School & District Management Opinion

A Climate of False Crisis

By Deborah Meier — February 11, 2010 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

Leisure is an essential ingredient for a successful working democracy. We need time to think and unbundle some of the contradictions by which we live. If “elitism” is wrong for charters, why is it okay for public schools? Why do we presume that poor kids need a more rigid and authoritarian school climate than “ordinary” kids? How can I both believe in the importance of local decision-making where possible, and also support choice in schooling? My list is long.

But my time for discussing such issues isn’t enough.

Then add to it the climate of false crisis that is whipped up by those who are quite sure of their agendas and have learned that giving citizens more time will only cause trouble, for them.

David Berliner and Bruce Biddle wrote a book on the topic: The Manufactured Crisis, in 1995. Richard Rothstein has continued the theme in most of his work, but rereading The Way We Were?, one realizes that public schools have always been driven by crises. Albert Shanker once acknowledged to me that he realized the crisis was a fiction, but that it was a useful fiction without which no one would take public education seriously.

Narratives are easier to remember, and so we invent them. And, we always insist that at this moment we cannot move with caution because—it’s a crisis in need of an immediate fix.

Noted education historian Lawrence Cremin is quoted by Michael Goldenberg in a blog I just received, as saying:

“American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade and industrial policy, and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board. ...Therefore, to conclude that problems of international competitiveness can be solved by education reforms, especially educational reform defined as school reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best a foolish and at worst a crass effort to direction attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the blame instead on the schools. It is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education.”

Read Rothstein (above) for evidence of the latter. It’s in keeping with a point that Paul Krugman made in his Feb. 4 New York Times column about fiscal policy, entitled “Fiscal Scare Tactics.” He argues that the deficit hysteria is built not on facts but opinions. And, the opinions are not neutral in their self interests. “Fear mongering on the deficit may end up doing as much harm as fear-mongering on weapons of mass destruction,” he says. And, I might add, “and as the fear-mongering about low test scores.”

In my more active socialist youth, we used to argue about who would take out the garbage under socialism. In fact, of course today it’s not a bad-paying job, thanks to unions. But we had our own solutions—like a reverse pay scale, with jobs no one wanted paying the most, and jobs everyone wanted the least; or making the young do the dirty work of society while the old basked in its benefits. Which, even if we were young, we didn’t see as unfair. And, I still don’t, of course.

But what’s missing from all the debates about education, including the current preposterous committees deciding what the uniform national curriculum should be, is the fifth “habit of mind” that we invented for Central Park East: “Who cares? Why does it matter?” Until we get that right, or at least in the conversation at all, we’ll not engage the hearts and minds of the young, nor have a truly well-educated public that can demand better explanations.

Yes, schools are to be blamed. But for something quite different. For the fact that our democracy is floundering from an easily conned citizenry. Lots and lots of money is a great advantage to the purveyors of distorted facts. The art of the con is the enemy of democracy. But it takes time—leisure—and a different set of habits than a world ruled by advertising slogans and sound bites, in the company of others to untangle some of the contradictions.

Incidentally, read the linked documents for a few examples of items being proposed for the kindergarten curricula of the future. The draft kindergarten ELA standards can be found on pages 14-21. The draft kindergarten math standards can be found on pages 7-9.


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.