School & District Management Opinion

Problem vs. Solution: A Response

By Deborah Meier — May 16, 2013 9 min read
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Dear Mike,

Let me begin by addressing your underlying question as to whether what you and I are proposing is part of the cure or the disease. The belief that the most promising way to tackle poverty requires frequent standardized tests for all students, breaking up the public school monopoly, imposing accountability measures on teachers, and more “efficient” delivery systems is, in my view, “part of the disease.” But let’s lower the tone by changing the dichotomy to a contrast between being “part of the solution” or “part of the problem.”

Thus, the first series of my responses below are an attempt to answer your question about how your views (and mine) stack up on the “problem/solution” continuum. The second part of my response goes a wee bit deeper into some underlying issues that divide us.


  • To the extent that we both want schools to improve—above all for poor and minority children, we are inclined to be “a part of the solution"—provided we do something useful to schools and do no great harm in the process. Hard to measure.
  • To the extent that we both believe that good teachers can make a significant difference in the lives of all children, and especially poor children, and that helping teachers become better able to do this, we are “a part of the solution.” Except that ...
  • To the extent that you see focusing heavily and frequently on high-stakes testing to improve learning and teaching I see you as part of the problem—just as you suggest the reverse.
  • To the extent that I appear to expect that improving the conditions of poverty will make schools places of productive learning, I would add myself to those who are “part of the problem.” Schools need to get a lot better at educating all children; communities need to get better at providing a basic foundation of support; but neither approach, exclusive of the other, will do the job. And none has. It’s well to remember that when I was born a minority of children even dropped into high school.
  • To the extent that you think it’s acceptable for intelligent representatives of America’s comfortable classes to point a finger at our public schools in the war of the 1 percent against everyone else makes you “part of the problem.” But maybe you don’t think it’s acceptable. The 1 percent know what children need for a good education, but apply these criteria only to their own.

Jonathan Kozol made this point in an address to a group of socially conscious, wealthy New Yorkers, shortly after publication of Savage Inequalities. His audience, much moved by his words, began reaching for their checkbooks (it was, after all, what they had anticipated he might be looking for). He said to them, “Put away your wallets. I don’t want your money. What I want is for you to put your own children in the public schools of this city. I can guarantee that those schools will change dramatically for the better within a year.”

To the extent that I, along with other reformers right and left, insist there’s only one best practice we are “part of the problem.” We need a diversity of attempted solutions—mistakes must be honored, not attacked. We need the patience it takes to turn a “draft” into a final product.

You are incorrect to assume that my basic position is that, as you put it, “test-based reform is reducing opportunity for America’s neediest children.” While I believe this to be true, my most critical point is that it’s a distraction. To ignore the widening gap in wealth alongside of the increasing abandonment of the most basic services for the poor is appalling.

To claim that to be poor is due to genetic weakness, bad parenting, bad teaching, or bad choices is shameful. William Ryan, in his 1971 book Blaming the Victim, calls that “the art of savage discovery.”

Restoring the more equitable sharing of wealth and opportunity that America enjoyed in the post-WWII years—and not just for white working- and middle-class men—is our challenge. And to argue (as many do) that the realities of a world economy oblige us to compete for jobs that offer a continuously declining package of wages and benefits is akin to declaring the end of democracy, which depends on a relatively large middle class.

If we can agree that improving schools is one important way to beat the stacked deck 22 percent of our children face daily, then let’s not pretend it can overcome all the other vast differences (e.g., good healthcare). But let’s not cheat them of the “real thing.” Let us aspire to a lofty view of what being well-educated means for all our children.

If the leaders of our nation—who are alas mostly rich—send their children and grandchildren to schools with class sizes of 10-15, where the intellectual fare is rich and varied and includes the arts and never stints on first-hand experience, then let it be that all children might go to such schools, be they public, private, charter, or magnet.

Some other quick points; since you raise so many I’ll have to be choosy.

  1. “Undergirding much of the reform movement” you suggest is improving math and reading skills “as measured by standardized attests.” I disagree. Such tests are the poorest of possible measures of the kind of skills needed in math and reading to “make it” in yesterday’s world, not to mention tomorrow’s. (Get hold of Part II of In Schools We Trust, in which I present the evidence.)
  2. You underestimate the richness of the vocabulary and cognitive skills that children bring with them, including the poorest of the poor. The first discovery I made when I became a kindergarten and then Head Start teacher in the early 1960s was that “these children” were not “without language.” Some lack the same vocabulary as their more middle-class peers, but the reason is not because their families don’t talk to them with words—but because they do.

    There’s a reason they don’t talk like the radio, TV, and Internet speakers do, but instead like their parents and relatives and neighbors. We grow up to be more like those we admire, love, and imagine we could become. Schools don’t offer such settings. Thus the young often appear speechless to strangers—until they reach adolescence when we complain that they talk too much. Did rap arise from communities that “lacked vocabulary”? More vocabulary tests will do precisely what my “pass-the-test course” in French at the U of Chicago did for my French vocabulary. It got me through the required test.

  3. If we focused not on something arbitrarily called “8th grade reading,” but on engaged readers, we might have a better chance at turning nonreaders into voracious readers. There are enough great adult books written on an 8th grade level to expand their written and oral language! Keep in mind—in addition—that the idea of “8th grade level” is either a construct of the testing industry or an arbitrary mark set by “experts” who think it’s what they “should” be reading (norm-based vs. criterion-based tests.)

    Reminder: High school graduates are never tested on the same instrument used to test 8th graders—it was a term invented to mark a statistical point on the scale of reading test scores with grade level the mid-point. Ditto for 4th graders who score on a 12th grade level: They are not therefore “college ready.”

  4. There is sufficient evidence that, in our focus on improving test scores, we have—whether necessary or not—decreased the already under teaching of topics that have the best shot of engaging young people’s minds, that stimulate the thirst for “more, more, more teacher!”

    It’s that hunger for more that is such a pleasure at the end of a good staff meeting, where we acknowledge that it’s time to go home, but hate to leave each other’s company because it has been so satisfying and stimulating to work out our ideas together. So it is when you and your students have had a good day—no one is rushing out, and most are lingering, hating to break the spell. It’s dealing with how to increase this phenomenon after kids leave kindergarten that I’ve spent 50 years working on. Instead we’ve removed it from too many kindergartens!

  5. Also troubling to me is the realization that we are claiming that being “college ready” will bring the poor into a middle class that is itself disappearing. Yes, higher test scores correlate with more years of schooling and more credentials, and more credentials correlate with more pay. But it takes longer and longer years of increasingly expensive schooling to get you into the middle class—if ever. For most, the pay scale won’t be what we once thought of as “middle class,” meaning having enough to feel you and your family are “safe.” For the families who just made it into the middle class in the past 50 years, most of their safety net was shattered in the last financial collapse. False promises are shaky motivators.

Yes, it’s “the system” that’s at fault. But we disagree about what aspects of the “system” and what we’d replace it with. We might agree that the absence of much-needed time and autonomy at the local level to work on, think about, and build better practice is a systemic fault.

Where we may disagree is on the need for more competition, more small stores (schools) opening and closing under the pressure of “competitors.” It’s a marketplace solution, based on a view that democracy is mostly about being able to vote with your feet and your money. Not mine. I still think we need a society that acknowledges that we aren’t in a “fair” competition and is prepared to systematically work at removing the obstacles—one by one.

Since a better world will not happen overnight, there is nothing we can do that’s more likely to be part of the cure than to work on all fronts together, and nothing more likely to spread more disease than accepting the myth that this is a “crisis” of bad teaching rather than a broader crisis of democracy.

Could Central Park East et al have “paved the way” rather than being an “exception”? Between 1974 and 1990 the number of small and outstanding K-8 schools increased about 50-fold in New York City. Choice became the norm. Superintendent Anthony Alvarado turned a sub-city of 20,000 K-8 students in East Harlem into a system of public choice that attracted thousands of wealthier families and useful attention.

But if he had had the support that charters now have amongst the rich and powerful and if the system had had the courage it needed in the early 1990s to accept Annenberg’s challenge (see In Schools We Trust on this too), we might have thousands today. Without more tests. Without privatizing. They wouldn’t all look or act like Central Park East or Mission Hill, but they’d offer a way to move forward that we could all join hands over.

We were never perfect, nor were we aspiring for perfection. Our goals were pretty “mundane” and down-to-earth, and we even accepted severe financial limitations. But they moved us in directions that we wanted for our own children and grandchildren.

One other point: Like most teachers, I didn’t join up to save the world. In fact, I had largely given up on spending all my time “saving the world"—at least until my kids grew up. I became a teacher because, to my surprise, it offered me an exciting, fulfilling, and joyful education—for pay. I loved that feeling that we all had after a good day of schooling. So I put up with the not-infrequent “bad days.” And since our good and bad days as teachers didn’t all fall on the same day, I counted on the affection and support of a community I was a part of—making the odds better that tomorrow would be a better day.

That’s what we need for all teachers, schools, and above all our students, and their families: good reasons to keep hope alive. Is that being part of the solution or of the problem, Michael?


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