Budget & Finance Opinion

Good Schooling Is Built on Respect

By Deborah Meier — May 27, 2010 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I saw some wonderful little schools in California last week and return feeling more optimistic about the survival of the kind of schooling I treasure. But I also spoke to many beleaguered educators who, as you noted, are feeling the brunt of the “de-formers” and the media barrage against teachers. At stake is the very idea of unions, as well as due process, fair play, seniority, and, incidentally, the idea that we need teachers who make this their career. I like your “Top 10" list—except I’d modify the part about how we evaluate teachers to make it more like other professions.

Honoring seniority is an age-old idea. It would be interesting to see the data on how many Americans now hold (or once did) jobs that honored job experience. (A practice that long preceded the unionization of teachers.) A decent, secure job used to be as all-American as apple pie; now, it’s viewed as ... the enemy? We are on the receiving end of an expensive and vicious attack on the carriers of that dream of dignity—the two unions that champion teaching as a dignified adult trade. As John Holt noted in a book that introduced me to teaching, How Children Fail (1964), fear is not an ally of learning, and good teaching is a constant act of learning.

I did a quick read of Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, as you suggested. It’s not a book to read from cover to cover. Still, it’s better than I expected. The catchy recipes sometimes rest on eternal truths, sometimes on hard experience, and sometimes on questionable learning theories. Of course, the same techniques won’t work for one and all—as I discovered when I became a substitute teacher and tried out the tricks my little, old neighbor had successfully used, with decidedly less success.

In addition, we don’t all have the same purpose in mind. Lemov’s is clear. He bases his definition of great teaching on students’ state test scores. Well-stated orders, in-unison, call-and-response chants, and intolerance for “excuses” helps his teachers avoid ambiguity. From my standpoint, whether we’re talking science or history, the point of it all is “excuses"—i.e., “explanations” for why things did or didn’t work the way one might have expected (and rarely if ever in talking in unison).

I’d recommend starting off with John Holt.

There’s always the other side to even the best advice. Including mine! For example, how’s this?: “The secret to happiness is having low expectations"—Warren Buffett.

Unless we spend the time taking apart our clichés, their repetition soon covers up bad practices. I enter many situations, thankfully, with modest expectations, but (I think) also sensible ones. They include the modest expectation that those I disagree with have a story to tell even if I haven’t time—or an inclination—to listen to it.

Long-time educator and author Marion Brady circulated a paper hoping it would provoke reactions and criticisms. It opens thus:

I will argue that the education reform being promoted by the federal government will fail, that the major underlying cause of poor school performance is being incorrectly diagnosed, and that the rationale for the reform strategy is unsupportable."

But, Marion, dismantling the mostly unpracticed ideal of schools as common public ground may be seen as a success by some. De-fanging unions is hardly a new business goal. In short, the business supporters for the current agenda actually may care less about test scores than we realize. They have their litany of excuses for test scores when needed; but their real goal may be something quite different.

Example: Imagine Schools, Inc., is the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management company. Of the six rated Ohio Imagine schools, five received “Academic Emergency” ratings in 2008-09 (the sixth was on “Academic Watch.”) Some fail, others replace them. Still, Imagine Inc. is flourishing. Possible “excuse”? Think of how many restaurants open and close each day somewhere in the USA. Shall we eliminate private restaurants because so many fail? That’s how the marketplace works.

What galls me is the claim that this is all being done in the interest of civil rights. At least restaurants don’t make that claim when they open and close. Note that few of those involved were actively perturbed over the past decades as the racial-wealth gap quadrupled between 1983 and 2007. (See study released last week by Thomas M. Shapiro and colleagues at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University). Wealth begets wealth, and the lack of wealth perpetuates the same. We cannot school ourselves out of this truism just by chanting in unison about “high expectations.” We can directly undermine the income/wealth gap by public policy—tax policy, wage policy. We can also make realistic the expectation that every kid deserves the kind of schooling we would offer our own by spending more, not less, on those who start with less. Instead, we demand better results as tuition to private schools goes up and spending on public ones go down. Yes, good schooling is built upon unconditional respect for our human dignity, which includes the time and resources to respond to the complexity of each child’s mind and the fast-changing world they must boldly confront.

I still think small schools and some forms of choice increase the odds in favor of respectful school cultures, but it’s clear that both can be used for opposite ends! Small schools of choice can be segregated tyrannies preparing kids for passively accepting simplified versions of the 2lst century or they can be messy places that try to make sense of it. They can be built on simplifying knowledge or taking the time to explore reality with all its warts.

With this in mind, I urge others to read Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, which challenges us to explore our definitions of success. Or, read Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in the Mind that takes this theme into the lives of contemporary adolescents.

An older person once said to me: “Why did we bother to educate you so well when you then went on to become a kindergarten teacher?” If I had said, “Oh, it’s just for the experience—I’m passing through,” or “I need to learn the ropes so I can move on to being a policymaker,” I’d have had no trouble “excusing” myself. But instead I stayed inside the walls of public schools for another 50 years, grateful for the good education that brought me there.


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.