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Friday, March 21, 2014

Interview with Educator Mike Rose

by Eliana:

A hundred or so years ago, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My school experience had been all about boredom and I knew I wanted to do better. I was assigned Lives on the Boundary in a teacher prep class in college and it blew me away. My upper middle-class k-12 world was expanded; good thing, since my first teaching job was at an alternative high school in a border community.

In 2013 I read Mr. Rose’s newest book which again perfectly aligned to my teaching career. Back to School is about community college, vocational school—second chances all around. I reached out and had the privilege of interviewing Mike Rose for a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He was interesting and gracious and didn’t at all make me feel like a weird education research groupie, even though I am.

Why School? is a classic Mike Rose text that has just been reissued and expanded. While reading it, my highlighter was busy and I kept wanting to talk to someone about the ideas inside—ideas about what is really happening in public education, about equality, about testing: all the big issues that deserve more than a sound bite. So I emailed Mr. Rose, hat in hand, and he agreed to chat with MMM readers about education from the parent perspective.

Eliana: You say that "there is a powerful and concerted attempt assisted by mass media to portray public education as a catastrophic failure." I hear this time and time again, even as most of us are happy with the actual classroom experience our children are having. Is public education a failure? Who benefits from a belief that it is?

Mike Rose: Here’s a fascinating statistic from public opinion surveys. While many people believe that public schools in general are failing, a high percentage of those same people rate their local school as good to very good. This is not an uncommon pattern. It could reveal an unfounded preference for schools one sees as one’s own, or it could reveal a judgment based on more accurate local knowledge.

It is absolutely true that some of our schools are failing their students. These are typically schools that are in poor communities, are under resourced, and have a history of turnover in administrators and teachers. But many schools are doing a good job, and some are exemplary.

“Face it, the public schools have failed,” a bureau chief for a national news magazine tells me, offhandedly. A talk-radio host in L.A. actually said: “The kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District are garbage.”

These beliefs have multiple origins. Unfortunately, to get the attention of policy makers, reformers often have to use a language of crisis, so even those who are genuinely trying to improve public education will use such rhetoric. There are also people in this scenario who have particular political agendas: to advance charter schools or vouchers, or to weaken teachers’ unions, or in some way to advance the shift of public schools toward privatization. And, for some, money is involved, big profits to be made through increased layers of testing, for example, or school management organizations.

I want to repeat that I am not denying the very real problems with our schools. The children who suffer most are typically the most vulnerable. I just want a clearer, more accurate analysis and portrayal of the successes as well as the shortcomings of a very complex and massive system of public education. Without that accuracy, schools suffer, but so do parents who are trying to make the best judgments they can as to how and where to educate their children.

Eliana: You have a statement in your conclusion that I think is 100% true and so often forgotten in all our rhetoric about 'fixing' schools. "And in my experience most parents of a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions, though they want their children to develop basic skills and be prepared for work, want much more." What do you think parents want, even the ones who aren't vocal about it? How can we get it?

Mike Rose: Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of parents from many backgrounds, rich and poor, urban and rural, old blood and new arrivals, left and right on the political spectrum, and, of course, they all want their children to learn the fundamentals of reading, writing, and mathematics and whatever else they need to become self-sufficient and eventually enter the world of work. But what’s fascinating is that they also want their children to gain other things from school as well.

Many parents talk about wanting their children to learn to work with other children, to collaborate, to solve problems together—both social and academic. Many want their kids to develop interests, to be exposed to science, history, the arts, other cultures and to be assisted in learning more when something catches their fancy.

Parents want their kids to learn how to learn, and to learn how to reliably research something, especially as we are increasingly flooded with information and every kind of appeal imaginable. Parents want their children to learn about the way government works, about being a citizen. They want them to learn about the world beyond them, the world they’re going to inhabit.

How can parents get these sorts of things from their schools, particularly at a time when the policy discussion of our schools has become so focused on standardized test scores and economic payoffs? First of all, good teachers get at these broader goals, even if they have to be savvy about how they balance their time. But parents can make their desires known.

Eliana: In "In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling," you say "I worry that the dominant vocabulary about schooling limits our shared respect for the extraordinary nature of thinking and learning, and lessens our sense of social obligations." I definitely notice this, that we hear the same things over and over again in the media, like there is only one narrative about education. How do we change that? How can parents in particular speak more productively about education?

Mike Rose: This is a good and important question, and I get asked it with some frequency. Some of what we’ve been discussing—the testing obsession, the one-dimensional portrayals of schools—is dominant and overwhelming. It seems like there’s little parents who are troubled by it all can do.

But there are groups of parents who are supporting their local schools and other parent groups who are objecting to the testing mania. Your readers who are interested could do an Internet search and find such groups in their communities.

Individual parents can also make their voices heard at school board meetings. When I’ve had the chance to speak with regional school boards associations, I’ve been impressed with their thoughtfulness and distress about the issues we’ve been discussing. And, of course, individual parents can raise these issues at their local schools, during town hall meetings and parent-teacher conferences.

Write to your local principals, your superintendent. And, by all means, write letters to the editor of your local paper, or write commentaries for whatever print or on-line venues that are open to you: civic organizations, churches, social clubs. It all helps. You have a stake, a voice in what goes on in our schools. One of the reasons I wrote Why School? is to get all of us to reflect on education, on our own schooling, on the schooling of our kids, on what this remarkable thing called education is and can be.

Note: Rose’s publisher sent me a gratis copy of Why School? and I’m offering it up to interested MMM readers. Be advised: it has been well-loved. If you can’t handle my highlighting, buy your own copy. If you’d like to be in the drawing for this one, leave a comment below.

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