Archives for category: Real Education

A regular reader who uses the name “Retired Teacher” posted this wise comment. I couldn’t agree more.


So-called choice is mostly a marketing scheme designed to make parents believe they are getting a better school for their children. Research has shown that choice generally does not improve education, and in many cases the quality of education is worse. Choice is a way for corporations to gain access to public dollars at the expense of public schools. It makes the wants of a few take priority over the needs of many. It is impossible to fund parallel systems and a public system for the same dollar. More underfunded schools are not a way to improve education.

The privatization of education has failed. It is time to consolidate resources and invest in quality education with supports and services designed to address the needs of poor students. A well resourced public school can offer wrap around services including medical, dental, mental health and social services that provide resources and guidance for struggling poor students and their families. With greater efficiency built in, community schools can do a much more effective addressing the needs of students that live in poverty. It is only when primary needs are met can we begin to address students’ academic needs.

Public schools bring people together. Our society is more fragmented than ever, and privatization further erodes the bonds of community. Well funded public schools that professionally serve all students help to build unity and connection within the school community and the community at large. We need to learn to appreciate each other and work together for the betterment of all our people. We do not need “islands of opportunity” for a few. We need investment in all our young people.

David Gamberg recently retired as superintendent of schools in two adjoining towns on New York’s Long Island—Southold and Greenport—where he was beloved for his child-centered approach to schooling. In this article, he calls for new thinking and the courage to break free of the obsession with standardized testing and punitive accountability. He announced his retirement in January, not knowing what was about to happen to schools across the nation and the world.

He understands that the status quo of high-stakes testing and demoralizing punishment has failed.

He writes:

I argue that the emphasis must be on capturing the hearts and minds of our students, and not primarily seeking to make up for lost ground academically as noted by education author Alfie Kohn. We must abandon any pretense that the metrics used in recent years to judge, sort, and separate students, teachers and schools through a ranking system based on data that focused on math and ELA standardized testing will serve them well in the near future.

Therefore, the first step is an immediate cessation of the current accountability system, based primarily on the use of high stakes, standardized testing in grades 3-8 that has preoccupied students, teachers, administrators, Boards of Education, families, and school communities since the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002.

Will our educational leaders have the courage and wisdom to change their focus to students, not their test scores? To humans, not rankings?

Dr. Michael Hynes is the Superintendent of the Port Washington School District in New York and a friend of Sir Ken Robinson.

The Legacy and Impact of Sir Ken Robinson

The world lost an inspiring and incredible human-being on August 21, 2020. Sir Ken Robinson, the gifted author and educator, and one of the world’s leading thinkers made an incredible impact on everyone he met. You may know him from his famous TED Talk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity”. It happened to be the most viewed TED Talk of all-time. To think people cared to watch an 18-minute discussion about school and creativity more than 66 million times shows us what an amazing orator he was. More important, it highlights his ability to connect with people who cared about what he had to say.

Most people know him from his multiple TED Talks. Not many knew that he led an incredibly multifaceted career before he hit TED stardom. Sir Ken was Director of the Arts in Schools Project, an initiative to develop arts education throughout England and Wales. He also chaired Artswork, the UK’s national youth arts development agency. Sir Ken was also professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to the arts. I’m just scratching the surface of his esteemed career but this gentleman was also Senior Advisor for Education & Creativity at the Getty Museum. His contributions to the field of education and the world are vast.

I could go on and on about his legacy and his ideas concerning creativity. He deeply cared about the education system our children and teachers are “trapped” in because he felt it needed to be transformed. His quotes are legendary. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

2. “Creativity is as important as literacy”

3. “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

I was blessed and fortunate to work with Sir Ken a few years ago and stay connected ever since. This past April I had the pleasure and honor of spending time with him for his new podcast series related to teaching from home. Sir Ken is like that old friend you don’t see for a while; and then when you do meet up again, it’s like you saw them yesterday. He made you feel like your work and ideas mattered. Sir Ken had the uncanny ability to use his humor to draw people in and then use his superpower of connecting with you to seal the deal.

I saw that someone penned, “Sir Ken’s loss offers everyone in the field of education an opportunity to honor him by reflecting and acting on his wisdom.” As Pasi Shalberg, another icon in the field of education wrote me earlier today, “His words would have been heeded now more than ever. We must carry his message forward, Mike.” I couldn’t agree more. We all must carry his message forward every single day.

In one of his last TED Talks, Sir Ken discusses how life is your talents discovered. He concluded his talk by saying, “Nothing is more influential as a life well lived.” I can’t think of another human-being that I know of who has lived a life more well lived than my dear friend. The world lost a great man but his ideas will live on.

Favorite video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MSgCut1Ils when he speaks to the Dali Lama.

Evie Blad of Education Week writes that a Biden-Harris administration may forge a new path on education issues. They have pledged to increase funding, regulate charters, and back away from standardized testing. They also have pledged to support the right to collective bargaining. This heartens advocates of public education, but frightens the corporate reformers who have controlled education for 20 years.

Twenty years of failed education policy is enough!

Democrats for Education Reform and the Center for American Policy, both committed to high/stakes testing and charters, are worried.

As he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden pledged that, if elected, his education department would be a sharp departure from that of President Donald Trump.

Rather than promoting private school choice, as the Republican incumbent has, Biden pledged to dramatically increase federal aid to schools, including ambitious calls to triple the Title I funding targeted at students from low-income households and to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But, as Biden accepts his party’s nomination this week, there also are signs that his potential future administration wouldn’t return lock step to the education policies of President Barack Obama. And some of a Biden administration’s education policy goals could take a back seat to the pressing matter of helping schools navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which may alter their operations and threaten their budgets for years to come.

Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from that self-described supporter of education reform. Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.

By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration. Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.

How much Biden’s policy would depart from the last Democratic president’s is up for debate. But the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law Obama signed at the end of his last term, may offer levers to make some policy changes.

“Your job as a vice president is to toe the line of your boss,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, the dean of the college of education at the University of Kentucky and a board member of the Network for Public Education, a progressive advocacy group. If Biden chooses, “he can be his own person on education.”

Praise and Concern

That suggestion of a new direction has won praise from groups like national teachers’ unions, which called for the resignation of Obama’s long-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, when Duncan advanced a push for teacher evaluations and other reforms.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García called Biden and his running mate and one-time rival for the nomination, California Sen. Kamala Harris, a “dream team” that “respects educators and will listen to those who know the names of the kids in the classrooms.”

But Biden’s priorities, and the absence of discussions of school improvement during the Democratic primary, have also been met with concern from some education groups.

“If we only talk about the money side of the equation, that’s not enough by itself,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. “That’s where we need our president to be a leader and hold those institutions accountable.”

The organization, which supports charter schools and data-driven school accountability efforts, has praised Biden’s push for more resources, but it has sounded the alarm about other changes recommended in the party platform.

That platform language reflects some of Biden’s comments during the primaries. In recorded interviews with the NEA, for example, he said a lot of charter schools are “significantly underperforming” and that charter schools “cannot come at the expense of the public school.”

Neither Biden nor Harris included language on charters in their plans as candidates. But the platform language-created with input from a “unity task force” assembled by the campaigns of Biden and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders-calls for a ban on federal funding for “for-profit charter businesses.”

The language also calls for “conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students,” which has alarmed charter advocates who say the publicly funded, independently managed schools already face sufficient accountability.

Charter schools are largely governed through state and local policy. But a presidential administration can help shape public debate on the issue. And a Biden administration could scale back support for charter schools in its discretionary grant priorities and regulations or in its proposed budgets.

Time for fresh thinking! Time to build strong child-centered, community-based schools and throw off the obsession with standardized testing and privatization.

Catherine O’Neill Grace is a senior associate editor at the Wellesley College alumnae magazine, where this article was published. The article reminded me of why I loved college, lo those many years ago. My freshman poetry professor was Philip Booth, who was a poet. He was also very handsome, and I think that every young woman in his class had a crush on him. I know I did.

Ms. Grace writes:

Back in November, long before our world was overturned, I sent an email to Dan Chiasson, Lorraine C. Wang Professor of English at Wellesley. The subject line read: “I’m Nobody.”

I was writing to ask if I could audit ENG 357: The World of Emily Dickinson in the spring. I admit it felt a bit audacious to refer to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

But Chiasson replied, “Catherine, with that subject line, how can I say no??”

“I’m Nobody!” is the first poem I remember knowing. Perhaps it actually was the first; perhaps I learned it later, and it effaced other, simpler rhymes. It hardly matters. Because what I remember, what I still embrace as “first poem,” is this Emily Dickinson verse, written in Amherst, Mass., circa 1861, and listed as #288 in the Thomas H. Johnson edition of her poems, published initially in 1960.

So in January, I bought a fresh copy of Johnson’s 770-page The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and slipped diffidently into my first college-level English class since the 1970s. Room 338, on the third floor of Green Hall, was chilly that day. Every seat was filled, and we sat elbow-to-elbow and notebook-to-notebook as class began.

Reading my notes from those first weeks, I see that our class explored Dickinson family biography, read excerpts from essays about 19th-century material culture and attitudes to death, about the intellectual life of Amherst, Mass., and about the role of the Civil War in Dickinson’s work. We went online to interpret her handwriting and her use of punctuation—those dashes!—amid the riches of the Emily Dickinson Archive, an open-source website of the poet’s handwritten manuscripts. We speculated about the unsolved mystery of her withdrawal from the world into her bedroom on the second floor of the Dickinson homestead. We began to call her Emily, addressing her as one might a friend rather than with the traditional English-major trope of “the speaker,” or “the narrator.”

And in every single class, we worked as a group—auditors included—reading the poems aloud, dissecting their diction and dashes, their moments of violence, their verbal puzzles, their humor, and their reverence for nature. Together, we were discovering what Chiasson calls “one of the most thrilling and idiosyncratic minds in literature.”

This was heady stuff for me; I could feel long-closed doors in my mind and imagination creaking open. I loved being around the energy and commitment of the students, their willingness to risk their own interpretations of Emily’s work and life. I loved Chiasson’s quirky erudition, his references ranging from the metaphysical poets to pop culture and TV, sometimes in a single sentence.

There was a Tuesday in early March warm enough to allow us to hold class outside, declaiming Dickinson in the amphitheater behind Alumnae Hall. We were looking forward to an April field trip to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst; to a 5 a.m. silent meeting in May on the shores of Lake Waban to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus; to a final gathering at our professor’s house to watch episodes of the cult favorite streaming TV show Dickinson.

But everything changed. In mid-March, we left Wellesley’s campus, and as Emily wrote in #303, “then shut the door.”

Two weeks later, we reconvened. Chiasson fired up Zoom and set up a retro blog for posting poems and commenting on them. Everyone started a journal. ENG 357 was back, stripped down and reconstituted digitally. And we went straight back to the poems. From around the country, seated in bedrooms and on back porches, in kitchens and home libraries and one auditor’s piano studio, we re-entered the world of Emily Dickinson. There was palpable joy in being together again, even digitally.

“I’m sure it has occurred to you that our interiors—our bounded environments, however large or small, and wherever we find ourselves—are suddenly our entire worlds; our predicament or opportunity mirrors Dickinson’s,” Chiasson wrote to the class.

It felt to many of us that Dickinson was teaching us how to live richly within the boundaries of our new world. Reviewing my notes from our very first class, I read that after Emily’s retreat to her room, her letters and poems became her social life. Read “Zoom” for “letters” and that was true for the 22 of us in ENG 357, too.

“I can’t help but feel Dickinson’s language as visceral reminders of the now,” Paige Calvert ’20 wrote in the class blog. “Today feels like I’m putting ‘new Blossoms in /my/ Glass,’ taking out what has sat in my bed with me for two weeks and finding something new, something that wishes to be renewed, rejuvenated. Do others feel similar? This return to Wellesley, although digital, brings me a new sense of calm that I haven’t had in quite a while. The line that honestly made me tear up this morning was: ‘We cannot put Ourself away.’ Because somehow that’s exactly what I feel has happened to me. I feel like I have put away a part of myself for this time of transition, and only now have I woken up and decided to come back, come out, come ‘to Flesh’ once again. It’s really truly remarkable how Emily’s words can continue to have such impact—and now, when we are at home, turning to art, music, literature, poetry, theater to make us feel human—Emily’s poems are some of the best.”

Sara Lucas ’22 wrote, “This time trapped in a smaller world has been teaching me the wonders of knowing one space very intimately. I’m so used to being out and about that I’ve never noticed the small worlds existing right in my childhood bedroom or my parents’ backyard. I think of Emily as I watch a hummingbird drink from our rain-filled eaves, as I track an ant’s path over the brick steps to our front door, or as I contemplate the green leaves of the old oak tree outside my bedroom window. I think of the acuity and wonder with which she took in her limited surroundings, and I strive to do the same.”

When I signed up for ENG 357, I thought I would learn more about the work of a poet I had loved since childhood. Little did I know that I was signing up for a wise, maddening, observant, and challenging guide to our post-pandemic solitude. Take, for instance, this undated poem, #1695:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself—
Finite Infinity.

In 2016, Chiasson wrote in a New Yorker book review, “This is an extraordinary time to read Dickinson, one of the richest moments since her death. The publication of Envelope Poems and the growing collection of Dickinson’s manuscripts, available online and in inexpensive print editions, coincides with an ambitious restoration of the Dickinson properties in Amherst. …”

How much more extraordinary it would be to read Dickinson in spring 2020, none of us could possibly have foreseen. Yet the slight, evasive, white-clad poet finding her voice in her bedroom in Amherst turned out to be a perfect companion. We were each alone in our rooms, but with Emily we were together.

Catherine O’Neill Grace, a senior associate editor for this magazine, is riding out quarantine at her home in Sherborn, Mass., in the trusty New England company of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Louisa May Alcott. She and the other ENG 357 auditors and a few students are continuing to meet virtually to read and discuss Emily Dickinson.

The versions of the poems printed here were published in 1891 and 1924 respectively and are in the public domain.

David Berliner has devoted his life to the study of education. He has achieved the pinnacle of his profession as a researcher and statistician. He is currently Regents Professor Emeritus at the College of Education at Arizona State University. His list of honors is too long to mention. I welcome his original contributions to the blog and am honored to present them to you. His title for this post is: “Learning Losses Associated with the ‘Required Curriculum’ Can Be Easily Offset by Gains in Learning in the ‘Not-Required Curriculum.'”


Parents currently worry that their children have not or will not learn enough by participating in the non-standard styles of schooling associated with our pandemic. Some worry, particularly, that their children will not test well if they miss too much of what we have come to regard as “regular” schooling. The regular or standard school curriculum differs slightly by state, but it is what teachers try to deliver in each grade. It is the curriculum designed to prepare children for their states’ tests, and for the SATs and ACTs taken near the end of high school.

The pandemic also has teachers and administrators worrying about safety, and the arrangements needed for instruction as our crisis continues: In-class? On-line? Hybrid? What? Educators are afraid that the reputation of their schools could suffer, if their students don’t test well because of missed schooling, or because instruction appears not to be as effective on-line as it is when it occurs in classrooms, the historic and preferred mode of delivering instruction. In addition, a reduction in test scores could easily reduce housing values in the school catchment area, eventually changing the pool of students that they work with. Worry, worry, everywhere, and no solution apparent.

But much of this worrying can easily be relieved. Think of it this way: If we stop worrying about learning the “required stuff” in the ordinary, test-prep oriented curricula now in place in most American schools and districts, and instead started thinking about learning, just learning good stuff, the problem disappears. The issue for every parent and every educator should be about students learning. Period (cf. Westheimer, 2020).

Learning, growing, forming beliefs that are factually based, gaining deep insights into particular subject matters, extending ones’ horizons, and mastering something complex is really what is important. Surely, we can all agree that there is a plethora of ‘stuff’ worth learning out there, things that are of interest, utility, or beauty. Much of this is not found in the standard/ordinary school curriculum. If we can accept that there are countless worthwhile things to learn that are not in the accepted/normal/required/test-prep school curriculum, we might worry less about our students, as long as they are learning many of these other acceptable things. Actually, some of these other things may not just be acceptable, but quite desirable to learn.

I simply can’t get as distressed, as so many others do, when we believe kids are missing the “proper” time in their development to learn gerunds and the role of apostrophes, long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed. These certainly may all be worthy goals in our youths’ passage to a competent adulthood through our public schools. But what if a good part of the thinking and learning they are engaged in during these unusual times is, instead, based on a project the student chooses, or is assigned and willingly accepts? What if they had a topic to study and become highly knowledgeable about? And what if students must eventually report on their project or topic of study?

Even first graders are quite capable of learning sophisticated information about, say, dinosaurs. In fact, many of them do this spontaneously, and are quite capable of knowing more about dinosaurs and the lives they led than the vast majority of adults (Chi and Koeske, 1983). Sophisticated domain knowledge, the knowledge of experts, can easily be learned in a child’s study of rainfall, global warming, dog breeding, or a hundred other topics. What if our children began to learn these other good things, as well as whatever on-line instruction a teacher or school provides during the pandemic? Would America’s children lose anything? Or, might our students actually gain from such experiences?

On-line contact with their classroom teacher is likely not to be for the six hours per day that the child experiences during regular classroom instruction. But on-line contact about projects or topical areas will allow teachers to individually assist, tutor, critique, and advise on each project or topical area studied. After a semester or a school year, the child should be ready to present a project or topical inquiry to an audience of peers, teachers, and parents.

The beauty of these kinds of inquiries is that there would be little down time for students during education in this time of pandemic. Students will be learning about something of interest to them, though just not necessarily everything that is in the state required curriculum for their age group. Since not everyone is likely to have access to the full, required curriculum for their grade, the validity of any test scores at that grade level is greatly compromised and thus of little use. No attention should be given to invalid tests of the “required stuff” for students of a certain age and grade. But I certainly do want a way for students to learn “good stuff,” when limited in their getting access to the “required stuff”. Learning something in depth, and sharing it with others, may be an excellent replacement to the losses in learning the “required stuff” that are likely to occur in this pandemic.

Let us take a closer look at project based learning. Imagine if one or a few students had some months to turn in a project on whether: the climate is changing in their community, the air or water in their community is breathable or drinkable, their schools are adequately funded, their food is safe to eat, or a robot could be built to help the school cafeteria staff. Or the students investigated the causes of homelessness or asthma, or the need for public transportation in their community. There exists an endless supply of challenging projects, local and otherwise, worthy of study. Many will be appropriate for a particular age group, and some will require sustained effort over a moderately long time period to master the material at an age appropriate level.

A project not only teaches an individual, but if done with another it can substantially remove the feelings of loneliness that many of our students are feeling because of virus-caused school shutdowns. Moreover, two things are frequently noticed when students present their research projects or topical research to peers, teachers, and parents. First, students show evidence that they have learned how to organize and reorganize their ideas to prepare presentations from which others could learn. Second, their presentations regularly demonstrated that deep learning in the domain of study had taken place. The remarkable educator Debbie Meier (1995) describes successful schools where this has happened on a regular basis. The schools she describes didn’t wait for a crisis to incorporate the idea that children can direct their own learning with some adult scaffolding. Her experience and the testimony of others who studied her schools, convincingly established that students can and do dig deeply and happily into subject matter that they want to learn and share with others!

Topics to study. What if students negotiated with their teachers a topic: Birds, automobiles, penguins, glaciers, honey bees, artificial intelligence, the civil rights movement, internment camps during WWII, comets, and so forth. The topics investigated by a particular student might be of interest for them, or even assigned. The students’ job is to become expert in that topic and present a talk on that topic at the end of the school year, conveying to their classmates and others what is exciting and important to know about that topic. A version of how this approach might work schoolwide and across grades is described by Kieran Egan (2011), a most creative philosopher of education.

If learning from projects and topical studies as I have described was made more salient in the educational experiences of our youth, while the ordinary/standard curriculum was taught whenever and however it could be taught, what might happen?

We actually have some data related to this kind of arrangement. It comes from a classic, long-term, highly creative study conducted many years ago (Aikin, 1942). As the push to standardize the American curriculum gained traction, history has forgotten this study. But it is still quite instructive.

Students in 30 unique high schools, “progressive” schools, were studied. These 30 schools had agreed to let their students take a non-standard curriculum. The students studied some of what the school wanted them to, as current on-line instruction is meant to do. But these students also received high-school credits for choosing to study, think, write about, and to build, almost anything they wanted. The high school gave them credits for doing some highly unusual, self-determined projects and papers, few of which would have been approved had these students been subject to the standard high school curriculum of their time.

The students of these progressive schools, taking a very non-standard high school curriculum, went on to about 300 colleges and universities that had agreed to monitor and document their progress and achievements. They were also to monitor students’ deficits as well, since they had not been “properly prepared” for their college experience. They clearly had not studied the regular, standard, state sanctioned curriculum, so how could they compete in college?

From Aiken (1942) and the High School Journal (November-December, 1942), we learn that when each of the progressive school graduates was matched with a traditional school graduate who shared many similar background characteristics, the graduates of “progressive” schools showed: more leadership; joined and led more clubs; were rated as thinking more clearly; demonstrated a better understanding of democracy; had greater interest in good books, music, and art; got slightly better grades in college than those from traditional schools; and won more academic honors (e.g. Phi Beta Kappa, and honor roll designations). A special sub-study of the graduates of the six most progressive schools, what traditionalists thought of as the “wildest”, revealed that those students were superior to their peers from the other progressive schools! Thus, they scored well above the traditionally educated students on all the indices used for comparison. These poor students, deprived of the regular curriculum, achieved the highest college grades, and were rated the highest in intellectual drive, highest in thinking ability, and highest in extracurricular activity participation.

All I have written on this topic, above, now comes to this: The scholars reporting on the 8-year study said that the belief that students must have a prescribed school curriculum is not tenable. Studying almost anything in depth and breadth, with some (but not necessarily a lot of) teacher support, and reporting it out, prepares a child for the highest levels of scholarship at the next levels of their learning. There were no apparent negative effects from studying “this”, instead of “that”, if it was studied well. Learning seriously, deeply, and sharing that knowledge through papers and presentations (perhaps with power-points and YouTubes, maybe via film, television, music or art,) to one’s peers, parents, and the school faculty, apparently has no long-term ill effects, when compared to learning the “required” curriculum.

So to all the worried parents, teachers, and school administrators concerned that our youth will not learn about gerunds and the role of apostrophes, or long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed, “on time,” relax! Let us instead make sure our children are learning though projects and topics that capture their fancy during the time they have open. That should more than suffice for what they might miss of the traditional curriculum.

Aikin, W. (1942). The Story of the Eight-Year Study. New York: Harper.

Chi, M. T. H., & Koeske, R. D. (1983). Network representation of a child’s dinosaur knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 19(1), 29–39. https://doi.org/1031037/0012-1649.19.1.29

Egan, K. (2011). Learning in Depth. A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons from a small school in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

The High School Journal, Nov.-Dec., 1942), 25 (7), 305-309.

Westheimer, J. (2020, March 21). Westheimer: Forget trying
to be your kid’s substitute school teacher during
COVID-19. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Citizen.

Andy Hargreaves, a scholar of international renown, participated in a virtual seminar in South Korea about post-pandemic education.

His 20-minute presentation is brilliant, pithy, and compelling.

Look for it on this YouTube video. He starts at about 22:00 minutes and concludes at about the 43:00 minute mark.

He urges South Korea and the rest of the world not to “return” to austerity, competition, high-stakes testing, and education that is subservient to GDP, but to pursue a very different path.

To learn about that different and very alluring vision of the future, take 20 minutes of your time, watch and listen.

Claudia MacMillan is the director of the Cowan Center for Education at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

I met her several years ago when I was invited to speak at the Institute. At that time, Claudia allowed me to sit in on seminars where public school teachers were discussing the Iliad, Shakespeare, and other great classics. I met with school superintendents from Dallas and the surrounding region. I also met Louise Cowan, the scholar who had inspired the work of the Institute (she called me (“an education warrior”).

I invited Claudia to share with you what the Institute is doing now. I was astonished to find this wonderful oasis of learning and knowledge in Dallas. May it grow and prosper!

Learning to Love the World

Claudia MacMillan

“You are the guardians of culture,” my teacher said in a melodious voice to a small auditorium filled with teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. That was 1989. I was among those school teachers, and Dr. Louise Cowan’s words, her vision, changed the course of my life.

​I would not bother sharing this anecdote or the words that follow if my experience had been an isolated one, or if I were the only one whose life had been transformed by this educational philosophy of generosity, openness, intellectual integrity, and communal grace. But for forty years at the Dallas Institute, the hearts and minds of primary and secondary educators have been lifted up and treasured, and I believe that this message of love and hope needs to be in the world.

​In 2004, I had the privilege of assuming responsibility for the programs that changed me in what is now the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education™. Since coming, I and others have spent our time and energy trying to shape and share this ennobling vision that the Drs. Cowan conceived and taught. Their aspiration was that every child in America receive a liberal education of the quality that only privileged students in the nation’s highest-tiered private schools typically receive.

​The Cowans created a work at the Dallas Institute designed to foster this sea change. And in the public schools of Fort Worth, Texas, a bold educational experiment that is modeled on their philosophy—on their love of learning, of teachers, and of human life—is currently underway.

​In three public schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District, students are enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes. The results have been impressive and hopeful. In the first year of classes (2018-2019), at the high school where all students are enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes, teachers, administrators, parents, and the students themselves saw and felt the impact of this unique experience and the quality of community that it seemed to inspire.

​Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes were piloted in three 8th grade classes in this same year in one Fort Worth middle school. Students with all ranges of abilities were invited to join the class. The only prerequisite was that they be willing to do the work.

The Cowan Academy® in the Humanities Educational Model

I should begin with a nod to what drives public school education. So for those who consider standardized test scores important, although little test prep was introduced into these classes, in both original Fort Worth schools, scores the first year (2018-2019) were outstanding. The 8th grade averages in every category in reading and social studies were above the rest of the campus and above the district averages. Some of the strongest gains were for “English Language Learner” students. Regarding the benchmark tests given in December 2019, one middle school student reported, “Everything we read in this class is so much harder than those test passages, so the test was so much easier than it seemed before.” In the high school, where every student is enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes, the 9th grade English I scores ranked the school among the top in the state of Texas, and this in its first year of operation. In the category of “closing the achievement gap,” their English I scores earned them a 100%, tying for third in the state! Granted, this is the new magnet school in the district, but the district has wisely required the school to represent the district demographically, and in addition, the school has very generous entrance requirements. So although it is a magnet school, students with a wide range of abilities are enrolled.

​There are a few critical standards worked into this educational model designed to help it to succeed.

1. In order to learn to read by writing—a luxury that most public school students are not given—Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students must receive their own personal copies of the books (not the textbooks) so that they can read with pen in hand. Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes are very low-tech, teaching students, rather, to engage with the texts and with one another in conversation daily. The Fort Worth ISD has been wonderfully generous in providing books for each Cowan Academy® student.

2. In addition, Cowan Academy® teachers who teach history and English must not have more than 75 students a year so that they can tutor and mentor their students like their peers in a private school. However, this usually works out easily for those who are teaching a Cowan Center™ humanities course. Technically, they are teaching 75 English students and 75 history students. Their total is 150 students like many of their colleagues in the district.

3. Perhaps the most important feature of a Cowan Academy® or a Cowan School® (another trademarked educational model certified by the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center™) is that the principals who lead both educational models have the exact same certification “training” requirements as their teachers so that they can foster the community of the school in this human vision and support the vision of liberal learning overall. The educational vision that gives shape to this work is vastly different from what the bureaucracy knows or provides. And this is not a “do as I say” kind of “training.” It is a “do as I do” vision.

​Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students have largely responded with pride about their achievement. They have even sensed the importance of community that this philosophy seeks to foster. After their first year in a Cowan Academy® class, 8th graders like Eduardo stated, “Thanks to humanities, writing essays is easy, and I am not afraid to talk out loud in front of my speech class.” Madison explained, “This class gives me an advantage for my future. I have learned to see many different perspectives,” while Ke’Onna observed, “we work hard, but the class is getting us ready for high school.” According to the Cowans’ vision, non-competition and community are daily fostered in each class, making a burgeoning human community one of the most common features in a Cowan Academy® class that is observed both by students and by the grown-ups in their lives. As Fernando stated, “I feel a part of a large community in this class.” His classmate, Uriel, proudly claimed, “Humanities makes me feel like I’m part of something so important.”

Cowan Center® Humanities Curricula

Next month, the Cowan Center™ will begin its third year of Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes in three Fort Worth ISD schools and will be serving students in grades 6-11. All three campuses have chosen to use the trademarked Cowan Center™ curricula. These daily syllabi are modeled on an integrated history/English curriculum used with great success for more than twenty-five years in a private school in Dallas. Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students in the Upper School level, grades 6-12, write and present original speeches to sharpen their powers of persuasion and their public speaking skills. They read aloud daily. They study grammar and rhetoric, write often in journals and frequently compose and revise formal essays on literature, history, and philosophy. They participate in formal small-group seminars that are guided by their own text-based questions or responses. They memorize and recite at least five lyric poems each year. Students do art projects and presentations based on ideas or images from the readings that have captured their imaginations. In addition, students at each level view, sketch, and study the form and meaning of art, architecture, and monuments from around the world. In each grade, then, Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students are tenderly taught to read, write, listen, think, and speak at a high level of sophistication about ideas and situations that have challenged and inspired humanity in every age.

​At each grade level, Cowan Academy® in the Humanities curricula are organized historically around the epoch studied in that year. Freshman Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students study world history and geography from prehistory through the early modern period launched by Machiavelli’s thought. Titles here include The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Odyssey, Plato’s Apology, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, One Thousand and One Nights, The West African Mwindo Epic, Dante’s (entire) Divine Comedy, and Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. Connections and comparisons are steadily considered among themes and cultures throughout the year. Apparently startled by the continuity, one 9th grade Cowan Academy® in the Humanities student asked her teacher in the second half of the year, “Are we ever going to stop talking about The Epic of Gilgamesh?” The answer is no, and why would we want to?

​An example of the continuity of the curriculum is found in the way in which freshmen are guided to treat primary documents. Throughout the year, as they read passages from The Code of Hammurabi, the 10 Commandments, Confucius’ Analects, Laozi’s Way of the Dao, The Code of Justinian, the “Beatitudes,” the Tang Code of China, Shotoku’s Constitution, the Magna Carta, Luther’s 95 Theses, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, the class compares the new code or set of laws to preceeding ones to consider what the new codes reveal about the people who wrote them. Ninth grade student also read primary texts to trace the historical development of the three “Abrahamic” religions— Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim—to help lay the foundations for a better understanding of the complex relationship that exits among these traditions even to this day. Lyric poetry by Rumi, Petrarch, and Shakespeare complement one another and deepen in the daily reading of lyric poetry in every class. For their end-of-year speech, each freshman choses an image or idea and traces it through the major historical epochs in at least three different cultures.

​Carrying forward both the content and the modes from their freshman year, sophomore Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students build on this, picking up world history and geography in the early 17th century to study through our time. After Don Quixote, students study literary works such as Hamlet, Candide, Frankenstein, Hard Times, Bartleby the Scrivener, Notes from the Underground, Heart of Darkness, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, making additional connections to the history and the readings from the 9th grade class. The epic creation story theme continues here from the freshman year with the study of the Popol Vuh. From John Donne to Newton, from Kant to Kobayashi’s haiku, from Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft to Frederick Douglass, from Marx to Mill, from T.S. Eliot to the Harlem Renaissance, from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Churchill’s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, from James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, lyric poetry, political documents, and philosophical works are considered from within the frames of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the age of industrialization and the Romantics, and up into modern times. The sophomore end-of-year speech requires students to reach back into the freshman curriculum to trace the idea or image from ancient times to modern day.
​On the high school campus, the original Cowan Academy® students are now going into their junior year, a landmark being initiated with Moby-Dick for their Summer Reading. This level of expectation is not new. Students are assigned Volume I of Don Quixote for Summer Reading going into their sophomore year. But these students going in their third year of Cowan Academy® classes are beginning “The American Experience and the World™” with a broad yet deep foundation from reading, discussing, and writing about world history and geography, as well as about literature, philosophy, political philosophy, religion, and art history from around the world. The junior course is framed by Moby-Dick and Invisible Man, epics whose themes and images will allow students to recall, discuss, and write about works studied in both the freshman and sophomore Cowan Academy® classes. Among the authors studied here are Walt Whitman, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, DuBois, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Elie Weisel, Zora Neale Hurston, Frost, Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Toni Morrison, O’Connor, Neruda, Baldwin, César Chávez, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Lorca, Faulkner, Borges, Cortázar, Paz, Momaday, Barack Obama, and Jumpa Lahiri. In addition to nonfiction essays and speeches, in each of the four parts of the curriculum, political documents include rulings from important cases from the Supreme Court of the United States to help students understand how the political, cultural, social, and spiritual landscape of America has been created and sustained.

​Middle school Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes are conducted using the same integration of modes and disciplines as their high school counterparts, with a daily dose of in-class poetry memorization celebrating joyful recitations and readings. On one of the two middle school campuses, all the 6th graders will be enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes beginning in August and the comprehensive Cowan Academy® classes will roll up with the students each year in this neighborhood school.

​In the 6th grade “World Myths: Mappings and Meanings™” course, students review the basics of grammar, of language and form in writing, in speaking, as well as practice active listening and reading deeply by annotating texts. Rather than history, the focus here is on learning world geography and on reading broadly from around the world novels, short stories, and folk tales. A steady diet of beautiful images of the world in power point presentations and beautiful picture books about creation myths from Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths fill students’ hearts and minds with the wonder and complexity of the planet and the human condition. The end-of-year assignment in this grade is an original short story about a child from another culture that includes a focus in the plot on a significant geographical feature from that particular region.

​In the 7th grade “Texas Myths™” course, students study the history and epic spirit of Texas, its glories and its blunders. A book of Texas Indian myths and selections from J. Frank Dobie’s Texas Tales provide a touchstone throughout the year. These works are deepened by the study of significant historical documents and with novels such as Juneteenth, Old Yeller, Summer of the Mariposas, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Enfolding the idea of Texas in its mythic terms is the study of Virgil’s Aeneid, which these students read in class in its entirety. This ancient poem evokes a timeless landscape from which to consider Texas’ (six!) foundings, the struggles and the achievements thereof. Historical figures in Texas are compared to Aeneas and to other major figures in the poem through formal essays, speeches, and journals. The 7th grade end-of-year assignment is an original “tall tale,” Texas-style, to present to the class.

​In the 8th grade “American Myths™” course, students study American history from Jamestown to Reconstruction, with an emphasis on primary historical documents and nonfiction writers such as John Smith, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Olaudah Equiano, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, Douglass, Harriot Jacobs, and Abraham Lincoln. Lyric poetry and short stories bathe the year, including authors such Native American poets, Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Jonathan Edwards, Jupiter Hammon, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Walt Whitman. The final assignment for these students is to write and present a formal speech considering the difference between “freedom” and “liberty.” Students must use primary sources that go back to the original colonies and that include the voices of at least three different peoples from the diverse American “myths.”

The Cowan Vision of Liberal Learning for All​

Out of the depths of the pandemic lockdown this spring, messages of inspiration and hope issued from Cowan Academy® students, galvanizing our commitment to the work in Fort Worth and to the splendid teachers and principals who guide it. Missives such as Carlos’, a 7th grader who explained, “Humanities has not only been a class to learn history but a life lesson in itself. I think it is very safe to say that this is a great class that not only one school district needs but the whole country needs in every single school.” A 9th grade student remarked to her teacher, “As the year progressed, I started to view humanities as my little opportunity to really understand the world. I had assignments and lessons that didn’t teach me how to read or annotate for a grade, but to look deeper into the ancient worlds to understand what life meant for anyone at any point in time. I was starting to learn how to read for the experience. The experience to live someone else’s life, and to know what it meant for them to be human.” And an 8th grade Cowan Academy® student sagely observed, “Through our class I have learned that we have a great life because others went through difficult things before us.”

​There are many, many more such comments from our Cowan Academy® students, and we are grateful for every one. They are proof, to me, that the Cowans were correct in their estimation of human possibility and in their confidence that liberal learning truly does set one’s heart and mind free.

​I could go on in great detail about the Cowans’ philosophy of liberal learning. They were profound intellectuals and thinkers, and their vision is what I am privileged to consider and apply every day. But in closing, I would simply like to point out what I believe to be most essential to their vision—what they contributed to the tradition of liberal learning. Their most concrete contributions are Donald Cowan’s—a physicist—emphasis on the purpose of a liberal education—-to cultivate a “poetic imagination” first through the proper study of literature.

The other indispensable feature of their mark on the tradition is the loose yet sturdy frame of Louise Cowan’s literary genre theory in which she teaches how to read for understanding, for broadening one’s views and ideas about life. But just as important as their rigorous academic theories are their insights into the impact of what Donald Cowan calls the “spirit of liberal learning.” They believed that the effect of liberal learning is to help enable a person to achieve the true form of his or her life. They taught the unpopular reality that the deepest understanding almost always comes from the greatest struggle. They taught that true learning always begins with submission. They believed in the power of the well-educated imagination, in society and in one’s life. And they believed that wisdom was connected to mystery and beauty along with the search for meaning and truth. Most importantly, to me, what distinguishes their vision of education from cynical educational and social theories is that they believed that an education better fits a person to be in the world, particularly to be in a democracy where a liberally educated citizenry is critical.

And even though they were constantly elevating their sights to transcendent ideals—such as myth and meaning—in order to couch their understanding, I have never known people so deeply in love with people, in love with the frail and glorious human condition. It was this that motivated them, this love that guided their educational dreams and ambitions, and because of this great gift, love and hope motivate and fuel every aspect of the Cowan Center™ work. Because although the Cowans believed that there was something beyond this world, beyond this life, they also believed that until we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” to quote Hamlet, “earth’s the right place for love,” as Frost’s narrator claims. An education, they taught us, should not only prepare us to make our way through the world in work and in society. At its foundation, an education—like the one we strive daily to provide our precious Cowan Academy® students—should prepare our hearts and minds not only to see and judge clearly, an education should prepare us to live open to wonder, and ultimately, to love this world.

We have heard many ideas for what schools should look like after the pandemic, or if they reopen while the pandemic is still around. Most of those ideas are centered on distance learning. Nancy Bailey has a different concept: Bring back the arts education that was sacrificed to high-stakes testing.

She writes:

Teachers teach remotely, and parents are helping students at home. Hopefully, children and teens are doing art. Self-expression is important, and art calms and leads to self-discovery. When public schools reopen, when it’s safe to do so, parents and teachers must demand a return of art education with qualified art teachers! Music and drama are critical too, but this post focuses on art classes.

Due to high stakes testing and the no excuses agenda, teaching art became obsolete especially in poor schools. Underfunded school districts removed art classes from the curriculum years ago. They pushed more reading and test preparation.

Nina Rees is President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Rees was once a senior education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation and helped develop NCLB. Once asked “Do you consider art and music ‘frills,’ or would you say they are necessary to good elementary education?” she answered:

It depends. If a student is attending an affluent school that has the budget to invest in such things, then I see many benefits to adding art and music courses. What I object to is focusing the attention of poor school systems on these activities. Schools should be in the business of teaching students the basics. If they fail to teach students how to read and write, it makes no sense to ask them to offer music! In a perfect world, these are decisions that I wish parents could make and pay for.

Rees implies that the arts are only for children in wealthy schools! Educators know that the arts and academics complement one another. It’s detrimental to get rid of the arts in poor schools. Children in underfunded schools deserve art as much as students in rich schools.

All children deserve access to art classes. Dedicated public school art classes bring children together. Art is important for children with disabilities, gifted, twice exceptional students, and children and teens who have anxiety or depression.

Bailey goes on to describe the many ways that art helps students, the lessons and values they impart.

Yes, the arts are for everyone.

LINK CORRECTED!

Over the past few weeks, Peter Greene has written several articles on the subject of “Why Teach Literature?”

He writes faster than I can post, so I am far behind.

Greene includes all of the articles in this series.

Now you can read them all in one sitting!