This is a Time for a Deep Breath…


 Note: Summer is usually a more relaxing time of year for both educators and parents.  While still not a “normal” time, we return to a time when kids are supposed to be at home (as opposed to our forced remote learning experience) and we are supposed to be able to sit down a bit and catch up on overdue relaxation.  I want to take a bit of this precious time and share with you several posts that have made a deep impression, both as an educator and as a parent. As I’ve shared in this space previously, Dr. James Ryan offered in his commencement  speech  in 2016 (Harvard Graduate School of Education) that one of the most critical questions we can ask is “What Matters?”  As you read the next few posts, I urge you to do so with that question in mind. 

We Are A Country Without A Purpose…

Wait! What?  “A Country Without a Purpose”?   What if we are finding ourselves on the edge of a time which is no less unsettling than the time of the Revolution, the Civil Way, the Great Depression?  What if we are where we are because we have grown to value quick, politically expedient decisions rather than careful analysis of complex problems?  What if, as Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff suggested, there is a significant difference between trying to so things right and doing the right thing.  What if we have fallen into the Drucker/Ackoff trap of trying to do the wrong things better rather than actually trying to ascertain what the “right thing” is?

A quick example… During the time that I served as an assistant commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, we were heavily involved in the implementation of the Core Curriculum Content Standards as well as the development of specifications for the state’s large-scale assessment designed to measure the level of student achievement of these standards.  Who applied the greatest pressure to insure the development of “tough” standards and through assessments?  The state’s teachers?  No.  It was the state’s Chamber of Commerce.  Why the Chamber?  Because the Chamber and its membership had concluded that the major function  – i.e., purpose — of school was the development of a well-trained workforce.  People who knew better (or who should have known better) didn’t challenge this “purpose”.  For almost 30 years now we have been “chasing” the test scores.  Those of who spent time in schools during this time, will have no problem identifying the programs, policies and procedures designed to do test- focused “achievement” better.  Only recently, in the time of the pandemic, have we seen the beginning of serious discussion/reflection about the problems created by trying to do the wrong thing righter.  Drucker and Ackoff would be proud.  Millions of students and their teachers, not so much. It’s time to get serious about defining the right thing that we want to our kids and the learning.

Wait! What?  Why am I asking this question right now?  Why am I asking it in a blog that focuses almost all posts on things related to education and learning?

Frequent readers may recall that, occasionally, I’ll suggest that it might be helpful to get a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage to make the post easier to digest.  This time, while I’m offering the same suggestion, it’s for a very different reason.

Since “retirement” I’ve gotten into the habit of beginning each day with a scan of the things that have magically appeared in my inbox overnight. My interests are pretty eclectic and include a number of education-oriented blogs as well as the scan of major news outlets. 

Recently, my scan I encountered two “big question” pieces.  They resonated with me as I hope they will with you.  They seemed to “beg” for thinking time. Hence the adult beverage suggestion.  The pieces that I’ll be sharing are not so much shocking as they are food for reflection.  I hope you’ll take my suggestion and read each of them.  This post will focus on the first piece by Nancy Flanagan.  It appeared in the  daily blog of the Network for Public Education and is used with her permission.


At the beginning of our first response to the pandemic I wrote several pieces that urged educators to avoid the “let’s get back to normal” urge and use the time we had been given to reflect on what learning could be.  My timing was horrible.  I neglected to acknowledge the all-consuming nature of the process of trying to juggle the realities of school in “survival” mode.  We saw firsthand the sometimes competing purposes of school – child (and educator) safety, child care, student achievement, family support (food and social services), access to technology.  The purpose often varies depending on the day, the access to technology,  or the family… all aimed at trying to do what have always done as right as possible. Nancy writes that we have reached a point in the discussions about schools, schooling, educational funding, success or failure of the American system of public schools etc. where we can no longer sidestep a serious discussion/analysis/reflection about the purpose of education in our country. 

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher and a long-lasting blogger. Sometimes she looks at the big picture, and sometimes the nitty gritty. Reposted with permission.

I could write a blog every week on all the Big Important Things that nobody pays attention to in public education. But then—that would make me a philosopher and not a teacher.

Right now, we really need deep thinkers, visionaries, those dedicated to clarifying our mission in public ed, trying to prevent dumpster fires, rather than putting them out, which is now a fair part of teachers’ work.

Instead, we have shallow, attention-seeking chatterheads lighting fires, then sprinting away—looking at you, Mike Petrilli and Tucker Carlson, and all  the ‘Concerned Moms’ who don’t want their children to, you know, feel bad about the facts of American history.

In fact, when you look at the sweep of schooling in America—going back to Horace Mann—there is no one overriding set of principles upon which public education has firmly rested for two centuries. Mann promoted a free, secular education, open to all children—the local academic melting pot that would lift an unruly, barely civilized nation into democratic greatness.

And what a magnificent idea that was—probably the last inspiring, visionary plan to educate the citizenry. Except, of course, for all the people who were left out, or given scraps and hand-me-downs. Or weren’t even considered citizens. Not so great for them, and they were building the nation, too.

There’s always been lofty rhetoric about public education. And the reality has always been far more complicated and far less effective at achieving whatever it is public ed is supposed to achieve.

And that’s the rub. What are we trying to accomplish, in our public education system? What’s our purpose? What are our overarching goals? What’s our product? (bold, italics mine)

It’s a great question to ask in a new-teacher interview: What’s your philosophy of education?

Back in the 1970s, I got that question a couple of times (and had an answer—it was part of my undergraduate education as a prospective teacher, that pedagogy coursework everyone denigrates).

Today, the interview questions are pragmatic—test scores, standards, deliverables—but there is real value in figuring out what’s most important to teach, what your students need. What you believe. What the country needs, even.

On July 7, Joe Biden tweeted this: The fact is 12 years of education is no longer enough to compete in the 21st Century. That’s why my Build Back Better Agenda will guarantee four additional years of public education for every person in America – two years of pre-school and two years of free community college.

Well, I’m all for free preschool and community college. You go, Joe. They’re only pieces of the comprehensive, coherent plan we need, but the education community is accustomed to working with (and around) bits-and-pieces ed policy. We’ll take positive fragments, any day.

Jennifer Berkshire had an interesting response to Biden’s tweet: Biden’s insistence on defining education solely in economic terms is so discouraging. IMO, this is a big part of why public education is as precarious as it is right now. Not only does it put the blame for being economically *noncompetitive* onto individuals themselves, but it leaves out the essential role that schools play in a democracy.

Bingo. Which comes first—the random policy promise, or the philosophy?

Berkshire and her co-writer Jack Schneider, an education historian, wrote this in an excellent piece in The Nation:

Our schools can’t fix the problems of poverty, and parts of the Biden administration seem to know that. But until education policy breaks free from this framing of the purpose of school, it will remain difficult to recognize what our schools can do. At a time when voting rights are increasingly being restricted, when we continue to debate the value of Black lives, and when we can’t agree on basic facts, public education has an essential role to play. We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can compete for advantage against each other—or so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society.

And—voila!—there we are, back to Horace Mann. The mission of public education is an educated, engaged citizenry. Open to absolutely everyone. Too bad we routinely lose sight of this core purpose, a defined public good.

If you want to read an excellent synopsis of how our national (non)philosophy of education has morphed and evaporated, over the decades, I recommend Consuming the Public School, by David Labaree:

We ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning. We focus on making the system inclusive at one level and exclusive at the next, in order to make sure that it meets demands for both access and advantage.

Does this sound like a system that just puts out emergent fires with policy band-aids—or a system grounded in principles of democratic equality? Other countries have overhauled their education systems after having a national conversation about what public education should be focused on. Why can’t we?

Oh, right. It’s political. 

While large scale change discussions have become highly politicized, what would happen if we each asked and answered the question with which Nancy ends her post…

What would your belief statement about public education look like?

My thoughts…

What would happen if each teacher, each administrator asked, answered and acted on such a question?  Would the whole system change?  After years of working with schools around the country on ways to help them implement large scale change, I no longer believe that meaningful change happens that way.  I believe it happens one person at a time, one teacher in one classroom decides what she/he believes about learning, about the purpose of education, about the importance of building a classroom culture caring and empathy.  Too many of us have sat by for too long trying to implement the ideas of others… ideas which have equated a child’s learning and development by scores on an annual state test (tests which have done far more to enrich test developers than they have to improve student learning), ideas which have stolen precious time and opportunities to build and nurture the critical  relationships with our students that are so important  to learning.  It hasn’t worked.  It won’t work. 

What if we each defined and acted on our beliefs about children and their development?  Couldn’t/shouldn’t we at least try? It’s tempting to be offended by the implication that we as teachers, administrators, parents don’t act on our beliefs about the basic goodness of children and our responsibilities for nurturing them.  Of course we do. We also work in organizations that seek to do what we are doing  even better… and many of us recognize that this involves the development of practices, policies, and procedures which are aimed at efficiency  and convenience…  doing things “righter” is not the same as doing the right thing.  

Be well…

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