National Writing Project

Mike Rose Finds Hope and Possibility in Public Education

By: Tanya N. Baker
Date: July 14, 2009

Summary: Mike Rose's books respond to the "rhetoric of decline" around public school, explore the work of teaching and learning across the country, and present new perspectives on what counts as intelligence. Listen to Rose discuss his thoughts in an interview with NWP's "For Your Bookshelf."


"Mike Rose is good company." That's the claim of Sondra Perl, founding director of the New York City Writing Project. Rose, a member of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, has spent his career refusing to accept the negative rhetoric that surrounds the field of education. In his work he pushes against common beliefs and arguments about public schools, showing teachers and students in a more inclusive, positive, and hopeful light.

And he is, indeed, good company.

Two of Rose's books, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, strike me as companion pieces for teachers who love and respect students and want to reclaim the rhetoric around public school, the work of teaching and learning, and—more generally—what counts as intelligence.

Many Possibilities, But No Magic Bullet

Possible Lives was first published a decade ago, at a time when the public's patience with the experiment of public education seemed to be running out. Rose describes the national discussion about public schools in the early 1990s as "despairing and dismissive . . . shutting down our civic imagination."

In response to the rhetoric of decline, Rose embarked on an experiment: he would travel across the country, seeking out amazing teachers and students, painting a picture of public school classrooms that would offer a vision of possibility, of hope.

In the introduction to Possible Lives Rose writes, "I must admit that I have strong feelings about classrooms. I like them, feel at home in them. I like the banter, the crayons and pencils and scratching of pens, the smell of watercolors and acrylics, the quiet of concentration, the bustle of students thinking something through."

Rose's love of these settings is a good part of what transports us as he describes the schools and classrooms he visits.

But in his desire to represent the best of American schools, Rose does not, as a less deft researcher might, simplify or beautify what he sees. While any one of the vignettes might support a particular idea of what kind of instruction moves students forward, as a set they help the reader see there is not a simple solution to the real failures present in public education or a magic bullet that will suddenly raise everyone's test scores 20 points.

This collection defies a "best practice" mentality. In fact, Rose juxtaposes teachers with very different beliefs about curriculum and instruction in order to help readers understand the elements of successful teaching that transcend specific teaching practices.

Possible Lives has been reissued recently, with a new introduction, in times that are perhaps worse for public education than they were ten years ago. Part travelogue, part educational treatise, and part celebration of amazing teachers, Possible Lives reminds us that there is great hope and great potential in public education.

Expanding the Concept of Intelligence

In The Mind at Work Rose turns his upending gaze on work, particularly challenging the way we think of physical labor as separate from and unequal to intelligence. In much the same way that Possible Lives asks the reader to imagine possibilities about schooling, The Mind at Work asks us to view work in a new way, celebrating not only its honor and its effort, but also its intelligence.

Rose's point can be understood by anyone who has asked her hair dresser for "something fresh and new, something summery," or the like. How does the stylist make such a request a reality? What aesthetic sense, knowledge of chemistry, and understanding of tools and processes are necessary to move from this vague request through a wash, cut, and dye that look good on one's head?

Through a series of vignettes Rose shows us a number of competent workers—welders, carpenters, drivers, hairdressers, and waitresses—revealing the intelligence that underlies what they do. The experienced and adept workers with whom Rose spends time "enable us to observe mature practice . . . as one source of insight into expertise."

In expanding the way we think about intelligence, Rose also invites us to take a more expansive view of what counts as intelligence in schools and anywhere we assess student learning. He describes the historical practice of separating vocational training from academic preparation and considers the policy and practical implications of a broader notion of intelligence.

Ultimately, he achieves the purpose he sets out for himself in the introduction of the book: "to provide an alternative lens on everyday work, to aid us in seeing the commonplace with greater precision. . . . [to] contribute to a more accurate portrayal of the full world of work, and . . . help us think more effectively and humanely about education, job training, and the conditions in which so many people make a living."

To get to know Mike Rose and his work, I suggest either of these great books. You can also tune in to a podcast interview with him, or read his blog . However you make his acquaintance, I'm sure you'll enjoy his company.

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