School & District Management Opinion

Needed Now: Bold Alternate Schemes

By Deborah Meier — November 27, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

On Thanksgiving day, I’m counting my blessings. Number one: you and I can have an influence (hah!) in maneuvering us through to better times in public education. We’ve at least got a 50-50 or 2-98 chance. A better future won’t come from the folks who have given us the recent past—there’s no chance of that.

I remember when the late Elliot Shapiro wasn’t allowed to become District 2 superintendent in NYC because he hadn’t taken a course on human relations. And Bobby Wagner wasn’t allowed to serve as NYC chancellor because he didn’t have proper education credentials. I thought that was silly at the time. And it was. But this is insanity at the other extreme.

These guys—New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, e.g.—aren’t experienced educators or principals (like Shapiro). Nor have they been politicians who had to listen to various publics (like Wagner). Nor, believe it or not, they aren’t businessmen—Klein never ran a big business either.

They’re con men.

Mr. (Louis) Gerstner of IBM fame considers “the fundamental thing …is for Obama to convene the 50 governors and…abolish the 16,000 school districts we have in the United States.” He bases his conclusion on his experience abolishing “81 profit centers” at IBM. Within one year “they” will develop a national set of standards in all subjects, and a year later a “national testing regime” so that on “one day in America…every 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th grader will take a national test against a national curriculum.” Plus a national teacher test that proves that they can teach.

The myth that decentralization had to go because it was rife with fiscal scandal was a phony one. Compared with the slick fiscal scandals that go uncovered by the media in the new centralization, it was squeaky clean. A superintendent bought liquor for a district party from a “friend” and paid for it with district funds, in the bad old days. (That’s what they accused Carlos Medina of in District 4. Tut tut.) Compared with what we overpaid for the British “consultants,” it’s truly penny ante—and at least it put money into the local economy! Imagine what it might be like on a federal level. Halliburton scale.

Needed now, Diane: some bold alternate schemes. How else might public education become public once again? Let’s see if we can develop some criteria for reforms—a check list of ways to judge so-called reform?

Perhaps a good place to start would be to consider who should be “accountable” for what? Which decisions belong to professionals—local, as well as state or nationwide? Which belongs to all the adults who constitute a single school community? Which decisions belong to the tax-paying local or state community that largely funds the school? What best belongs to the federal government to decide (and fund)?

I start with the principle that—as far as possible—the people making decisions about the minds and hearts of our children should be those most directly impacted by them and responsible for implementing them. This isn’t so easy. (Should 6-year-old kids be asked to decide….? No. When we speak of parents, are all their voices likely to be equally heard? If not, what can we do about it? And on and on.)

I base this principle on, above all, the danger of anything else when it comes to making public decisions about raising our kids. I also think it’s an essential for the very best practice. (But then it may be the essence of the very worst, too.) We need to distinguish between persuasion and mandates, and the risks and advantages of each. “Trusting Obama” is not an answer. We must restore our trust to schools, families, teachers, and kids.

But discourse about such alternate ideas/principles has to contend with a very powerful contemporary mythology. No one has done a better job of exposing those than my friend Richard Rothstein. You sent me a piece on “Policy Myths” by Dennis Myers. He notes how often we’ve all been told that since “business uses performance pay, so schools should do the same.” Or that schools are violent places, that parents are fleeing public schools schools, etc. “In fact,” says Myers, “business generally avoids performance pay, schools are the safest places children frequent, private school enrollment is declining, business recommends against numerical goals, and public schools generally perform better than charter schools.” Noted business leader W. Edwards Deming wrote: “A numerical goal leads to distortion and faking, especially when the system is not capable of meeting the goal,” and he pointed to the troubles such goals produced for Sears, Roebuck. Given the current meltdown of once-esteemed businesses, it might be time to start an Educators Roundtable to Save Business—by importing some time-honored school practices. But more importantly to work together to improve practices in both arenas.

Let’s try and build our alternatives on what we know first and foremost about the nature of teaching/learning—and then go from 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.