Education Opinion

Struggling to Get the Balance Right

By Deborah Meier — March 27, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I think we took the same message from the NYC pizza event. If I called it an example of out of control bureaucracy it’s because Klein and company seem to acknowledge no limits! Which leads nicely into our discussion of limits!

Yes, I think you are partly right about behavior and authority—and partly wrong. Where you and I so often end up!

Reread those classics by Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as her autobiographical account of teaching school in the late 1800s. Many of the older kids were completely “out of control,” angrily waiting until the planting season began again so they could go back to being grown-ups, not under the thumb of mostly female teachers. While in many parts of the world being able to go to school is a longed-for privilege, it’s hard to convince kids when we require it. Like the starving children of Armenia that my mother used to tell me about, the suffering of others didn’t make me a more avid eater. Especially of overcooked vegetables and icky stuff. (Which I was required to finish to the last morsel.)

I remember a mother coming in to complain to me (when I was a principal) about something bad she thought I had allowed to happen. She noted angrily that when she was a girl in her Catholic school it wouldn’t have been tolerated. I reminded her that if her mother had talked to the principal in the manner in which she was talking to me, she would not long have remained in that Catholic school. We allowed for a few minutes of silence, and then continued.

Entitlements, civil rights, labor unions—all have their flip side. Resistance to authority has a long and mostly noble history—and future (I hope). It isn’t easy to separate the noble vs. the ignoble.

So, much as I would like to elevate the larger culture, we meanwhile struggle in school to get the balance just right or “righter.” There is nothing in the end that works better than one’s own drive to be learned. But I believe it’s possible. I believe it because most of the time we did so in many schools I know well. Still it never comes easy, especially when it’s built on compulsion. That’s the conundrum.

In some ways the “watered-down” schooling that you decry (and view as a result of progressive education) was a practical answer to the boredom, restlessness, and misbehavior of working- and lower-class kids who became our responsibility once we required them to attend or else. It was “progressive” in that more limited, nonideological sense. Done well, I do think vocational ed is better than trying to cram “the academics” down their throats. Why? Because what’s absorbed is not in any honest sense of the word fair to call “academic” and leads, in fact, to a lot of well-deserved anti-academic contempt.

Can we reexamine the power and nature of “the academics” so that they connect with the curiosity and interest of the young, thus mitigating the need for all this focus on “control”? I think we can, but it will not look like what you call “academic” a lot of the time, Diane.

Many of the commentators on our blog think I’m being romantic on this point, too. John fears trying to mix the culture of the “street” with “the academy”—whereas I’m prepared to start wherever the learner is. He has, however, a point. I agree with him that the kids must see us as unequivocally “on their side”—prepared to protect as well as be tough on them. Dickey thinks we need programs that “shape” student behavior, the kind we use, he says, with dogs and cats to reward them for proper behavior. It’s even possible that in settings in which both parties to the behavior-shaping trust each other’s intentions such techniques pay off. I’m dubious. But that’s not our schools. It might also “pay off” if such means weren’t too often incompatible with our ends—like developing life-long learners, adults resistant to nonsense, people with a sense of good craftsmanship and irrisistably drawn to seeing the other side of things. And above all stuck with such habits even when we’re not watching.

Don Berg thinks that if schools were free, but not compulsory we’d need to focus less on managing. Maybe, or maybe we’d just have more cheap labor. Erin suggests that if exams were external, it would be easier for the teacher to be seen as an ally, not a judge and enemy. She has a very good point, which probably you would concur with, Diane. I think the Central Park East Secondary School alternative—which involves both in and out-of-school judges—is best of all. It allowed me to remind my advisees that pleasing me was not the goal. Their work had to meet agreed-upon standards as interpreted by a wider range of judges. It gave me a foot in both camps—advocate and judge. (Go directly to the Comments for a fairer and fuller view of our readers.)

I urge you, Diane, to sometime take a look at Fred Wiseman’s film, “High School II.” Not for particular answers, but for the sense of what a school that is “on their side” feels like. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s why faculty longevity is critical to good schooling. Yes, powerless automated teachers, and ABA behavior systems, make a kind of sense if genuine relationships of authority are not possible. But under such circumstances the “thee, thou and ‘it’” triangle that David Hawkins described isn’t possible either. I’m not ready to lower my expectations for the kids who need it most, while the ones that need it least benefit from schools that offer the real thing.

The students we taught at CPESS and Mission Hill, the ones society claims to be so worried about, need more of what the rich and powerful offer their children, not one whit less.


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