Education Q&A

Mike Rose Asks, 'Why School?'

October 07, 2009 12 min read
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Mike Rose, a professor of social research methodology at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, first earned national attention in 1989 with his book Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievement of America’s Underprepared, in which he recalled his own struggles as a student and explored schools’ limitations in working with and understanding remedial students. Since then, he has become one of the country’s most widely recognized authorities on literacy and the cognitive needs and potentialities of at-risk learners. His books, including Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America, have become staples at many education schools.

This fall, Rose has come out with a new book, Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us, in which he explores the purpose of education in a democracy and questions current measures of academic achievement.

We recently spoke to him about the book and his philosophy of effective teaching and learning.

Why did you write Why School?

Why School?, in some ways, is a distillation of what I’ve done over the past 30 years. I tried to bring together elements of all that different work—looking at teaching underprepared students, looking at what good teaching is all about, looking at the place of public schools in a democracy, or looking at the cognitive side of physical work—all things that have captivated me over the years.

This little book was a chance to bring all that material together. I focused on the educational issues that we’re confronting today: the purpose of public education, the question of standards, and issues around teaching and learning, questions about remediation and under-preparation, questions about intelligence, questions about work, questions about the public sphere, questions about the purpose of education in a democracy.

All this stuff is in the air but I think we need a fresh way to talk about it. For example, for a generation now, we’ve defined the purpose of schooling almost solely in economic terms and we’ve measured success with a score on a standardized test. There has to be a better way.

What does good teaching look like?

Let me answer that through a book that I did a while back called Possible Lives, where I traveled around the United States observing good public school classrooms – rural, and urban, the Deep South, the industrial Northeast, the West, you name it. I saw a lot of great teaching, and the first thing to say about it is that there are just so many different kinds of good teaching.

There would be some classrooms I walked into where the desks were in a row and the teacher was in front at her podium or at a desk like a very traditional classroom. I would see great teaching in a place like that, and then turn right around and go into a classroom where kids were all over every place, and there were “learning stations,” and people were here and there, and the teacher was flying around the room.

From this variety, I distilled some of the following qualities.

The first is that these teachers were knowledgeable. They knew things, whether it was a particular subject matter, like literature or science or history, or child development, or the teaching of reading or the teaching of math.

They were also resourceful. Especially if they had been teachers for a while. They had piled up a lot of materials and they would draw from sources that they had at their disposal.

But there’s also a kind of performative resourcefulness. You’ve seen this when you watch good teachers—they just seem to know what metaphor or what analogy to use to illustrate something, or when a kid gets stuck, they have another way to come at a question. There’s a resourcefulness of technique and approach.

The third thing—and maybe this should be the first—is that they created a safe and respectful space. That is, regardless of the teaching style, you could tell that the students in that classroom felt free to venture an idea, or free to go down a road and see where a train of thought would take them. There’s a sense of physical, emotional, and intellectual safety and respect that emerged in these rooms.

How important is intellectual freedom for kids to be able to achieve their full potential?

Creating these safe and respectful places where people can think and talk and work is crucial. I mean, think about it in an inter-personal way. Imagine those people you know who you’re able to sit down with and you’re able to say something like “I’ve got this idea and I want to try it out.” Both of us, I’m sure, know people who are interjecting right away or are hypercritical, and it closes you down! I’ve had that experience where I just shut down. I can’t think as well. Versus those people who you can tell are really listening to you, and they’re following your train of thought, and they ask questions to clarify, to make sure they understand what you’re saying. If they don’t think an idea’s a good one, they won’t just say, “Oh, that’s awful.” They’ll say, “Why don’t you think about it this way?” What we experience inter-personally, I think, holds true in these classrooms as well.

These are also classrooms where teachers had high expectations of their students. And I think that’s important, because sometimes, in this country, we slip into an “either/or” way of thinking about expectations and empathy. Especially with kids who are having a hard life. We’re reluctant to push them, to demand a lot. But to care about young people means you have to demand achievement, but in a humane way. The ideal classroom has both. It has a supportive, encouraging atmosphere but also it’s a place where people are expected to work hard and think hard.

These teachers provide the means for students to meet their expectations. It’s not just that they set the high-jump bar at seven feet and go, “Okay, jump it.” No, they draw on all the resources they have—extra materials, aides, other students, the very way they organize the room so they can touch base with their students. They provide assistance for students to meet the expectations that they set.

How do you feel about measures policymakers are advocating to gauge teacher effectiveness, for example, in relation to the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed Race to the Top guidelines?

In the documents from the Department of Education about Race to the Top, they do say that they are open to proposals from states that use not only test scores, but other kinds of assessments—peer review, or principal observation, or teams coming into a school, or a teacher developing a practice portfolio; in other words, student scores would be one piece of a larger, more accurate means of assessing teacher proficiency and expertise. If that happens, then I think people could feel more assured that we’re at least getting some kind of appropriate snapshot of what a teacher can do.

My worry is that under the immense political pressure to demonstrate some kind of quick result, policymakers might forego the more layered and valid assessments of teacher or principal proficiency. These richer measures are more time-consuming and costly. Combine time and cost with the momentum that high-stakes standardized test accountability has right now, and, well, no matter what the Department of Education’s initial proposals are, what plays out might be a pretty reductive and one-dimensional approach to accountability. I think this is a reasonable fear, as the history of public policy shows us.

A big theme in your latest book is about the collective responsibility of providing opportunities to students. Can you talk about that?


There are a lot of different ways to talk about opportunity in school. The key question to ask is: What are the different opportunities within a classroom that students have to learn?

There’s the technical issue: If there are 43 kids in the class, there’s going to be less time for a teacher to spend with particular students. If the curriculum or the teacher’s teaching style is such that there are hardly any opportunities for students to have a chance to think through a problem or articulate an answer or read their work, then these things reduce the “opportunity to learn.”

Another notion of opportunity is the good, old fashioned notion of the amount of contact students have with caring adults.

I think a third way to talk about opportunity—and this is something that we can measure and something that lawsuits have been based on—is to ask: What kind of opportunities exist in a school for students to help advance their intellectual growth and their movement up the educational pipeline? For example, in California, there was a class-action lawsuit over the fact that students attended poor and under-resourced schools, with few, if any, honors and Advanced Placement classes.

If a student is not able to take honors and Advanced Placement classes, that’s going to affect his or her possibility of moving onto higher education. In a practical way, it affects his or her grade point average; it could affect his or her application to a lot of different kind of colleges.

What are the opportunities we provide for people to be able to be their smartest selves? What are the assumptions we hold about intelligence and ability? And how do our hidden biases about gender, race, ethnicity, or social class, even without our knowing, affect the opportunities we provide for people and what we expect of them?

You talk a lot about the limits we have in terms of measuring achievement and intelligence in vocational education. Can you explain what you mean?

It goes way, way back in Western cultural history, back to the Ancient Greeks. In both Plato and Aristotle, you see this separation being made between people who work with their hands and people who are freed from manual labor, and the belief that those who work with their hands are somehow cognitively limited or stunted. Those ideas run through Western history.

In the beginning of the 21st century, you’ve got the emergence of mental measurement and the development of the IQ test. The IQ test favors people with a certain kind of background, with a certain kind of education.

And then you’ve got the creation of the comprehensive high school and curricular tracking, where we institutionalized some of these notions about intelligence. We created the vocational, regular, and the college prep track. And, no big surprise, a lot of the kids that ended up in the vocational track were poorer kids, or immigrant kids. So there was a kind of social sorting there, based on social class as much as anything else.

There’s a lot more going on intellectually than we tend to think. And our standard measures of intelligence won’t get at it.

In Why School?, you write that education policy is too narrowly focused. What is lost by focusing on job preparation and test scores?

The common justification for education is that we’ve got to prepare students for 21st century jobs. We’re in a changing economy, the story line goes, and it demands a world-class education.

Economic mobility has been a driving force behind mass education in the United States almost since its inception. I don’t want to deny the fact that it’s an important reason why parents send their kids to school. And as somebody who comes from a working-class background, school made economic mobility possible for me. So I am not going to pooh-pooh that economic motive at all, but historically in the United States, we’ve had a lot of other reasons why we’ve sent kids to school, including the Jeffersonian imperative, which is to produce citizens. There’s also been a moral and ethical dimension to schooling. Parents send their kids to school because, in addition to preparing them for the world of work, they want them to learn how to learn, to learn how to work with other people, and to find things that interest them. They want them to become good people.

If all we’re talking about is the economic motive, and we’re focusing on the skills to prepare people for the world of work, that same educational philosophy could exist in a very different kind of society.

What is it that makes education in the United States unique? What is it that makes education in a democracy, truly democratic? It certainly will be economic preparedness, but it will be a lot of other things. When we lose sight of all these other goals, it’s going to affect what gets taught and how it gets taught. It’s going to affect our very notion of what it means to be learned, to be educated. I think that has implications for who we are as a nation and how we imagine our future.

What’s your advice for teachers in the current education environment, besides simply, “Hang in there”?

Oooh boy. There’s something to that, actually! When veteran teachers see yet one more new thing coming, they just put their heads down, and work in their classrooms, because they know that in a couple years, there’ll be something else. “Hang in there” is one piece of advice that veteran teachers give to younger teachers. But it’s hard to do.

Right now, I’m teaching in a school of education, so it would be really presumptuous of me to give people who are [teaching] in K-12 classrooms advice. What I can tell you is what I’ve heard other teachers say and do.

Be sure to find colleagues who matter to you – those colleagues you admire, those colleagues who are skilled and competent and are just good to be around. I think it’s hugely important to belong to, to join, to participate in whatever institutional or organizational thing you can find that helps sustain you, whether it’s trying to participate in the National Writing Project or the National Science Foundation, or workshops that reinvigorate you, or your union.

Remember, too, that the work you do has a powerful public and political dimension. And therefore, you are de facto, an actor on the political stage. So don’t be hesitant to write that letter to the editor. Don’t be hesitant to try and get that guest column in your local newspaper.

And then, finally, it’s just reminding yourself of what it is that really brought you into this profession. And those are the moments we all crave. The kid who lights up, the student in trouble who confides in you and you find a way to help her out of a jam, or the pleasure of thinking about how you teach something to somebody. Or just remembering that this is one of the grand cultural activities, one of the historically great things that human beings do with other human beings: We teach each other! It’s so easy to lose sight of it in the day-to-day grind, but it’s really magisterial work. Without teaching, culture collapses.

— Bryan Toporek


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