What I Learned at the Revolution (with apologies to Peggy Noonan)

May 11, 2015

Attending the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago several weeks ago was an uplifting and energizing experience for me. Like many educators I was dispirited and exhausted by the constant drumbeat of testing, scapegoating teachers, and the corporatization and colonization of our schools. But seeing the teachers, parents and students working together in Chicago gave me hope that we do indeed have the power to reclaim our schools. (There was a distinct dearth of Teacher Education faculty like myself there but I’ll write more about that in future post.)

Spending the weekend with such a group of impassioned people has motivated me to step up my own activism first by re-activating this blog (which has lain dormant for about 5 years). I’ll also be working more on the the outreach work we need to do to connect with teachers, parents, and legislators here in deepest darkest Lake Wobegon (For those of you familiar with Prairie Home Companion I really do live close to the real Sidetrack Tap and ChatterBox Café!)

At NPE I learned something that was alluded all weekend to but never spoken to directly (that I know of). I’ve been involved in several education movements during my 40+ years as an educator, and they all have foundered. Although all of the movements claimed to be “grassroots” they were for the most part movements of teachers and teacher educators. This time it appears to be different as parents, students and even some school administrators are genuinely involved (as can be seen by the number of students opting out of the tests this spring). It is the involvement of parents and students that makes the success of this movement possible. So therein lies the key question; how do we get more parents involved to keep this movement growing?

As educators we have a tendency to talk about ideas, and what data may show. We want to share what we know about education as a tool for making change. Indeed, that is the kind of information I see in most of the blogs I read. This is certainly important information and we need our bloggers to keep this information flowing to the public. But our differences about schools aren’t really about data and knowledge; they are about beliefs.

Many folks have come to believe the myth that schools are failing, but this is never really based on data. The discourse is irrational because it is based on belief not on logic or information. Unfortunately data are of no consequence in an irrational argument (I think I stole that line from someone but I’ve been using it for so long I can’t remember who!). There is even some research that indicates that the more we confront belief with data, the more ingrained that belief becomes. It’s counterintuitive, but fighting belief with data may have the reverse outcome of what we expect! (Keohane, 2010).

As such we have to seek ways to promote a movement against testing and corporatization in ways that address beliefs and feelings or else our message will fall on deaf ears. I’m certainly not implying that we resort to the kind of scare tactics favored by some on the far right (“Our nation is at risk! The Common Core will make your kids gay!”). But I am suggesting our pitch must start with the personal to move belief. The parents involved in this movement have shown us the way. They believe (as we do) that current test-driven practices are bad for their children. Thus, our efforts to stop the testing and reform juggernaut must start with something as simple as “ The out of control focus on testing in our schools is bad for your kids and bad for our country.” Parents understand this message about their children, which can them be followed by story showing how it is bad, and then by the data.

I’m an academic by profession, and to be honest engaging the irrational first is uncomfortable to me, as it feels somehow unethical to work in this way. But truth be told, this is the way most of the world works. As much as I would like to imagine that everyone thinks and processes information like I do, in fact they don’t (and we should all probably be thankful for that!) Engaging parents where they are, just was we would with any other learner, may give us the best chance for strengthening our movement, and derailing this runaway train.


Keohane, J. (2010) How facts backfire. Boston,com . Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/?page=4

I can be reached at sehornstein@yahoo.com


Is your head spinning like mine?

January 10, 2010

A few days ago I attended my monthly meeting of the same Governmental Relations group I referenced in my previous post. Again, much of our time was spent on finance and funding of  public Higher Education in my state. I think I understood what our funding might look like in the next several years, but it took us nearly an hour to get there. The variables included how much money the state will allocate to Higher Education given our budget crisis, the amount of federal stimulus money we will receive for Higher Ed, how much our state funding can be cut without losing the federal stimulus funding, how much tuition will need to go up to cover lost allocations, how the state might divide it’s allocation between the two University Systems it supports, and whether the state can apply to be able to cut allocations further and still maintain stimulus funds.

If your head is spinning trying to make sense of all of this don’t fret. Mine was (and is) too, and I was there. The bottom line is at the end of the day this will affect folks jobs at universities, the availability of classes for students and the amount of tuition students have to pay. Most of the students going to college, and their families have no notion of all of this.. they simply want available classes and affordable, if not lower tuitions. There are other issues at the state level as well such as how much budgets for items like human services and schools will also need to be cut etc. Many different constituencies will want to have a hand in how all of this plays out. It’s probably impossible for most folks to understand the complexity of all. I can’t and I’ve had the benefit of several hours of folks trying to explain it to me.

The real issue here, it seems to me, is that we are not able to have a real national discussion on what it is that we value, and what we are willing to pay for those things. Instead of a rational discourse about what we want for our citizens we have the over heated rhetoric of socialism from the right, and “sell out” from the left. Amazingly all of this nonsense seems to be devoid of any historical understanding. I was surprised to find out this week that the maximum tax rate in the 1950 was 87% of taxable income. In the 1980’s under Reagan it came down to 50%, and the Bush tax cuts will pull it down to 33% of taxable income(the source of this information is http://treasury.gov/education/fact-sheets/taxes/ustax.shtml) Be careful when you read that information though…the bias of the site is that tax cuts lead to economic growth, and that perspective is at least debatable. We had much higher taxes well into the 80’s and we did have huge periods of economic growth during those times.

So how the heck do we get out of this mess? Frankly, I’m tired of stupid rhetoric..our governor here (and a potential presidential candidate too) says stupid things like “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” as if the two are unrelated. He then goes on to solve the “spending” problem by cutting funding to local governments, schools, social services and Higher Education. Unfortunately, there are folks that believe that our foolish spendthrift behaviors in spending money on such trivial matters as social services, government services, health care for the poor, education really are the causes of our financial difficulties.

From what I can see, none of our politicians are brave enough to try and get at these most basic discussions of who we are. President Obama gets it from both sides for trying to walk a rational middle line and actually get something done. Frankly, I’m just plain tired of this foolishness and lack of vision. I just want to yell at the whole damn crew “Will ya shut up and listen to each other!” I used to be able to achieve something like that (with out the yelling) when I was an elementary teacher with my own classroom. But who can do that for the nation when a majority of the population is acting like a bunch of errant 3rd graders egged on by sniggering bullies like Rush and Glenn?

As for me, I’m going to take some Prozac and hide for a while..perhaps that will solve the problem.

Have a happy “whatever you celebrate this time of year.” And if you don’t celebrate anything go have some fun anyway. We’ll find a way through this one too. See you next week.


Are we getting overloaded with information?

January 10, 2010

I’m wondering if the world has gotten too complex for most of us to understand. Perhaps the speed, intensity and sheer volume of the information coming at us now is so great that it is beyond our ability to create a narrative and make sense out of it.

It seems to me our level of discourse is suffering because of it. We use oversimplified terms for complex ideas; like using the word Socialism to describe the process of providing more government services to folks who don’t currently have them. It’s a complex issue with social, political and economic ramifications, and it cuts to the bone of who and what we want to be as nation. But calling it socialism, and thus implying it is inherently evil doesn’t help us to understand the complexity and nuance of what we are considering.

A recent piece on NPR noted that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was fairly easy for regular folks to understand what was happening in science. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120751039 )Now, the sheer volume and complexity of the information makes it impossible for most of us to understand. For example, I have a vague notion of what happens inside my computer, but really have no in depth or working knowledge of it. I bet most computer users are in the same boat.

This musing was prompted by a meeting I attended several weeks ago. The presenters were trying to show us what the potentials were for growth in some of our state retirement funds. I came away from the meeting wondering if there were simply too many variables to control, and that the nature of the financial instruments and the vagaries of “the market” were such that any sort of accuracy was beyond our reach.

Has the same thing happened in education, health care, finance and other venues – is there now simply too much information and complexity for the average person to make any sense of?

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January 3, 2010

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