Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of Rethinking Schools

By Sonia Nieto

Illustrator: Susan Ruggles

Photo: Susan Ruggles 
Michael Trokan, Jennifer Morales, Sharon Matthias and Barbara Miner working at the cramped 9′ x 14′ Rethinking Schools office in 1994.

Who would have believed that a young group of idealistic teachers from Milwaukee would be able to sustain the energy, creativity, and passion that spurred them to start Rethinking Schools 20 years ago?

In these 20 years, Rethinking Schools has changed the world of public education through teachers’ voices. And, although it is still committed to local issues, it has grown out of its geographic region to embrace the entire nation of teachers and others committed to equality and justice in education.

It has withstood the challenges of financial worries, an increasingly right-wing political climate, and the No Child Left Behind mania. Not only has Rethinking Schools survived, but it is now stronger than ever — for which I am enormously grateful, as are many other teachers, teacher educators, and others concerned about the future of public education.

Rethinking Schools has become far more than a newspaper: It is a movement. The impact that their Rethinking Columbus book has made in classrooms, schools, and schools of education is incalculable.

What education course that claims to be about social justice doesn’t use Rethinking Our Classrooms? What new teacher wouldn’t find solace and support in The New Teacher Book? How can a math teacher be serious about creating an equitable environment for learning without reading Rethinking Mathematics? And as the headlines scream about the consequences of globalization, it took Rethinking Globalization to have it all make sense for our classrooms.

When Rethinking Schools printed its first newspaper, I was an assistant professor, looking in vain for precisely the kind of information and analysis they were turning out. I was hooked immediately. I was one of their first subscribers — and remain one of their most loyal supporters — precisely because of the alternative they’ve provided for those of us whose vision of public education is framed within a multicultural, anti-racist, and social justice perspective.

Over the years, we have all grown older and — I hope — wiser. We’re still weathering the standardization and accountability storm, we’ve lived through the unyielding push for standardized testing, we’re witnessing all manner of privatization schemes from vouchers to charter schools. And we’ve lived through benchmarks, templates, rubrics, and “best practices.” Through it all, I’ve tried to stay true to the ideals I brought with me to teaching many years ago, first as a junior high and elementary school teacher, and later as a teacher educator. But it has not been easy. Thank goodness for my periodic dose of Rethinking Schools. It has been one of my stalwart allies, a source of inspiration and hope that reminds me what this struggle for equal education is all about.

Just a few months ago, I retired from my position as professor in the school of education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I taught for more than 25 years. I became fond of telling my colleagues, or anyone else who asked me why I was retiring, that I was not retiring in the Englishsense of the word. We can all envision what it means to retire in that sense:  picture a rocking chair, golf clubs, a leisurely life. In the worse scenario, imagine simply being put on a shelf and forgotten. No, I would tell them: I am retiring in the Spanish sense of the word:  in Spanish retirement is jubilación, jubilation. I envision my life quite differently from just staying home or being put on a shelf and forgotten. Rather than view my retirement with either trepidation or grief, I see it as a jubilant extension of the work I have done for 40 years.

There is too much work left to do to “retire” now; I am not retired, I am jubilated. As Rethinking Schools get older, it also will not retire; we cannot let it. But it will continue to face the challenges of public education with hope, courage, strength — and yes — jubilation.

Sonia Nieto ( recently retired from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst. She is the author of The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities and Why We Teach.