Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us


Why School? challenges today's narrow focus on high-stakes testing and economic competition. It also serves as a critical reminder of the broader purposes of school: the intellectual, social, civic, and ethical development of individuals.

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Why School? challenges today's narrow focus on high-stakes testing and economic competition. It also serves as a critical reminder of the broader purposes of school: the intellectual, social, civic, and ethical development of individuals.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Once again at his most bold and brilliant…Rose is a rare treasure in this dreary moment of debate along the dismal flatlands of education discourse. He brings us to the mountaintops."
—Jonathan Kozol

"Rose gives a larger sense of the interplay between what happens in the classroom and the world outside school…[and] a capacious sense of what can happen within the interior world of the classroom."
The New York Review of Books

"Rose puts into clear words what so many of us feel is lacking in our children’s education…[He] recalibrates our thinking in this little book, the first step toward change."
Los Angeles Times

In These Times

"A compact and potent collection of essays."
The Nation

Selected by Bill Moyers as a "must read" book of 2009 "I interviewed Mike Rose 20 years ago for my series A World of Ideas. He was already on the path to becoming one of our most exciting thinkers about education in the lives of marginalized people. He lives in the real world, and this new book–slim and vividly written–is an inspiration for how to cope with it in our classrooms."
—Bill Moyers

"This a beautifully written work…Mike Rose draws on over 40 years of teaching experience and research, weaving memoir and policy discussion together in this moving call for a humane approach to education that accounts for the needs of every child."
Christian Science Monitor

"Rose invites parents, community members, and other stakeholders to join the conversation orbiting our educational system and reclaim it in the name of democracy and equity…Rose profiles remarkable teachers, engaged students, and blossoming schools. His descriptions of each are underlined by his convection that learning, as a human endeavor…is magnificent. It is wondrous."
In These Times

"Aims to reinvigorate a discussion on the value of education in a democracy…strongly advocates for education that values reflection, curiosity, and imagination rather than the quantifiable measures favored by economics."

"One of the most insightful, challenging, honest, helpful, and encouraging books I’ve read in many years."
—Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, University of Minnesota

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595584670
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 900,805
  • Product dimensions: 4.70 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mike Rose, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is the author of numerous books, including The Mind at Work, Possible Lives, and Back to School (The New Press). Among his many awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Grawemeyer Award in Education, and the Commonwealth Club of California Award for Literary Excellence in Nonfiction. He lives in Santa Monica.
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Read an Excerpt


No Child Left Behind and the
Spirit of Democratic Education

One of the contemporary forces shaping the way we
think and talk about school has been the proliferation
of high-stakes, standardized testing, exemplified in
our day by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of
2001. As I write this in early 2009, the future of the
bill is uncertain, though it will most likely be renewed,
but with significant revision. Even if NCLB itself is
not renewed, the impulses and principles represented
by it will be part of educational policy for the foreseeable

When we look back over the history of social policy,
we see how often a particular policy had unintended
consequences. In the immediate push and pull
of passing legislation, questions of broader impact
and philosophy rarely get asked. With that in mind, it
would be good to step back for a moment and consider
NCLB in broader terms: what kind of education does
a program of such testing foster? That question resonates
with an even more basic one: what kind of education
befits a democratic society?

Historically, education has been a state affair, but
NCLB is a federal act that requires each state to develop
its own testing program in mathematics and English
language arts. Federal funding is affected by
performance on these tests, and each state must show
continual progress on them until 2014, when all students
are expected to demonstrate grade-level proficiency.
A further bold move is that the states have to
report at the school level test results along a number of student
criteria, including race/ethnicity, income level,
English language proficiency, and disability. Continual
improvement by these targeted subgroups must occur,
or schools will be put on notice and, eventually, sanctioned.
Much has been broadcast and written about
NCLB, from defense or criticism of its ranking and
potential sanctioning of schools, to the considerable
procedural and technical difficulties of implementation,
to the resistance from parent groups, school districts,
and even state houses to it.

One undeniable value of NCLB is that it casts a
bright light on those underserved populations of students
who get lost in averaged measures of performance.
The assumption is that if schools expect more
of such students they will achieve—and the tests will
measure their achievement. Some civil rights groups
have vigorously supported NCLB because of its focus
on poor children and children of color, and some education
activists have used the law to lobby, and in some
cases sue, for the curricular and financial resources
needed to comply with its mandates.

There are aspects of NCLB that are clearly democratic.
The assumption that all children can learn and
develop. The responsibility of public institutions to
their citizenry. The dissatisfaction with business as
usual and a belief that institutions can be improved.

What is worth exploring, though, is the degree to
which these tenets are invested in an accountability
mechanism that might restrict their full realization. A
score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward
indicator of achievement. The score goes up, goes
down, or remains the same. But there are, in fact, a host
of procedural and technical problems in developing,
administering, scoring, and interpreting such tests.
(And there are also concerns about how schools and
districts can manipulate them.) “In most cases,” writes
measurement specialist Robert Linn, “the instruments
and technology have not been up to the demands placed
on them by high-stakes accountability.” No wonder,
then, that there is a robust debate among testing experts
about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores
about a student’s or a school’s achievement.

There is a second, related, issue. Tests embody definitions
of knowledge, learning, and teaching. A test
that would include, say, the writing of an essay, or a
music recital, or the performance of an experiment
embodies different notions of cognition and instruction
than do the typical tasks on standardized tests:
multiple choice items, matching, fill-ins. I have given
both kinds of tests, both have value, but they get at different
things, represent knowledge in different ways,
might match or be distant from a school’s curriculum,
can require different methods of teaching. When one
kind of test dominates and when the stakes are high,
the tests can drive and compress a curriculum. What is
tested gains in importance and other subjects fade.
Math is hit hard while art and debate are pushed to the
margin—if they survive at all.

There is no doubt that NCLB jolted some low-performing
schools to evaluate and redirect their inadequate
curricula. The result has been improvement
on test scores, and this has become a major source of
support for NCLB. The key issue is how teachers
and administrators accomplish this revision: through
a strictly functional and unimaginative curriculum
(which, admittedly, might be better than what came
before) or through a rich course of study that, as byproduct,
affects test scores.

A teacher I know tells this story. In response to the
NCLB mandate to focus on all children, this teacher’s
district issued a page-long checklist on each student to
be used in each class the student took. Every teacher
was to mark every time he or she assisted a child, asked
if the child understands, noted a behavior problem,
and so on. This requirement applied to all students,
every class—though principals, in an attempt to keep
instruction from collapsing under the regulation, told
teachers to pay special attention to their students who
were most at risk. The intention here was a good one,
but the means by which it was accomplished was so
formulaic and cumbersome that it devastated teaching.
Care becomes codified, legalistic, lost in reductive
compliance. This kind of thing is not unusual
today. It can be ridiculed as a thoughtless local response
to good legislation, but the pressure to comply
is great, and when there are no funds available to
mount professional development, or changes in the
size and organization of schools, or other means to
foster attentive and cognitively rich instruction, then
districts—in the context of a high-stakes, under-resourced
environment—will resort to all sorts of draconian
and, ultimately, counterproductive solutions.

This concern about the nature of a school’s response
to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent
for those students at the center of most reform efforts:
poor children, immigrants, students from nondominant
racial and ethnic groups. You can prep kids for a
certain kind of test, get a bump in scores, yet not be
providing a very good education. The end result is the
replication of a troubling pattern in American schooling:
poor kids get an education of skills and routine, a
lower-tier education, while students in more affluent
districts get a robust course of study.

Now, assessment is integral to learning. Good
teachers give a wide variety of tests and assignments,
make judgments about student work, and probe students’
thinking when their answers miss the mark.
Standardized tests can well be part of this constellation
of assessment, but should not overwhelm it. It’s
important to remember how far removed standardized
tests are from the cognitive give-and-take of the classroom.
That’s one reason why there is a debate among
testing specialists as to whether a test score—which is,
finally, a statistical abstraction—is really an accurate
measure of learning. Yet the scores on standardized
tests have become the gold standard of excellence.

Advocates of NCLB argue that to raise questions
about testing is—as former Secretary of Education
Margaret Spellings put it—to water down accountability,
find loopholes, avoid it. True enough, wily
school officials might well hide behind the complexities
of testing. Let’s be clear: accountability is central
to any public institution. But simplified, single-shot
accountability mechanisms will yield simplified compliance,
and therefore they need to be scrutinized.

NCLB has been driven by a masterful rhetoric that
casts dissent from its agenda as “the soft bigotry of
low expectations.”There can be “no excuses” for the
low performance of poor, immigrant, and racial and
ethnic minority kids, as measured by the tests NCLB
supports. I appreciate this “no excuses” stance. Our
schools have an unacceptable record with the populations
targeted by NCLB, and the way we perceive the
ability and potential of these populations, what we expect
of them intellectually, is a key element in their
achievement. But it is one element, a necessary but not
sufficient condition. What is troubling on a public
policy level is the way the NCLB rhetoric of “no excuses”
shifts attention from economic and social conditions
that affect academic achievement. Poverty is a
case in point.

What NCLB has exactly right is the assertion that
children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much
more than their income level. But it is likewise naive or
duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of
poverty on a child’s life in school. Yes, there are a number
of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But
their stories are never simple, and, as any teacher who
follows her students’ lives will tell you, their achievement
can be derailed by one bad break.

Not too long ago, I was sitting with a veteran
teacher from the rural South. We were flipping
through her school’s yearbook from a decade before.
The school has a reputation for doing well by its students,
most of whom come from low-income families.
And there page by page were bright faces, testaments
to high hopes, young people in plays, on the basketball
court, the lists of awards for academics or athletics, the
full smile of the student picked for “all-around
achievement.” Some of these students were successful,
finished school, went on to college, an occupational
program, or a military career. But some had to quit
when parents were laid off or crippled by illness, and
they, in turn, got caught in a cycle of low-level jobs.
Some girls got pregnant and dropped out. Some boys
were lost to the streets. Two were shot. The teacher
closed her eyes as she told of seeing one of the boys in
the bus station, disheveled and strung out. The rhetoric
of “no excuses”—though it has a legitimate point
to make—can deflect our attention from the plain,
brutal reality of so many young people’s lives.

It seems difficult 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 either to
lighten the effects of economic disruption with appeals
to self-help and hard work, or we see only blight
and generalize it to intellectual capacity. In an earlier
book, I appealed for a binocular vision when regarding
poor kids in school, a vision that affords both damage
and promise, that enables one to be mindful of the
barriers to achievement and still nurture the possible.

I think that one indication of the value of a piece of
social policy is the public conversations it sparks, the
issues it gets us to ponder. Civil rights legislation, for
example, gave rise to a moral debate in the nation, a
self-examination of our history and first principles.
NCLB does raise important questions about equity
and expectation, and this is a major contribution to a
democratic discourse about schooling. But unless a
testing program is part of a larger effort that includes
other student compensatory and professional development
efforts and social programs aimed at vulnerable
populations, we get, instead, a focus on scores,
rankings, and an elaborate technology of calibration
and compliance. More sustained consideration of
equality of opportunity, of the meaning of public
schooling, of the nature of learning in a free society—
this all gets lost in the machinery of testing.

While that machinery is as powerful as ever, there
are signs that we as a country are beginning to seek
some fuller language of schooling. Young people get
narrowly defined in the current environment, and the
purpose of education gets narrowed as well. Dissatisfaction
with this situation is emerging from a number
of points along the ideological spectrum. Though he
supports NCLB-style accountability models, conservative
cultural critic David Brooks also chafes at the
way current educational policy “treats students as
skill-acquiring cogs in an economic wheel.” My hope
is that as we debate the merits and flaws of programs
like NCLB, we will begin to develop more fitting ways
to talk about children and the schools that shape their

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Table of Contents

Introduction Why School?

1 In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling

2 Finding Our Way:The Experience of Education

3 No Child Left Behind and the Spirit of Democratic Education

4 Business Goes to School

5 Politics and Knowledge

6 Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse

7 On Values,Work, and Opportunity

8 Standards, Teaching, Learning

9 Remediation at the University

10 Re-mediating Remediation

11 Soldiers in the Classroom

12 A Language of Hope

13 Finding the Public Good Through the Details of Classroom Life

Conclusion: The Journey Back and Forward


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