School & District Management Opinion

Redefining Achievement

By Deborah Meier — January 14, 2010 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Thanks you for that deft summary on charters! Once we forget the public purposes of education, it’s easier and easier to forget about the defects of the marketplace as a way to address the common good.

One of the concerns raised about the schools I founded was that such schools bred selectivity—even unintended cherry-picking on some subtle basis. At the time I argued that tracking within large neighborhood schools did much the same, and usually far less fairly. We need, I contended, to tackle issues of tracking under both approaches.

The major concern I had was with the trade-offs between what were often called “magnets” and the preservation of neighborhood-rooted schools. Separating schooling from the political community might be more damaging for democracy than I recognized. On the other hand, communities that crossed racial, language, and class barriers were not easy to find. Post-WWII housing policy had successfully undermined the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Then as now we thought we could increase equity in schooling without tackling equally fundamental issues of race and class.

There must be a healthy balance between localism and centralism. Leaning too far in either direction risks losing the best of both. When decisions get made further and further away from the action we get scenarios like the one below in which NYC’s Department of Education has bought an assessment system called Acuity from CTB/McGraw-Hill. This is how the DOE describes Acuity on its Web site:

“Acuity (by CTB/McGraw-Hill) includes Predictive, Instructionally Targeted, and Item Bank Assessments. Predictive Assessments simulate New York State Tests and measure student growth. Instructionally Targeted Assessments (ITAs) were designed with New York City educators to measure skills commonly taught within a specific instructional period, and may be further customized by individual schools. The Item Bank may be used by educators at any time to build assessments or create classroom assignments.”

Meanwhile, the DOE is closing schools or moving them about with some centralized strategy in mind. High on the list is more and more subsidizing of charter schools by locating them in existing public school space for free. For small schools of choice—unless their clientele is very powerfully connected—this is hard to fight. But the wholesale decision to redesign school boundaries, close schools, break big schools into littler ones, and move schools from one location to another has produced strong community-led opposition—maybe based as much on how the decisions were made as how much love there is for the schools involved. It’s good to see that citizen resistance has not disappeared. But centralized decision-making certainly does its best to discourage a community’s sense that it has a voice.

As I read your loud and clear piece to the bitter end, Diane, I was struck by the fact that in criticizing charters, friends and foes alike fall back on math and reading scores to prove their point. It’s hard not to. As one who has never believed that our school system was “great"—as your book title suggests—I’ve struggled mightily to show other and better ways to “measure” schooling. Yes, these ways are more complex—but, then being well-educated is about dealing with complexity and can’t be “measured” otherwise.

What we face is a point in history in which the longstanding failings to educate the “masses” are increasingly creating intolerable consequences for our economy and, even more so, for our democracy. The job market has been refigured so that large portions of the population are excluded from decent-paying work. In part because there are simply fewer decent-paying jobs, and diplomas are a helpful screening device for those that exist. As the working-class jobs of yore stopped paying good wages (de-unionization, outsourcing, etc), only workers “accustomed” to being paid poorly were needed, wanted, or willing to accept such work. Schools couldn’t solve that, although a better-educated democracy might.

Can this whole set of dilemmas be “turned around”? Not easily. But neither can we “turn around” our large-scale public schools so that everyone gets a BA and good jobs magically appear.

The real crisis is that we haven’t the foggiest idea of what “achievement” means except for test scores. Or, why the country would be better off if we were all better-educated. That’s what the late Ted Sizer so boldly took on 25 years ago in “Horace’s Compromise.” He was hardly the first to do so, but he had the humility to offer both a different definition and a willingness to see if it was do-able. He undertook to match his ideas with real, living examples of schools operating around a different definition of achievement.

He largely lost the battle, but hundreds of schools in this country, mostly in places where “Deweyian” ideas were once entirely absent, have embraced the vision he set forth, and have tentatively, nervously, but hopefully redefined achievement in keeping with Sizer’s 10 Common Principles. Principle No. One: “learning to use your mind well” around matters of importance to oneself and others. What students must demonstrate to their communities is the ability to exercise judgment about matters of importance based on publicly accessible evidence, not the number of years they’ve conscientiously and passively sat in class.

Every time the word “achievement” or “academics” is used to mean test scores we cheapen the meaning of both terms. We have set up dichotomies that chill me—so that the concept that play is children’s work has morphed into play is a luxury that the poor cannot afford. “Rigorous” and “Powerful” have been pulled apart so that a course of study is considered worthy only if we have in mind its dictionary definition—rigid, harsh, difficult, unbending—rather than that it tackles powerful ideas. The intellectual play of the mind—that 0-6 year olds take to so naturally—is abandoned just when it could begin to focus on more and more complex phenomena—the stuff that “academia” intends to uncover for us. We need to join together the idea of academic smarts and practical smarts—the latter having been a hallmark of America’s genius.

Otherwise, even if small schools are likely to be more humane, they can still be as mindless as the big ones Sizer described. Until we repack the word “achievement” with things worthy of achieving, matters adults truly respect, we will keep running back and forth from one fad to another without ever moving forward.


P.S. I’ve just lost another good friend of mine, and of good schooling for all—Mary Anne Raywid. Read this if you didn’t know her. And if you did, you know what a wonderful human being we have lost.

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.