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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/15/2010

Are we still capable of educating for 'us-ness?'

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.

By Marion Brady
Ronald Reagan delivered some one-liner doozies, one of which is still a favorite of several members of Congress and talking heads on cable news:

"The most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ "

It’s an interesting perspective, particularly when placed alongside another quote, one from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Those who had died on that battlefield, Lincoln said, contributed to a great cause-preserving "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

A rational alien would assume, wrongly, that these two views of government came from two very different countries.

For a democracy to function, its citizens need to feel some sense of "us-ness," togetherness, community. They need to be willing, especially when the chips are down, to put the common good ahead of excessive individual interest. A difficult, ever-changing balance has to be maintained between individual rights and collective responsibility. Too much of either invites disaster.

Listening to one of my several Libertarian neighbors a few days ago, and reading how many new billionaires and new food stamp recipients 2010 has produced, has me wondering if we have enough left of a shared concern for "the general welfare" to hang on to government of, by, and for the people.

Evidence seems to be piling up that, more so than in many other societies, we’re long on looking out for Number One and short on caring about others; long on privacy fences and gated communities, and short on concern for those beyond and outside them; long on individual liberty, and short on a sense of social responsibility and interest in community building.

In short, we’re short on what it takes to maintain a democracy.

I’m wondering why.

Is it in our genes? If you think about it, that doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable. Most of those who chose to come to America during its early years must have differed a little from those they left behind. Unlike their brothers and sisters, they were willing to trade familiarity, family, and friends for an unknown future. That suggests differences having implications for community building and democracy. It’s conceivable that many of us haven’t fallen very far from our ancestral tree.

Or was it geography? Our immigrant ancestors found a vast, sparsely populated frontier. The idea of "living beyond the sound of another man’s axe" obviously had appeal, an attitude not conducive to community building and democracy.

Or timing? Many of our ancestors came to America during the Industrial Revolution, a revolution made possible by easily accessed water power, timber, oil, coal, and other resources, and two oceans to protect us while we developed them. During that era, high-profile, self-made men, rags-to-riches stories, and the popularity of the theory of survival of the fittest, reinforced the idea that it was every man for himself.

Or was it what some historians and sociologists call the "Protestant Work Ethic"--an assumption that hard work, salvation, wealth and success, were all parts of a package deal especially assembled by God for Americans? That particular interpretation of ancient scripture downplayed the story of the Good Samaritan and the need for caring for "the least" among us, so those who bought (and continue to buy) the "Ethic" aren’t saddled with any serious community-building obligations.

Or maybe it’s our economic system, the functioning of which depends heavily on our willingness to accept its demands, load up the van, and move somewhere else to work, retire, or just start over.

Maintaining a viable democracy requires an educated citizenry willing, able, even eager, to talk about matters like these, matters having to do with who we are as a people, why we do the things we do, and where we’re headed. Those conversations require at least some understanding of the past, national character, economics, politics, government, science, religion, and so on-intellectual tools that allow us to trace the trends of our era, the curves of history, the causes and consequences of change.

Those were the kinds of conversations thoughtful educators used to try to encourage, the kinds of intellectual tools they once tried to help the young develop.

Now, not so much.

If you want to mark a date on the calendar when that happened, a good one would be September 27-28, 1989. That’s when state governors met in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a big "Education Summit" (no educators invited), and lent their considerable influence to the process of transferring control of education from local school boards and the communities they served to corporations, pausing in Congress just long enough to translate simplistic educational theory and a narrow concern for American industry into the law of the land.

That transfer of control may (or may not) have been a good-faith effort to deal with problems the locals were being slow to address. But if down the road there are still people able to write history, the transfer will be remembered as a major factor in the transition of America from a democracy to a plutocracy, and the nation’s consequent decline as a force for good as the military-industrial complex unapologetically clinched its control.

Democracy that doesn’t start with education and a sense of community, doesn’t start. Period. With Congress as America’s school board, and members of the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cutting the checks that help elect and keep the members of that board in office, democracy is dead.

Full disclosure: I have a dog in the education reform fight. Back in the 1960s I wrote a journal article about a way to address a problem every kid in America has with school: information overload. Over the years, student seat-time hours have increased, textbooks have gotten much fatter, drills and tests have multiplied, and homework has become more onerous.

As a consequence, the amount of abstract, disconnected information dumped on kids has increased far beyond even the best student’s ability to cope. Many billions of dollars and hours are invested in stuffing kids’ heads with information, and as soon as exams are over they flush almost all of it.

My article dealt with the educational potential of General Systems Theory as it had developed during World War II. It could, I argued, make it possible for kids to organize, connect, and make useful sense of what seemed to them to be thousands of odds and ends of random, disconnected information.

The article caught the interest of a couple of big wheels at a major publisher. To make a very long story very short, three or four books and many years later I put together a little course of study designed to help adolescents see that what seemed to them to be separate, isolated school subjects were really several working parts of a logically integrated, mutually supportive, extremely useful knowledge-organizing system.

I mentioned the (free) course of study in a couple of journal articles, and some middle and high school principals around the country contacted me about piloting it. Then along came the assault on America’s teachers, the No Child Left Behind legislation, and an organized corporate campaign to mandate the use of market forces on a social institution for which their destructive potential far exceeded their usefulness.

I was left with letters and phone calls of apology from principals saying they were sorry, but they couldn’t pilot my program. If they hoped to keep their jobs, they had to concentrate on proving that their teachers had standards and were accountable.

Am I appalled by the anti-democratic centralization of educational decision making, the radical narrowing of the curriculum, the scapegoating of teachers, the misapplication of market forces, the casual destruction of already-weak communities in the name of school "turnarounds"? You betcha!

But adding greatly to my frustration is the willingness of people who see themselves as "enlightened progressives" (including many educators), to buy into the radically regressive education reform program being promoted by corporate interests with massive help from Washington.

I resent being written off as an obsolete educator-nostalgic, unwilling to let go of the past, unable to appreciate the wisdom and policies of Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, and other education-reform heroes of naïve, educationally challenged mainstream media.

Yes, you’ve heard this from me before. But the failure of those now setting policy to respond to my arguments says they’re not listening, or not understanding, or are so sure they know what they’re doing they don’t need to pay attention to someone who was wrestling with issues about which they consider themselves expert before many of them were born.

So I’ll keep it short, simple, unambiguous:
(1) We educate in order to survive.
(2) We assign most of the responsibility for educating to public schools.
(3) The public-school curriculum drives instruction.
(4) That curriculum is seriously flawed. (It’s necessary but not sufficient.)
(5) Its flaws have been powerfully reinforced by the standards and accountability fad.
(6) The new Common Core Standards that the feds are pressuring the states to adopt will lock the flawed curriculum in rigid, permanent place.
(7) A standardized, permanent curriculum is closed to innovation.
(8) A curriculum closed to innovation can’t adapt to change.
(9) Failure to adapt to change elevates stupidity.
(10) Stupidity guarantees our demise. Period.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 15, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Civics Education, Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, National Standards  | Tags:  common standards, gettysburg address, joel klein, marion brady, michelle rhee, ronald reagan, school reform  
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Dear Valerie,

You speak to the passion in my heart - the belief that our democracy depends so implicitly on how we educate our children. As a teacher I feel compelled to teach my children the very connections you write about here - and how they are important to their lives. And then comes the testing. Trying to talk to the reformists has been impossible - most of them have not had valuable time in the classroom and it is from their paltry time in the classroom that they are making important decisions. Unfortunately these decisions result in things like IMPACT and, this year, TAS. It is hard to believe that this is what the oligarchs of our society want - an uneducated population - but this is what their reform is doing. Book smart, brain dead.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | October 15, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Marion Brady's knowledge and opinion should be respected, and his frustration needs to be understood.

There are many people like Mr. Brady who collectively have the insight required to chart the course of effective school reform. Instead we have "leaders" who pander to angry and uninformed public concerns, and instead of bringing reason and science to the public narrative, they chose to reflect the anger of their constituents.

What we need are leaders who can assemble the 'best and brightest' educators, but instead their careful generalizations have contributed to a debate rife with anti-intelectual, tea-party style rhetorical sound bites.

The new breed of pop-education reform leaders have fashoned their distain for veteran career educators and established institutions to be a primary issue in their pitch to the public, and have been developing "alternative science" in privately funded research that is inherently political and resistant to peer review.

The current discussion surrounding education reform is being framed by very powerful private interests who have a financial stake in promoting an agenda which places children's interests behind those of their shareholders.

There is a very ominous tone to much of the junk science that is being created in support of favored policy instead of being a basis for forming policy. The political and public image of this foundation brewed research seems to be more important than its actually scientific value. And the intended audience is not other educators, but those misinformed and under-informed voters who will support the political leaders most likely to advance their cause.

Posted by: AGAAIA | October 15, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I am relieved to see that someone else besides myself has noticed that the current "reform" movement does not allow anyone to question or think critically about their particular methods of reform, and that the lack of dissenting voices, not the reforms themselves, is what is really bad for our education system, especially our students and teachers.

I find this to be so dangerous for our thinking as educators. Basic principals of respect, reflection and tolerance are not accepted as normal and are instead dismissed as "status quo" or are somehow ,(absurdly, I think) linked to union membership. But worse, anytime a "reform plan" is challenged with evidence, it is brushed aside and the challenger is accused of not wanting to educate.

Wildly absurd statements are made and they are not being challenged by our leaders. The latest manifesto suggests that teachers don't need credentials to teach and that experience is bad. This is completely false. Even President Bush's NCLB insisted that teachers be highly qualified. Why is no one speaking up for the truth anymore?

Posted by: celestun100 | October 15, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

celestun100 wrote: the lack of dissenting voices, not the reforms themselves, is what is really bad for our education system,

And it we teachers treated our students that way, we'd be evaluated harshly. We are told to encourage our students to be risk takers and to speak out yet if we do the same thing ourselves, we are branded troublemakers.

Posted by: musiclady | October 15, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Are we still capable of educating for 'us-ness?'

Marion Brady's knowledge and opinion should be respected, and his frustration needs to be understood.

There are many people like Mr. Brady who collectively have the insight required to chart the course of effective school reform. Today, our "leaders" have chosen to pander to angry and uninformed public concerns instead of bringing reason and science to the public narrative.

Public education desperately needs leaders who can assemble the 'best and brightest' educators and scholars, and then become the instrument necessary to true public understanding. Unfortunately, most elected executives and legislators, through their carefully crafted rhetoric, have contributed to an ugly debate rife with anti-intellectual, tea-party style demagoguery.

The current discussion surrounding education reform is being framed by very powerful private interests who have a financial stake in promoting an agenda that places our children's interests behind those of their shareholders.

The new breed of pop-education reform leaders have fashioned their distain for veteran career educators and established institutions into a populist crusade; as they describe their critics as old-school adherents to a failed system. Without support from most traditional educational institutions, they have been sponsoring "alternative science" through privately funded research that is inherently political and resistant to peer review.

There is a very ominous tone to much of the junk science that is being created in support of a corporate favored policy instead of being a basis for forming good public policy. The politically motivated image of this foundation-brewed research seems to be more important than its actual scientific value. Clearly, the intended audience is not other educators, but those misinformed and under-informed voters who will support the political leaders most likely to advance their cause.

Posted by: AGAAIA | October 15, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Marion Brady tells it like it is. Keep up the great work and Valerie, put him on any time.
Thanks to both.
If we could just get more of the mainstream media to put this on front pages for the next few years, we might get useful change.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | October 15, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Brady wrote: "unable to appreciate the wisdom and policies of Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan,..."

The persons mentioned and many others like them have no wisdom as they don't have empathy. They dictate policies with empty hearts, without concern for how it will affect children emotionally and developmentally.

Michelle Rhee especially strikes me as a sociopath; a person who feels no remorse or guilt, ever. She actually admitted that she doesn't in a recent interview! People like her function well in business, but need to stay out of education.

The superintendent who came to our city in 2006 was much like Rhee. She radically overhauled the district, implementing Reading First in ALL elementary schools, not just the Title 1 schools. She put the schools on a lock-step schedule and eliminated playtime from kindergarten. She left after three years with a hefty bonus for inching up the test scores, but the harmful programming stayed in place, and was embraced by her assistant who became our superintendent next.

Just as Michelle Rhee, both these women are void of feelings, like Dr. Spock on Startrek, but at least he made decisions based on logic! I sometimes fleetingly wonder if these people without feelings perhaps are not real people at all!

Join Uniting 4 Kids (

Posted by: gpadvocate | October 16, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree that education is for life, not for scoring points on a quiz show, and that teaching critical thinking is a must. Cultivation of socialization and citizenship are essential as well. Yet we learn not only from schools, churches, etc., but from the dominant messages of the culture with which we identify, and in the realm of values, I believe the latter is ultimately most influential. Trouble comes when humans identify too narrowly with their "tribe", of which ugly examples can be found around the globe. Hutus and Tutsis, Shiites and Sunnis, and slightly-differing segments of Christianity have all viciously slaughtered each other at various times in history. That's the worst case. Less lurid cases of extreme projected otherness have more subtle nevertheless seriously unfortunate consequences.

Lincoln also said "A house divided against itself cannot stand." In his tutorial for tyrants, Machiavelli said "Divide and rule". Freedom requires not mindless conformity but a broad and fundamental sense of "We the people" even when in disagreement. We should firmly reject modern Machiavellis that preach division and devalue our essential "us-ness".

Posted by: JLGraham | October 17, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Above I said that we need to embrace our “us-ness” yet reject Machiavellis who aim to polarize and divide us. I should have said “reject the teaching of Machiavelli-like individuals”. Nevertheless, there are some who speak their mind earnestly, and those who manufacture arguments in order to manipulate. We can afford honest disagreement; in fact everyone’s views can improve with challenging discussion. Whatever cause it seems to serve, just say "no" to speech that is willfully dishonest or that demonizes dissent. I believe that this is, while not exclusively, a founding American value.

Posted by: JLGraham | October 17, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Another great article!

Posted by: jlp19 | October 17, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Reagan's remark about it being scary for some government representative to offer to help, shows a lot more about his own twisted mind-set than it does about the proper role of government. Our current constitutional system of government was supposedly put in place to help US, The People. And for the past 230 or so years, there has been a valiant struggle to increase the scope of exactly who was to be included in that People. As a result, you now don't have to be wealthy or a member of a particular religious denomination to vote or hold office. People with origins in Africa or Asia, and women, are now explicitly included in the rolls of The People. And there are laws specifically set up so that representatives of the government are on hand precisely to protect the weakest and most defenseless among us.

I've been unemployed before, and it was pretty wonderful to have some governmental assistance in the form of unemployment compensation and food stamps until I could get a job and start earning money. When I was employed full-time, it was great that there were laws that protected our right to belong to a labor union and to prevent our employers from doing things to us. It's a very positive thing to note that there are governmental agencies that are supposed to look out for the welfare of miners and other workers, and to try to preserve the public health and the ecosystem. It's wonderful that there are limits on when folks can be evicted from their apartments, condos, or houses if they fall behind on the rent or mortgage payments. I myself have had to go to government-run and -subsidized hospitals when I didn't have any money to pay, and though the care wasn't like the Mayo Clinic, it was a whole lot better than dying!

You could certainly argue that those agencies don't do as a good a job at protecting us from the interests of big business and unscrupulous financiers and politicians as they could be. Certainly there are lots of instances where those agencies get corrupted by, say, mine owners or oil companies or landlords to NOT do the things that they are supposed to do. And sure, there are folks who will figure out a way of scamming the protective system. (In fact, there are lots and lots of thieves who are quietly embezzling funds from almost every company, government, or other institution you can think of. Whose fault is that?)

No, our system is far from perfect, and of course there will be abuses. But if Ronald Reagan and the Tea Partiers had their way, the government would NEVER step in to defend us, nor even to run public schools nor medicare. The result would be an absolutely horrific anarchy, and would only benefit the ultra-rich who can pay for their own personal guards, doctors, security walls, and so on.

Let's not go there.

Instead, let's start taking Ronald Reagan's name off of perfectly good airports, government buildings and so on!

Posted by: TexasIke59 | October 17, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

This is what No Child Left Behind looks like. No one wants to teach in inner city Baltimore public schools. There is violence, and poverty, and drug abuse and family problems. Unqualified teachers are hired. There are not enough of them. Qualified but naive teachers from out of state move their families to Baltimore to take teaching jobs there--without fully understanding what it means to teach at a failing school. After one year, the failing school gets shut down--according to No Child Left Behind mandates. Most of the teachers are fired (including the ones who moved to Maryland just for the job and had nothing to do with the failing school status). The school is reorganized. Now even fewer teachers are willing to teach there. The school becomes even worse than before. This happens over and over again. Teachers pay is frozen year after year and the teachers who got into the profession knowing that at least after many years they'd earn enough to support their families find out that there's a "brilliant" new plan to require them to jump through some ridiculous hoops, written by non-educators, in order to qualify for a measley 1 or 2% raise and the teacher pay scale they were counting on where experience is reward, is scrapped. And we wonder why there are so many high school dropouts, murders, and other crimes in Baltimore. It's a race to the bottom and is only getting worse.

Posted by: sam38 | October 18, 2010 6:39 AM | Report abuse

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