School & District Management Opinion

Getting From Here to There

By Deborah Meier — December 01, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

The hope that there is a fast route to solving big problems is alluring. And, it might even be true if only I were smart enough. But it’s unlikely. I spent many years of my happy youth believing in The Revolution—and I was of that faction that even believed that it would lead, pretty rapidly, to a full and richly satisfying liberation of human potential. But as you noted on Tuesday, Diane, it’s the Rich who are now making a revolution—and quite a radical one. And doing it pretty fast! Properly speaking, it’s a counter-revolution to a whole host of hard-won minor ones over the past 150 years. I think they’re going after child labor laws as well. Yes, it’s scary.

When political friends occasionally chided me for spending so much energy on education—which can hardly be a fast solution to anything—I agreed. I was a school teacher not on behalf of any “cause,” but because I loved doing it; it was always fascinating. I enjoy crossword puzzles and appreciate the fact that each has a solution. But in the 50 years I spent fiddling with school-based problems I knew there probably was no grand solution that could occur in my lifetime until we tackled inequality head on. So, I’d have to be satisfied with “solving” the daily “little” dilemmas and puzzles about Child X or Y.

I’m continually amazed at how many of the students (and adults) who attended one of “our” schools believe we had an enormous influence on their lives. It gives me shivers to think about. Occasionally we tried to imagine how fiddling with the system might work, and we suggested some answers. We even got $50 million from the Annenberg Foundation to try out some of our “solutions” on a larger scale. The chancellor (not the union!) vetoed it. But even then I knew that its success would be modest unless someone invented a quick solution to the inequalities of the larger world in which children lived most of their lives. But if one chancellor was stopping us in New York City, I could see that there were far more entrenched “chancellors” who would make it hard to solve the larger problem: the truly gross inequities of life.

One reader (Ed Jones) writes in response to last week’s blog:

Your statement that, '... under current circumstances, the evidence suggests that local control, weighted in favor of those who actually have a personal stake in the enterprise (students, parents, teachers) is the best we can do.' bothers me. Saying that anything is the best we can do seems to me to calmly accept that some are condemned to failing education from the day they are born. ... If the best we can do just leaves them to flounder, then why send them to regular public schools? What point is there in sending them to an institution where they are guaranteed to fail?"

Yes, Ed’s point bothers me, too. If saying it less calmly would help, I’d scream it, and sometimes I do.

Besides, we can definitely do better than “just leave them to flounder,” even if we can’t make up for all the obstacles. But we can’t get from here to there—to where they will mostly succeed—by wishing it were otherwise. I can’t even “guarantee” that my own three children will be able to get a good job, or have a happy marriage, or avoid “floundering,” although I’d give anything to have such power. So, Ed, on what are you pinning your hopes?

In fact, my “best we can do” idea, that Ed quotes above, is based on how much I know parents care and would give their lives to protect their young. That’s why I’ve weighted my strategy in terms of those with a personal and impatient stake in the answer: parents and teachers. But “self-interest” taken to the extreme, which we seem comfortable with of late, is as dangerous to good schooling as to a good society. (Even non-Catholics and even non-Christians might enjoy Daniel Finn’s take on “When Is Self-interest Moral?” in Commonweal. Finn reminds his readers that "... self interest wasn’t among the virtues Jesus encouraged,” but then asks under what circumstances might He approve of it?) So what else?

Not only the poor have to believe they have a stake in fairness if we are to require the level of generosity demanded to create a level-ish playing field. (A “belief” system that perhaps schools can help instill?) Probably also we must write into law a few broad guidelines that weight decision-making toward the least-powerful constituents. Is that a likely scenario?

In a world in which the money some folks earn in a day is more than what others hope to earn in a year, a decade, a lifetime, it’s hard to calculate likelihoods. Even the word “earn” is problematic. (Odd, isn’t it, that “unearned income” is taxed less than “earned”?)

I’m glad that the Occupiers are reaching for the stars. Because it’s that 99/1 question that needs to be tackled if we expect to really close the gaps in our schools. Even finally “talking about it” in the mainstream media is a giant step forward. The impatience of the “Occupiers” may start a chain of reactions that will do more to equalizing educational outcomes—in the long run—than all the time and energy spent looking for strictly school-based quick fixes.

Enough, enough, enough. Thanks, Ed, for provoking me.


P.S. There’s an interesting review in The Nation (Nov 21 issue) of “School Wars,” a new book by Melissa Benn. I’m about to order the book!

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