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The Other Education

I’ve always liked David Brooks as a columnist. He often takes stands I disagree with, but, generally speaking, he also approaches his role as a public intellectual with inquiry and openness, not orthodoxy and attitude.

In his education columns, however, Brooks has become a dangerous and myopic mouthpiece for a particular set of reform ideas that, without much prodding, turn to dust. And after reading a weekend column of his, I think I understand why.

The column is called “The Other Education” , and it chronicles his discovery of Bruce Springsteen and the ways in which the “emotional curriculum” of The Boss’s music helped shape Brooks’s worldview. Addressing the disconnect between the more formal education he received and this other education that proved so formidable, Brooks writes: “For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

“This second education,” Brooks continues, “doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it. The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.”

I love half of this description. In the second part – the part about our “emotional education” – Brooks captures the elusive, nonlinear and transformative nature of what all learning should look like (knowing that some days we will succeed, and some days we will not). Yet in the first part – the part about a “normal schoolroom” – Brooks reveals his assumption that scholastic learning must always be direct, described, and discrete.

This is a monumental, misguided assumption, and it is shaping most of our current public discourse about education reform. In Waiting for Superman, it takes the form of a graphic in which a schoolroom full of children have the tops of their heads removed, and a teacher attempts to pour the learning (if you can call it that) directly, and discretely, into each child.

As with Brooks’s education columns, the message in the movie is not that this is an outdated model of schooling, but that existing dysfunctions in the system (which are very real) are preventing the teachers from developing the right aim, resulting in all of this “learning” spilling helplessly onto the desks in front of each child’s empty, waiting vessel.

Pardon my French, but are you fucking kidding me?

Everyone knows learning does not lend itself neatly to 45-minute blocks, five-day weeks, or any of the other structures in place to try and guide each child through the formal schooling process. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that there is no role for standards, tests, or structures. But it does mean that in addition to a school’s most visible structures – its schedules, its assessments, and its policies – there are an equally essential (and elusive) number of invisible structures, otherwise known as the inner conditions from which we operate – our passions, our fears, our needs, our interests, and our dreams – or, to use Brooks’s language, the “emotional curriculum.” And any policy that tends to one, but not both, of these sets of issues is doomed to fail.

Over the past few years Brooks’s columns have advocated for a set of education policies that are notably attentive to the former, and breathtakingly silent on the latter. He would have us believe our single current measure of school success – 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores – is a sufficient incentive for our entire system of schools. He has urged us to start using these scores to decide which teachers are best. He has contributed to the quixotic characterizations of charter schools. And, I now see, he has ignored the dissonance between his most powerful personal learning experience – a deeply relevant, engaging, experiential journey of self-discovery – and the types of school environments the policies he pushes would actually incentivize.

To be clear: the Op-Ed is a flawed communications vehicle. Nothing lends itself well to 700-word explanations – least of all how we learn, and what would help more of us learn well more of the time. Still, I would like to respectfully urge David Brooks to channel his “inner Bruce” and aim higher in the education columns that follow. As he knows from firsthand experience, the schools our kids need must tend to not just their formal academic needs, but also their social, emotional, ethical, vocational and aspirational needs. And the public intellectuals we need are people who, with inquiry and openness, help us better understand, and then imagine in new ways, how to get there from here.


Education’s Blockbuster Moment

A few New Yorkers ago, financial columnist James Surowiecki wrote a short piece about the downfall of Blockbuster video, and why it failed to anticipate the rapid rise of Netflix in its own backyard. Why, he postulated, did Blockbuster not read the tea leaves quickly enough to colonize the web the way it had colonized suburbia? Already blessed with a deep reservoir of customer expertise, a sophisticated system of inventory management, and a nearly ubiquitous and identifiable brand, Blockbuster was well placed to shift its business model from “bricks and mortar” to “clicks and mortar,” yet it did nothing. Which makes me wonder, what might Blockbuster’s downfall augur for the future of public education reform in America?

Click here to keep reading.


The Gift, a.k.a “Waiting for Superman”

This morning, I received an email from my dear friend Maya Soetoro-Ng, a lifelong educator and all-around deep thinker, who wrote to her friends and family after seeing Waiting for Superman. Please read it — her way of framing the opportunity provided by the film is exactly what we need to hear.

(Incidentally, plans are underway for the sort of outreach she calls for in early 2011. Email me — [email protected] — if you want to learn more . . .)

Dear friend and caring community member,

I only have a few minutes right now, so my evaluation will be necessarily incomplete, but I want to share some thoughts about Guggenheim’s new documentary, “Waiting for Superman”, which I saw last night (I had only seen several discrete segments before).

At the point in the film when children were crying because they weren’t selected in school lotteries, many people around me couldn’t suppress tears and, as a mother of two girls, I too felt intense grief and empathy for the parents of the children.  After the film, I spoke with a wonderful longtime public school teacher and she was teary as well, for a different reason; she was shedding tears of frustration about the fact that the film ignored the enormous commitment and talent of many public DOE teachers and the great work taking place in the classrooms and schools where they throw in their hands and spend large parts of their days. I was one of Randi’s teachers myself in my first years of teaching in NYC. I was even the union rep. for a couple of years. I do understand the hurt, but I urged this teacher not to let the imbalanced nature of the documentary frustrate her, and instead to go talk with others in the community about what she knows, feels, remembers, and can use to help make schools even stronger.

Marveling at the emotion generated by both those who are critical of the film and those who wholly accept the film’s assessments, I’ve become increasingly glad that this imperfect but also compelling film has come along at this time.   Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen:  I hope that we don’t grow more embittered and angry with one another and expend huge amounts of energy in senseless shouting; I hope that public school teachers are not vilified by people who think that they know more than they know about what happens in classrooms.  I hope that the film’s emphasis on test scores doesn’t make us lose sight of the many other potent and meaningful forms of learning and assessment that exist like creative writing, projects of civic engagement, Socratic learning forums, and multifaceted portfolio presentations.

Here’s what I hope happens:  I hope that the film will increase the amount and caliber of dialogue between teachers, administrators, community members, and parents.  I hope that it will encourage teachers everywhere to share their craft and schools loudly and proudly, when pride is merited, and welcome the community’s assistance as well as new opportunities for collaboration.  I hope that the film will help people to see the importance of graceful negotiation when trying to change a system and recognize the true power of persuasion.  I hope that people will think of public schools as belonging to all of us, regardless of whether we have kids in the system, or have kids period.

I hope that we begin to view successful experiments, like good charter schools, as opportunities for evaluation and implementation of best practices.  Of course a larger percentage of charter schools are healthy learning environments, not because the teachers are all better but for the following reasons: charter schools are usually smaller and therefore more manageable; school charters require greater buy-in and contribution from parents; charter schools have the freedom to create cohesive school cultures surrounding issues of local interest and imperative (i.e. Hawaiian language and cultural immersion schools); the choice and freedom in charter schools often allow for a greater sense of ownership by teachers, students, and administrators; and whether conversion schools or new, charter schools are often built using innovations that have been tested and found effective in older, larger, and more overwhelmed regular DOE schools.

Now it is time to reverse the flow of innovation and use charter schools as laboratories for what might work in larger DOE schools.  Let leaders of schools, government, and community focus on building a strong sense of school family, or ohana, in every public school with less tracking, smaller class sizes, smaller learning groups within the classroom, and family-style attention to the whole child.  Let’s think about how to get the community more actively involved in public schools, find new ways for families to participate and share in the culture of the school, and bring the kids out into the community more.  Let’s work to offer free after school, extended year, and parent-enrichment programs, and have school event daycare options for single and overworked parents.  Let’s think of our public schools as the center—the beating heart—of our communities.   Go check out the film, by all means, but then let’s keep talking. With mighty love,


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