Despair, Hope, and the Future
Don't let negative rhetoric eclipse the principles and promise of public education
Illustrator: Rob Dunlavey
“We can all agree,” wrote a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard not long ago, “that American public schools are a joke.” This way of thinking and talking about our public schools has been with us for some time: cynical and despairing. It was what led me, in the early to mid-1990s, on a cross-country journey to observe a wide variety of public schools that had been judged by their teachers, students, and parents to be good and decent places of learning.
I took side roads, stayed overnight with families, consulted local historical societies, and spent hundreds of hours in remarkable classrooms. The journey was both geographical-recording actual classrooms and communities across the United States-and philosophical, trying to gain a lived, felt sense of what public education means in a democracy. It was a powerful journey, and it seems that the same kind of reflective trek is needed more now than ever.
It is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school. Instead we have culture wars, fractious politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing.
Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools-from the tangles of school politics to the terrible things often assumed about the abilities of kids from poor communities. I don’t dispute that. But the scope and sweep of the negative public talk is what concerns me. It excludes the powerful, challenging work done in schools day by day across the country. It limits profoundly the vocabulary and imagery available to us, constrains the way we frame problems, and blinkers our imagination. This kind of dismissive talk fosters neither critique nor analysis. It plays into troubling and unexamined causal claims about the schools’ responsibility for our economic woes and social problems. And this blend of crisis rhetoric and reductive models of causality yields equally one-dimensional proposals for single-shot magic bullets: Standards will save us, or charter schools, or computer technology, or the free market, or broad-scale testing programs like No Child Left Behind.
Yet, the classrooms I visited, distinct though they were, provided a different sense of schooling-the feel and clatter of teaching and learning. Here’s a commonplace moment from a chemistry class in Pasadena, Calif. The students had been conducting experiments to determine the polarity of various materials:
Around the room, the students were washing test tubes, holding them up to the windows for the glint of sunlight, checking for a bad rinse; mixing salt and water to prepare one of their polar materials; cautiously filling droppers with hydrochloric acid or carbon tetrachloride or ink solvent; stirring solutions with glass rods and squinting to see the results. There was chatter and school-yard news and crude flirtation and rebuff, lots of questions of the teacher and of one another, and an occasional line from a song, sung under breath during the washing and stirring. And the teacher walked from student to student, asking what they were doing and why and what they were finding out.
I am taken by the care the students are exhibiting, the caution in cleaning and preparing, caution that is part of being methodical. I am also drawn to the visual inspection, the holding of the test tubes up to the light, the squinting, the focusing of perception, the refining of it, the educating of it. There is a developing aesthetic and an incipient ethic of practice here, a sense that there is a right and proper way to do this experiment. What is also interesting is that these simple-but, I believe, important-tasks blend with the knockabout flow of adolescence, its jibes and gossip and song. And in the midst of it all, threading through it, is the teacher, asking questions, responding, fostering a scientific cast of mind.
Here’s one more moment, again a commonplace event. It was in a middle-school classroom in Chicago, team-taught by two new teachers. The students were upset about a revised bus schedule that was getting some kids home late and missing other stops entirely. So, the teachers put the issue on the table and asked the students to discuss the problem and try to collectively arrive at some strategies to solve it.
At one point, when several students were raising their hands to offer suggestions, one of the teachers walked close to them and said, “Talk to me.”
It was the timing, the movement, and the tone in her voice. How often are the opinions of 12-year-olds so plainly and readily invited?
The way a teacher talks to students-the way any of us talks to each other-either opens up or closes down thought. Certain kinds of response can bring young people forward, aid articulation, foster achievement.
A key question for those of us on the left is how to develop a critique appropriate to public education. How to craft an approach and language that is critical without being reductive, that honors the best in our schools and draws from it broader lessons about ability, learning, and opportunity, that scrutinizes public institutions while affirming them.
Our revitalized assessment of public education-as every reader of Rethinking Schools knows-will have to include a discussion of the growing economic inequality in our country.
“Income inequality [in the United States] is growing,” notes a special report in The Economist, “to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s.”
On a number of measures-from wages, to benefits, to wealth accumulation, to economic mobility-many Americans have stagnated, and those in the working class have suffered significant declines. This state of affairs is tightly linked to the systematic erosion of the social safety net since the Reagan presidency, directly threatening the ability of tens of millions of Americans to live with any sense of security and stability.
Some school critics downplay negative effects of poverty on achievement, insisting that there be “no excuses” for less-than-standard performance. I appreciate that stance. As many teachers I visited argue, children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But it is likewise naïve or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child’s life in school.
It seems hard for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. We tend to either lighten the effects of economic disruption with self-help platitudes, or to see only blight and generalize it to intellectual capacity. We need a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that affords both damage and promise and that enables one to nurture the possible against odds. One of the young teachers I interviewed says it crisply: “The problems are not going to stop me from teaching.”
It is mind-boggling to think of all that we Americans demand from our public schools. There is, of course, the expectation that the schools will foster intellectual, social, and civic development. And, over the last century, as historian David Tyack has noted, the public as well as school administrators and reformers have turned to the public school, especially the high school, to address the many needs of young people that may once have been met by families, churches, employers, and volunteer groups: from hygiene to job preparation. We also resort to the public schools to solve the broad social and economic problems that we cannot or will not adequately address by other means. One of the purposes of school desegregation, for example, was to disrupt residential patterns resulting from racism, demographic shifts, and housing policy. And we continue to look to our schools to address the effects of deindustrialization, immigration, and chronic poverty.
The colossal and contradictory expectations we currently have for the public school combined with widening economic inequality leads quickly to an untenable situation. We are in desperate need of a broad national conversation about the purpose of public education combined with a probing assessment of our economic and political priorities.
This is a far cry from the typical discussions about schooling that we do have: discussions of test scores and the rhetoric of economic competitiveness that surrounds them. The testing orientation-and other bureaucratically based school reforms-tries to address inequality technically, structurally, when it is, finally, a social and economic problem-and, as a recent report from the United Church of Christ concludes, a deeply moral problem as well. We hear much talk about equity, about the achievement gap, about increasing effort and expectations, but it is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on ethical reflection and public meaning.
One of the fundamental issues that emerged from my journey through classrooms and communities is the need to commit to public institutions and the public sector as an arena of social responsibility.
Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed-out of the details of the work done there-a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere. This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of number or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local affair or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher muses on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.”
It is in all such moments in public school classrooms that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.
The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.
Mike Rose is a professor at UCLA’s graduate school of education and information studies and the author of Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, recently released by Penguin with a new preface.