Education Opinion

Summer Break and Summer Reading

By Deborah Meier — July 01, 2010 4 min read
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[Editor’s note: After today’s entry from Deborah Meier, the Bridging Differences blog takes a summer break. Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch (and their blog) will return to edweek.org in September.]

Dear Diane,

A good summer read (see below for other ideas): Mis-Measuring Our Lives, Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi (The New Press, 2010). Sometimes one discovers that ideas from different fields are remarkably in sync with each other. Here are a few quotes from this book that should keep us busy this summer. His bete noir: GDP

Our statistics reflect...the values that we assign things...Treating these as objective data, as if they are external to us, beyond question or dispute, is undoubtedly reassuring, but it's dangerous because we get to the point where we stop asking ourselves about the purpose of what we are dong, what we are actually measuring, and what lessons we need to draw.... We begin to march ahead blindly while convinced that we now where we're going."

Two examples: “If our measuring systems overvalue the usefulness to society of speculation compared with work, entrepreneurship, and creative intelligence, then this dangerously reverses the value system underpinning our vision of progress.” Or “We don’t know the value of an asset because the market prices it every second. ...In the quest to increase GDP, we may end up with a society in which citizens are worse off.”

That’s precisely the point I think you and I have been making in so many different ways. In short: “In the quest to increase test scores, we may end up with a society in which citizens are less well educated.”

Stiglitz et al argue, as we do, “how easily accessible numbers...lead us to make incorrect inferences...and metrics that seem out of sync with individual perceptions are particularly problematic. If GDP is increasing, but most people feel they are worse off ... confidence in government is eroded...”

And finally: “A single metric or a dashboard?... a metric designed for one purpose may be ill-suited or another.” “To define what well-being means a multi-dimensional definition has to be used” or we will miss the varied dimensions that shape people’s economic well-being.

Amen to all the above. In every field the same danger exists, of re-ifying whatever can be measured. Made even more dangerous when we use the data for so many conflicting purposes. For example, certain tests may be useful for purpose X, but entirely misleading for purpose Y, much less X, Y, and Z simultaneously.

But another reason to think about a dashboard is that in fact we don’t all agree with the ends. Or we may agree, but our priorities may differ so that we are prepared to make different trade-offs. Sara Mead, who put together a section on early childhood for the latest American Prospect magazine tuned me into an E.D. Hirsch fan. The others, arguing on behalf of teaching reading as early as possible, ignore what he and co-author Robert Pondiscio remind us: that there is simply “no such thing as a reading test” because everything we read contains content. The simple, worded directions “that any 8-year-old can follow” are incomprehensible to many a 79-year-old if she isn’t familiar with the concepts and terms embedded in the “3rd grade level” directions.

It’s precisely because Hirsch and you (and I) value reading so much that we fear that hours spent on getting children to read earlier and earlier would be better spent reading to children or immersing them in experiences that build their knowledge, language, and ideas about the world, and in their conviction that the world—all of it—belongs to them. The highest-scoring nation—Finland—may have other advantages in terms of greater social and economic equality, but it may also be that they use the ages between 3 and 8 so differently.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, amidst all the talk about closing gaps, reality rears its ugly head: “We’re within a few years of having some of the pension funds run out of money. Funding for the schools is going to be cut radically. Funding for Medicaid. As these things all mount up, there’s going to be a lot of outrage.” R. Eden Martin, president of the Commercial Club of Chicago. But no one expects test scores to fall and gaps to increase as a result. We’re still less willing to raise taxes on the rich than to raise our educational aspirations—that’s a tradeoff we hope to deceive ourselves into ignoring.

By the time you read this, Diane—I may be riding on a higher cloud of hope. At the moment, however, the best I can do is fall back on one of those childhood songs that inspired me at school assemblies:

Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire! I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land.

And thus we keep speaking and writing our blogs and “knowing” that someday we will have a greener and pleasanter childhood to offer the young. It’s time to go jump into my pond and watch the clouds roll by.


To read: Our two books--of course. Others from 2010: My friend Kathy Cushman’s, Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery; DIY U: Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, by Anya Kamenetz--provocative thoughts on higher education; Tony Judt’s, Ill Fares the Land; Kenneth Strike’s Small Schools and Strong Communities, with an introduction by the late Mary Anne Raywid. And an oldie by David Hawkins, The Informed Vision: Essays on Learning and Human Nature , and up a different alley--Michael Lewis’s The Big Short.

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.