Mike Rose is a thinker, writer, and scholar whose works I greatly admire. He has the capacity to identify with the lives of those he writes about and to understand their point of view. He tends to align himself with those who live on the margins, not the rich and powerful who enjoy the exercise of power over others, the others who who did not choose to be the subjects of the powerful.

I was therefore deeply gratified to read his thoughtful review of SLAYING GOLIATH. He recognized that the underlying them was about power and control. Who makes decisions? By what right do they impose their will on others?and, how can those without power stand up for themselves and prevail? Whose narrative will dominate decision-making?

He writes:

The story told in Slaying Goliath is primarily a story of the clash between the long-dominant Goliath and the emergent and energized David, a story of power and politics, of grass-roots activism, of organizing and mobilizing— and a story of recapturing a narrative. I am also taken by a parallel story that runs through the book, one that is certainly present in Ravitch’s telling, but that, given my current fixation, I’d like to highlight. It is a story about knowledge and power—knowledge about schools and children and the art and science of teaching.

As I wrote earlier, there are multiple actors and multiple motives involved in the so-called school reforms of the last few decades, but one dominant characteristic a number of them share is a reliance on ideas and language drawn from business schools, economics, and the high-tech sector: the use of standardized tests to measure learning; the application of those tests to assess teacher effectiveness through “value-added” methodology; the creation of curriculum standards with the intention of systematizing instruction as well as the development of scripts and routinized behavioral techniques to direct and improve teaching; computer-based instruction to “personalize” learning. This technocratic orientation also encourages a certain kind of systems-level thinking: what are the mechanisms, the “levers” that will yield broad systemic change? The structural or technological magic bullet.
There is value in asking the kinds of questions the critics ask— How do we know students are learning? Can we improve teacher quality? —and certainly value in taking a broad, systems-level perspective on schooling. The problem is that the solutions the technocratic orientation yield tend toward the mechanistic and simplified. As I argued in Why School?, the faith in technology can lead to a belief that complex human problems can be framed as engineering problems, their social and political messiness factored away. Hand-in-glove is an epistemological insularity, a lack of knowledge about social and cultural conditions—or worse, a willful discounting of those conditions as irrelevant. It is telling how rarely one hears any references to history or culture in the technologists’ discourse. Also minimized is the value of on-the-ground, craft knowledge; experience in classrooms is not as valuable as abstract knowledge of organizational dynamics and technological principles and processes. A professor of management tells a class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management —as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school…

After decades of Goliath’s public relations success in stomping all over the public schools and those who work them (remember that Forbes tagline “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all”), David and his slingshot crew were able to change the story, reach the public with what they knew, with a different way of seeing the everyday life in our schools: Kids without nurses or librarians; overcrowded classrooms; testing gone off the rails; teachers living paycheck to paycheck, if they could make it that far; parents giving first-person testimony about what their neighborhood school means to them. Ravitch is correct in characterizing this shift in perception as remarkable. The story she tells is a compelling political drama, and an account of the formation of social policy, and a master class for activists. It is also an epic tale about knowledge, whose knowledge counts, and what can happen when a kind of knowledge that has long been distorted and discounted gains authority and power. That is quite a story to tell.