Education Opinion

Worrying About When the Other Shoe Will Fall

By Deborah Meier — November 08, 2007 4 min read

Dear Diane,

We’ve been e-mailing back and forth during this past week—so you already know how shocked I was, even though I might have imagined I was above and beyond shockable.

Some months ago I wrote about my own fears—about potential retaliation against the schools I was most identified with—that might follow my outspoken critiques of their bosses. I am not paranoid enough—perhaps unwisely—to presume that all the bad “luck” that has befallen my beloved NYC schools is due to deliberate sabotage. But it doesn’t keep me from worrying when the other shoe will fall with regard to my “legendary” “genius” status. There was always the other side of the coin to all the praise. I consider myself to have outlived my good luck—and wait daily to be “found out.” I just wish no one else will pay the price should it happen.

You reminded me at the time that I had nothing to fear: let me see if I can find your response—and quote it here. But none of us are. The degree to which foundations, universities, the media, columnists, editorialists and you name ‘em are in some form or other indebted to the Mayor and Chancellor is beyond anything I have seen—since a certain earlier period in Daley’s rule in Chicago.

Multiple sources of power and control are useful precisely for this reason. The failures of the old Board as well as the local boards should not have led to eliminating all other forms of lay control. To imagine that the Mayor’s future—his or her accountability—can be the one and only back-up for educational policy is absurd. Given that the vast majority of New Yorkers, and its most powerful voters, do not use our schools, it becomes even more ludicrous. And dangerous.

For all the talk of increased autonomy, I know few principals or teachers who see themselves as operating with more freedom and site control. The high schools always had control over their budgets, and the elementary schools could easily have been grand-fathered into the high school system: each school had a formula-based unit allocation. Each unit equaled the average salary of a teacher (approx. $50,000) that could be used to cover virtually all legal and contract-allowable expenses.

The current system of “grading”, added to the federal system of AYP, and total central control of principal’s tenure is a strangehold on innovative and imaginative practice. Klein acknowledges that it is not a finished product—but the damage it causes is for him just part of the process of getting things right. As were all the biannual reorganizations that have taken place during his tenure. But the actual teachers, principals and parents (plus kids!) who are harmed by these labels are real, live humans and the damage done to them and their schools will not easily be repaired. Klein probably says, hurrah, because it will make them work harder, be more careful and improve children’s test scores, etc. I fear he is right. Working harder is not the goal—for kids or adults—although one might think so some days. And given the entrenched inequities of our society we better begin to honor some creative juices within our classrooms and teacher rooms. And finally, the last thing we need is more attention to test scores—at least of the kind of tests that now rule our school lives.

Diane, I think we could make a difference if, whenever someone said that the bottom line is “school achievement”, we asked them to replace the phrase with “test scores” on math and reading tests—unless they actually mean something else. Current tests are only a very small part of what should be meant by achievement. What they make no pretense of measuring are most of the things that employers and citizens of this nation claim they want—including those worrying about our economy or participation in our civic life. I’m not always fond of those lists of 21st Century skills, but they largely focus on stuff like perseverance, initiative, meeting deadlines, curiosity, oral language, creativity, team work, “good sense” and so on. Klein’s move to start testing of 4- and 5-year-olds threatens further a dangerous trend that is already undermining America’s creative head start. (On that note, see Jeannine Ouellette’s marvelous summary of the case for children’s play.)

Oh dear, Diane. I’m ranting to you, who agree with me. But I simply have to get it off my chest. If they even think of intimidating you, just imagine who else has a right to be fearful. We all have a stake in this—probably least of all you, Diane! It’s those more vulnerable than you that this unwarranted attack is perhaps meant to silence—and for that reason we all have a stake in this unwarranted use of public funds and public office. (Editor’s note: The underlined text and the “P.S.” were initially omitted due to a posting error. Both were added back in on 11/9/07.)

In support, collegiality, solidarity and more arguments.


P.S. The nerve of your critics for claiming that you have occasionally changed your mind! When Mr. Klein changes his mind (every other year) he doesn’t just upset some people’s sensitivities, but he causes time-consuming upheavals in a system in which practitioners are seriously short of time.

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