Looking Back, Moving Forward

Rethinking schools reflects on its first 15 years and on the struggle ahead

By The Editors of Rethinking Schools, Spring, 2001

“Don’t mourn, organize.” In our first editorial 15 years ago, we borrowed that advice from the great labor troubadour, Joe Hill. The issue then was Milwaukee Public Schools’ reliance on basal readers – a kind of McReading approach that teaches children a distaste for books as it de-skills their teachers.

In 1986, we did not intend to influence school reform nationally. We had more modest goals: “to enliven and improve education in the Milwaukee area,” as we wrote in our first issue. But we discovered that in analyzing the racial and class inequities in Milwaukee schools and proposing anti-racist, activist solutions grounded in a vision of social justice, we began to reach a national audience. We found that, with some variation, local problems were national problems.

From the beginning, we set a mission that involved delicate balancing acts: to defend the principle of public education as we propose its massive overhaul; to insist that schools do a much better job even as we highlight what schools can’t do without profound social and economic changes; to stay grounded and practical without extinguishing the utopian dreams that nourish our activism. These tensions have animated every issue of the journal.

Two essential commitments keep us focused: Our embrace of the movement for racial justice and our classroom-eye view of school issues.

Historically, anti-racism has been a vital engine of justice in America. If history teaches anything, it’s that without race at the center, no meaningful change is possible. As a multiracial collective, we consistently draw on our insights gleaned from participation in struggles for racial justice to analyze everything from children’s literature to tracking to patterns of school funding. This orientation continues to be the compass for Rethinking Schools direction.

Second, we are not policy wonks closeted in office buildings, thinking up grandiose, top-down school reform models. We are mostly teachers – as we have been from the very start of Rethinking Schools – and we imagine change from the classroom on up. Through articles and our books Rethinking Columbus, Rethinking Our Classrooms, and Reading, Writing and Rising Up, we’ve sought to offer educators models of critical, multicultural teaching, grounded in story and concrete example. In these and other publications we have consistently maintained that schools can re-name, restructure and re-organize all they want, but unless they also attend to what transpires between student and teacher, reform plans are doomed to fail.

We have also insisted that teachers stretch their influence beyond the classroom – that they have largely untapped collective power that should be exercised for justice. For example, Rethinking Schools was instrumental in launching an institute for social justice unionism at the National Coalition of Education Activists 1994 conference. This first-of-its-kind meeting brought together members of both national teacher unions to imagine a “new model of unionism that revives debate internally and projects an inspiring social vision and agenda externally.” Through articles and our book Transforming Teacher Unions, we’ve tried to promote a change-agent role for teachers beyond the classroom.

But Rethinking Schools is not only a teacher journal; changing schools and society is too big a task for any one group. We’ve tried to be of use to community activists, parents, school board members, and policymakers with publications like Funding for Justice and Failing Our Kids that ask critical policy questions that are central to classroom reform, but push beyond it.


As we enter our second 15 years, Rethinking Schools’ democratic commitments will be severely tested. As never before, we are witnessing a global offensive against the very idea of the public, the common good – against the notion that we are social beings who are responsible to and for one another. This movement wraps itself in a rhetoric of freedom and conflates markets with democracy, consumers with citizens. It’s a movement that imagines a “free market” privatized world of individual buyers and sellers, with absolutely everything up for sale, from human genes to the melodies of indigenous tribes to ancient forests to pollution “rights.” The wish-dreams of the privatizers are exemplified well in a recent MasterCard commercial that depicts an auctioneer offering his latest sale items: the letter “B,” the color red, gravity. The ad delights in a future where every last aspect of life is commodified.

The global pursuit of this me-first marketplace vision is making some people rich, but the riches are not trickling down. The wealth held by the world’s 475 billionaires is now greater than the combined income of the poorest half of all the people in the world. Since 1960 the share of federal tax revenues paid by corporations has declined by more than half: from 23.2% to 11.4%.

What does this greed-is-good privatization ethos have to do with schools? Lots. At a time when schools desperately need more resources, our nation’s rulers speak with one voice: Let them eat tests. At a time when the world desperately needs more young people pondering solutions to vexing social and ecological crises, students are seduced by dreams of individual fulfillment through consumption.

For the Bush administration, the pot at the end of the testing rainbow is filled with vouchers. The Republicans’ proposal: Families with children in public schools that test poorly are urged to flee, with an offer of vouchers to spend at private schools. (Sign of hope: this scheme was trounced at the polls in Michigan and California last November.)

Tests masquerading as reform is the perfect program for the free trade era: It offers no new resources to address real problems with public schools, directs attention away from vast social inequalities, and simultaneously proposes the “free” educational marketplace as the remedy to yawning achievement gaps. This kind of reform-on-the-cheap exploits but does not equitably resolve the legitimate concerns many communities, particularly poor ones, have about accountability and achievement. Instead, as our recently published Failing Our Kids booklet makes clear, the high stakes testing plague fails both our kids and our schools.

Ten years ago, we alerted readers to these privatization trends with our publication, False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future, updated five years later in the expanded Selling Out Our Schools: Vouchers, Markets and the Future of Public Education. The specifics of the privatization schemes may change, but the market-as-salvation ideology has never been stronger. Advocates of quality public education will need to be more vigilant than ever.


This is a glimpse of the formidable context within which we launch our second 15 years. But beginning especially with the Seattle protests challenging the World Trade Organization, we’ve seen the emergence of a global movement to assert values of human solidarity against the individualistic, for-profit values that seem so prevalent. The presence of farmers, steelworkers, environmentalists, students, Teamsters, and, yes, teachers – some teacher unions chartered buses to Seattle – suggests possible alliances to reassert the public as a guiding metaphor of the next century.

Rethinking Schools’ arena is education, and we will continue to focus on the enormous transformative potential of classroom and school life. Even in the midst of wrong-headed standardization and high stakes tests, even as we confront budget cuts and unresponsive bureaucracies, educators can still make a tremendous difference in children’s lives. Highlighting exemplary efforts to teach against racism and for justice will remain a centerpiece of the Rethinking Schools project.

That said, Rethinking Schools will continue to critique the ways in which insufficient budgets, rigid standards, high-stakes tests, and other “reforms” negatively impact teaching and learning. And as we did with our new publication, The Return to Separate and Unequal: Milwaukee Metropolitan School Funding Through A Racial Lens, we will analyze every nook and cranny of school life for how it affects the struggle for racial equality.

In this era, we especially want to frame our analyses as part of the social movements asserting the supremacy of humane and ecological values over commercial ones. Some might complain that this is a distraction from our central work of defending public education even as we criticize what it’s become. Far from it. We believe our work will only draw strength from participation in wider struggles for social and ecological justice.

“Don’t mourn, organize.” Fifteen years later, it’s still good advice.