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How Do We Start a Discussion About What It Is We Value?

By Deborah Meier — February 12, 2009 4 min read

Dear Diane,

You ask: why are people so gullible? That includes both the writers and readers of our media. (Or should I say listeners?)

Many reasons, no doubt, including a natural inclination to believe there is some way to know what’s happening out there in the big world, and gullibility is perhaps better than instinctively dismissing it all. The kind of healthy skepticism you and I are talking about is not, I’d argue, a natural part of our evolutionary make-up. Probably through most of human history we didn’t depend on any media—but that which our own senses, and our neighboring allies agreed upon as truth. There’s no way I can check out most of what makes up my “immediate” environment today, and no amount of voracious reading could assure me that I had it right. After all, books, too, are part of “the media” and must be read with a proper skepticism. And on and on.

And, indeed, while we all have a “right” to our opinion, it’s an empty right if that’s all it is, or maybe a dangerous right!

In a democracy then, you and I might argue, learning how to reason (or empathize) our way into enough of the truth, with enough uncertainty to be open to new truths, needs to be “learned.” (Is that sentence too loaded?) Where might we learn such a mindset? In family, neighborhood, on TV, and above all, in those 12-13 years of schooling that are universal and free. And even required!!

The question for educators then is how to use those long years toward such ends. And, simultaneously, how to educate the larger public, as we learn more ourselves, as to why these newfangled innovations are worth doing. They cannot be imposed upon an unwilling public, or parents—because that in itself can’t happen in a democracy for very long. We tried it once with “new math” and lost fairly quickly, although I’m still of the belief we were on the right track a half-century ago. It’s also tricky to “experiment” on children—to admit that we truly don’t entirely know whether our new approach will get us where we want to go, but bear with us!

That’s why I’m for such experiments not being imposed, but being studied carefully and applied to volunteers. The voluntary part goes against “random sample experimenting,” etc., but that’s a limitation we need to accept. Of course, since the “traditional” paths are in fact still unproven experiments, I want the right to opt out of them for my kids, too. (That’s where some form of controlled choice enters into my equation.)

This was what the Eight-Year Study tried to do; this is what the Coalition and Central Park East schools tried to do. This is what we tried to do in the extraordinary Annenberg proposal we launched in 1994—which was abandoned shortly afterward when the new state superintendent and new city chancellor both quashed the project. We made the mistake of saying we didn’t know how to advance both a more powerful form of accountability and more powerful schooling. We proposed a design that would allow us to study this in action. Had we done so in 1994, today we might know the answer to questions we remain ignorant about. So we play around with knights on white horses riding into cities with their mayors’ blessings, experimenting on entire school systems.

We’ve settled for the idea that democracy, and the U.S. economy, are safe if only we match our competitors’ test scores and more or less close test score gaps, and that this can be accomplished if we frighten people or reward people into just putting their minds to it.

Of course, in fact, they don’t just work harder under such pressure, they actually work “smarter.” But their “smarts” are almost entirely devoted to figuring out how to crunch the data in such a way that they win the reward, whether in fact, it produces better educated citizens or not, and in many cases, whether it truly even produces better “data.” Generally, the mayor also controls the way in which the data is developed, weighted, and reported.

They end up good at the Wall Street “game,” and begin to believe, as those on Wall Street probably did, that better numbers equal a stronger economy, and better test scores equal a better educated citizenry!

What to do, Diane? Because I am still intrigued by schooling’s potential to make what we now think of as mediocre teachers become very good ones and the good ones great, and so, too, our kids. But what would it take? That’s why I so enjoyed the conversation with my old grads a few weeks back. We were onto something at CPESS 20 years ago, and there are unsung heroic schools that are still out there. How do we keep them thriving, and how can we learn from them and their graduates?

The root of the word evaluation is value, so how do we start a discussion about what it is we value before rushing to technologies for evaluating our schools in a single top-down way?

Deb

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.