Imagined Conversations: A Review of Why School?

In This Essay

Why School? : Reclaiming Education for All of Us by Mike Rose
Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol

I first learned about Why School? : Reclaiming Education for All of Us while listening to Marketplace on NPR back in August. I ordered it from Amazon.

I tore into it immediately. I have been thinking about it since then. I had been a bit afraid to review it too quickly.

Mike Rose covers a lot of topics in his slim 169 pages. But his essays are broad, each like an introduction to the topic rather than like tightly argued persuasion piece. And therein lies the value of these essays.

Let’s Think Together

I think that many of the great teachers lead us to knowledge, not so that we can necessarily share their opinions, but rather so that we can develop our own.

This is clearly Mr. Rose’s philosophy, one he shares also with Jonathan Kozol. In Letters to a Young Teacher, Mr. Kozol writes that the best sessions he had involved arguing with students who disagreed with him, “I revel in their oppositional mentalities. I know for sure that they’re not bored, or acquiescent, and that they are actually thinking.”

You can tell from the essays in Why School? that Mike Rose also revels in opposition. He believes in democracy and in the advancement of knowledge through conversation and compromise. He tries to find value in the project and ideals underpinning No Child Left Behind, for example, even though he disagrees with the execution.

The essays in Why School? are conversation starters, jumping off points. Mr. Rose has presented us with a number of questions and he gives us the freedom to think our way to our own answers.

So, for the rest of this essay, I will pick up a two of those conversational threads — the two that I think about the most when I think about my future as a teacher — and add my thoughts.

A Conversation on the Value of No Child Left Behind

In his essay, “No Child Left Behind and the Spirit of Democratic Education”, he points to an aspect of No Child Left Behind that is often overlooked.

A further bold move is that the states have to report at the school level test results along a number of student criteria, including race/ethnicity, income level, English language proficiency, and disability. Continual improvement by these targeted subgroups must occur, or schools will be put on notice and, eventually, sanctioned. …

One undeniable value of [No Child Left Behind] is that it casts a bright light on those underserved populations of students who get lost in averaged measures of performance.
–Mike Rose in Why School?, page 44.

Whether you agree with its implementation or not, used properly No Child Left Behind could provide us with great, raw data, a great assessments of the states of different schools and a record of the attempts of the districts to improve education for their students. My fear is that the data will be used — just as the book The Bell Curve was used — to support future racist arguments.

Though I have not read The Bell Curve, I am familiar with its controversy. The book posited that IQ is a predictor of future financial success, criminal activity, unwed pregnancy, and other behavior. The book pointed out that there are lingering racial differences in IQ and, according to Wikipedia, the authors write, “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.”

That last sentence is dangerous, as it can lead to scientific racism.

At least they note that environment is one factor that has an impact on learning. I fear people generalizing from the data collected by the tests, especially if they compare the students of different class years as opposed to measuring the progress of each student against the student him- or herself. The former assumes a homogeneous nature of students in classes from one year to the next that is not realistic.

A Conversation on Standards and Learning

In his essay “Standards, Teaching, Learning” talks about the meaninglessness of standards that apply to a district but may not be agreed upon outside of that district. He tells the story of Vince, “who received a PhD from a prestigious psychology department,” (page 99) who went through a standards-based English language curriculum that was designed to help students score well on the SAT. His classes were called “college-preparatory” but when he took the English placement exam at his college, he was placed in remedial English.

How do we agree upon national standards? This is a huge task and one I cannot even fathom how to begin. If we create a tiered system — a graded system, if you prefer — we run the risk of sorting people and rather than assessing where they are at a particular point and designing systems that help them advance, we may fall victim to stating that is their level of achievement.

Something I have found strange is that Americans hold up this ideal of social mobility, of the infinite potential of humans to achieve given the opportunity and yet we are obsessed with grading, sorting, and ranking and using those grades or ranks as obstacles to future achievement. What is the source of this mentality? When I was first reading Vince’s story, I remember thinking, briefly, “A student in remedial English, remedial anything, is doomed.” Why should that be so?

I am not against standards. They are useful heuristics for measuring things. But they have their limitations and their dangers, as Mike Rose points out:

As people on many sides of current educational debates are saying… standardized measures can limit the development of competence by driving curricula toward the narrow demands of test preparation instead of allowing teachers to immerse students in complex problem solving and rich use of language.
–Mike Rose in Why School?, page 103.

Vince’s college-preparatory English consisted predominantly in doing grammar exercises, with a little reading and writing of book reports (page 99). What value is that in a vacuum? Would doing grammar exercises in contextual vacuum in a Spanish class teach you to speak Spanish? Would writing a book report or a book review of a work of literature help you develop critical thinking skills? Perhaps if you were asked to cite sources and read literary criticism as part of the book report; perhaps if you were asked to read two similar books and compare and contrast them.

“Instead of these static measures of attainment,” writes Mr. Rose, “our focus should shift to the dynamics of development.” I think of the colored belts of martial arts or the models of apprenticeship I have from art history: a boy — and in the days of the Italian Renaissance, they were almost exclusively boys — would begin learning to how make paint and brushes and then advance through tasks of painting sections of a larger work until he attained mastery and could design his own works.

His rank referred what he had learned and how capable he was of executing a work of art on his own. While, perhaps, some unfortunate individuals were stuck as journeymen forever and were never given the title of “Master”, their idea was more fluid than ours seem to be.


This is a book I will revisit many times. Since first reading the book, I have had a lot to think about. I am reading through it a second time, taking notes on the essays, but also jotting down my own reactions to passages.

Mike Rose writes in a very optimistic tone. This is refreshing: there is a lot of frustration and defeat, and a lot of cynicism in writings about education and education policy. He also tries to see the best in the opposition. Although I wonder if he is being overly rosy, there is something uplifting in his refusal to be jaded.

Anyone who is considering becoming an educator, read this book as an entry into current debates raging in education. Anyone in education and burned out on the arguments and screaming, read this book to be reminded that even No Child Left Behind, though flawed, was underpinned with ideals. Anyone in public policy, read this book to see what is going on in schools and to remember to think broadly about public education’s role in citizenship and the public good.

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