Education Opinion

Unintended consequences

By Deborah Meier — April 02, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

You might have been wrong, but then even I am allowed to be wrong . For example, I thought small schools was one reform no one could do harm with. I still am hoping I was 51 percent right.

I’m always inclined in favor of steps that increase conversations around common aspirations. It’s what makes me a democrat even though democratic institutions are hardly guaranteed to lead where I’m hoping they do. We both imagined charters, like small schools. Places where folks would have to sit down and talk about purposes. I saw them as representing new ideas and new relationships between the constituents to schooling. I thought of Ted Sizer’s little Parker School in Fort Devons, Mass, and a half dozen other little schools I immediately loved. I forgot about the little independent bookstores in my neighborhood that have been replaced by the Barnes and Nobles of the world. Most charters became the property of those with capital: who reinvented the same old system without a democratic public base.

We’ve moved a long way away from the idea behind democracy--which includes voting for our rulers, as well as being respected and involved members of the ruling class.

I didn’t figure they could get away with privatizing our schools because of the American romance about public education. But within my lifetime we have gone from the public schoolhouse of old to the modern public post office model. And just you wait and see, soon the post office will be the property of some big private mega. The reality bears no resemblance to the romance. Just to keep up with the increased population we’d have needed half a million school boards if we wanted to maintain the same connection between schools and the public that existed at the time I was born. We have instead about 10,000. While the school population has tripled, we have 1/50th as many citizens involved in their governance.

An alienated voting public can lose the energy it takes to protect itself against greedy corporate giants--not by choice, but by being worn down, step by step. Being shouted at about “crises” and “emergencies” further weakens the will to resist. America’s future economy is at stake, say the Bushies, if we don’t privatize schools. Although today on the radio I heard Bush wax enthusiastic about America’s economic prowess in the world.

Liberals are not much better about the rhetoric of crisis. If the American public likes its schools, it’s seen as evidence of their stupidity, one reason why we can’t rest power in their hands. Yet on the other hand I’ve heard the same folks tell me that we have to test our kids to death because the same public won’t continue its support if we don’t produce better results. The only acceptable proof: test scores.

A few NYC points. . (1) If all goes as planned in NYC, “empowered principal” will have less power than I used to and that only if they produce fairly short-run improvements in test scores in math and “literacy.” (2) High school principals have always had considerable leeway in spending their “units"--which was how budgets were once distributed. (3) Tony Alvarado in Districts 2 and 4 had 30-40 years ago shown us how to decentralize budgetary power. (4) Re: your support for more curriculum mandates. Would you be satisfied, Diane, if Klein added tests in science, history, and literature to the K-8 testing schedule? In high schools the Regents exams already provide the fixed curriculum you advocate.

To disparage the human judgment--of teachers, parents and school boards-- in the very institutions intended to educate human judgment in a society that rests on a system of law and governance that depends on human judgment is absurd and self-defeating.

You don’t have to predict the future: it is here. A friend who runs a nursery school tells me that some parents want her to prepare their kids, starting at age 3, for NYC’s new 4-year old tests for its new gifted and talented programs. Our public reliance on tests to make decisions about children cannot help but turn parents into test-maniacs.

Meanwhile, Diane, let’s take the time to visit some of the small schools of choice that aren’t middle class havens so we can--maybe--restore our enthusiasm for possibilities, and spread a little cheer. I’m not expecting them to replicate schools like the old CPESS, but maybe just be more respectful, thoughtful and coherent than the ones they were carved out of. Let’s make a date.


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