School & District Management Opinion

Bringing Honest Exchange Into Kids’ Lives

By Deborah Meier — September 13, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

There are two possibilities (at least) re our agreeing too much! We can dig deeper into the areas about which we agree, or we can take on what, in other times, might appear to be important disagreements.

There are times to unite before a common threat; but it’s also useful to keep the disagreements stirring.

When I was inside a school I had to take care about how much I annoyed those with more power than me. I still should. Some guy in Massachusetts with the Pioneer Institute took umbrage at my “accusing” them of having controlled the Massachusetts Department of Ed from a narrow focus on tests and vouchers, and went after Mission Hill’s recent test scores.

Still, I am freer to criticize than my colleagues inside, and shouldn’t lose that advantage. As you know, since you hear from these beleaguered insiders, too. Especially since these insiders are the very “educationists” that the new business owners of our schools are eager to get rid of. Their complaints are viewed as the mere “whining” of a defeated species.

So I am afraid. Truly. I think the mayor of NYC, and Eli Broad, are perfectly happy about a future in which most teachers come and go every five or so years. Temps. Easier to manage and harder to organize. A few will rise to leadership positions after a few years of teaching—after getting MBAs?—and the rest of the leaders will come from other fields like law, business, and the military.

I’m not so worried about what this will do to math scores, Diane. What worries me is what it does to the mission of K-12 schooling, plus college in fact, that matters most to us. Building and sustaining a democratic culture is mysterious, and as far as I can tell sometimes it seems to happen by just good luck. It may not be antithetical to getting good test scores, but it’s not the same thing. We’re not born democrats. It’s even possibly an “unnatural” human invention. So where is it—if not in schools—that we imagine the habits of intellect to sustain democracy might develop, not to mention the habits of heart and the social experience that makes it seem do-able, as well as sensible?

I’m going to Russia, in part to just be a tourist, but also to talk about this to a group of teachers who are trying to build a democracy there. That’s what we need now in the USA: a task force to study how democracy can be learned. Shall we inaugurate one? The Forum for Education and Democracy is a nascent effort to do so, whose statement of purpose and values is worth looking at. I’d love to hear your critique of our efforts, because we need to build a broad united movement around this idea.

Meanwhile, there is never a time without a few cracks in the sidewalk—or not for more than a few minutes after the paving is laid. I don’t urge teachers to stick it out or flee, but as long as they are in front of kids they need to use every resource they have to bring an honest exchange of ideas into the lives of kids, to immerse them in a classroom culture in which all ideas, even silly ones, are taken seriously and explored. Where there is no such a thing as “of course”, meaning if you don’t “get it,” you’re stupid. I used to say to kids that even in solitary confinement there are ways to “escape"—if only in one’s mind. And even the most totalitarian school isn’t yet solitary confinement.

Teachers from other schools used to tell me—in the bad old days—that they weren’t “allowed” to do x and y, “had to” teach x and y songs, read certain books, follow the script. I reminded them that until someone threatened to fire them for insubordination they had a choice, and even then….. It’s one of the reasons, but not the only one, that we need teacher’s unions so badly.

An old friend, and occasional foe these days, named Sy Fliegel, used to promote what he called “creative noncompliance”. He was one of the world’s greatest experts in it when he helped lead East Harlem’s schools along with Tony Alvarado in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I fear it may be harder to do so in these days of centralization and the increased infantalization of school principals. But still, I know a lot of folks out there who are, in their quiet ways, fighting back—resisting. (God bless them.) The biggest distortion of truth that promoters of the current NYC utter is the claim that principals now have more autonomy. As a former K-6 and 7-12 principal I say, “bah humbug”. (More later.)

They have the freedom to shuffle the deck chairs, but the Titanic is heading for an iceberg and they can’t do anything about that, except try to see that there are lots of lifeboats around and lots of kids who can swim until help arrives. And that’s a worthy task! Forgive the overwrought metaphors, Diane. I’m trying to finish this off as I head to Indiana in a few moments to talk with folks who are starting a new school! Hopefully I’ll feel more optimistic by the time I get there.


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