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Education Opinion

The Complexity of Becoming Well-Educated

By Deborah Meier — November 20, 2008 3 min read

Dear Diane,

I knew Governor Hunt well during the early years of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. I enjoyed (and respected) his skill at heading (and herding) the motley group.

As one of its “founders,” I look back at that whole enterprise with nostalgia. It was driven by three hopes (pushed by AFT and NEA leaders Al Shanker and Mary Futrell): first, to elevate the professional respect and voice of America’s classroom teachers in determining classroom, school, and state policy (from schoolhouse to statehouse)—and thus also keeping more experienced teachers in the field; second, it hoped to demonstrate another way to make judgments about teachers and (I hoped) children (a combination of written and performance based work); and, finally, it offered the professional development community new ideas about the nature of teaching that could direct activities both in K-12 schools and in schools of education.

It was the product of a critical transitional period between the ‘70s and ‘90s, and while it “succeeded” in becoming a viable tool (my own daughter took it, passed it, and was impressed by its possibilities), it was rarely used for the first two purposes for which it was designed. I’m less knowledgeable about its impact on teacher education, but I saw little evidence that it stimulated better in-school professional discourse. Most of its failure lay in the fact that it was short-circuited by a new wave of standardized testing, and the narrowing of the definition of good teaching to standardized “bubble” tests. For the latter, little “innovation” was needed and teacher transience was perhaps a blessing.

It thus failed to create a new vision of what schools might look like, which was part of its original appeal. Teacher bashing and deprofessionalization overtook the NBPT’s vision.

Could we get back to it? Would Hunt want to?

Yes, Diane, the gurus of finance, the “Ponzi” artists of our time, seem to have a hold on our imagination even at this time of Hope. The New Yorker piece by John Lanchester (Nov 10th) is an insight into the “futuristic” part of that mindset; but even in its saner legalistic and rational forms it looks at schools as, at best, a managerial a-human puzzle. It’s almost a caricature of the mindset described by James Scott in “Seeing Like a State.” The messages from Obama’s camp are not clear enough for me to yet feel discouraged. George Packer’s piece in the Nov 17th New Yorker is worth reading with his stirring ending—"The great American improvisation called democracy still bends along the curve of history.” Possibly, but not if we don’t better utilize schools to this end.

Part of the mystery is in noting the difference between a good campaign (as run by Obama) and the building of a more democratic culture. The former indeed can be data-driven in its narrowest sense, corrected only by people’s passions to hop on board. Campaigns are indeed the quintessence of a measurable product and are messed up by too many voices from below, back-seat drivers.

Becoming well-educated is more complex and cannot be driven by the same single-mindedness that a campaign can. It must, for one, last far longer than a campaign—a lifetime. But above all, since education for democracy requires a sea change in the culture of schooling, it requires the involvement of parents, lay citizens, teachers and, critically, students. There is no scientific proof that we can call on to measure the health of democratic culture. There are, once again, indicators—symptoms. But we all know that a totalitarian regime can fake the indicators (percentage voting, for example).

NYC’s latest reporting of high school “grades” are indicative of how this can work. Virtually all high schools got an A or B this time around. (Note: Data is not collected on those schools that have only been in existence for 1-3 years, the newer small schools). I have seen no evidence that convinces me that there isn’t a whole silent drop-out rate that goes “undetected”—especially as we hold kids over for more and more years before they get to high school. But even the external data we have (e.g. NAEP data) makes mincemeat of this one-year “miracle.”

Speaking of holdovers! Imagine, after years of arguing that holding kids over is a healthy step forward in grades 3-8, both NYC’s Joel Klein and Secretary of Ed Margaret Spelling define success in high school by only counting four-year graduates. Virtually all the experts I respect suggest that this step will lead to more push-outs, less outreach, and other creative forms of collecting data.

Are you working on your definition of how national standards would work—with or without Gates? Is your purpose to inform, educate, monitor, direct, or enforce?

Deborah

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