Rethinking School Reform

Views From The Classroom

Edited By Linda Christensen, Stan Karp

Out of Print

Publication Date: August 8, 2003

ISBN: 9781937730468

Rethinking School Reform puts classrooms and teaching at the center of the debate over how to improve public schools. Drawing on some of the best writing from the quarterly journal Rethinking Schools, this new collection offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.

Informed by the experience and passion of teachers who walk daily into real classrooms, Rethinking School Reform examines how various reform efforts promote or prevent the kind of teaching that can bring equity and excellence to all our children, and it provides compelling, practical descriptions of what such teaching looks like.

“These accounts by practicing teachers and scholars of what it will take to achieve socially just schools are provocative, instructive, and absolutely right on. This book sings with authenticity, commitment, courage, and common sense. It is a must-read for anyone who is committed to equitable education.”
Linda Darling-Hammond, author of The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work and professor in the School of Education at Stanford University

“This volume has captured some of the best ideas available from practitioners and researchers on how to link school reform to the larger issues of inequality and injustice that affect the lives of children and the operations of schools. Rethinking School Reform offers vision, hope, and practical suggestions for those engaged in this important work. It should be read by anyone who believes that education can be a force for positive social change.”
Pedro A. Noguera, educator, activist, parent, and Judith K. Dimon Professor of Communities and Schools at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

“This collection of lively, tough-minded essays shows us how schooling could look if done well, and it doesn’t gloss over the problems we face getting there. At a time when so many new “reformers” threaten schools and children with their standardized, privatized prescriptions, Rethinking School Reform reminds us that real school reform means making serious, even radical changes in what’s going on in the classroom.”
Deborah Meier, author of In Schools We Trust and co-principal of Mission Hill School, Roxbury, MA.

Preface by Sonia Nieto iii

Introduction vi


Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice 3
by the Editors of Rethinking Schools
Untracking English 10
by Linda Christensen
Unsung Heroes 33
by Howard Zinn
Teaching About Unsung Heroes 37
by Bill Bigelow
The Truth About Helen Keller 45
by Ruth Shagoury Hubbard
Acting for Justice 53
by Linda Christensen
One Teacher’s Journey 60
by Bob Peterson


Ebonics and Cuturally Responsive Instruction 79
by Lisa Delpit
Once Upon a Genocide: Columbus in Children’s Literature 89
by Bill Bigelow
Arranged Marriages, Rearranged Ideas 103
by Stan Karp
Presidents and Slaves: Helping Students Find the Truth 115
by Bob Peterson
Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us 126
by Linda Christensen
What Color is Beautiful? 138
by Alejandro Segura-Mora
Out Front 144
by Annie Johnston


Schools More Separate: A Decade of Resegregration 155
by Gary Orfield
Neighborhood Schools: Déjà Vu 165
by Bob Lowe
“Choice” and Other White Lies 170
by Makani Themba-Nixon
For-Profits Target Education 176
by Barbara Miner
Learning to Read “Scientifically” 184
by Gerald Coles
Bush’s Bad Idea for Bilingual Education 192
by Stephen Krashen
Let Them Eat Tests: NCLB and Federal Education Policy 199
by Stan Karp


The Educational Costs of Standardization 215
by Linda McNeil
Race, Testing and the Miner’s Canary 225
by Lani Guinier
Standards and Multiculturalism 231
by Bill Bigelow
Testing Slights Multiculturalism 240
by Makani Themba-Nixon
Teaching in Dangerous Times 242
by Gloria Ladson-Billings
Their Report Card And Ours 252
by Portland Area Rethinking Schools


Drive-by School Reform
by Stan Karp 259
Reconstituting Jefferson: Lessons on School Reform
by Linda Christensen 266
Money, Schools and Justice
by Stan Karp 275
Teacher Councils: Tools for Change
by Bob Peterson 287
“Summer Camp” for Teachers: Alternative Staff Development
by S. J. Childs 297
Survival and Justice: Twin Goals for Teacher Unions
by Bob Peterson 305
Confronting Racism, Promoting Respect
by Tom McKenna 315

Editors 325
Contributors 326
Index 329

The journal Rethinking Schools was started by Milwaukee-area classroom teachers in the mid-1980s. It appeared soon after a commission appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan sparked a new national debate on education with a report entitled “A Nation at Risk.”

That report opened two decades of high-profile school reform efforts that continue today. Throughout the period, corporate and elite political interests have dominated the debate. Governors have held numerous education summits, corporate leaders have organized countless roundtables and conferences, and the media have echoed a relentless critique of public schools and the people who work in them.

Rethinking Schools was originally formed so that Milwaukee teachers, parents, and students might have a voice in the debates that promised to reshape their daily lives. The journal soon grew beyond Milwaukee concerns, and over the past 17 years has established itself as a leading grassroots voice for teachers on educational issues of national concern. At a time when school reform is too often something done to teachers, rather than a productive response to their needs and daily experience, Rethinking Schools reaffirms that the “view from the classroom” is a key missing link in the process of reform.

In Rethinking School Reform, we have collected some of the journal’s best writing. Taken together, these articles present a vision of schooling and reform quite different from the one emanating from official sources.

The organization of the book reflects our priorities as teachers and as education activists. It begins where too many school reform efforts never go: inside our classrooms.

We start in Chapter 1, “Critical Teaching”, with a look at this “indispensable and much-neglected missing piece in the puzzle of school improvement.” In defining what we consider good instructional practices, we present the kinds of curriculum choices and classroom values that we think schools in a democratic society should promote. Taken together these choices outline “a common social and pedagogical vision that . . . strives toward what we call a social justice classroom.” We argue further that “unless our schools and classrooms are animated by broad visions of equity, democracy, and social justice, they will never be able to realize the widely proclaimed goal of raising educational achievement for all children.” Other articles in this section offer specific examples of what such teaching looks like in social studies and language arts classes. Critical classroom practice is our point of departure because we believe it is the central element against which all reform efforts should be judged.

One major obstacle to sustaining democratic classrooms and schools is the accumulated baggage of history. When we go to school in the morning we bring with us our families, our cultures, our racial heritages, our class and gender experiences. Like the society they serve, schools have always struggled with these differences, sometimes pretending they don’t exist, at other times imagining we can “celebrate diversity” without examining why some differences translate into access to privilege and power, while others become a source of oppression and injustice. In Rethinking School Reform, we maintain that the difficult and complicated issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation must be confronted head-on. They permeate every aspect of our educational experience, and public schools-which are perhaps the last place where an increasingly diverse and divided population still meets to a common purpose-cannot avoid them.

There are no easy answers to addressing these challenges, in school or out, but Chapter 2, “Taking Bias Seriously”, offers some examples of how these issues present themselves to teachers and students, and how we might respond in constructive and courageous ways.

While classrooms are at the center of our efforts to rethink school reform, they are not the only battleground. Chapter 3, “Education Policy and Politics”, looks at how school issues have become hotly contested at the national, state, and district levels. Battles over vouchers, desegregation, privatization, and federal education policy reflect crucial political choices that will have a lasting impact not only on schools, but on public life as a whole, and on whether the United States will realize the promise of a pluralistic, multicultural democracy in the 21st century or abandon it. We need to understand how decisions made in legislatures and courtrooms impact our classrooms and our schools, and how we, in turn, might impact those decisions.

Within schools, the clearest reflection of this larger struggle between multicultural, democratic values and privatized, corporate interests is the struggle over standards and testing. Today standardized curricula imposed through ever more suffocating layers of standardized testing constitute the primary agenda of anti-democratic schooling. Like all effective political strategies, this agenda speaks to real concerns held by large numbers of people, including concerns over low student achievement, the lack of institutional accountability, and the seemingly intractable school failure in low-income communities. These very real problems provide a platform for school reformers of all shapes and sizes to posture as champions of the underserved and underprivileged.

But most of the official remedies being offered would perpetuate and legitimize an inequitable status quo, while squeezing the life out of alternative reform efforts that hold much more promise of real progress. In Chapter 4, “Standards and Testing”, we examine how the issues of academic achievement and assessment can promote or prevent the kind of schooling our children need. We consider the difference between “standards” and “standardization”, and look at ways that equitable assessment practices can support schools in their efforts to serve all students well, instead of sorting and labeling them into new categories of failure.

Finally in Chapter 5, “Roads to Reform”, we consider the challenges and possibilities involved in trying to promote positive change. Addressing such key elements as school funding, staff development, the role of teachers unions, untracking, and curriculum reform, we present a vision of reform that might start to measure up to the tasks at hand. These articles suggest how a social justice perspective can inform the many different components that are needed for successful school change.

Throughout Rethinking School Reform, we keep coming back to the view from the classroom. It is a common thread. What kinds of policies, resources, people, and purpose do we need in our nation’s classrooms so that they might become not only places of individual academic achievement, but also “laboratories for a more just society”? Teachers do not have all the answers to the issues raised by school reform, and the view from the classroom is not always the clearest. But classrooms are where the core business of schooling takes place, and it’s where the measure of all reform proposals must ultimately be taken. If a given initiative supports more effective critical teaching and creates more equitable and democratic classrooms, it is worth pursuing. If it retards or restricts such efforts, then it’s part of the problem. In the final analysis, that is the test that every school reform needs to pass.

Fall 2003



pg. 4 Role play activity on origins of tracking | pdf


pg. 117 Dolley Madison’s slave bill of sale


pg. 125 Copies and PDFs of handouts and lesson plans for ‘Write the Truth’ unit


pg. 130 Ready-to-use copy of Linda’s chart for unlearning stereotypes.


pg. 135 Examples of Jefferson High School student work.



pg. 164 Links to complete text of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Reports


The article “Schools More Separate” in Rethinking School Reform is based on information on two reports published by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University:



pg. 175 Link to applied Research Center report mentioned in “Choice and Other White Lies”


“No Exit? Testing, Tracking, and Students of Color in U.S. Public Schools”, by the Applied Research Center is available at:


pg. 198 Link to full text of the No Child Left Behind act from the US government



pg. 252 Complete copy of the Portland Area Rethinking Schools report card | pdf


pg. 314 “What Will Be the Future of Teacher Unionism” | pdf

by Bob Peterson


Summer 2003