Education Opinion

Let’s Play With ‘Overarching’ Agreements

By Deborah Meier — April 10, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

Actually, I do not now nor ever have believed that teachers of K-12 schools could create a new social order. It’s neither accurate nor healthy for us to think that’s our job.

A minor clarification: You write: “no matter whether schools are progressive or traditional (are there any such??)… “

I was wondering if the parenthesis meant you weren’t sure there were any progressive, traditional, or either of the two! If you recall that was one of our very long ago and far away arguments—my contention that progressive education had barely ever been tried in urban public schools. But I suppose that in your sense of “the traditional”, there probably weren’t a lot of those either. A new thought for me!

It is interesting when we seem to switch sides. John (a reader of ours) also thinks I switched sides. I don’t think I ever believed schools could build a better or a new social order. I think Counts was wrong in 1932, and many of my best friends are wrong today. But schools can help or hinder in creating the changes and sustaining them.

But yes, schools can and do impact on how our youth see themselves and society. So I want the impact to be on behalf of intellectual independence and feistiness. I don’t think that in this kind of period we’re prepared to have many such schools, or consistently move in a direction that allows for their long-term sustainability. I also think that while “good enough” schools would take various forms, they would need to be staffed by strong-minded and independently powerful adults, who join with parents and students to create respectful, trusting communities of learners. This assumes a form of “trust” that powerful people are far from feeling toward “ordinary” people, and “ordinary” people are far from feeling toward those different from themselves. And both for reasons I can’t magically mandate an end to.

That’s where I have changed since my revolutionary youth. I still want that “revolution”—but it can’t lead to a fairer, more democratic, and less fearful future unless it comes about at a pace that accords with the culture of its citizens. That means schools must include “the street” and the “popular culture” if they are to influence it. I’m not an optimist about the chances, but I think it’s worth a try.

At a time when failed business leaders get raises worth millions, while principals are offered a pittance for meeting so-called “bottom lines,” it’s hard to take reform rhetoric too seriously.

Meanwhile, let’s you and I play with the range of “overarching” agreements that might allow for the degree of incompatibility that is actually out there to coexist. Some examples are perhaps intended to seem absurd and I may—over time—decide I don’t agree with them all:

(1) That regardless of what other purposes schools serve they must justify their curriculum choices and assessment systems (at a minimum) as serving to prepare young people for the day they become eligible voters, jurors, and full-scale members of the larger political society.

(2) That for this and other purposes (e.g. employment and enjoyment of life) every one should have a basic level of competence (maybe something like Seymour Papert’s definition of fluency that I’ll describe at another time) in reading, writing, speaking, arithmetic, basic algebra, and statistics/probability. Can we agree on a single measure for defining and assessing this? No, but maybe we can agree on a set of ways?

(3) That all schools demonstrate that students have had a variety of opportunities to explore deeply at least one field of science, with a focus on understanding the nature of science. But that we not try to mandate any course specifics or define levels of competence. That should be left close to the action.

(4) That all schools engage in a study of the foundations and underlying assumptions of a democratic polity, the U.S. Constitution, its origins, the trade-offs, balances/tensions, and how they are reflected in contemporary politics; plus, familiarity with alternate systems of democratic and undemocratic governance. Again, with the details and assessment left to those closest to the students.

(5) That provisions exist in every locality for students to have access at public expense to public schools or programs that provide for a deeper and heavier focus on one or more specialization, where doing so does not impact on racial or class segregation.

(6) Importantly: That the public system provide after-school, summer and, above all, post-graduate educational experiences for all citizens so that the ideal of “life-long learning” is available at any and all ages at a modest fee or none! Let’s stop trying to ram everything into kids by age 18.

(7) And finally, that the details of such arrangements be overseen by publicly selected laymen—oops, off topic.**

I hope these provoke and outrage. But it’s a starting point for us, Diane.


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