children mud-free, bowing) that Thayer discussed at great length. However, for Thayer, the requisitions are a mere opening act; the real rhetorical flights are saved for the prohibitions. Consider, for example, Thayer's energetic remarks on the problem of graffiti:
Next, marking, cutting, scratching, chalking, on the
school- house, fence, walls, &ic., are forbidden, as connected
with much that is low, corrupting, and injurious to the
property and rights of others. They are the beginnings
in that course of debasing follies and vices, for which the
idle, the ignorant, and profane, are most remarkable ; the
first steps in that course of degradation and impurity, by
which the community is disgraced, and the streams of
social intercourse polluted. You mark the track of its
subjects as you would the trail of a savage marauding
party, by its foul deeds and revolting exploits ; as you
would the path of the boa constrictor, in its filthy slime,
which tells that man's deadly enemy is abroad. And we
are called on, by every consideration of duty, to ourselves,
to our offspring, and to our race, to arm against this tremendous
evil, this spiritual bohon upas, which threatens
so wide-spread a moral death.
Other prohibitions not to be missed include spitting on the floor, the extremely dangerous game of paw-paw, and whittling.

Given the vigor of the pronouncements about the boa constrictor, one might be tempted to conclude that Thayer was an isolated crank. In fact, the opposite is true. Thayer was a popular schoolmaster who founded Chauncy Hall, a Boston private school that is still in existence. He was also, along with Horace Mann, a Vice-President of the American Institute of Instruction. As it happened, Mann, who was present for Thayer's inaugural reading of "On Courtesy", enjoyed the lecture so much that he reprinted it in his journal and had a copy sent to every school in Massachusetts.

In past posts, I've described some of the stark differences between current thinking about education and the ideas that prevailed in the 19th century. Thayer's lecture certainly bears this conclusion out. However, not everyone accepts that these differences exist. Recently, Robert Slavin, while making an argument about education's lack of progress in Educational Researcher, offered up the following assessment: “…if Rip Van Winkle had been a physician, a farmer, or an engineer, he would be unemployable if he awoke today. If he had been a good elementary school teacher in the 19th century, he would probably be a good elementary school teacher today.” Clearly, however, if Mr. Van Winkle had been teaching in Mr. Thayer's school, he might have had some difficulties adjusting to contemporary classroom life.

I highly recommend that you download the full version of "On Courtesy" and read it. Otherwise, you will never find out about Thayer's fascinating comments on bowing, the importance of respecting one's elders, and the dreadful dangers attendant upon "meddling with one's desk."

I just want the opportunity to have a choice

The New York Times reports that increasing numbers of New York City parents are forking over their dollars to companies that prep 3 and 4 year-olds for the city’s gifted and talented assessment test. I read this with considerable dismay but little surprise. Parents waste money on silly ideas, and perhaps in a few years I’ll be laughing at this as hard as I did at the Baby Einstein refund news. What really caught my attention was not the fact that parents are doing this, but the way parents talked about it.

One mother, Melisa Kehlmann, is quoted as saying “I just want the opportunity to have choice”. Her language struck me as perfectly capturing the problem.

The premise of “choice” is that it provides opportunities to parents and children that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Parents with money have always had ample choices and ample opportunities, and school choice is supposed to make comparable opportunities available to families who cannot afford to pay for them. Choice, in short, is supposed to create opportunities. “The opportunity to have a choice”, however, correctly structures the situation: Having a choice presupposes opportunity. The fact that parents are paying to have their children tutored for the gifted and talented assessment is yet one more piece of evidence that school choice only gives some people – those who already have some purchase on opportunity – a choice.

This is deeply problematic in a liberal democracy based on the idea that all people are rational choosers, with an equal right to determine the course of their own lives. Choice is supposed to be a right, and Ms. Kehlmann’s rhetoric captures this too. Her opening words “I just want . . .” imply that this is a plea for minimal basic rights. It is a phrase that one often reads in accounts of people struck by misfortune, famine or natural disaster, for instance, and usually a request for the bare necessities. One usually hears it in sentences like “I just want food for my baby”, or “I just want a roof over my head”. Nothing fancy, not organic baby food or an entire house, just sustenance and shelter. “I just want the opportunity to have a choice” is comic, given the context. “I just want” to pay to give my child a better chance to get into program that is supposed to be merit based strikes me as a plea along the lines of “I just want a Manhattan townhouse and a place in the Hamptons”. And yet, the rhetoric is accurate, inasmuch as choice is, after all, supposed to be a basic right.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What else falls with the Berlin Wall

In November 1987, my AP European History teacher assigned us a famously daunting assignment. She sketched an imaginary line from the Elbe river, down around the Czechoslovak border, and down the Danube to the Adriatic Sea and asked us to figure out what that divide meant.

This is, or was, the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, and we students were being asked to look into the history of that divide, figure out why it had come to be, and why it had achieved what appeared to be permanence, or at least long-term relevance. I cannot remember exactly what I wrote 22 years ago, but I suspect many of our papers included some version of the line that “this is how things have been for a long time and probably how they are going to stay forever”. We were, of course, dead wrong. Two years later, twenty years ago this week, the wall was down, the divide was breached. Five years later, I was in Poland running a civic education program. When I visited friends in Poland and Slovakia this spring, I sailed across borders that even in 1999 required passports and scrutiny but now look antiquated and shabby. (I suppose they probably looked shabby then too, but the presence of border control gave them potency they no longer have.) My Polish friends are traveling the world and moving back and forth across the Elbe and Danube to attend school, visit family, explore job opportunities.

This week, 22 years after writing an essay on the history of a stark divide, I found myself on the other side of the table, grading midterm essays that asked students to explain how teachers, schools, and other institutions in the United States make race matter. My students had seen videos on the history of race in the United States and read contemporary studies that explore race in school, and the midterm asked them to explain the workings of a divide that often seems to have foundations so deep, support from interests so powerful, and psychological ramifications running so far in our souls that it is likely a permanent feature of our world. Over and over, my students told me that race has always been an issue in the United States and that therefore it always will be.

I expect that two years from now, there will still be racial privilege in the United States, but in 1987 I expected the Berlin wall would still be standing. That it was gone two years later speaks to the refusal of large numbers of people to accept such fatalism. Of course it takes more than willpower. In June 1989, Tiananmen Square showed us that. But a fatalistic acceptance of the way things are is not the only alternative. If the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of empire in Eastern Europe teach us anything, it ought to be that refusal to accept present realities as indicating the limits of possibility can sometimes work wonders.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Matthew Shepard and public life

Last night I saw a reading of “The Laramie Project, 10 years later” sponsored by, among others, Miami University’s Department of Theater. All around the country yesterday, staged readings and productions of this play were being brought to the public to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shephard’s death after a brutal slaying motivated by homophobia. This performance intersected with my current research about “the public” – what this space (both actual, virtual and metaphorical) represents and means today.

“The Laramie Project” was a play by the Tectonic Theater Project and later an HBO movie that was based on the interviews done with Laramie residents five weeks after Shepard’s beating. It has supposedly now been seen by more than 30 million viewers. “The Laramie Project, 10 years later” visits the town a decade after the incident to see what has changed. They interviewed many of the same people and tried to see how the community was thinking about the incident, and what has changed for the GLBTQ community in Laramie and in Wyoming. It is a difficult but wonderful presentation. I urge you to see it if you can.

I am fascinated by the way that Shepard’s death has found spaces of expression, action and movement in public life. The Laramie Project represents one artistic vein of that expression, where playwrights, actors, and audiences re-enact and witness the story of Shepherd, his murderer, family, and the people of the town in which he died. The Laramie Project has spawned on-line communities. Shepherd’s death has spawned activism for hate crime legislation, the Shepard Foundation, and a number of other organizations and groups. In Shepard's name, many people in the GLBTQ community and their supporters gather, mourn, commemorate; some of those people take this energy into the political realms of policy-making and legislation on behalf of civil rights for GLBTQ people, as is witnessed by the explosion of activism in support of these causes in recent years.

In the town of Laramie itself, at least as far as how it is represented in “The Laramie Project, 10 years later,” you see the same kinds of discussions and actions around the Shepard’s murder and it’s implications for justice and community in Laramie. But in the performance of “10 years later,” you see how the circulation of meanings around Shepard’s death reflects the divisive and sensationalist world of contemporary political and cultural life. An infamous 20/20 News Hour show in 2004 raised doubts about the motivations of Shepard’s killer despite the clear evidence, including confessions, aired during the trail of his murderers (who are serving multiple life terms). That 20/20 episode asserted that the murder was not related to homophobic hatred but a simple robbery and drug deal gone bad. People interviewed 10 years after Shepard’s death now echo the lies constructed by this 20/20 episode which intersect nicely with our own impulses to ignore and paper over unpleasant truths about ourselves. Matthew’s death wasn’t caused because he was gay, this logic goes. He was killed in a robbery. Murderer’s confessions from the trial, however, reveal he was robbed in the first 10 minutes of the encounter; he was brutally beaten and left for dead well after the robbers had his wallet, which contained all of $30.00.

There are public expressions of this general idea, as well. The conservative right wing of our political culture, through its own media outlets, argue that Shepard’s death was not motivated by hatred at all, and use the 20/20 episode and its half-truths and lies to argue against hate crime legislation. The idea that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people do not deserve civil rights creates its own expressions, performances, and activism. It has created a strong set of public ideas and performances since Shepard’s death, passing Defense of Marriage Bills and blocking hate crime legislation in many states.

These public controversies generally are written off now as “the culture wars” in action. But they are not inevitable; they are part of the conditions of our contemporary public life. There are multiple areas of potential agreement between conservative Christians and GLBTQ civil rights activists that might be fruitfully explored and harnessed for political and cultural change that decreases homophobic violence and murder in our society, as one example. “The Laramie Project, 10 years later,” promotes the discovery of these multiple potential sites of agreement when the interview with Shepard’s murderer serves as the climax of the performance. The interviewer is urged, by a Catholic priest who served in Laramie, to get to know the murderer, and try to understand him. The play does not urge an easy excusing of Shepard’s murderer, or a forgiveness of hatred, but a kind of plea to get beyond simplistic characterizations of “us” and “them” while keeping a steady eye on justice. And that is the kind of public performance that, to me, is deserving of the name “public” in aspiration and meaning.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Stuck in Traffic

My daughter started kindergarten last month, and recently she was invited to the birthday party of a pre-school classmate. Naturally, the kids turned to playing and the adults turned to dissecting just what was going on in kindergarten. Our children are at different schools, and people were happy and unhappy about different things, but there was parental consensus that the traffic light discipline phenomenon is occupying too much of our children’s attention and interest.

In case readers aren’t familiar with the phenomenon, it’s a “behavioral management system” used frequently in elementary schools. Students who behave are “on green”. If you get into a little bit of trouble, you’re “on yellow” until you get yourself back to green again. From yellow, if you continue to commit infractions you can go down further to red. Not sure what happens there, since my daughter has been on green since day 1, and according to her the only child to get as far as yellow so far is one boy who tends to talk to the other children at his table.

It sounds fairly sensible as a means of maintaining order, and I am certainly sympathetic to classroom teachers’ need to do so. What’s alarming is that in the minds of so many kindergarteners, one’s primary purpose in school seems to be staying out of trouble.

I’m juxtaposing this with my discovery last week that 75% of the undergraduate students in one of my classes could tell me nothing about Karl Marx. Not even that he was one of the Marx brothers, which I almost would have settled for, as some indication of cultural literacy. It’s hardly news that our schools put a lot of energy into behavioral management and not enough into intellectual content, but it’s worth paying attention to again and again. Programs like KIPP and other successful charter schools have drawn our attention to the importance of teaching pro-school behavior. As Arne Duncan and the Department of Education address the problems of failing schools, they would do well to remember that behavior is only part of what matters.

I suspect kindergarteners may in part be enthralled with the traffic light system because they’ve figured out that it’s the key to what school is all about. She who controls the traffic lights holds the power, and kids are savvy enough to see, by the fourth week of kindergarten, that power, norms, and regulation are as much the point as learning to read. When my daughter and a neighborhood friend played school, they gleefully moved my younger daughter from green to yellow when she played with blocks at “storytime” instead of listening. Traffic lights, and the control of social nuisances they made possible, were (and are) the very heart of the game. In a recent article in Ed Week, Alfie Kohn suggests that alternative educators may be inspired by the traditional classrooms they grow up in – inspired to be different and do better. The insights of kindergarteners (which of course still need to turn into critical analysis, rather than tools for oppressing one’s little sister) are reason to think he might be right.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Think you can't trust the President?? At least trust the kids!

I was greeted early yesterday morning by a local newspaper article noting that some folks (specifically, "conservatives,"  but it's hard to know who that refers to) are angry that President Obama plans to give a speech at a public school urging young people to stay in school and take advantage of the education being offered them. Throughout the day yesterday -- and this morning -- I encountered this "developing story" ... on CNN, in The New York Times, and elsewhere.  

What are we to make of this?

The Obama folks clearly made one mistake in the run-up to the event.   They posted lesson plans that teachers could use in preparation for and after listening to the President's speech (offered live in one school but available for broadcast in any school).   One part of that included a question to be posed to the students:  "What can you do to help the President?"    In context, the question was clearly about supporting the good of the nation, but I can (if I really stretch Peter Elbow's "methodological belief") see why those who do not agree with the "President's ideology" would be concerned.  And it seems the President's folks were listening and focused on making this a non-partisan event. That question in the lesson plan was changed to ask how a student could achieve his or her educational goals.

I am struck by the concern with the "President's ideology," because the complaint incorporates the assumption that ONLY the President has an ideology, that the one complaining is speaking the non-biased truth.   Of course, the President has views on how to deal with the issues of our time, as do we all.    And we don't all agree with each other.   But it seems we have lost even the notion that we share one common goal:  a desire to educate children to be good Americans (even when we are not in agreement about what that means.)  Each of us -- especially the duly elected President of the country -- deserves that benefit of the doubt no matter how hard we fight in the arena of ideas and policies.

We have apparently moved into an era when even the clear election winner, a father of two young daughters, will not be trusted to speak to school children.  Have we so little confidence in our children's ability to listen critically and form and frame their own minds that we fear the influence of Barack Obama?   If that's so, then I fear no education is possible, certainly not the real education that requires openness to people who don't look and think like we do.  

Children who would become democratic citizens need to experience the play of democratic functioning.  I remember well my 6th grade Catholic school playground days during the Nixon/Kennedy elections.   My teachers and most of my classmates were Kennedy supporters (the result of religioius "ideology"? )   My parents -- and I -- were Nixon supporters (the result of my business executive father's socio-economic status?)  I and the few other Nixon supports held our ground when everybody else challenged us;   for the most part, we enjoyed it.  Whether or not we can trust our President in this case (and I obviously think we can),  I am quite certain we can trust our children.   Bring the President into every classroom;  it will do us good.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Where are the Voices from the Grass Roots?

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy blog)

In reading much that is printed in the mainstream media like today's editorial in the New York Times - "Accountability in Public Education," one constantly hears accounts and perspectives from the voices of those who are in power. Where are the voices from the grass roots about their concerns, frustrations, hopes, and challenges to what passes as educational reform in this country. I recently came across a website and a listserv that provides readers with this alternative perspective. For readers interested in educating themselves on other perspectives, check out the following website and join the listserv of the Education for Liberation Network.


To join the listserv: go to

Description and Purpose: The Education for Liberation Network is a national coalition of teachers, community activists, youth, researchers and parents who believe a good education should teach people - particularly low-income youth and youth of color - to understand and challenge the injustices their communities face.

Teachers may also be interested in their recent publication of a new kind of plan book that is called: Planning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers 2009-2010. You can find it at: I am told that the first printing is already sold out, but more are being printed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New Alberta law may chill classroom speech

In June, the Alberta legislature passed a bill that will require teachers to notify parents whenever sexual or religious topics will be addressed. Under the terms of the bill, the parents, once notified, could elect to pull their children out of any classes that concerned these topics.

Not surprisingly, this legislation has provoked opposition from a number of corners, perhaps most significantly from teachers, who feel that it will have a chilling effect on their speech. For some teachers, it may be easier to avoid a topic than to take the trouble of sending formal notification home. Yet even if the topic is a required element of the curriculum (e.g. sex education), a new bureaucratic hurdle has been created.

Teachers have also noted that this law may require notification whenever evolution is discussed in science classrooms. Lindsay Blackett, Alberta's Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, has indicated that this is not the case--he claimed that it is only when religion is explicitly addressed that notification would be required. However, the Premier of Alberta, Frank Stelmach, cast doubt on this, suggesting that parents would be notified and given the opportunity to remove their children from classes which dealt with the topic of evolution.

Gay rights activists are also unhappy with this legislation. One gay parent asked, "What happens at Father's Day art projects when my son makes two? How does the teacher explain that without talking about my family?" Yet even if parental notification is not actually required in this case, it seems likely that the law will lead teachers to avoid topics like this. What teacher will want to talk about a subject that has, in essence, been designated officially as dangerous?

The bill occasioned a great deal of heated rhetoric in the Alberta legislature, which is currently controlled by the Progressive Conservative (PC) party. Government members claimed that they were respecting the rights of parents. Rob Anderson, the PC member for Airdrie-Chestermere, offered the following comment on the bill:
...there are thousands and thousands of parents, the silent majority, severely
normal Albertans that are extremely happy with this legislation, that
believe it’s right to affirm the right of parents as being the primary
educators of their children in these subjects. I think that it’s a credit
to this government that it has stood up for what is right on this
Opposition Liberal and NDP members, however, maintained that the government had caved to religious interests. Harry Chase, the Liberal member for Calgary-Varsity, remarked:
By enshrining prejudice in the name of religious tolerance, this
government has taken Alberta back to the controversy of the Scopes
monkey trial of 1925 in Tennessee. To divert Albertans’ attention
from their prejudicial proposal, they have played and replayed the
racial discrimination defence card, that due to their caucus’s ethnic
diversity they are shocked that anyone would dare to accuse them of
promoting intolerance. However, that is exactly what Bill 44, which
does not apply to private schools, will do to previously inclusive,
open-minded, secular-based public schools by enshrining in law the
right to discriminate on the basis of human sexuality, religion, or
sexual orientation.
Opposition members also noted that Alberta already provides generous public funding for private schools. Any citizen who wishes to send their child to private school can receive a voucher for 70% of the public school subsidy. Not surprisingly, the parental notification bill does not apply to Alberta private schools, many of which are faith-based.

Since the Conservatives have a 72-11 majority in the Alberta legislature, the opposition had no chance of stopping the passage of the bill. However, the law has yet to be implemented in schools, and it remains to be seen what effect it will have. How rigorously will teachers comply with the law? Will many parents elect to pull their children from classes?

At any rate, the question remains as to how parents' rights to control their children's learning should be balanced against teachers' rights and state interests. In Alberta, at least, it would seem as though the balance has shifted decisively towards parents.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Call for Reviewers

The Journal of Educational Controversy is in the process of building a pool of reviewers to assist in evaluating future manuscripts. If you would like to be considered as a reviewer, please e-mail a vita indicating your discipline and areas of interest to: Please include "Potential Reviewer" on the subject line.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Richness of Experiences

During her confirmation hearings last week, Sonia Sotomayor repudiated her now-famous earlier statement that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”. Of course, political pressure makes confirmation hearings no place to stick to a nuanced point, but I’m still sorry that Sotomayor had to back away from that point rather than explaining some things about experience, perspective, and education.

The key phrase is “with the richness of her experiences”. Experience is educational; judges who have had richer experiences are better educated and may therefore reach better, decisions than judges with less understanding of the way the world and people are. Hardly problematic, it seems to me. Whether the experiences of Latinas are indeed richer than those of White men would then become the question. Not always, I’d guess, but given the dynamics of race and social class probably true of most Latinas and White men who become judges.

I hear Sotomayor echoing Dewey’s argument about growth and burglars. Cliques of all sorts, including the company of elite lawyers, and the educational situations in which many law-school bound students grow up, are inimical to education that reaches beyond the limitations of school. Rather than criticize Sotomayor for this point, we might all want to think again about what factors enable White men to lose touch with the wider experiences of humanity. And not only White men, of course, or all White men -- there's no need to slide into an essentialism that I don't read in Sotomayor's original comment. Richness of experience matters. That's the main idea.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Betting the University Endowment on the Market

A small Canadian university, St. Francis Xavier, made the headlines last week when it revealed that it lost a staggering 43% of its $100 million endowment in the past year. Unlike most universities, which use a mix of assets in their investment portfolios, St. F.X. placed 90% of the endowment in Canadian stocks, and the rest in "U.S. equities."

It sounds like a housecleaning is in order on one particular university committee. The Globe and Mail article notes:

St. FX also is on the hunt for new members for the volunteer committee that oversees the university's investments. “A number of them are in their 70s,” Mr. Duff said, and the school needs to do some succession planning.

One interesting thing about this whole case is that St. F.X., like most Canadian universities, is a public institution. Granted, the endowment money doubtlessly came from private donors, but the university still relies largely on public funding. Perhaps, given this reliance, some light government regulation is in order in terms of how public universities manage their endowment.

I find it difficult to believe that a university could pursue such a risky strategy. However, as we've been finding out steadily over the course of the past year, there are many aspects about the whole financial meltdown that have beggared belief. It may be that St. F.X. is an isolated case, but as the financial crisis continues to unfold, we may yet see some more "interesting" financial news coming from higher education. Let's just hope that no one decided to invest their endowment in derivatives...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Student Strip Search Case

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy blog)

The U.S. Supreme Court decision on the student strip search case was announced today. The ACLU , who represented April Redding, the mother of the Arizona student, Savana Redding, calls it the first victory for student rights in the last twenty years. The High Court ruled that the search that took place when honors student Savana was 13 years old was an unconstitutional violation of her rights. The search was done by school officials on the basis of an uncollaborated accusation by another student that Savanna had ibuprofen in her prosession. Now nineteen years old, Savanna wrote about her experience and her court victory on the ACLU blog today.

Savana's own words about her court victory from the ACLU blog:

Civics 101
by Savana Redding

"People of all ages expect to have the right to privacy in their homes, belongings, and most importantly, their persons. But for far too long, students have been losing these rights the moment they step foot onto public school property -- a lesson I learned firsthand when I was strip-searched by school officials just because another student who was in trouble pointed the finger at me. I do not believe that school officials should be allowed to strip-search kids in school, ever. And though the U.S. Supreme Court did not go quite so far, it did rule that my constitutional rights were violated when I was strip-searched based on nothing more than a classmate's uncorroborated accusation that I had given her ibuprofen. I'm happy for the decision and hope it helps make sure that no other kids will have to experience what I went through.

"Strip searches are a traumatic intrusion of privacy. Forcing children to remove their clothes for bodily inspection is not a tool that school officials should have at their disposal. Yet, until today, the law was apparently unclear, potentially allowing for the most invasive of searches based on the least of suspicions. Every day, parents caution their children about the importance of not talking to strangers, looking both ways before crossing the street, and following directions at school. But I imagine they never think to warn them that a school official, acting on a hunch, may force them to take their clothes off in the name of safety. And now, thankfully, they won't have to.

"Our fundamental rights are only as strong as the next generation believes them to be, and I am humbled to have had a part in preserving and promoting the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights."

Readers can read the U.S. Supreme Court decision here.

Editor: The journal recently published some articles on another student rights case, Morse v. Frederick, decided by the U.S Supreme Court in 2007.

Readers can read two articles on that case in our journal's Winter 2008 issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters.

"Visions of Public Education In Morse v. Frederick by Aaron H. Caplan

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus”: Have students’ First Amendment rights to free speech been changed after Morse v. Frederick? by Nathan M. Roberts

Monday, June 22, 2009

Announcing the New Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal

We have just put up a post on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog about our newly formed Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal. We are anxious to get ideas and feedback. Check it out.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Education for the Public Good - TED talk

Liz Coleman of Bennington College calls for us to reinvent liberal arts education in a recently posted TED talk. This talk documents the way "expertise" has overthrown the generalist, "with increasing emphasis on the technical and obscure." She disses postmodern deconstructionism in literature, which I find unnecessary and a bit unintellectual, but she makes a good case for something that many of us already know: that higher education institutions have no clear sense of the democratic purposes of education. She says that despite the explosion of community service programs on campuses, these remain strictly outside the curriculum, and the current civic engagement push is oversimplified and does not disturb, ultimately, the basic neutral and expert stance that characterizes the academy's curriculum. Higher education (her focus) no longer provides the capacity for deep civic engagement, she argues. We are "playing with fire in terms of our responsibilities for the health of this democracy," she states. While some of her points are a bit overstated, and "education for education's sake" seems to be utterly dismissed, I think her basic point is right on. It is exactly the stance that makes folks like Stanley Fish crazy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Community as Intellectual Space, 2009

CI_2008The fifth annual Community as Intellectual Space Symposium will be held on June 12-14 at La Estancia on 2753 W. Division Street, Paseo Boricua, Chicago, Illinois.

The theme of the symposium is Critical Pedagogy: Community Building as Curriculum. As professionals and institutions are engaging with communities to enhance the life chances and well-being of residents, the conference examines how community-building and critical pedagogy can offer effective and sustainable change, locally and among collaborators as well.

BateyThe keynote speaker this year is Antonia Darder, a Professor at the University of Illinois in Educational Policy Studies and Latino/a Studies. There will be presentations and workshops on

  • Community Based Research;

  • Urban Agriculture;

  • Community Informatics and Service-Learning;

  • Social Emotional Learning at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School;

  • Critical Pedagogy and its Application to Teacher Certification;

  • Community Health at the Barrio Arts, Culture, and Communications Academy;

  • Community Archiving and Web 2.0 Cataloging.

The conference also offers Batey Urbano's production of Crime against Humanity, screenings of original documentaries filmed on Paseo Boricua, community tours, and art exhibits.

Community as Intellectual Space is co-organized by the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center (Chicago) and the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Continuing Professional Development Units (CDPUs), academic course credit for those who enroll in UI's LIS590 CIO, and registration scholarships available.

Cross post from Chip's Journey

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Nick Burbules of Illinois on technology and education

Two short clips on YouTube of blogger Nick Burbules being interviewed in Argentina about technology and education.

Cross posted from Education Policy Blog.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Audacity of "We"

Presidential rhetoric has always been an instrument of public education. in retrospect it is remarkable how effectively Ronald Reagan used the “bully pulpit” to teach Americans not to trust government—to reject the notion that there is a common good. His rhetoric was powerfully educational, and the result has been to dissolve the sense of common good that had been the underpinning of the New Deal. With the rhetoric of individuality, Reagan used his position as educator-in-chief to teach us that “…government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” ( That idea was the heart of the Reagan Revolution: the denial, in the starkest possible terms of the fundamental idea of the New Deal—that we are in this together.

More to the point, Reagan taught the American people to reject the notion at the core of democratic life: that “we the people” are not estranged from government, but we are the government. Eliminating this premise from public life lay the foundation for everything that followed in the Reagan Revolution: the loss of progressive taxation, the increased divide between the rich and the poor; the decay of infrastructure so it could be sold off to the highest bidder; and the drive to privatize schooling, among other effects. In general, the loss of any sense that there is a “we” in a communal sense. The body politic was reduced to the market place, where people come together to pursue their individual interests competitively or in parallel, but not in common.

That is the point of some of Reagan’s most famous aphorisms, among them: “…the 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help’”; and … government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The shift in public rhetoric he engineered was prefigured by his campaign mantra: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Not, “are we better off?” but “we,” which rhetorically was “I.” This was a marked difference from the public rhetoric of the previous half-century, and as public education, it was very effective: it both justified and begin the deconstruction of democracy as a project of the common good, as opposed to the pursuit of individual good.

Public speech has been largely miseducative over the past two generations, beginning with Reagan’s opposition democratic life as a shared existence. One effect of the deconstruction of the commons has been a marked loss of civility. In my life the essentially civil discourse of Lawrence Spivak’s original Meet The Press and William F. Buckley’s Firing Line has been replaced by the mindless shouting matches on Crossfire so nicely skewered by Jon Stewart ( Even more corrosive have been the propaganda machines made profitable by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. So we pursue our political aims individually, with no sense of common purpose. People like Diane Rehm labor to continue a public conversation, but their numbers and influence are small compared to those who seek to end public speech.

Bill Moyers once described democracy as “government by conversation.” This is why the dissolution of civil discourse is so dangerous; when we can not hear each other speak (see Tom Green on the nature of public speech at, we can not make democracy function. At least not democracy that has any sense of common good; without real public speech, “the center can not hold.”

For this reason I find President Obama’s recent address at Notre Dame so encouraging ( In this speech he begins to particularize the public idea he articulated in his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention ( That remarkable address to the nation was a call to reconstitute a public. He reminded us that the hard work of individuals is futile without the support of the commons in matters of common welfare (unions, health care, good schools, veterans benefits). This was the beginning (one hopes) of an effort to undo the damage to democratic life done by the work of the right wing in this country: it is a powerful example of public speech and therefore of public education. The reminder that we are all in this together, and that we must speak to each other and listen to each other: “It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work.” This is rhetoric employed by few politicians and no presidents since LBJ, whose statement that “we shall overcome” was a call to a public consciousness.

At Notre Dame, he tried to realize that rhetorical flourish in addressing perhaps the most divisive issue in US political life: abortion. After pointing out that the current economic conditions are the result of acting on “…immediate self-interest and crass materialism,” (another claim not often made in the public sphere), and after his speech is interrupted a few times by protestors, he moves into the discussion of abortion.

The speech is educative in both its audience and its tone. The audience could perhaps not be more openly skeptical: he is articulating a pro-choice position at a—perhaps the—Roman Catholic University in the US. The very presence of hecklers is an instructive reminder about the nature of democracy, a much needed public lesson after eight years of a President afraid to speak to audiences of unscreened citizens.

In tone, it is instructive. He begins his discussion of the abortion controversy by acknowledging, as he has done before, that he has not always accorded the proper charity to those with whom he disagreed, recalling an incident where he spoke of “…right wing ideologues who would take away a woman’s right to choose.” It is important to note that he was not backing away from his policy commitment to choice; it was the ungenerous portrayal of those with whom he disagreed that he regretted. It is only when we talk about our differences “with a presumption of good faith,” that, “…we discover at least the possibility of common ground.” It is also when we discover the possibility of a public.

He goes on to what strikes me as a quite remarkable passage on the politics of abortion. In it, he acknowledges that many of us would like to “fudge” the issue, but we can not do so: “…at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” This is something I can not think of many politicians making: an honest admission that, while civil discussion is always necessary, not every conflict is open to compromise; the discussion must continue indefinitely and with patience and mutual respect. This is not easy; if it were, more of us would probably be doing it.

But having seen the damage Reagan’s rhetoric of disconnection and opposition to the common good helped create the deconstruction of the public square, we can hope that a president speaking the language of common good and common interest can help reweave the tattered fabric of our commons. The president is only commander-in-chief of the military in times of war, but the president is always the public educator-in-chief. Preliminary evidence is that President Obama, whatever his other shortcomings, is up to the task.

Public Understanding of Science: What We're Up Against

As many educators already know, the challenge of public understanding of science is not limited to the general public, but is also present amongst our political leadership. A month or so ago, I told you about Canada's Minister of Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, who refused to state publicly whether he adhered to the theory of evolution. This month, I've decided to share with you an American example: Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking Republican member of the House energy committee. Notably, the Wall Street Journal has called this man the "House GOP's leading expert on energy policy."

In order to get a sense of Rep. Barton's level of expertise, here he is talking about climate change:

He informs us that carbon dioxide is nothing to worry about since it is a "natural product" and shares with us the reassuring knowledge that CO2 is "in your Dr. Pepper." At the end, he sums up his message with the following remark:
We think it's futile to try to regulate something that's (a) not a pollutant (b) is not going to help the environment one way or the other and (3) (sic) is so ubiquitous that in reality you're just kind of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Another Rep. Barton clip that I particularly enjoyed is his questioning of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Barton apparently feels that he "stumped" Chu, and captioned this video (which he posted in his own YouTube space) "Where Does Oil Come From? Question Leaves Energy Secretary Puzzled." I invite you to mull over the source of Secretary Chu's "puzzlement":

As entertaining as some may find Rep. Barton's remarks, one of the interesting things about them is that if you didn't know much about science, they might seem reasonable. His position, such as it is, is explained clearly. Reasons are given. After all, CO2 is "natural" and "in your Dr. Pepper," so what could possibly be wrong with it? A solid STS-leaning science education might be able to teach students how to criticize this reasoning, but the continuing success (in advertising and elsewhere) of claims about the "natural" may testify to the fact that science curricula are not delivering the goods in this regard.

Thankfully, Rep. Barton no longer holds the chairmanship of the Energy Committee. Cooler heads (or hotter ones, at least with respect to climate change) have prevailed, which is certainly good news for those of us who are concerned about the environment.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Charter entreprenuers as organizers?

In today's LA Times, the article "Parents are urged to demand more from LA schools," presents an odd and interesting juxtapositioning. Here is a charter school entrepreneur -- one of the founders of Green Dot Public Schools (a charter not-for-profit) -- who is urging parents to get organized to demand better schools for their kids. The Parent Revolution is a tool to help parents in Los Angeles communities create political pressure on schools to improve. Steve Barr's initiative is aimed to empower parents but has potential benefits for charter organizers like Green Dot, as the article points out: "With parents, they predict, they'll have the clout to pressure the Los Angeles Unified School District to improve schools. They'll also have petitions, which Barr and his allies will keep at the ready, to start charter schools. If the district doesn't deliver, targeted neighborhoods could be flooded with charters, which aren't run by the school district. L.A. Unified would lose enrollment, and the funding would go to the charters instead of to the district."

This effort to organize parents in neighborhoods where families are least empowered and most educational disadvantaged unites bizzare bedfellows: Barr, the LA Chamber of Commerce, and the Eli Broad foundation, all of whom are bankrolling this initiative. The initiative is not ostensibly about promoting a charter school agenda, but clearly charters are an animating "stick," if you will, that those promoting the Parents Revolution see as a motivational force, a stick that would be aligned with Barr's interests as well as the Chamber of Commerce's, I would guess.

In my own work I'm increasingly fascinated with the ways in which community organizing language, tools, and strategies are being used by educators and families, and the ways this tradition of activism and community-based leadership are being born anew in today's school reform movements. This particular article highlights the strange linking of business, nonprofit, and poor communities in contemporary urban neighborhoods. As those writing on community organizing in education today have documented (see Aaron Schutz's online commentaries, among others), educators have much to learn about this tradition and how it might serve educational progressives today. Barr and his Parent Revolution in Los Angeles is yet another reworking of this tradition, but one which significantly steps away from an Alinskyan framework. Can we really utter the terms "grassroots" and "Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce" in the same breath? I certainly know what Alinsky would say.....

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Getting it wrong again, and again (and again)

This is cross-posted from Education Policy Blog.

So once again two "former governors from different political parties who remain passionate about the quality of education in America" (Chicago Tribune, Perspective, May 3, 2009) have weighed in with a grand proposal about how Arne Duncan should use his "$5 billion to transform education in America" to "improve student achievement and ultimately revolutionize our economy and workforce for the 21st century."

Neither Jeb Bush nor James B. Hunt Jr. have any background in the field of education, other than being governors. Neither has ever been a teacher, principal, superintendent (although it's possible Hunt had some personal knowledge of education, having majored in college in "agricultural education"--although he seems to have gone on and immediately got a masters studying how to raise tobacco better, oh, and within two years of college was also studying law--he only failed the bar exam the first time--and was, according to all of biographies I can find on the Web, "an early proponent of teaching standards," and married a teacher, although she quit her job as teacher to become full-time first-lady--can't blame her for that!). Yet because they are "passionate" about "the quality of education in America," and because they believe themselves (implicitly) to offer a balanced perspective (being, after all, "from different political parties"), they think they know how best to spend that money.

Let's hope that Arne doesn't take their advice lock, stock, and barrel.

One of their ideas is truly innovative and would be a very good idea: create a national, free, repository of world-class online educational opportunities where "students, parents, teachers, principals, and school administrators" (and former governors?!?) "could shop for a better education. Virtual courses open to everyone would tear down the chief barrier to student achievement--access to a quality education." Well, that certainly is ONE barrier to student achievement, and it could be reduced through such a national repository. The two former governors liken it to "an of courses and curricula." I don't really think that's the correct analogy, but there might be some worth in using an interface like Amazon's, including user ratings and reviews. I'd prefer an analogy like the American Memory project of the Library of Congress (which makes public domain and other archival materials available with a simple-to-use interface), of learning objects. (While learning objects might include "courses and curricula," we need to dramatically broaden our conception of what kind of content would provide the most useful "access to a quality education"--and "learning object" is a good, neutral, non-confining conception.) Add on a Web 2.0 type of access system (including the folksonomy of tags, ratings, personal profiles, sharing, etc. on the order of Diigo or De.lic.i.ous) and this is a wonderful, doable idea. Just make sure that you've got teachers involved, because teachers DO know some things that "former governors" do not, about motivation, the influence of culture and peer pressure, and the importance of appropriate scaffolds for each individual learner. Because "access to quality education" isn't just a matter of making it available on the In fact, "access" is, at best, half of the solution to making sure every student gets a quality education..."access" depends, in large measure, on the student having both the interest in the resources and the skills or guidance necessary to use it appropriately...two factors that aren't magically in place once something is available online!...a point that is obvious to anyone who has actually poked around on the Web and realized what is ALREADY available there, to those who know what they want and how to find it.

The other suggestions made by these "passionate" "former governors" (who, of course, are therefore the most qualified to know what can "improve student achievement"...just look at all the positive gains that former governors have produced in American students during the past 20 years when "former governors" have been so front-and-center in reform efforts!) make are kind of laughable, not only because we've heard them all before, but because they are proffered with such complete naivete about how familiar they have become. Schools should have "comprehensive data systems," so that we can use the "test scores" of a whole "class" to "tell us whether a teacher is effective" and "an entire state of test scores" to "tell whether a policy is working." "When empirical data replace emotion as the basis for developing policy, America will be able to transformt he quality of education into a world-class system of learning." GOLLY! What a new idea!!!! Get rid of that most human of characteristics--emotion--and that most human of activities--education--will suddenly become as efficient and effective as the "world class" automobile industries America has created using the mantra of Total Quality Management and Continuous Improvement!!

(Wait! Haven't these "empirical" systems of management been used in corporate America for decades!?!? Have they made our industries "world-class"? Has the evisceration of emotion from business resulted in the dramatic increases in quality that these "former governors" (passionate--mind you!) predict for the schools??!?)

(Yesterday, I was at a keynote address at the National-Louis University's Center for Practitioner Research Forum, given by Karen Gallas, whom I really liked. Karen, of course, got way, way, WAY, too caught up in emotion, when she talked about how the kindergarteners she was teaching on the Navaho reservation responded so directly to her efforts at forming close relationships with them, but only showed "bald-faced defiance" to her attempts to use authority...and about how these kids could only really be brought into a cooperative group when Karen came to her wit's end and began quietly singing "Little Rabbit Foo-Foo" to herself in the middle of a chaotic classroom. I don't recall hearing Karen talk about the relationship of this "out of the blue" inspiration to just sing with "empirical data" or even "comprehensive data systems." In fact, now that I think about it "passionately" (like these former governors...WAIT! they don't want passion...they want DATA), Karen was WAY too emotionally involved in her job, and with her students, to possibly be effective with them. Damn emotion....get it OUT of schools and classrooms!!! There's the ticket!!!)

But I digress from describing these, um, tired and worn out reform suggestions. In addition to more comprehensive data systems and more empirical data and (God willing!) less emotion, these passionate (um, emotional? No, of course not, these guys are totally, except of course they ignore the record of the, um, "success" of these reform suggestions...I guess maybe the demand for "empirical data" doesn't apply to "former governors" writing op-eds in national newspapers....)

But I digress again. The suggestions!!! "Making progress toward rigorous college-and career-ready standards and assessments". (WOW, there's a new idea). "Making improvements in teacher effectiveness" ( the improvements in the quality of American automobiles...yes? Let's model teacher education programs after corporate quality assurance programs! Yes!) Oh, and "providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools." (Oooooh, yeah, there's the ticket! More requirements for direct instruction in those skills measured on the tests....more shutting down those schools that are dysfunctional...more reconstitution of schools requiring every staff member to re-apply so we can replace the veterans with wet-behind-the-ears recruits who will toe the line and parrot our "world class" curriculums and (by the way) let's make sure the principals of the reconstituted schools get the power to force at least a third of the recalcitrant STUDENTS out, too!). Oh, and creating a market for quality teachers by paying them more! (Hmmm.....I actually like that appeals to my sense of the importance of teaching, especially in difficult schools...but, um, is that really based on empirical data...or is that an emotional response to the visceral sense I have that good teachers are worth their weight in gold....oh, I GET IT...the demand for "empirical data" to replace "emotion" is only required in those cases where emotion somehow conflicts with the corporatization of schooling!!! Aha! Why don't the former governor's just SAY THAT?!?!


Hmmm, clearly, I've let my emotions run away from me. Back to the, what data? There's no data in this piece. There's just a string of cliches about the (clearly need for data here) ways that schools will (WILL, we say!) be improved by applying corporatist management strategies to schools.

Then there's the call for the national online learning object repository and Web 2.0-like user-created-folksonomy access system (using my language for it). The former governors write "let's stop tinkering around the edges of reforms and really revolutionize the way we deliver knowledge to students." (You know, the way that FedEx and UPS have "really revolutionized the way we deliver" parcels to people. I think we need bar codes on the students', really, that will help!) (No "tinkering around the edges...MORE DATA SYSTEMS!!!)...."Learning is no longer local, yet we still operate in a system ruled by traditonal course work and antiquated textbooks."

Hmmmm..... "learning is no longer local"? What? Where's the data for that claim, gentlemen? Methinks you might be confusing two things: (1) the globalization of the kinds of things we want our kids to learn, and (2) the locus of ALL learning, which is in the hearts and minds of individual students (Sorry, no hearts...can't have that emotion) the MINDS of individual students.

Huh? Wait. We're trying to get that "individual" part out of there, aren't we??!? Education should assume (ASSUME!) that "learning is no longer local." And, of course, that means getting rid of "traditional course work and antiquated textbooks". Well, yeah, that would be good. And replace it all with a NATIONAL ONLINE CAMPUS OF VIRTUAL SCHOOLS! Yes!!! All of them stripped, if possible, of anything emotional or local. After all, this isn't about individual people! It's about transforming America's educational system!!!

Damn. I'm just overwhelmed with how much sense this makes. Kids not learning?!?! They clearly need more standards and more tests. And get rid of those veteran teachers using those traditional methods. We need those Navajo kindergarteners to get online, and get learning. Put them in Blackboard! (Or, better,!) Then they'll learn!!!

Just to make sure you understand how "passionate" they are, these former governors end their provocative perspective piece with a reminder that "The world has entered into an education arms race. The winners will be the countries that prepare their students will the knowledge and skills to scucess in the increasingly cometitive global marketplace. Science, math, engineering...these fields of study are the breeding ground of innovation and the fountainhead of prosperity."

O.M.G. We're back in 1957. Sputnik has launched, and our nation better be gear up for an "education arms race." Gotta get those scientists educated. Gotta be steely-eyed about this. No emotion. Facts!

Culture? Motivation? Interest? Relationships? Critical thinking?!??!

None of that is important.

We're at war, and we must act. Passionately. Doing the same things we've been trying to do for years. But working harder.

And without emotion, please.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Underpants of Justice, Huge and Small

Justice Stephen Breyer’s underpants made the national news last week, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Safford Unified School District v Redding. When Savana Redding was in eighth grade, she was strip-searched by school officials on suspicion that she was hiding ibuprofen in her underpants. Another student had told school officials that Savana might have prescription-strength ibuprofen, and, on no further evidence, school officials made Ms. Redding strip to her underwear, shake out her bra, and pull out her underpants. Supported by the ACLU (and doesn’t this kind of thing make you grateful for the ACLU!), she and her family took the case to court.

The Supreme Court and the media are framing the case as a conflict between security and student rights. On the one hand, students’ right to privacy; on the other hand, the school’s responsibility to put safety first. The Supreme Court seems to be leaning towards supporting security. As reported by the New York Times, Justice David Souter “may have summarized the mood of the court near the end of the argument in the case” with his comment that “I would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search, if we can’t find anything short of that, than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry”.

If the case is framed that way – privacy rights versus security – the arguments go back and forth in a familiar way. But there’s another principle at stake here that media commentary has mostly overlooked. If we look at this situation not as a battle but as a problem for schools to solve – how to stop young people from harming themselves and each other with drugs – both sides could probably agree to the principle of respect for bodies. One of the strongest arguments against abusing drugs (I’m not going to say using, as I’ve taken the occasional ibuprofen myself) is that our bodies make it possible for human beings to achieve marvelous ends, provided we treat them with the respect they deserve.

I’m not exactly calling for decriminalizing drugs, nor am I advocating the “your body is a temple” line. Rather, I am suggesting that adolescents might be more likely to avoid doing dumb stuff with drugs if the adults around them encouraged them to think of their bodies as powerful, respect-worthy, and capable of taking them places they want to go. Some of what adolescents do with their bodies, of course, is unlikely to win the approval of all parents (the obvious example is having sex, but also staying up all night dancing, hitchhiking around Europe, midnight sledding, etc.), but these activities are hardly criminal or a threat to others. And if we want to treat adolescents to respect their own bodies, schools will need to treat students’ bodies with greater respect too. No strip searches.

Also in the news last week was the Obama administration’s response to the Bush-Cheney era torture cases, the separation of young children from their deported parents, and stories of people desperate to hold on to health care after losing their jobs -- all stories of institutional disrespect for the bodies of others. They are a chilling reminder that our legal system respects the bodies of some people but not all. The same is true of schools, where authorities often forget what it feels like to be small and powerless. “In my experience, when I was 8 or 10 or 12, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day (for gym)”, said Justice Breyer. “And in my experience too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear”. The comment provoked much laughter, but it made me imagine little Stephen Breyer at the age of 8. No one is going to strip search Justice Breyer now, but it’s true that schools have not traditionally protected children from bullying, harassment, and other insults to one’s embodied personhood.

Nowadays, of course, advocating respect seems to be a de facto requirement of elementary and middle schools. Often it’s stated as a rule, which has never made much sense to me, since respect can no more be produced on demand than love, or friendship, or happiness. To give the command substance, perhaps schools should “flesh it out”, literally.

Drawing by William Hanifan published in The Huge Underpants of Gloom, Issue Three, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Evolution for Dummies? A Canadian Cabinet Minister and the Public Understanding of Science

Last month, Gary Goodyear (pictured left), Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, created a scandal when he refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether he believed in the theory of evolution, stating that he felt that the question was “inappropriate” because it pertained to his religious beliefs. After a media frenzy ensued, Goodyear changed course, claiming that “of course” he believed in evolution. He then commented that we "are evolving all the time" and added, "That's a fact, whether it's to the intensity of the sun, whether it's to … walking on cement versus anything else, whether it's running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment, but that's not relevant and that's why I refused to answer the question."

Needless to say, this remark did not inspire a great deal of confidence among scientists. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory of evolution--Goodyear, evidently, thinks of evolution as a deliberate process that is somehow analogous to human beings' purposive choices.

A misunderstanding like this would be less likely in the United States. Cabinet members in the United States are (usually) subject matter experts, and a qualified scientist would (hopefully) be unlikely to make an error like Goodyear’s. However, in Canada, cabinet ministers are usually members of Parliament. The Prime Minister must choose the cabinet ministers from amongst the members of Parliament (MPs) from his party, which is, necessarily, a fairly limited pool.

Still, the Goodyear incident prompts several questions. One of these is whether he should have ever been appointed to this post--Goodyear failed to complete his undergraduate science degree and, prior to becoming an MP, he was a chiropractor (there is significant debate as to whether chiropractic is scientific). Perhaps most importantly, however, his initial refusal to answer questions about evolution was seen to indicate a lack of commitment to science. Surely, one would hope that the Minister of State for Science and Technology would not possess views that were inimical to the practice of science! (American readers, however, will know that the Bush administration has offered some “great moments in inimicality”—see, for example, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and his views on the U.N.)

Yet this episode also raises a number of broader questions: what kind of understanding of science should a citizen possess? Does it matter whether citizens understand natural selection? Are there some aspects of science that are more important for citizens to understand than others? Certainly, even in his earliest work, Dewey was an emphatic supporter of the public understanding of science. He realized that, as the 20th century dawned, society was becoming increasingly reliant on science and technology. He felt that if citizens were to participate democratically in such a society, they should be able to engage effectively and intelligently with science and technology. As we know from School and Society and from the accounts of the Dewey School, this implied a deep commitment both to the experimental method and to key scientific and technological concepts.

Perhaps, if Gary Goodyear had received a Deweyan education, he would not have bungled the question about evolution so badly. At the very least, however, the whole incident has probably prompted the Minister to engage in an activity very much in the spirit of Dewey: a little bit of "lifelong learning" about the theory of evolution.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Social Journalism and Education

Woody Lewis at Mashable writes that on-line social media have replaced the traditional newspaper/magazine media as sources of fast breaking on-the-ground news.

To grasp the power of social media think of the citizens who caught the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD 30 years ago. They could have turned off their cameras and called 911 or the LA Times but did not. Todays citizen advocacy and investigative blogs play a similar role. Lewis explains:

The Web is now the sole distribution channel for newspapers that can no longer afford to publish hardcopy, and those that don’t follow the best practices of social media may see their brands marginalized in cyberspace as well. Social journalism, an extension of those practices, is now an essential component of any news organization’s strategy.

Citizen journalists post photos of fast-breaking events, and cover stories from a different angle than legacy news organizations, but it’s the premeditated watchdog or advocacy role that defines a social journalist. Another factor is the network effect: people using social media to communicate and collaboratively produce content. Editors are still important, but the pieces are shaped by crowd dynamics and the velocity of information.

Lewis' post runs through the past-present-future of social media and is worth a close read. He sees advocacy blogs with an investigative bent as playing a major role going forward.


Progressive educators frequently complain about the educational coverage in news and the retrograde policies pushed by even progressive politicians. On-line educational journalism by teachers and students, documenting school conditions and amplfying the voices of concerned teachers and students, would offer a counterpoint and a pressure for change.