As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.
This interview, though, is an extra edition that I wanted to publish in coordination with Rethinking Schools’ (one of my favorite periodicals) twenty-fifth anniversary! Stan Karp from Rethinking Schools agreed to answer a few questions:
Can you say a bit about your connection to education, what you do with Rethinking Schools, and what got you interested in both?
After finishing college in the early 70s, I joined the Urban Education Corps, a federal program designed to prepare people for careers as urban teachers. It attracted young people motivated by the civil rights and social movements of the 60s to careers as educators in poor communities. I spent a memorable half-year teaching 5th grade before I got a job teaching English in a Paterson, NJ high school, where I taught for 30 years.
For my first ten years I taught five sections of high school English (plus a homeroom and a cafeteria supervision) in a struggling urban high school of 2500 students. Then, in the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to take over the school’s journalism program. This meant teaching elective classes with considerably more freedom to create my own curriculum and escaping the increasingly standardized, test-driven core courses. I much preferred teaching writing, research and communication skills to teaching the literary canon. Helping students prepare publications had the feel of a real activity, and I enjoyed the student engagement involved in building a journalism program that was a modest exercise in student democracy and critical media literacy.
In my last decade of teaching, I did the small school dance. A reform-minded principal asked me to become a lead teacher in a reform project that reflected the national trend towards “personalizing” large comprehensive high schools. I became the lead teacher of the “Communications Academy,” one of several small learning communities designed to restructure the larger school. Leading the Communications Academy had many positives, including having several former students return to join my team of teachers. But there were also many thorny issues that reflected the underlying tensions of small school reform.
Paterson was also one of the first districts in the country taken over by the state for “educational mismanagement” and one of districts at the heart of the Abbott case, a landmark state battle for funding equity. So there were plenty of policy issues connecting directly to my classroom and I found writing about them a useful way to examine their impact and connect with other activists. That’s how I found Rethinking Schools.
For people who aren’t familiar with Rethinking Schools, can you describe it and explain how you see its role in education?
Rethinking Schools is a publication founded by Milwaukee educators in 1986. It began as a local effort to address issues like the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, textbook-dominated curricula and the wave of top-down, bureaucratic reform set in motion by the “Nation at Risk” report in the early 80s.
For 25 years, Rethinking Schools has been a voice for activist educators, nourishing the growth of a grassroots movement for social and educational justice. It’s also been part of local and national efforts to build activist networks for progressive school reform and social change.
Today, Rethinking Schools is a respected quarterly magazine, to my knowledge the only national education publication produced by a board of current and former classroom teachers. It’s also a publisher of a growing catalog of books on critical teaching, social justice curricula and education policy. This year we’re marking our 25th anniversary, a very long time for a progressive, grassroots project to survive without sustained foundation or institutional support.
As a Rethinking Schools editor and writer, I’ve tried to provide a classroom teacher’s perspective on policy issues, such as school funding, school governance, district reform, small school initiatives, federal education policy and No Child Left Behind. I’ve also written about the larger political forces at work shaping education policy agendas. Over the past year, I’ve coordinated the NOTwaitingforsuperman.org site, which we initiated to talk back to the teacher-bashing propaganda film.
What do you see as the three major challenges facing public education today and how you think they should be dealt with?
1. The inequality that surrounds our schools every day. This includes the inequalities of race, class, and opportunity that follow students to school and the resource inequities they find when they get there. The solutions are systematic efforts to reduce poverty and better school funding systems that provide high quality education for all kids instead of just some kids.
2. The testing plague. We need to end the test and punish approach to reform, and put teachers and students back at the center of teaching and learning.
3. Strengthening the democratic and public character of schools from top to bottom. What’s ultimately at stake in the current polarized debate over education reform is whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed—however imperfectly—by all of us as citizens. Or whether they’ll be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society.
What are three books you’d recommend that new and veteran teachers read?
Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a good overview of the current reform road to disaster and Linda Darling Hammond’s The Flat World and Education includes an excellent chapter on the fight for funding equity here in NJ.
I know that’s more than three, but it’s important for teachers not to always follow directions.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?
A plea to your readers to consider supporting Rethinking Schools. There are hard times for both print publications and progressive education voices. Subs and individual donations have kept us going for 25 years, but we’ll need more of both to survive. Thanks.