About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, January 23, 2015

On Being Smart

            This reflection on the word “smart” appeared with minor differences in the Fall, 2014 issue of The Hedgehog Review, a magazine I’ve touted on this blog before.


            After sleepwalking through high school, I landed in a senior English class that caught my fancy, and one of the first things I did was shell out 35 cents for a Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus. After years of disaffection and tomfoolery, I wanted to be smart. And one way to be smart, by my adolescent reckoning, was to pepper my essays with words like “disaffection” and “tomfoolery.” I was being a smarty-pants rather than smart, perhaps, but new words represented for me a fresh world of books and writing and using my mind.

            That old thesaurus, crumbling a little more every time I open it, has a wealth of synonyms and antonyms for a word like smart, and I would roam through it, as I am now, finding threads and connections. To be smart bears similarity to being intelligent, ingenious, or resourceful and to being clever, witty, or quick. And then there are book smarts versus street smarts. And working smart. And, look out, a smart aleck with a smart mouth. Humanity lofty and flawed lives in these definitions.

            About five or six years before I bought that thesaurus, the brilliant computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” to describe the simulation of intelligent behavior by computers: recognizing visual shapes, solving certain kinds of problems, and improving performance through repeated trials. These capabilities combined with the computer’s extraordinary processing capacity would within a few decades result in a deep embedding of the computer in our lives. By the 1980s, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff would be writing about the world of the smart machine. Now we have smart phones, smart cars, smart classrooms, even, God help us, smart bombs.

            Language is complex and adaptable—smart also means to sting or be stylish—so it’s no surprise or big deal when smart is used to describe the added cognitive processing power computer technology brings to objects and places. As opposed to the term artificial intelligence, however, there’s no qualifier in front of smart phone or smart classroom to denote the anthropomorphism. Semantically we cede intelligence to the machines we make, enhancing our era’s faith in technocratic solutions to just about any problem and, in the process, narrowing our definition of what it means to be smart.

            Consider the smart classroom or, in the more materially accurate phrasing, the wired classroom. This is a classroom equipped with computers that potentially enable students to do research on the Internet, work with all sorts of digital media, and network with others in and beyond their classroom. Students can also receive individualized instruction and have their progress monitored by their teacher. Marvelous things can happen in the wired classroom.

            Although obvious, it needs to be said that all this potential will be realized only if the computer technology is well-designed and its programming is done by people who have a deep understanding of teaching and learning. The technology also has to be integrated into a rich curriculum, and the teacher needs to be pedagogically astute about the instructional uses of the computer. Only then can smart things happen in the smart classroom. Conversely, cognitive sparks can fly without laptops and iPads. The most sophisticated instructional technology in the classroom that lit me up about language was a chalkboard.

            This distortion of the word smart, and of our understanding of intelligence in general, is also found in the commonplace distinction between the “new economy” – the emerging work of the smart machine and the smart worker – and “old economy” work of heavy manufacturing and traditional services. There’s no denying that the last few decades have seen significant changes in the organization and technologies of work, and many blue- and white-collar occupations require new skills and knowledge, particularly of computer technology. But these developments have been reduced in endless opinion pieces and popular management books to a simplistic and cognitively loaded separation between the economy of previous generations and our own. “Whereas organizations operating in the Industrial Age required a contribution of employees’ hands alone,” write Sandra Burad and Sandra Tumolo in their award-winning Leveraging the New Human Capital, “in the Information Age intellect and passion – mind and heart – are also essential.” Before the era of the smart machine, it seems, you didn’t have to draw on much of your intelligence to build airplanes, or keep the books, or care for the sick.

            The word smart is being appropriated into a broad technocratic world-view that includes not only the schoolhouse and the workplace but the very space in which we live. Some urban theorists are promoting smart cities that are heavily wired and connected, driven by business development with emphasis on high-tech and entrepreneurship, and populated by critical masses of highly educated people. Smart schools provide smart citizens who work in smart corporations in the smart city. To be sure, there are many advantages to such a city, from flexible work hours to traffic control. But there are possible downsides, including the danger of expanded surveillance and lopsided, business-dominated development, for in the smart city, high-tech and managerial smarts carry great power.

            This is not a Luddite’s lament; I used Google and a word-processing program while writing this essay. My worry is that our digital rapture will blind us to the fact that smart, as my old thesaurus reminds us, is a big tent of a word. The guys delivering a truckload of stoves and refrigerators are working smart. The class clown is smart. So, too, is the kid who deflects the clown’s barb by turning away. The Mars rover team is smart, and Sojourner Truth was smart. To lose sight of this intellectual abundance would be simple, unwise, and, well, anything but smart.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Danger Signs for the New GED Exam

Over the past few years, the American Council on Education and the publishing giant Pearson have been revising the GED exam to make it more of a test of college readiness, rather than what it has been: a test of basic high-school competencies. The new test has been in place for one year, and the results have been devastating. According to Cleveland-based reporter Daniel McGraw, the pass rate on the exam has dropped by 90%. You can read his comprehensive article here or incisive blogs on the article by Diane Ravitch and Jan Resseger. (A side note: Readers of my blog are familiar with Diane Ravitch. If you are not familiar with Jan Resseger’s blog, do yourself a favor and sign up. It’s first class.)

When I was doing the research for Back to School, the revision of the GED exam was in the works, and a number of adult educators I spoke with voiced concern over both the rationale for and content of the new exam. It turns out that they were right. I post below an edited excerpt from Back to School dealing with the GED. The passage begins with one of the exceptional teachers I observed.


            “No one can hide from her,” was one of the first things I heard about Maria, and it was meant as a big compliment. She is in her late 40s, medium height, brown hair cut in a simple style, shoulder length. As she talks she looks at you, looking up from a filing cabinet, looking sideways as you walk with her. In addition to coordinating the Adult Secondary Education Program at her school, Maria teaches mathematics, primarily to those preparing for the GED exam or a high school diploma. I understood the “no where to hide” comment during my first visit to Maria’s class. She calls on students, looking particularly at the last rows where the reluctant sit. She jokes, and pleads, and hectors them to study, to do problems at home, to come see her. She goes person to person to lock in a meeting: “What time are you leaving today?” “Do you work every afternoon?” “Do you have Internet at home?” “Do you live around here?” Then: “OK, I want you to come see me at 3:00.” She and the counselor, Betty, will call people if they begin to miss school. “You all can do it,” she says to the class, leaning forward, both hands on the desk. “Even if it is a nightmare, you can do it. But you have to ask for help.” There is no escaping Maria.

            Though some of her students did well in school in other countries – and therefore have a solid basic education and a certain assurance about school – many went to school in the U.S. and, for various reasons, did not do well. School for them is not a pleasant place, and their fear – which can manifest as withdrawal or rejection – is quivering right beneath the surface. Nowhere is that fear more palpable than with mathematics. Given the history of failure and the anxiety some of these students carry, it’s quite a testament to their willpower that they show up. Maria passionately wants to get through those emotional barriers: “It’s a light crust,” she says, “and once you crack it, you can make a change.”

            The GED and high school diploma programs are test-driven, and students prepare for the tests through math and English classes and through different levels of independent study in the Independent Learning Center, a large room filled with computers, books, filing cabinets, long tables, and chairs. This is also the place where students take most of their tests. Units on science, units on math, all sorts of computer-based tests on language arts – and written essays, too. So there is a good deal of back and forth between students at desks or terminals and teachers or aides going to filing cabinets or computer screens to check scores, monitor progress, offer direction. On some afternoons when students from different classes converge, the place is packed.

            Given the importance of testing, it’s no surprise that Maria focuses on test-taking strategies. “Read the question,” she repeats. “Watch for what is being asked. Don’t do everything right but forget to really look at the question.” She gives her students problem after problem, making them read the problems out loud and state precisely what the problem requires. “They’ll list answers that make sense if you misread the problem. So, think first!” She gives them tips based on experience: “The GED loves graphs or tables.” Or “You can bet there will be a question on scalene triangles.” And she gives them problem-solving routines and shortcuts. Tricks of the trade. Maria is trying to provide in a few months the academic know-how that students successful in American schools gain over years.


Adult education normally gets little notice in policy circles or in the media – it lacks status or a powerful constituency – but it is the focus of attention now, particularly the GED. Every ten or fifteen years the developer of the GED exam, the American Council on Education – an advocacy and research organization that created the test during World War II for military personnel who didn’t complete high school – revises the test, and a major revision is currently in progress. A big concern is to bring the test in line with what students will need to know to attend college, and thus reducing the number of remedial courses many students with GED certificates need to take, courses that jeopardize their chance of graduating. (By one estimate, only 10% of GED recipients earn a college degree.) This goal of increasing graduation rates is in line with a broader push in our society to facilitate movement up the educational-credentialing ladder –  evident in community college circles where there is renewed emphasis on preparing students to transfer to four-year schools. The United States is a credentialing society. One hundred years ago, a high school degree was an unusual achievement (about 7% of the population held a degree), while today the post-baccalaureate credential or degree is expected if not required in many fields. The revision of the GED exam fits this pattern.

Approximately 40 million Americans don’t have a high school degree or GED certificate, and if we want to meet the goals championed by policy makers to equip more of our citizens with some kind of post-secondary education, then we will have to tap that 40 million, yet the revision of the GED exam, important as it is, does raise some concerns.

Education is delivered in a complex social system; changes in one domain will have an effect on what happens in others. Rethinking the GED exam as a measure of college readiness will make it harder to pass, which is not on its own merits a bad thing; raising educational expectations and preparing people for advancement will have some beneficial consequences. A previous revision added a writing sample to the multiple choice questions, which overall led teachers to pay more attention to writing. But if standards are raised, what will happen to those low-skilled adults who struggle now to pass the exam, people, who, some studies suggest, stand to gain the most labor market benefit from it? The test-developers say that they plan to have two levels of pass, the traditional high school equivalency level and a new level indicating “college and career readiness.” Fair enough, though the traditional level will be symbolically rendered even more of a second-class certificate.

The goal of the reformers is, in the words of one college president, to make the GED “an aspirational degree.” But for some, the GED certificate already represents a monumental goal, aspiration more dogged and hopeful than many of us can imagine. Some low-skilled adults at this time in their lives do not have the finances, family arrangements, support systems, or work schedules that make any goal beyond passing the exam feasible. If we want them to achieve more, then we need to go way beyond the amping up of a test to provide more employment opportunities, childcare and healthcare, and other social services – all of which are being cut back rather than enhanced. As we toughen up the GED exam, what will we make available to those for whom the old exam was barely within reach?

A number of the adult educators I spoke to expressed a further concern that the increased focus on the enhanced GED, especially in a time of limited – and shrinking – resources, will draw attention and funding away from the other sectors of Adult Ed. When we make programs more demanding, we also have to assure that we have other programs in place to address the needs of those who risk getting left behind. Otherwise, we will continue to help the (relatively) better off at the expense of the truly vulnerable, keeping in place a sizable educational underclass.

A major concern among economists and policy makers is whether or not the GED and other Adult Ed programs are worth the money. What is their “return on investment?” This concern is a primary driver of the current revision of the GED exam. GED recipients, as I just noted, often have to take a number of remedial classes when they transfer to college, their rate of degree completion is low, and some studies suggest that their success at finding a job is poor. The University of Chicago economist James Heckman argues that the GED confers no labor market advantage. But there are other studies drawn from Arizona to Michigan to Rhode Island – summarized in a recent report from the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation – suggesting that adult education does provide economic benefit to the individual and to the local economy. As well, these and other studies point toward non-economic social benefits: from improved health and health literacy, to reduced crime rates, to enhanced quality of life for the students and their families.

Because these social benefits tend to be given short-shrift in our economically-driven policy discussions, I’d like to dwell on them a bit. They do, in fact, have big economic consequences and, as well, take us to important questions about the good life and the good society. The social benefits of Adult Education and other compensatory and second-chance programs are particularly salient with people who have been living on the fringe of society: caught up in street life, violent or addicted or both, not infrequently coming out of prison. When these people reenter school, they are often walking right on the line, jumpy or sullen, wanting to make this work, but at times terribly unsure that it will. And as the months progress and they slowly build occupational skill or gain proficiency in English and math or get interested in psychology or political science or literature – as they begin to experience this kind of achievement – then you start to see the transformation. Their demeanor changes. They develop confidence based on skill and knowledge. (“I’ve never been able to build things,” a construction trades student marveled.) They calm down. They begin to draw a bead on the future. The crazy life on the streets can still call to them, and some give in, but others reject it and distance themselves from those who still live it. Along with distancing, there are attempts to heal awful wounds inflicted on families and to reunite with estranged children.

Still, adult education and literacy programs are threatened; “we’re an endangered species,” one director of a literacy program told me. That report from McGraw-Hill notes that the cost per student of adult education is about one-fourth to one-fifth of the cost of educating a student tin the K-12 system. Still the doubts among some legislators about the economic returns on adult ed are strong and threaten funding, especially in economic hard times dominated by demands for austerity.

Hand in glove with the austerity perspective there is a belief, held by many in positions of power, that those in adult education who went through American schools blew it the first time through, and why should society pay again for what should have been learned already. (The same argument plays into funding for college remedial programs.) This belief clashes with the notion of the United States as a second-chance society.


            A few weeks before the Christmas holiday break at the Adult School, Maria asked the students to anonymously post on the large colorful bulletin board in the main hallway their thoughts as the year comes to an end and a new one looms. Over the week, more and more notes – some handwritten, some typed – appear across the red and green board:

                                    I hope that in the next year I improve
                                    even more than I did in 2011.

                                    I am really struggling to get my high school
                                    diploma, but I know someday I will.   

                                    I am going to get more involved at my children’s
                                    school to learn about their progress in
                                    their education.

                                    I am thankful for having such a blessed
                                    life. Without school I have no idea where
                                    I would be.

By the last day, the board is full.

            As I’ve been visiting the Adult School, I’ve been reading the criticisms of adult education along with articles on the revision of the GED exam. So much of the criticism has to do with quantifiable outcomes – pass rates, rates of enrollment in some post-secondary school or program, employment rates – and the targets of the criticism are the adult education and literacy programs themselves. This is legitimate criticism. The quality of instruction and tutoring across this complex landscape of services is highly uneven, and many of the people – for the most part, decent, committed people – who do the work have minimal training. And the curriculum used in many programs is outdated and limited. We as a society have to continue to push through our biases, our faulty notions about learning, our lowered expectations and do better by the educationally underprepared.           

            But we can’t achieve this goal to any degree while funding to these programs is being cut. And we can’t achieve the goal through educational programs alone. The people who enter adult education and literacy programs are typically facing a number of hardships: housing, sporadic or no employment, family disruption, problems with immigration, the criminal justice system. The best programs, so called “wrap-around” programs, provide multiple social and health services along with education, but most programs do not. Historian Harvey Graff coined the term “literacy myth” to characterize the belief that achieving a certain level of literacy alone will enable a person to overcome the hardships of poverty and discrimination. These days a lot of education reform at all levels seems to operate with this assumption, and, for that fact, so do some literacy programs. To stay in educational programs and to thrive, people who carry a big burden often need help from agencies beyond the classroom.

            I also worry that we will not develop powerful programs for those seeking a second chance with the kind of analysis that currently dominates education policy and the technocratic solutions that emerge from that analysis. As I noted, most of the policy studies of adult education seek to demonstrate economic effects of programs through statistical outcomes that can be readily defined and measured, such as the number of certificates or diplomas earned by those who passed the GED exam. Such information gives a broad view of trends, and I am not at all dismissing the importance of this perspective. However such studies, because they deal in averages, often do not tease out important differences in programs or participants that get washed out in the aggregate. Take the GED examination as an illustration. A fair percentage of people prepare for the test on their own, so the amount of effort put into preparation and what they learn could vary widely. Those who enroll in a program might have quite a different educational experience around the GED – and recall that the quality and duration of programs vary widely as well. To make claims about the overall effectiveness of the GED examination without accounting for such variation is to miss the detail of failure or success.

            There is another issue, and that is the fact that any statistical analysis taken alone is limited, and, as good statisticians will tell you, can miss a lot. If in an occupational program a student quits before completing a certificate or degree, he or she is tallied up as a negative for the program. A drop out. Yet what I’ve seen with some frequency is that people – often declaring upon entrance that they want to complete a degree – will leave once they develop sufficient skill to get a job. This has a positive economic impact, but in many analyses would register as a program failure. One more thing: This behavior – going for the short-term payoff – is often cited as an illustration of poor peoples’  inability to delay gratification and form long-term goals. That’s possible – there are people in all income brackets who have problems with long-term goals – but in my experience, most of the people taking those immediate jobs do so because the rent is due, children need to be fed, members of the family are sick. They are very aware of the trade-off and say they want to return to finish the program, for they could improve their long-term job prospects with more education. We’ll see if circumstances will permit a return, but it is absolutely not true that they left just to buy a few bright, shining objects or to kick it with friends. We have such demeaning ways of talking about the choices poor people make when the wolf is at their door.

            If our economic analysis can miss the mark, our understanding of the personal and social benefits of adult education programs is even more narrow. Few studies take us in close to people’s lives, to the desire in those notes on the bulletin board. To be sure, these human moments do not tell the whole story of the Adult School, but they certainly tell us something beyond a general outcome measure. What we lack in the reports is the blending of the statistical table with the portrait of a life. Without both, we’ll get one-dimensional policy fixes driven by numerical data removed from the daily lives of the people from whom the data is abstracted.

            Along the top of the north wall of the Independent Learning Center, right over a row of computer terminals, Maria has written out in big script her five goals for the program: Each student will be a life-long learner, and a critical thinker… ending with a new goal that she is trying to enact through public events – a clothes drive, visiting senior centers – put on by the Adult School.

                                    Each student will be able to participate and
                                    contribute as a citizen of his/her community.

Her work, finally, she said to me one day, “is to help people grow and become full citizens in the world.”

            Maria’s desk is in the front center of the room; the goals are up on the wall to her right. She is sitting alongside a young man who started but gave up on the essay portion of the GED exam. He is slumped down in the chair, but looking up at Maria, a knit cap, a pierced eyebrow, a gentle non-expressive face, “I think you gave up too early on your essay,” she says, cocking her head slightly to the left to hold his gaze. “You got a high score on grammar. You can do this.” She puts her hand on his shoulder, “No writing like text messaging. You’re going to show the person who reads this all your knowledge.” The fellow pushes his hands into his jacket pockets. “Come on, can’t you squeeze one little essay out of you?” He takes this in for a moment, then his face warms into a slight smile. “Cool.”

            It happens one person at a time.

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