National Writing Project

Book Review: Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us

By: Tanya N. Baker
Date: February 2, 2010

Summary: Reviewer Tanya Baker describes Mike Rose's book as a way toward restarting "a public conversation about the hopeful vision, the possibility, inherent in our nation's public schools."


Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us is a little book—measuring in at 4 inches by 6 inches. So if you don't know Mike Rose, look out. You might be taken by surprise by the bigness of the ideas the book contains, and the expansiveness of the views it espouses. Of course, if you've been following Mike Rose's career or publishing history, this book might not surprise you much.

In Why School? Rose, a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, recounts his feelings, in the early '80s, that "national talk on education had begun to shift beyond critique." He says, "It was moving toward despair. A dangerous hopelessness. Dismissive. Cynical."

Such dismissiveness and cynicism, Rose argues, have led to a withdrawal from the public sphere, a lack of support, fiscal or otherwise, for our public institutions, including public school.

Above anything else, Why School? reminds us that the institution of the American public school is remarkable and worth our support. He asks readers to remember "what it means to have distributed across a nation, available by law to all, a public education system to provide the opportunity for . . . intellectual development."

Reframing Standards and NLCB

If all of this rosy talk makes you feel self-satisfied and secure, beware. Rose reminds us also that the role of a democratic citizenry is to critique its public institutions. And he is as critical of those who would, for instance, demonize standards as he is of those who laud them.

He argues that standards and high expectations must play a role in good teaching: "Standards that are employed fairly facilitate learning and show students that their teachers believe in their ability to meet academic expectations."

He asks that those who would reject the standards movement rather "reclaim [standards] for democratic ends" and "reframe the discussion of standards from either/or polarities of equality vs. excellence, creativity vs. constraint, progressive vs. conservative . . . [to] think more fruitfully about how standards are linked to instruction and learning and how standards can be used to foster competence as well as measure it."

Standards and high expectations must play a role in good teaching.

He reminds those of us who would disparage the No Child Left Behind Act that "there are aspects of NCLB that are clearly democratic. The assumption that all children can learn and develop. The responsibility of public institutions to their citizenry. The dissatisfaction with business as usual and a belief that institutions can be improved." And he takes on topics such as business involvement in schools, our vision of what counts as intelligence, remediation, and the relationship of higher education to public school, all with the same open vision.

Most of all, Rose asks us to remember that "a divisive and demonizing public discourse . . . is a civic dead end" and makes a plea for "an expanded vocabulary adequate to both the daily joy and the daily sorrow of our public schools."

Why does such a vocabulary matter? Rose says, "How we think about and voice the purpose of public school matters. It affects what we put in or take out of the curriculum and how we teach the curriculum. It affects the way we think about students—about intelligence, achievement, human development, teaching and learning, opportunity and obligation . . . . the way we think about each other and who we are as a nation."

The Ongoing Discussion: How to Improve Schools

To me, the National Writing Project has always been a home for serious talk about writing, instruction, learning, and school policy. It has never espoused a particular practice, but rather asked people to bring their experience, their intelligence, and their work together. It is a place where we ask hard questions and try to understand and act on our knowledge with the understanding that to do so means to raise more questions and to continue to produce more problems on which to work.

The writing project, indeed, is to me an important home for civic dialogue about how to improve public schools and extend meaningful learning opportunities to all of the nation's children. And Why School? feels like a must-have book for writing project sites.

So pick up Why School? Give it to your friends and family, parents and policymakers, students and teachers, but most of all share it with your writing project colleagues. Do your part to restart a public conversation about the hopeful vision, the possibility, inherent in our nation's public schools.

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