School & District Management Opinion

Less hype and more honest data

By Deborah Meier — July 13, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

We better be careful, or we’ll too often think alike!

In 1989 I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times entitled “Small is Sensible.” I love big cities, I began, but not big schools. I still feel the same way—about both.

“Critics worry,” says a NY Times editorial (July 6th) that the “new small schools...handpick the most desirable and most easily educated students”. True or false? “It may be true”, the editorial continues. Still, “given the improvement,” full speed ahead. Duh? The same issue is arising now in Boston. It worries me—because not only do I love truth but I believe small schools are a necessary but insufficient step toward engaging all kids—and I mean all. Large schools that can screen out the likely losers get better test results, too. Less hype and more honest data will, in the long run, help the small school movement, not hurt it. They don’t need disinformation. And you are right, Diane. In a world in which “even the NY Times” treats data so sloppily it’s hard to construct decent policy.

We also need a broader definition of the kind of data that counts. Giving more externally mandated tests (NYC now requires students to take 4-5 tests a year to monitor their progress) perhaps will raise scores, but whether it raises the intellectual competence of its students and their life chances is unlikely. John Ferrandino, the head of NYC’s high schools a decade ago, followed a class of 9th graders for four years. He tracked their attendance, test scores and graduation. It was much like Tyler’s 8-year study in the 1940s that tracked kids on an even wider range of outcomes for an additional 4 years following high school. A new Tyler study on a sampled basis every 3-5 years could provide the data for a useful democratic debate.

Aha—once again my favorite topic: democratic debate. So imagine my surprise when I ran into an article in the New Yorker (July 9) about a new book by economist Bryan Caplan (Princeton Press). Caplan argues that we’d be better off if fewer people voted. He lists stuff you know, Diane, about our woeful ignorance of how our government works, and the disparities between public “opinion” and public knowledge. He doesn’t think there’s any hope for a more informed public. Ergo, no need for a public debate.

Caplan’s solution: Leave decision-making to economists. A friend in China (Dan Bell) wrote a piece in Dissent speculating that China might end up with a system of two Houses—one elected by “the people” and one chosen by national exams—in the Chinese tradition. I think Caplan might like something of this sort—as long as the exam was mostly based on orthodox Milton Friedman-ite economics. It was good to read Joseph Stiglitz, after Caplan. A bigtime mainstream economist and globalization guru, he reminded us that a consensus doesn’t constitute Truth. His major book on globalization is a powerful critique of consensus economics (more on the value and limits of Expertise another time).

Klein and Bloomberg have, I fear, reached the same conclusion as Caplan: Scrap democratic debate. You and I haven’t.

Bloomberg and Klein’s latest nightmare scheme of financially rewarding kids and principals for test score improvements is right out of B.F. Skinner’s scary child-rearing theories—imposed on everyone’s else’s children. Or at least those “stuck” in public schools. Caplan might see it as compatible with his economic model. It’s an idea economists might dream up for sure.

Alas, Diane, we might keep the façade of democracy but lose the argument. Slogans in its favor are insufficient for the kind of long-term effort needed to preserve its heart. Such a fight will have to tackle the question of what information we need, how we get it, how reliable it is, who should be expected to decide what (and the relationship between the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court, for example). And it will need more live democratic experiences.


P.S. Re. the Reich affair. The sad thing about the way the press handled the Reichs versus the Bloombergs and the Gates, is that the former were willing to get their hands dirty with the daily needs of one kid at a time. I was there, I saw it. That’s worth honoring.

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