Education Opinion

Being Afraid Is Unsuitable for Teaching and Learning

By Deborah Meier — September 18, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Today (Thursday) I hope to appear at the New York state hearings on NYC’s school governance system. Last week I spent a few days in D.C. listening to my colleagues discuss dropout rates at a congressional briefing. It was organized by the Alliance for Excellence and the Forum for Education and Democracy. Common themes kept arising, along the lines of your last letter and mine.

By the way, I’m happy to learn that the mayor’s plan for NYC was misstated in The New York Times. Five to 7-year-olds will be summed up and compared on two, not one score. Also, one measure of democracy is not WHO one votes for. I imagine, as commenter Ed Jones notes, that McCain enthusiasts feel the same way about Obama enthusiasts. That’s precisely what’s tricky about democracy.

That’s my point! There is a huge missing discussion throughout our society about democracy, its current meaning, and about what it could be. But I don’t think it ever, in any of its lives, described the way education policy is made in New York City today. Yes, ultimately, the mayor is an elected position and thus can be held accountable. Except that….he isn’t up for reelection, the majority of voters do not have kids in public schools, and their information about schooling comes almost entirely from what the mayor’s office makes public to us. We’re talking about decisions that intimately impact upon each of the 1.2 million children, their teachers, principals, etc.. (Larger than the entire population of Alaska.) There is no independent lay body, and all the other intervening bodies are creatures of the mayor, or directly accountable only to him. Of course, it’s actually much more labyrinthine—with all kinds of ever-shifting sub-bodies and tangled jurisdictions. But, believe me—everyone knows exactly who to be afraid of. That’s the plan—its precise beauty, its advocates would argue. What democracy, in contrast, is all about is finding mechanisms for making it harder for us all to be afraid of just one powerful ruler or ruling party. It’s the existence of multiple sources of power that makes us “unafraid”—that leaves space for other voices.

It just so happens that being afraid is particularly unsuitable for teaching/learning—above all the kind of teaching/learning we need for the future of democracy (and, in fact, for the auto and energy industries, too!).

Imagine if the governor or legislature in any of the other 49 states decided to wipe out all local school boards. Would there be an outcry? However we belittle local boards I suspect most people think there needs to be something in between their child’s classroom and the State.

It’s particularly dangerous, as you and I have noticed, Diane, when the mayor is effectively a bipartisan, rich (very), and extraordinarily powerful person, with almost no opposition. It means he can effectively get away with claiming that our schools are doing much better under him when the evidence suggests this is just hype.

I could go on and on. Of course you are right to be worried, Diane. You know better than most about the history of this issue in NYC.

The panel in D.C. was, in many ways, about the same topic. The three panelists—Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, and George Wood—made two devastating critiques about the way we are responding to the revelations about our high dropout rates, and how we’ve been fooled by bad data. First, Noguera said in his opening remarks that dropouts are a symptom, not the disease. If we focus our rewards and punishments on changing the data, we do more harm than good. Secondly, as Darling-Hammond and Wood noted, the latest “cure”—re-defining the graduation rate based only on those who finish in four years is an example of this danger. If these new regs are abided by, anyone who appears unlikely to graduate in four years will be more vulnerable to being pushed out. There are many reasons that kids fail to finish in four years, including crises at home that require their attention. The solutions clearly lie in providing sufficient flexibility so that they stay attached to school as closely as they can for as long as they can. Ideally, even after they get their diplomas. (Ditto re. “no excuses” suspension policies.)

George Wood described the many ways principals deceive themselves and the public about dropouts/push-outs in order to protect the school and themselves from harsh penalties. I could add more.

Engaging students in pursuit of their own education is possible, and it’s the real “cure”—not just for the crisis of school dropouts, but the larger one of societal dropouts. It requires knowing each other well and having the power to act on that knowledge in respectful ways.

On boot camps. I’m always intrigued with why boot-camp-style training “worked” for many of the English aristocracy. First of all, it was voluntary and exclusive (as are some of the current schools you describe). Second, it may not have been so good for all the students, and maybe it was bad for those “excluded”—most people. Maybe it’s only “useful” if it goes along with a sense of being the chosen elite, being toughened up for precisely the purpose of ruling others. This goes back to our failure to define “works” except by test scores—and then selectively.

If there were no other way, even toward these tawdry ends, I might buy it—uncomfortably. But there is another way. It, too, rests on feeling special, but in a more inclusive sense. (Read Mike Rose’s “Lives on the Boundary” on just this dilemma.)

Finally, I was astounded while in D.C. to witness an example of how lies/myths spread. A congressman noted in passing that 97 percent of all Chinese youngsters complete high school to very high standards. Even I sat on my hands, politely, though I doubt if 97 percent currently complete 5th grade to any standard. It will soon be on everyone’s lips along with claims that we don’t produce enough engineers.


P.S. It will take a few weeks or so to read the two books you recommended in your last post, but I’ve ordered them.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.