Saturday, November 27, 2010

Steiner Declares Dewey Dead

Yes, I attacked David Steiner the day he was appointed by Merryl Tisch. I was criticized for not giving the guy a chance. My response was that I did not need to know a thing about him. I knew who chose him and that was enough. We live in the DiMedici era where patrons determine everything and scholars owe allegiance to their patrons, not to the truth or a moral vision.

Excerpt from Gary Anderson at HufPo
Steiner's vision for school reform draws on a corporate model. I recently spoke on a panel on Long Island in which Dr. Steiner was the respondent. I lamented that it had become impolitic to mention John Dewey's name in public, so under attack were educators and Dewey's notions of democratic and experiential education. I expected and received the standard response that giving urban kids any thing other than a skills-oriented, high stakes accountability-driven education was to undermine their future. What I wasn't prepared for was his assertion that Dewey, late in life, recanted all of his life's work. With the wave of his hand, he dismissed the most important educational philosopher of the 20th century. This kind of thinking, even by credible academics, is responsible for hollowing out our public schools of creativity, critical thinking, and grounding in the richness of students' experiences and local communities.

Some of this notion that inner-city kids need a more "skills-based" approach was attributed to Lisa Delpit's critique in, Other People's Children, of largely white, progressive teachers who failed to understand the scaffolding of skills needed before providing poor children with progressive teaching methods. This has often been translated into the "back to basics" notion promoted by conservatives like The Fordham Institutes' David Whitman. In his book, Sweating the Small Stuff, he argues that poor kids need paternalistic, boot camp schools that protect them from the pathologies of their surrounding communities. But Delpit was clear that this was not what she meant, when she wrote,

Students need technical skills to open doors, but they need to think critically and creatively to participate in meaningful and potentially liberating work inside those doors. Let there be no doubt: a "skilled" minority person who is not also capable of critical analysis becomes the trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions that orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly. (Delpit, 1995, p. 19)

This was another of Dewey's ideas that is apparently no longer valid: the notion that schools prepare students for citizenship and participation in a vital and equitable democracy. There is nothing wrong with cross-sector borrowing of ideas, but as long as educators continue to indiscriminately borrow leftover ideas from the corporate closet, they will fail to provide poor and working class students with the rich, motivating, and critical education they have a right to.

But Cathleen Black is not even part of this conversation. Under a chancellor with no particular loyalty to public schools, no understanding of education, and no public vetting, the largest public school system in the country and thousands of low-income students of color may be placed at even greater risk.


Check out Norms Notes for a variety of articles of interest: