Education Opinion

We Are Deciding on Our Shared Future

By Deborah Meier — June 17, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane.

I’ve been mulling over the well-organized attack on the concept of seniority and tenure. The roots of both have long been forgotten. Seniority as a concept has been fundamental implicitly, if not explicitly, to most societies. Tenure was added for public service and academia, because politics was perceived as a threat to public service workers, especially “mind-workers.” This preceded teachers’ unions and exists in states without unions! Even with tenure, teachers are vulnerable, especially troublemakers. But some might argue that this is a good reason to support merit pay since principals will have to base their decisions on objective test scores.

Thus, we’re back to defining our educational purposes as raising external test scores. Alas, I’ve known awful teachers whose student test scores went up, and the reverse. The reasons are many. Do publishers still send technical manuals with tests, including date on measurement error? It’s an inescapable factor reflecting chance mistakes, mechanical errors by students or test companies, the happenstance of the particular content of any sample of items, testing conditions, children’s moods, and students’ socioeconomic status. Using samples of 20-30 scores is statistical nonsense.

Then add in cheating. If Wall Street’ers cheated us for money, greed being part of human nature some would argue, why would we expect it to only have a beneficial impact on teachers if their livelihoods were at stake?

Steve Eisman, whose investment strategies were chronicled in The Big Short, has found the next “big short"—education stocks. Who would want to go into such a profession for the long run? A great English teacher who also helps students become orally articulate while developing a love of the written word may well be a loser for failing to spend more time on test preparation.

And still baffling to me: (1) How will all the teachers in untested subjects be paid or evaluated? Answer (maybe): Tests at every grade-level starting at prekindergarten, and in every license area for which teachers are hired. (2) Who will set the benchmarks used to set teachers’ salaries or for retention purposes? (3) What happens if teachers switch grades?

Diane, it’s beyond belief. I’m speechless. But one nice thing about a letter versus an essay is that I can change the subject. Enough on this!

Having reached a consensus on merit pay, they’re now putting the finishing touches on national standards—leading to a single nationwide test. I fear that the idea of using them (as we do NAEP) to inform, and not for high stakes, is unlikely to fly. If so, will we find ourselves then on different sides? I hope not.

I know we view our ideal curriculum differently. To quote you: “we need a “well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum” covering the time-honored liberal arts and sciences. (Actually the sciences didn’t enter in until the end of the 19th century; and Harvard faculty argued that only 4 percent of the college’s applicants in 1890 were able to write acceptably.) Apparently, the Harvard faculty didn’t take Stanley Fish’s advice: “put {teachers} in a room with students who are told where they are going and how they are going to get there,” and all will be well. It “worked for me,” he adds. But something different worked for me, Stanley! What to do about that?

Schools like Central Park East Secondary School graduated ordinary students who have done well in college and led interesting lives and careers following a different definition of “intellectual habits of mind” than Fish’s, closer to the definition practiced by the best New York City independent schools. And CPESS-like exams came closer to responding to the virtues Fish also describes: “to speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic.”

The sequence and particularities of such “topics” is precisely what neither a plebiscite nor a consensus should dictate. Like you, I insist that virtually all human beings can be equipped intellectually to tackle being “rulers” of a complex modern society—as an ideal and as a practice. These are not in conflict with job skills, but they come closer to what employers and ordinary citizens measure each other by. For example, a recent study indicates that while we spend five times as many hours in school on mathematics vs. music and the arts, only 9 percent of gainfully employed adults claim to ever use algebra in their workplace. Standards, yes, but a “sequential,” “coherent” curriculum always also contains a viewpoint.

Before we put in place another failed, one-size-fits-all list of MUSTS, let’s stop and think together about who should decide if it’s worth it. We are, after all, deciding on our shared future. Do we assume that the state legislators who will vote on the new standards will actually have read them? I once proposed the following law: “No legislature will vote for a required test until they agree to take the same test and have their scores reported publicly.” They’d read them then.

Like all competent “revolutionaries,” the “cabal” in charge has learned to grab the moment before anyone blinks. Make changes quick and make them that hard to take back. So we better be sure we have thought about the consequences before we lock ourselves into another century of school failure. Perhaps you and I could agree that, in a labor-intensive industry (schooling) designed to prepare people’s character as well as their skill set, the revolution can’t lose sight of ends as it argues over means.


P.S. That huge, gushing faucet of oil is still called a “spill” or a “leak.” It would be interesting to trace the history of this usage.

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.