Archive for April, 2010

Rethinking School Reading

With a little over 2 weeks of school left, we are finalizing things, making ready for the grand summer release. Today I asked my sixth graders to reflect on their growth as readers, and to write about what they’d learned (if anything) about themselves or books, based on what they read in school this year. This was the second year I made a firm commitment to carving out a 30-40 minute period each day for free reading.

The kids all said, every single one of them, that they now see themselves as better readers, or as readers, period, where they weren’t especially interested in books before they came to my class. They said they’re reading longer, more complex books, and they’ve learned to recognize what they like. This last thing, the what they like business was significant. I believe we should redefine guided reading to include guiding students in the choices they make for what they read, as well as focusing on how they read. At some point this year I realized that when students are always told what to read, they never have a chance to develop a sense of their own taste in reading material. What a shame! Ask them what music they like to listen to, and see if they don’t know.

Even with this good stuff happening, I’m not satisfied that I’m doing as much as I’d like to provoke their awareness of the world beyond the classroom. I’m always looking for ways to get the job done better, and as part of my own learning process, I want to explore ways of exposing students to a broader menu of books, authors, and ideas next year. This is the great thing about having a job that starts over again and again; it offers repeated opportunities for revision. Help with thinking about this was not far off today, as it turns out. In my mailbox in the school office, somebody left an article from the April 2010 issue of Kappan, What Should Students Read? by Steven Wolk.

Wolk surveyed students, asking them “What does school have you read?” with predictable results. Same old, same old. He recommends that, “What students read should be determined by why they read in school.”

If we want to nurture lifelong readers and thinkers, to cultivate social responsibility, to make reading relevant to the 21st century, and to bring joy to reading, then the status quo will not suffice. The status quo will only continue to teach kids to hate reading and to see education as irrelevant.

OK. I’m on board with that. However, he locates one of my guilty misgivings about my own practice when he talks about textbooks, which he says, “are the single biggest source of reading students do in school, especially in science and social studies.” My experience with using them is that “informational” or “content reading” instruction that is heavily reliant on textbooks does a lousy job of helping the kids with both reading and subject area knowledge.

Elizabeth Moje has the right idea here. In Foregrounding the Disciplines she says that teachers working in disciplinary-oriented literacy programs should take advantage of new media and social networking practices to expand the types of texts that are made available to students, and that students should learn to emulate reading practices that are valued by practitioners of the disciplines. Moje has a podcast that is worth listening to.

Wolk reinforces Moje’s message, reminding us that “textbooks are reference books, like encyclopedias,” and “should not be read from cover to cover.” So true.

I am especially happy to see Wolk’s emphasis on the personal and social value in school reading, beyond the simple utilitarian value literacy may have in the workplace. “Much of what students read in school,” he says, “should be interesting, global, provocative, critical, relevant, diverse, creative, emotional, and imaginative.” Reading should encourage students to, “question their assumptions and open their minds to stimulating ideas.”

And so as not to leave us with a lot of pious admonitions and recommendations, he provides an extensive list of authors and titles, organized around various types of texts, such as graphic novels, newspapers, magazines, research reports, and songs. He also has recommendations for science and social studies reading.

But it doesn’t end there. I looked for other things Wolk has published online, and I found an aricle in Educational Leadership (July 2009) entitled Revisiting Social Responsibility: Reading for the World, in which he has posted a very long list of Books for Teaching Social Responsibility. Go forth to copy and paste!

Just to be thorough here, Wolk also has an article in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (May, 2009) Reading For a Better World: Teaching Social Responsibility with Young Adult Literature which offers an overview of a variety of social issues students might be interested in, and makes recommendations for readings to use as anchor texts within an inquiry framework. The article requires payment for access, though.

In any case, this gives me some things to think about over the summer.

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It’s the News Media, Stupid (again)

Apr 26 2010 Published by under borderland,politics,social class

When I first heard Glenn Beck on the truck radio (following Barack Obama’s election) I thought I was listening to a ridiculous caricature of a revolutionary. Here was this obviously white, pin-headed fear monger, using a national broadcast medium to pretend that he was a threatened underdog. Part comedy, part horror show. And now, since the Tea Party has gained so much attention over the past several months, I still think he’s ridiculous, but the attention also makes him dangerous.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913, following the murder of Leo Frank. “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all”

The brutal murder of Leo Frank did not occur in a vacuum. As the 20th century dawned, anti-Semitism was rampant in an American society where resorts commonly advertised, “No dogs! No Jews!” and magazines featured “humorous” caricatures of Jewish people.

It was in this atmosphere that the Anti-Defamation League was established in 1913 by a lawyer and fearless visionary by the name of Sigmund Livingston. [link to study guide]

The ADL has taken notice of the Tea Party movement, observing:

While most people attending Tea Party events claim they harbor no extreme views, many of the ideas they promote fall outside the mainstream, especially the more conspiratorial ones. Angry protesters have frequently made claims ranging from proclaiming Obama"™s "œsocialist" intentions to making explicit Nazi comparisons to suggesting that the President is defying or even subverting the Constitution.

They give credit to the news media, and Glenn Beck in particular, for “drawing people further out of the mainstream, making them more receptive to the more extreme notions and conspiracy theories.”

Yesterday, I ran across a thought experiment by Tim Wise, Imagine: Protest, Insurgency and the Workings of White Privilege, that pegs this “protest” movement for what it is. His conclusion:

Imagine that black protesters at a large political rally were walking around with signs calling for the lynching of their congressional enemies. Because that"™s what white conservatives did last year, in reference to Democratic party leaders in Congress.

In other words, imagine that even one-third of the anger and vitriol currently being hurled at President Obama, by folks who are almost exclusively white, were being aimed, instead, at a white president, by people of color. How many whites viewing the anger, the hatred, the contempt for that white president would then wax eloquent about free speech, and the glories of democracy? And how many would be calling for further crackdowns on thuggish behavior, and investigations into the radical agendas of those same people of color?

To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark "œother" does so, however, it isn"™t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. Which is why Rush Limbaugh could say, this past week, that the Tea Parties are the first time since the Civil War that ordinary, common Americans stood up for their rights: a statement that erases the normalcy and "œAmerican-ness" of blacks in the civil rights struggle, not to mention women in the fight for suffrage and equality, working people in the fight for better working conditions, and LGBT folks as they struggle to be treated as full and equal human beings.

And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis.

Game Over.

Read the whole thing at Red Room. Or read it at Alternet. And check out that ADL study guide. It’s a good one.

Hate groups are making a stand. Everyone else needs to stand, as well. We could start with a boycott of Fox News, and anyone who advertises there. A list would be useful.

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Unfinished Business – A Pedagogy for the Planet

Apr 22 2010 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

It’s still Earth Day here along the the northern rim of the planet, near the eastern edge of the international date line. Spring is here at last; it is brown and muddy and beautiful without any snow. This was my 30th winter in Alaska, and I still look forward to the regular changes, no matter the season.

But there are other changes that don’t feel right. We haven’t gotten much snow for many winters now. Summers are drier. We choke on smoke from far-off fires, and fires that are not so far off. Some of the coastal communities have big erosion problems due to storm damage. With less sea ice, waves pound harder on the beaches and carry the land out from under houses and roads. Tara Kyle, blogger at, reminds us, “On Earth Day, it’s vital that we remember that one of the great injustices of climate change is that the first places impacted are in many cases communities already at the margins of societies.”

I’ve been listening all week to Democracy Now broadcasting from the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Bolivia, where the President, Evo Morales, called for an end to capitalism:

We are here because in Copenhagen the so-called developed countries failed in their obligation to provide substantial commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. We have two paths: either Pachamama or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to capitalism!

As an Alaskan, living in a state that is completely dependent on tax revenues from oil extraction, it’s hard to jump on board an anti-capitalist bandwagon. But, that doesn’t mean we have to accept the status quo. The planet, and all that lives on it, is suffering. And this can’t continue for much longer before everything that belongs together starts to come apart. For starters, it would be good if we had more say in where and how resource development proceeded. So, maybe the wish for change to our economic infrastructure is not that far-fetched. Grace Lee Boggs, (again, on Democracy Now) the other day suggested that the path ahead will require us to redefine democracy, moving away from elected representative governance and building relationships rooted in community, caring for one another.

This sounds all abstract and idealistic until I remember that in the classroom this is what I aim for. Just that. It isn’t easy, but it is possible as long as the administration and the policy people don’t make too many irrelevant demands. The challenge is to maintain a righteous focus, to look critically at what I’m doing, and to be kind – especially that.

These are revolutionary times, no doubt. John Bellamy Foster is a writer whose work I’ve recently discovered. In an excerpt from his latest book, he says:

The goal of ecological revolution, as I shall present it here, has as its initial premise that we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis of such enormity that the web of life of the entire planet is threatened and with it the future of civilization.

What could be more serious? The recommended response, Foster’s “ecological-social revolution,” he tells us, would be

[O]rganized democratically from below, "œcommunity by community … region by region." It must put the provision of basic human needs"”clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, social transport, and universal health care and education, all of which require a sustainable relation to the earth"”ahead of all other needs and wants. "œAn ecological dialectic" along these lines, Morrison insists, "œrejects not struggle but the endless slaughter of industrial negation" in the interest of unlimited profits.[30]

Such a revolutionary turn in human affairs may seem improbable. But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible"”if human civilization and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained.

As it happens, this closely resembles the ideas of Richard Kahn, who has been writing about the need for a pedagogy that honors the rights of both human and non-human life forms. Two chapters of his book are online in pdf format. Chapter one takes us on a history lesson, going all the way back to ancient Athens, to look at the origins of democracy, which Kahn problematizes. For example:

In what sense, then, are we to analyze and make conclusions concerning the potentials left within paideia, when it has been the vehicle by which billions of people have become (relative to history) highly literate and immersed in the spoils of human culture, even as it has continued to leave billions beyond the realization of the same? Even if we accept the neoliberal leadership of the Bush administration at its word and believe that the full extension of American-led, corporate business and education into the “less cultured” regions of the globe represents a sort of final Alexandrian attempt at mass civilization, how are we to judge the results of this project if it comes at the cost of the irrational devastation of the natural planet?

Chapter three focuses on the work of Paulo Freire, and Ivan Illich who have much to say about contemporary society.

A quote by Freire was featured at the top of one of Kahn’s articles, Towards Ecopedagogy, that lead me to some excerpted material from Freire’s book, Pedagogy of Indignation. These essays by Freire were good to read – uplifting and hopeful at a time that often seems full of disappointment and discouragement for teachers. He emphatically insists on maintaining a positive outlook as a teacher, since the work of education is essentially ethical and idealistic. He writes, putting a thumb in the eye of the case-hardened “realists” who criticize his stance:

Our testimony, on the contrary, if we re progressive, if we dream of a less aggressive, less unjust, less violent, more human society, must be that of saying “no” to any impossibility determined the the “facts” and that of defending a human being’s capacity for evaluating, comparing, choosing, deciding, and finally intervening in the world.

It’s good stuff. Here’s the quote from Kahn’s article that drew me in:

It is urgent that we assume the duty of fighting for the fundamental ethical principles, like respect for the life of human beings, the life of other animals, the life of birds, the life of rivers and forests. I do not believe in love between men and women, between human beings, if we are not able to love the world. Ecology takes on fundamental importance at the end of the century. It has to be present in any radical critical or liberationist educational practice. For this reason, it seems to me a lamentable contradiction to engage in progressive, revolutionary discourse and have a practice which negates life. A practice which pollutes the sea, the water, the fields, devastates the forests, destroys the trees, threatens the birds and animals, does violence to the mountains, the cities, to our cultural and historical memories. – Paulo Freire

(note: url revised 4/23)

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Capitalism : Bottled Water : : Democrats : Education Reform

Apr 11 2010 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

The Obama administration’s education reform policy is a scam, just like bottled water – a capitalist scheme to manufacture markets through the privatization of public wealth.

Race to the Top and the ESEA Blueprint are education “reform” mechanisms that use test scores to label schools as failing, thereby creating incentives for states to relax charter school regulations, establish common standards, set up expensive data tracking systems to determine which teachers get merit pay, and which get the harsh reform measures – while doing nothing to improve curriculum and instruction, teacher preparation, or physical conditions in the schools themselves.

It’s like water bottling companies who exploit people’s misgivings about impure drinking water – water that may have been degraded through corporate negligence – so they can package and sell an alternative which is often just tap water, the very same water they’ve convinced people they should avoid.

How do they get away with this? According to Annie Leonard, it’s simple. “Scaring us, seducing us, and misleading us – these strategies are all core parts of manufacturing demand.”

It’s all here, in The Story of Bottled Water:

I don’t see any other way to look at what’s going on in schools now. We shouldn’t buy it.

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We Are In Deep Doo Doo

Apr 11 2010 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

Lois Weiner, who has been documenting the global neoliberal assault on teachers, posted a critique of Diane Ravitch’s new book on her blog today that is worth every public school teacher’s attention.


The publicity for Ravitch’s book has certainly put her incisive critique of the reforms (privatizing education; using standardized tests to measure everything; looking to “choice” and charter schools drive improvement) in the news…..

Still, it’s important to note what she gets wrong and why. In the book she explains being “caught up” in the widespread “enthusiasm” for market reforms. She will not, however, name this as the neoliberal project. By the political yardstick she uses in the book, the American Enterprise Institute is a “well-respected conservative think tank.” Someone whose first job in New York was at the New Leader, where she learned all about left sectarian politics and met Max Shachtman, (as she noted in our exchange before the panel), knows enough to name capitalism’s latest iteration.

Ravitch won’t name neoliberalism as the problem because it would force her to confront facts she’d rather ignore. Like the fact that 70% of the new jobs being created only require a minimal education. Or the fact that her idea of a great education is the Houston schools of her youth, a school system that was racially segregated.

Ravitch’s very unpersuasive agenda to beat back the neoliberal assault is a return to the post WW2 welfare state, pre-Brown versus education and those messy social movements that created the culture wars. She wants a kinder, gentler neoconservative restoration, one shorn of neoliberalism’s savagery. Her solutions include having parents (meaning minority parents) teach their kids how to behave right and read to them at home.

Weiner refers to a panel discussion at New York University that she and Ravitch spoke at. Ravitch spoke first, and then had to leave because of another commitment. Lois Weiner’s response covers approximately 15 minutes of the video, which runs for over an hour total. I’ve transcribed her remarks, here, because I believe they add significantly to what Ravitch had to say, and the video is long. (Unfortunately, so is this post, but it should nonetheless take less time to read it than to watch the video.) If you’re not familiar with what Ravitch has to say about her book, do listen to what she says at the panel discussion. Weiner insists that “to halt this juggernaut, we have to see the “international dimension of the project.” I’ve also linked to some of the source material she references.

Diane Ravitch: [wrapping up] This is my last thought. It’s about the Democratic agenda and the Republican agenda. You gotta keep this in mind, and Lois may or may not agree with me about this. Since 1965, the Democratic Party has had an agenda that consisted of two words, equity and professionalism. I don’t think they went far enough with the professionalism agenda; I would go even farther. But with the equity agenda, it was very clear that the Democratic Party believed in funding districts that had the greatest needs. Funding districts that had the greatest number of children that were in poverty.

The Republican agenda, because of the Republicans’ closeness to the business community, was accountability and choice. Now we’re in a period where the Democratic agenda, announced by the president, is accountability and choice. And my question is, “Where did the Democratic agenda go?” Where did it get lost? It’s not there anymore. They’re kind of trying to say, “Well we still do that, too, but our reform agenda is accountability and choice.”

And it sure looks a lot like NCLB to me. Thanks so much. [applause]

Lois Weiner: I want to first commend Diane for her intellectual integrity and her courage in revisiting her role as an architect of the program she now views, correctly, I think, as destroying public education.

Diane Ravitch: I was not an architect of No Child Left Behind.

Lois Weiner: No, but listen to what I say, Diane. Where we’re going to disagree – and I want to also state what we agree about – I agree with everything that Diane just said. Every single thing. She laid out in such a way that I don’t have to repeat it, the effects of this disastrous educational policy for the last 10 years. She laid it out. I’m not going to repeat what she said, and I have no criticism with what she said.

And I want to point out that Diane and I, in her recent book, Diane and I agree with the need to defend democratic civic purposes of education, the need for teacher unions, the need for educational equality, and education’s role in promoting social mobility. Those are things that Diane talks about in her book, and I absolutely agree with her 100%, about those aims. What I’m going to suggest, though, is that Diane’s analysis about how we got to this point is flawed. And that if we are going to defend public education, we need to have a very different analysis. And so the analysis that I’m going to offer tonight, I think, takes two sets of blinders off – that we have to take off.

The first set of blinders separates educational reform from what’s going on in the economy. The other set of blinders says that we can look at education in this country separately from what goes on in the rest of the world. Because what I’m going to lay out tonight for you is a perspective that says NCLB, all these policies that Diane just described, are neoliberalism coming home. They are policies that were imposed for the first time under Pinochet – under Pinochet. Next in Argentina. Next in Uruguay. Throughout all of Latin America and Central America. And when I spoke about this at a conference in London about a year and a half ago, I said, “Every country in the world has enacted these policies.”

Stephen Ball, who wrote a great report on privatization globally for the Education International, corrected me. Very politely in private. And he said, “Lois, it’s not every country in the world – It’s not Finland or North Korea.”

So let us understand that this is a global project that began 40 years ago, was tested, refined – if you want to use that word – imposed on Africa, Asia, and Latin America by the World Bank. Why? Because developing countries wanted aid. If they wanted aid, they had to undergo economic restructuring AND educational reform.

So what were the contours of that – what were the contours – what were the contours of that neoliberal project? And I’m going to talk in a minute about what neoliberalism is. Because I think that in her book, Diane grapples with this concept, but she doesn’t face it head on. And I think that we need to understand what the project is and where it comes from.

What’s the project? Here are the contours: Privatization, fragmentation of oversight and regulation and creation of individual schools, standardized testing, and assault on teachers’ unions. Those are the 4 pillars of this project.

  • Privatization: Commodification, marketization of education, Diane describes that.
  • Fragmentation: Elimination of the regulatory mechanisms. So that now we have fragmentation, regulation devolves to an individual school; that’s charter schools. In the UK they’re called ‘academies.’ In Sweden they’re called ‘charter schools.’ All over the world, except for Finland and North Korea – China included – China has charter schools. China has charter schools.
  • Standardized testing: You eliminate a regulatory framework, how do you gauge “accountability?” Standardized tests. Standardized tests are, for the most part, created by for-profit companies who market the textbooks and who market professional development. Do you see how it’s a web? Everybody see how it’s a web? Standardized tests, well if that’s the only accountability measure, that means teachers are measured by standardized tests. Merit pay. Well, if you have merit pay, you don’t need to have teachers who have a lot of education or a lot of experience because the only thing that you pay them by is the kids’ test scores.
  • And finally, what is THE greatest barrier? THE greatest barrier. Most potentially, most powerful, an existing barrier to this program? Teachers’ unions. And now we have to understand that’s the reason, every day in the paper, we read about bad teachers and how the unions defend them. That is the reason. Because teacher unions globally are standing in the way of this project.

And I can only say I have so much to say about this, I edited a book of essays. And I really hope you’ll read it. You will read teachers’ stories from all over the world describing this project, and the resistance to it.

OK. So let me get back to this issue of the neoliberalism, which Diane doesn’t talk about. And I hope that she will. And I hope that she will think about it because in the book, Diane says a couple of really very interesting things. She says she and others were, quote, “…caught up in the wave of enthusiasm for market reforms.” That’s on page 127. And she says that this was a “new thinking” on page 9. But you see, when that occurred it wasn’t new. It had already been implemented for 20 years. Already been implemented globally.

And in fact, the Merrill Lynch report – see this was all in the business pages. If you wanted to know what was going on in education you had to read the business pages and prospectus. Because Merrill Lynch report April 9, 1999 ["œThe Book of Knowledge: Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry"] said, “A new mindset is necessary, one that views families as customers, schools as, quote, ‘retail outlets’ where educational services are received, and the school board as a customer service department that hears and addresses parental concerns. As a near monopoly, schools escape the strongest incentives to respond to their customers. And what is the strongest incentive? The discipline of the market.” That’s 1999. And Diane was in the administration that was caught up in a wave of enthusiasm about the market reforms.

So, now I want to unpack – I want to unpack for you this neoliberal ideology. And if you really want to understand it, you can’t listen to what’s being said in this country. You have to go to the way that the World Bank talks about it. Because in the World Bank documents, they present it in it’s unvarnished form. So I’m gonna quote for you from something called – I’m gonna explain what’s in this chilling World Bank document, The World Development Report 2002. And, of course they don’t use this exact language, but this is the analysis.

The analysis is the following: The market is the best regulator of all services, and the state, the welfare state causes problems by intruding on free choice. Next, the global economy requires that workers from every country compete with others for jobs. And since most people will be competing with workers in other countries for jobs requiring little formal education, money spent on a highly educated workforce is wasted. In other words, most jobs are in Walmarts. You know that. You know that; that’s the level of education – seventh or eighth grade. And the plan is – they say this in this document – we’re all going to be competing for these jobs that require a seventh or eighth grade education. Not all of us, of course. Some people are not. Therefore, money spent on education is wasted. It should be spent on other things: on dams, on roads, on health care. Of course they don’t spend it on dams, or roads, or health care. But that’s what they say in this report.

And think about this, because we don’t need a highly educated workforce, we don’t need highly educated teachers. Therefore, we can have a teaching force that’s a revolving door. Teachers will use standardized scripts. Kids will be educated to a seventh or an eighth grade level. And that’s OK! That’s OK! In fact, not only is it OK; that’s what we should be doing. And then in this report, it says, What’s the biggest barrier to carrying out this program? Well, with their political power, teachers and doctors capture governments and protect their incomes when there is pressure for budget cuts.

So understand that the de-professionalization of teaching that Diane talks about is NOT an accident. It is planned. It is planned to replace us. It is planned to limit access to higher education. That’s what this is all about. And you only have to look at the record in the rest of the world, and you see what is planned for us.

You know these firings in Rhode Island? You know these firings in Rhode Island? That Bush and Obama and Duncan have supported? The World Development Report 2002 applauds the firings in Benin and Senegal of the teachers. They applaud it. And they say that’s what’s gonna happen. That’s what we want. So, we all really need to understand that the neoliberal agenda has come home to us. It is a project; some people would say that it’s a conspiracy. I wouldn’t say it’s a conspiracy. You know why? Because conspiracies are secret. This isn’t secret! This isn’t secret.

The final thing I want to talk about is Democrats for Education Reform, and I’m sorry Diane isn’t here to hear me say this. Democrats for Education Reform now hosts, on tour, Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute. It’s now on their website. We all need to understand that Obama’s education policy comes from Democrats for Education Reform. There’s no difference. That means that the Obama education policy is lifted, from whole cloth, from what used to be called a far-right think tank. I think Diane flatters them, or fools herself by calling them a conservative think tank. You know. But now, they’re in the Democratic Party! They’re the leadership of the Democratic Party when it comes to education policy. Listen, we are in deep doo doo. We are in real deep doo doo.

And I’m just gonna say that in Diane’s book, and I’m really sorry she’s not here to hear this. In Diane’s book, she has this quote from her book, The Revisionists Revised, and she says she’s still right, she argued that, “The public schools had not been devised by scheming capitalists to impose social control on an unwilling proletariat to reproduce social inequality. The schools were never an instrument of cultural repression, as the radical critics maintain.” That’s what Diane says in The Revisionists Revised.

Well, you know what? Maybe we can argue about 150 years ago when the public schools were created, but there is no argument now; that is the agenda.

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