Budget & Finance Opinion

Digging Into Our ‘Disagreements’ on Schools

By Deborah Meier — November 29, 2012 6 min read
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Dear Pedro,

In keeping with the spirit of Bridging Differences—establishing differences—given our many nondifferences—could be helpful. In response to your blog post from Tuesday, I think there are three possible disagreements I want to address.

1. Your assumption (unsaid) that both “sides” have similar ends, and thus can be persuaded by similar evidence, and alternative solutions.
2. An underlying critique of “our side” for criticizing without offering reasonable alternative paths.
3. Spelling out what you think is missing by offering specific examples.

#1. Assumptions. While many of those who go along with the new “reforms” are naïve, well-meaning (and maybe “brain-washed”?), are we agreed that the new reforms are being driven by folks with different ends in mind? The former folks are a target audience. But the real movers and shakers? They know what they are doing.

The naïve audience doesn’t know, or need to be reminded, that every time we face an economic crisis or a dangerous enemy the mass media point to the failure of public schools. In language paraphrased from the 1983 Nation at Risk report: If a foreign enemy had tried to disarm us, they couldn’t do it better than our public schools have. Or, take the too-often accepted view that if only there would be more college graduates who were skilled (or good at passing tests) there would be well-paying jobs for them. It’s humbug, but widely believed. As though we hire foreign labor (or outsource work) because overseas workers are better educated rather than that they will work for less. And the measure of everything? Test scores: good ones or bad ones, either/any will do.

The corporate reform myths make it appear that we have only two choices: go back to what schools “once were” or move forward to technologically standardized schools that will properly prepare the workforce. It’s the “status quo” or a sharp break with the past. From this vantage, the break we need is fewer protections for those at the bottom: applying marketplace rewards and punishments while ending the influence of public safety nets.

To do so we must de-fang unions in general, and education unions in particular, labeling them self-interested, greedy institutions unlike their beneficent opponents, thus killing two birds with one stone—unions as a force in education and unions as a base for political action. Just as the corporations are being freed of political restraints, the unions are less and less able to be a political counter-force. The appeal to ruthlessness in the name of children is tempting. (If only we dared treat bankers, hedge-funders, and other betrayers of our trust as ruthlessly.)

A hard act to follow. But we must not let it rest in their court.

#2. An underlying critique. There is an alternative based on reality. We need to sell it.

In the last 20 years—one generation of students—the new revolutionaries have gone a long way to accomplishing many of the goals described above. They did it in part by dividing us. Like all revolutionaries, they are in a hurry. They know that they will eventually face tough opposition, but by then it will be hard to turn the privatization of America around. We’ll have to start all over again. So your challenge, Pedro, is critical!

We have to simultaneously break the power of the myths and find ways to reach the self-interests and/or empathy of naïve fellow travelers and ward off potential discouragement. Yes, yes, yes, Pedro. But how?

Parents are harder to fool, although they too often think that the schools “in general” are much worse than the ones their children now go to, and that there was a once-upon-a-time when Americans were better educated. Like before we even worried about equality, when not educating poor people beyond 6th grade and black people at all was the norm. But parents are where our work begins and ends, and where as educators we actually have a leg up on the other “reformers.” If we use it. Lesson One: Parents and teachers must unite—and can. (See Chicago’s strike for evidence.)

Equality is not a popular subject, except rhetorically. But how about a campaign that simply notes that the easiest way to scale up and build excellence is to spend the same amount of money on the poor as we do on educating the children of the rich—often $40,000 to 50,000 a year, plus after-school, weekend, and summer opportunities that come with privilege. Not to mention family networks that put the kids of the rich in a better competitive advantage. Plus ... If we really wanted most poor kids to be able to compete on a level field with most rich kids, or to really close the gap in a hurry, there is no faster path. Even if we can’t win that war, it’s worth saying. Lesson Two: Money buys a lot.

We’ve also spent our lives offering “cheaper answers.” In 1992, New York City had between 50 and 100 small, self-governing public schools with the same mix of students (many were integrated) as the public sphere and a plan for accountability that convinced Annenberg. But it did not convince the leaders of education in New York City or the state. Over time, these amazing schools, some of which were just getting their feet wet, felt the gravitational pull of top-down unfriendly policies. Ditto in Boston with its 30 Pilot schools which, with rare exceptions, did not/do not attract corporate support. Instead the “reformers” borrowed our language and attached it to privately chartered schools whose futures were entrusted to wealthy boards of trustees. Lesson Three? Could we have stopped that with people power?

We old-time reformers wrote books galore. We described ad nauseam. We funded our own FairTest with a budget of thousands to expose the testing mythology. We were joined by the best psychometricians, but we did not overcome. We started networks of schools to show the world other ways: the Coalition of Essential Schools, Expeditionary Learning, the METs, etc. But we were told it would take too long; our examples weren’t quickly replicable en masse. We even have the “data.” Lesson Four: Good reforms are good for kids and the world—and needn’t be justified.

#3. What’s missing, Pedro? We have to use our limited resources to maximize our effectiveness and our access to voices in the field. We have to keep afloat the best of our exemplars and tell their story far and wide through every medium we can reach. And ...

What we need to start with is a consensus that schools have to raise kids alongside their families; they have to join together on behalf of building a generation of strong citizens with powerful and unrelenting habits of mind, habits that provide for their own well-being and that of their families, communities, and nation. Maybe the planet’s. That to do all this we need schools that treat teachers, students, parents, and neighbors respectfully, as though they have things to learn from each other and the power to carry out their ideas. They must never settle for viewing “other people’s children” differently than their own. We also need trustworthy information that will help us all compare and contrast. We will probably not be surprised that small class size helps, that more time devoted to family conferences helps, that teachers need professional colleagues and the time to work together, etc.

It may turn out that there are more similarities than we now imagine if we don’t abandon our democratic purposes. Democracy cannot and will not survive the gross inequities facing us.

Let’s keep digging at this so-called disagreement.


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