School Reform

Chicago Teachers Tell a New Story

There is a story about school reform that has caught on in recent years. It goes something like this: Politicians, researchers, and superintendents — who know what children need — are trying to institute brave, progressive new reforms in our failing school system. But standing in their way are teachers who are simply not trying hard enough, and evil unions that selfishly protect adults and don’t care about children. The solution? Break the unions and let the leadership do whatever it thinks best.

This story is manipulative and misleading. It ignores the abuses of power that led to the need for unions in the first place; it ignores the deep flaws in the corporate reform and testing movements; it ignores the need for quality teacher professional development and support; it ignores the vast diversity among teachers unions; and it fundamentally puts forward a regressive, untenable solution to our educational woes: improvement through the dis-empowering of a massive number of people.

Fortunately, teachers in Chicago are putting forward a different story, one about empowered teachers acting collectively to improve schools for both teachers and students. Despite confining limits on the union — including a state law that forces them to debate only wages and benefits — the CTU and its progressive new leadership are putting reform issues front and center. The CTU deserves our support. If we are going to have a productive national debate about the reforms we need — even the need to reform some teachers unions — we need to toss aside the anti-teacher narrative for good.

For more info on supporting the CTU, visit

The Purpose of Schooling: Imagination and Creativity

We need a radical rethinking of the purpose of schooling.

It’s the longest-running debate in US education: What should be the purpose of school? To train a skilled workforce? To sort people and reward the “smartest”? To help individuals reach their goals? To socialize people into “American culture”? To build a foundation for democracy? The answer has long been “all of the above” — although at different times in our history one or another has taken prominence.

It doesn’t take more than a glance at the current presidential race to recognize that these days the economic purpose of school is front and center. Proponents of this perspective argue that improving education will boost the US economy. While this may in fact be an appealing outcome, it is a partial and limited vision of what schooling can and should be. With our rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected society, and so many dire social, political, and environmental issues calling for solutions, we need a more robust and holistic understanding of what schools are for.

I propose the following framework: The purpose of schools should be to develop imagination and creativity.

When I say imagination, I am not talking simply about fantasy or play, though these are important pieces of the puzzle. As Merriam-Webster puts it, imagination is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” It’s about empathy: imagining how it might feel to be someone else in another body, another situation, another culture. It’s about personal achievement: imagining futures for yourself and how you might reach them. It’s about resilience: imagining what obstacles you might face, and how you might leap them. And it’s about creating change: imagining how your life, your community, or your world might be better.

Importantly, imagination must be built on a foundation of understanding. One cannot imagine how the world might be if one does not understand how the world is. And nothing fuels imagination like learning about parts of the world beyond our everyday experience. This might mean learning about a culture on the other side of the world that works differently than the one we know; or it might mean learning about atoms and quarks, things that we all experience but are too small to see. So developing imagination encompasses traditional learning areas such as history, anthropology, physics, etc. But these topics are taught in the service of developing an historical, social, scientific imagination rather than as separate pieces of information devoid of context.

The related but distinct notion of creativity has long been connected with specific fields such as art, and with individual geniuses. But creativity can take place in any arena, and on many different scales. When I say a school’s purpose is to develop “creativity,” I mean very simply the ability to create. To create a piece of technology from its component parts. To create a theory about the world from pieces of existing theories and your own experiences. To create community. To create new ways of being with one another. And yes — to create art.

Understood in this way, creativity relies on many “basic skills” that we expect our schools to teach. If we want to develop creativity across multiple fields (and we do) students need to be literate in written languages, mathematics, visual languages, computers, health, and more. To focus on creativity is not to put aside these skills for unbounded play time, but to situate these skills in real, creative applications. And it definitely means focusing on the kind of “higher-order thinking” that we say we want from schools, but that are rarely prioritized in public education.

Creativity is often understood as a set of individual skills and dispositions that lead someone to think “out of the box.” As such, it has been increasingly recognized as a “21st century skill” that can help drive innovation (and thus the economy). But I am taking a broader view of creativity not only as an individual characteristic, but as a system. As some theorists have shown, creativity takes place not just within a person but in a larger system that includes colleagues, audiences, the history of the field, and more. So developing creativity is also about developing the ability to understand what has come before you, to connect and collaborate with others, and to see yourself within a larger context.

What this would mean for schools
As I hope I’ve made clear, this framework does not throw out everything that we have been doing in schools. Students still need to learn about science and reading and math. It doesn’t even involve inventing new pedagogies — the tools we need are out there, even if not in the mainstream. But it does call on us to shift our thinking in some fundamental ways.

Perhaps most obviously (particularly for this blog), this framework would mean a much more integral role for the arts in schools. While some outcomes of arts education are hotly contested, most people recognize that they are powerful tools for encouraging imagination and creativity. Art should not be only a separate elective class but a set of practices integrated across disciplines.

This framework also pushes us away from the common view that schools are filling students up with something they are lacking (a deficit view). Instead we see our goal as supporting the growth of something that is already there. After all, we know that all children have the capacity for amazing displays of imagination and creativity. What they need is to have this ability nurtured, supported, and broadened.

This framework also suggests the need for an education that involves making and doing real things. Instead of only learning facts and writing papers, students should be guided through the process of understanding, imagining, and creating. Project-based learning is an excellent example of a pedagogy that takes this seriously, engaging students in projects that draw on multiple skills and disciplines, require collaboration, and address real-world issues.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this kind of focus has the potential to make schools much more fun and engaging for students — no small feat.

Transformative teaching that encourages imagination and creativity is happening right now, though not always in schools. It must necessarily look different across schools based on the context — the particular students, families, communities, and teachers involved. But I argue that this overarching framework could help to realign our thinking towards what is truly important — and perhaps help us, collectively, improve our ability to imagine a better world and begin to work towards it.



This post was inspired by Kay Merseth, who has the students in her school reform course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education all write papers on what the purpose of schooling is — an important and overlooked exercise. Here is my humble attempt. Thanks Professor Merseth.

Book Review: Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives
Edited by Stephen John Hartnett
University of Illinois Press, $25.00

I’ve been working on an edited volume about the school-to-prison pipeline, and taking the opportunity to check out recent books on the topic. One of the more rich and intriguing tomes I have come across is Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives. The book brings together scholars and educators — along with incarcerated poets and visual artists — to illuminate the workings of the prison-industrial complex and share strategies for confronting it.

The book is split in two parts. The first — Diagnosing the Crisis — is dedicated to understanding the prison-industrial complex (PIC), the web of government and for-profit institutions that monitor, control, discipline, and incarcerate millions of US residents. This country, Hartnet argues, has become a “punishing democracy,” a system in which “punishment has become a driving force in contemporary American life” (p. 6).

The chapters span an impressively wide range, illuminating multiple facets of the PIC. Erica Meiners uncovers the economic underpinnings of the PIC, and the ways that surveillance and control are privatizing public space. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann offers a compelling and disturbing account of how our domestic police force has been increasingly drawing on military tools, strategies, and metaphors since the Vietnam war. Rose Braz and Myesha Williams outline the school-to-prison pipeline, and the increased policing of schools, while other pieces look at stereotypes in media, and the “war on drugs.”

The second half of the book — Practical Solutions, Visionary Alternatives — offers a series of stories about on-the-ground work being done to engage with, shift, and challenge the PIC. I would hesitate to call them “solutions,” given the daunting task they take on, but they certainly offer practical actions that real people are taking, and begin to paint a picture of a different world — one in which we see the humanity of everyone, and truly question the ways that we engage with one another and the conflicts that arise between people.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, the arts play a very large role in this section of the book. It begins with Buzz Alexander, writing about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. This program — which I was a part of in college — runs theater and writing workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and public schools, as well as an annual visual art show. Alexander gives a bold yet humble account, offering a taste of the messiness and the promise of this work, to which he has given so many years. Robin Sohnen shares the work of the Each One Reach One program, which does playwriting and tutoring in prisons, and Jonathan Shailor recounts his experiences doing Shakespeare in prisons. While each of these programs has a different focus, pedagogy, and theory of change, together they demonstrate the potential of artistic programming to build humanizing relationships between those inside and outside of the prison system; to help individuals develop and grow; to spread awareness of the oppressions of the system and of the humanity of the incarcerated; and to begin much-needed dialogue about the future of our democracy.

Throughout the book, readers are treated to pieces of poetry from incarcerated men and women, and a stunning set of images from the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. These pieces bring some concreteness to the stories told by the authors above, and connect a reader with not just the idea of prisoners but incarcerated humans in the particular.

The book as a whole, and the scholar-educator-artist-activists within, seek to shift our country from a punishing democracy to an abolition democracy. They are calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Drawing on writing by Angela Davis, Hartnett argues that prison abolition is not a negative effort of simply shutting down prisons, but a proactive process of creation — which is perhaps why artistic practice can play such an important role. He says that “shutting down the prison-industrial complex will require nothing less than a revolution — the question is not only how to abolish prisons, but how to reimagine a democracy that does not need such institutions” (p. 4).




A Match on Dry Grass

I am proud to be announcing the publication of A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform. Based on case studies of six strong community organizing groups from across the country, this book gives a deep and nuanced look at the underlying processes involved in building power among parents, youth, and community members, and leveraging this power towards educational justice.

The current national dialogue on school reform — with its focus on choice, testing, and market-based reforms — has left little room for the voices of the students, families, and communities that are most directly affected by education policies. At the same time, a growing movement of communities most marginalized by the current system — low income communities of color — are demanding and winning a say in how schools are designed and run. They are collaborating with educators, founding their own schools, increasing funding streams, addressing issues of racism and school violence, enhancing teacher quality, and integrating families and community members into schools as equal partners. Education is a key aspect of organizing to improve and empower communities, and community organizing is indispensable to the effort to create an equitable and just public school system.

For the past four years I have been fortunate to be a part of a research collaborative made up of fifteen graduate students and two faculty members. Breaking from the traditional research mode, in which graduate students are seen as assistants, we made all our decisions collectively, from research design to writing. Along with two of my colleagues, Mandy Taylor and Helen Westmoreland, I got to work with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) and their youth-led affiliate, Sistas and Brothas United (SBU). It’s an understatement to say that I learned a lot from these powerful organizers and community leaders. We did our best to capture their deep knowledge and expertise in chapter seven, Cement Between the Bricks.

To learn more about the book, you can visit our website: