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, August 1, 2014

The Mind at Work Ten Years After

            This is a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of The Mind at Work. It first appeared in The Hedgehog Review, Summer, 2014.


There was a wood table covered with slick plastic in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen. My Uncle Frank, a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad, would come in from work, soiled denim, his face smeared with soot, and wash at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up, angling his arms under the faucet. He’d settle in at the table where my grandmother had placed a large plate of steaming macaroni. A fork in one hand, a big chunk of bread in the other, Frank ate with a focus and capacity that I can still remember. As I always did, I’d ask him questions about the railroad. He’d pause, and in the learned, methodical way he had, he’d explain in detail how something worked. Then he’d tear off another piece of bread and lean back into his plate, a deep pleasure against the bitter cold and exhaustion of the roundhouse.

I grew up around physical work, my uncles in the railroad, then the auto industry, my mother putting in split shifts as a waitress to keep food on our table. This kind of work represented security and competence to me, and it shaped the rhythms of our lives, the stories told at dinner, the satisfaction of warm food, the tired relaxation after, then bedtime and the cycle begins again. Through my mother’s iron-willed determination, a string of committed teachers, government aid, and unexpected opportunities, I do a very different kind of work today: I study teaching and learning and the many manifestations of intelligence in the schoolhouse and the workplace. In The Mind at Work, I tried to bring these two worlds of mine together, examining the sometimes hidden intelligence of the kind of work my forebears did with the analytic tools of social science—but also using my forebears’ work to test these analytic tools and revise some of our commonplace ideas about skill and intelligence. I wanted to change the way we see the everyday work that surrounds and sustains us.

Once the book was out, there were letters and emails and radio interviews where listeners could call in. I heard from waitresses, welders, and carpenters, a drill press operator and a landscaper, a hairstylist and an electrician. They described some aspect of their work: its pleasures and difficulties, what they saw as key to expertise, a success or horror story, frustration at the lack of understanding of what they do. It was particularly gratifying when people would write that they had been reading the book in a restaurant and started watching the waitresses with a fresh eye or that they bought a copy for their hairstylist, so that they could talk about the work. A sociology professor who assigned the book wrote to me about one of his students whose father was a waiter, and how she began to “look at the work he does in a different way.”

Many people wrote or spoke about their families: a tanner, a stone mason, a milk-truck driver, farmers and factory workers, day laborers and beauticians, a butcher whose “mental arithmetic skills were prodigious,” a missionary father who could repair anything, including grinding the valves on the old mission truck, a mother who was a welder during the Second World War, and an uncle “who made money for everyone on his crew because he was so smart and strong and hacked more brick than anyone else in any of the five brickyards around.”  A number of the people being remembered had limited formal education and acquired their knowledge and skill from others and by doing the work itself. And some of the forebears were immigrants, bringing their skills with them, repeating a pattern that is as old as the republic.

People also bore witness for others beyond family, for local tradespersons or friends who had dropped out of or barely made it through high school. A physician characterized the young man remodeling his kitchen as brilliant in the way he could figure out angles and visualize what he was going to do. Another writer described a specialty machinist who rebuilds auto and marine engines from the 1890’s to 1940, fashioning some of the parts himself. And some people who contacted me were professionals who either from their blue-collar upbringing or through years of trial and error had become competent at carpentry, mechanics, or a craft—and, in a few cases, had abandoned their white-collar occupations for the physical challenge and satisfaction of working with their hands. “We’ve been imprisoned,” one wrote, “in our heads.”

Some of the people I met through this book were, like me, studying the mind at work. A former NASA employee was doing research on aircraft maintenance, for example, and a small team of social scientists was detailing the many skills of so-called unskilled immigrant laborers. There were also community activists involved in labor education and living wage campaigns. And there were sobering reminders of work being lost. A woman teaching in a retraining program for silversmiths describes “the pride these men felt for their craft, and the sadness they felt as they saw their work disappearing.”

During the time I was writing an earlier book about our nation’s public schools, I drove across the United States to try to get a feel in one long arc of this vast, diverse country, its varied landscape, its languages, dialects, and cultural practices, its local economies, its multiple histories, manifest in everything from residential patterns to a figure of speech. Sorting through the radio notes and correspondence generated by The Mind at Work, though a stationary and solitary act, had a similar effect. So many of the themes are central to who we are right now, to America finding its way through the early decades of a new century: The nature and meaning of work and the connection of work to one’s identity; the loss of work; social class and class divides; education; immigration; maximizing our national intelligence. All of this emerged from particular stories, particular lives, a machinist in California, a cabinet maker in South Carolina, a New Englander reflecting back on the work that surrounded him as a young boy. A wide sweep of work in the moment and in memory.


When my mother Rosie would come home after a long day waiting tables, she used to spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. Old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.

I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, of gas for the car.

There is a direct line between those tips and me being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.

There are roughly two million home health care workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and one half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelter. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farm workers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.

Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, at times slip out of sight. I wrote The Mind at Work to document their ability and pay homage to it.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Educational Movements, Not Market Moments

In 2013, Michael Katz and I edited a collection of brief essays on a range of topics that get short shrift in the current school reform discussion, from poverty to English Language Learners. The book is called Public Education Under Siege, and I am happy to tell you that it is now out in paperback at a much lower price: $19.95.

I'm reprinting below one of the essays in the book, Janelle Scott's take on the reformer's appropriation of the language of the Civil Rights Movement, "Educational Movements, Not Market Moments." 


For at least two decades, conservatives have argued that school choice was the last unachieved civil right.  In 2010, some powerful moderate voices echoed their view and invoked the name of Rosa Parks to support it.  At an early screening of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which claims charters are the solution for the persistent failure of urban public schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the film signaled a “Rosa Parks moment” that would initiate a new movement for school choice. 

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

This misunderstanding of the history of the civil rights struggle reveals one of the key flaws in the push for market-based educational solutions.  The top-down, managerial, approaches pursued by leading school reformers ignores the vital, grassroots efforts underway in low-income communities, many of which directly challenge the market approach to schools that embraces competition, choice without equity provisions, and privatization.  These local activists are deeply concerned with a range of problems that prevent public schools from giving poor and working-class children a good education: rampant unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, environmental degradation, and a flawed immigration policy.  They want the state to distribute equitable and sufficient resources across communities, not simply to individual schools and parents.  And they worry that choice stands to further stratify communities by race and poverty. These issues are especially being articulated in the wake of mass school closings and teacher terminations in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.


Advocates for market-based reforms are disconnected from such grassroots concerns.  In searching for spokespeople—exemplars of struggling parents and students to represent the need for market-based reform—they neglect the vibrant efforts of those working for educational equity for entire communities.

A good example of inequity concerns the huge gap between funding for urban and suburban school districts.  In 2011, a broad swath of entrepreneurial school reformers, pundits, and even some from the civil rights community compared two African American women—Kelley Williams-Bolar from Akron, Ohio, and Tanya McDowell from Norwalk, Connecticut—to Rosa Parks after they were arrested for falsifying their address so their children might gain access to schools with more resources outside their urban neighborhoods.  Comparisons to Parks were widespread—a Google search of “Williams-Bolar Rosa Parks” yields over twelve thousand results.  For example, in a February 2011 post, Kyle Olson, a blogger for Big Government, appealed to education reformers to take advantage of the “human face” Williams-Bolar had provided to advocate for an expression of school choice.  His post juxtaposed the classic photograph of Parks being fingerprinted by Montgomery police officers with Williams-Bolar being handcuffed in Akron.

Olson and his fellow market advocates might have thought to ask Williams-Bolar how she saw herself, and why, if charter schools were the salvation, she had bypassed the six community schools (as charters are known in Ohio) operating in Akron.  While she acknowledged that the Copely-Fairlawn school district—the suburban district she had sought out—had higher performing schools, she wanted to send her daughters there so that they could go to their grandfather’s home nearby after school while she had to be at work.  The girls were too young to be home alone.  In fact, on February 3, 2011, she told the Akron Beacon Journal in an article entitled, “Center to File Mother’s Appeal,” “I’m not perfect and I’m not a Rosa Parks.  I’m just a mom looking out for her kids.”  Although better schooling was one issue for Williams-Bolar, safety and security for her daughters, given her need to work and support them, was a key motivation for her breaking the law.  For her and many who seek safer, better schools, there is no real choice.


The problem in part lies in the rigid boundaries decreed by courts, beginning in the 1970s, which effectively exempted suburban schools from the requirement to take part in metropolitan desegregation plans.  With suburban schools off-limits, school choice largely operates inside urban school districts, and market advocates who decried Williams-Bolar’s treatment did not call for a movement to eradicate district attendance boundaries.  Some choice plans, such as magnet schools, mean to facilitate desegregation on a voluntary basis and do, on the whole, promote integration.  Others, such as charter schools and vouchers, offer few ways to promote equality of opportunity beyond individual parental empowerment.  Many urban parents do avail themselves of these latter options.  But this amounts to choosing between problematic traditional public schools and alternatives they have had little role in shaping; they may be participating in an individual moment of empowerment, but their choice making is not part of a broader movement for equality of opportunity for all students.

Contemporary school reformers have not helped matters by undercutting democratic processes.  Most favor abolishing elected school boards and local school councils.  Yet, the latter were hard won by community control activists frustrated by earlier eras of school reform featuring centralized, managerial leadership dominated by white men inattentive to the needs of poor students and students of color.  Both Chicago and New York City recently did away with their elected boards of education and put mayors in charge of their schools.  In many cities, private organizations have been given the power to set up and expand charter schools.

And the making of urban educational policy is shaped by unprecedented amounts of private money.  For example, under Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Robertson Foundation, pledged millions of dollars to underwrite school reform, money contingent on implementation of the reforms.  This practice, increasingly common in cash-starved school districts, stands to distort the policy process and limit the influence of local community movements that have long fought for voice and control under more traditional school governance forms.

Because most elite reformers are disconnected from local struggles, they do not engage the issue of socioeconomic and racial inequality, even as the United States is experiencing the most profound wealth gap since the 1920s.  Parents cannot be solely focused on securing better schools for their children as long as so many are unemployed or underemployed and have neither safe nor affordable housing or access to health care.

Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP have long opposed market-based educational policies that do nothing to address racial segregation and class stratification in minority communities.  This stance brings them into coalition with teachers’ unions, which are portrayed as the prime villains in the accounts of school reformers.  But, in fact, teachers’ unions—often with African American members in the lead—have consistently supported lawsuits to desegregate schools and bring about fiscal equity between urban and suburban districts.


Grassroots activists have also opposed the larger attempt to put private agencies in charge of setting up and managing schools.  For at least a decade, organizers across the country have fought against school privatization in San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities.  Charter schools managed by charter management organizations have expanded in New York City, bypassing the need for parents in existing schools to vote for conversion by starting new schools altogether.  These schools have expended significant resources to market themselves to parents, and, indeed, many of them have been in high demand from parents given the deplorable state of many local schools.  Yet opposition also exists.  More recently, organizers have pushed back against the growth of charter schools in Harlem and the privatization and state takeover of schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Not surprisingly, market reformers have been highly critical of these opposition efforts.  For example, Dennis Walcott, the former Chancellor of New York City schools, accused the NAACP and teachers’ union of playing the “race card” when, in June 2011, they filed suit to stop charter schools from taking up space in existing schools.  Walcott and his supporters dismissed the overcrowding and inequitable distribution of scarce resources by accusing his critics of racial manipulation.

Yet such detractors, who would otherwise lend their support solely to the expansion of market-based schooling options, miss a vital opportunity to collaborate with organizations that are seeking to increase educational opportunity for all students.  Groups like Rethinking Schools, as well as other organizations such as the Education Opportunity Network, Parents Across America, Class Size Matters, New York Collective of Radical Educators, Forum for Education and Democracy, Coalition for Essential Schools, and A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education are examples of organizations advocating for an alternative vision of good public education.  These organizations promote public schools that are open, nested in communities, have excellent teachers and school leaders, and are well resourced, diverse, and democratic.  Despite a lack of funding and political support, they have the potential to reorient current efforts toward more democratic, high-quality, and representative public education.  Their task is to build networks that bridge communities, as the civil rights movement did decades ago.


The current generation of market-oriented school reformers is motivated by good intentions, and they are no doubt sincere in their stated desire to emulate the goals and heroes of the Civil Rights movement.  And there do exist high-quality and equity-minded charter schools that resist market framing of their schools and students. But tensions persist over the advocacy of school choice as the prevailing civil rights issue when its focus is frequently on individual parental empowerment.  We see this focus in the attempt to make “National School Choice Week,” first launched January 2011, an event in which parent and student stories of struggle and triumph in relation to market policies are featured in national and local news media.  The message is that individual rights equate a mass movement.  It is clear that leading school reformers seem to largely view the great civil rights struggle as the work of atomized individuals and consistently denigrate contemporary activists whose ideas of how fix urban schools clash with their own.

Certainly, the liberty and dignity of each individual were key tenets of the civil rights movement.  But freedom activists kept their eyes on the prize of benefits for entire communities and worked to democratize schools and other institutions so they would not continue to be ruled by those who already enjoyed the privileges of wealth and a place at or near the top of the racial hierarchy.  Today, when the economic crisis has eroded the gains of the black and Latino middle classes and deepened the poverty of other Americans of color, and when the Supreme Court recently vacated a key provision of the seminal Voting Rights Act, school reformers continue to insist that poverty, disenfranchisement, and unemployment are “no excuse” for not performing well on standardized tests and deride critics of the privatizing and segregating effects of some choice policies as being defenders of an unequal status quo.  In fact, these market critics seek a much more equitable schooling system that would disrupt what Jonathon Kozol famously termed, in the title of his popular 1991 book, Savage Inequalities.

Can we imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, or Rosa Parks marching on Washington to secure the right for parents to compete in lotteries for spaces in free-market schools?  Rather than these figures, the managers of such reformed in fact seem to be emulating another iconic cultural figure: Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist whose 1962 best-selling book was entitled Free to Choose.

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