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.