Equity & Diversity Opinion

So Much Policy Talk

By Diane Ravitch — March 29, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m getting sick of policy talk! I know we have to STOP this corporate take-over of democracy. It’s perhaps temporarily futile, but certainly exhausting, and in some ways boring. I hope to get to Occupy DOE next week. At least the Mike Petrilli response to Alfie Kohn is interesting, and I hope we can both dig into it sometime from our separate perspectives.

I miss the kind of collegial discussion that went on all the time when I was working. There were so many things that excited us and that we shared with each other. Whether it was about what we were studying with the kids, or a particular student’s dilemma, or a fascinating article we had just read. The kids were a constant source of ideas worth exploring also with adults. So today I spend a few hours a day, probably, at my computer reading e-mails from parents and teachers mostly—but second hand is not like face to face, dealing together with real-world dilemmas. I suspect the best teachers too are overwhelmed by the policy issues that are driving out good teacher-talk and driving out good teachers as well.

There are three subjects that have fascinated me since I began teaching. All three now seem like a luxury to find someone to talk about it with.

One: How much can schools—under the best of circumstances—affect young people’s lives and drives? In many ways I’ve spent 50 years exploring the answer to that. And I’ve just scratched the surface. I think we are approaching this vital subject all wrong. It’s not merely that being “disadvantaged” is a disadvantage. Ho hum. But the way the school interacts with those “disadvantages” is at the root—and can and must be addressed. The way we think about (and talk about) the families of kids we claim to care about—and even respect—betrays our ignorance and, worse, why we are distrusted by some families and communities.

Two: What if kids really trusted us and we really trusted them? The latter probably has to come first. Years ago I saw a wonderful movie on the subject about a school started in Washington D.C. by Kenneth Haskins.** He was a remarkable man, and he taught me not to give up on the power of mutual trust to work miracles. But we’ve designed schools in such a way that distrust is the default position for all of us. Kids think it’s their job, at best, to hide their ignorance from each other and the adults in school. As John Holttaught us, they do it even in the “best” schools, and have made a true art of it, and they keep it up in college and on the job and on and on.

At some point in my career I made it “the curriculum,” so to speak, for starting the school year. It’s connected, of course, with becoming the kind of community that doesn’t poke fun at each other for being ignorant. But the question of “how do we know what we know,” which is Mission Hill’s first habit of mind, leads to many good discussions and becomes the heart of our studies wherever they take us. And it starts with acknowledging—at least to oneself—what one doesn’t understand which is not an easy task. It requires honoring ignorance, and then doing so aloud:"You mean it?” kids ask at first. At some point there comes an “Aha!” Ignorance—not getting it—is as exciting as having the right answers. (It’s a little hard given that for 12 years they’ve been evaluated based on the one right answer.) A must-read: John Holt’s How Children Fail.

There are good and sensible reasons why many parents believe that schools and teachers are not really on “their” side, and that teachers have a certain natural inclination to look for deficits. It takes time to earn trust from many young people and their families. Taking this seriously meant changing a lot of the “regularities” about schooling. In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas offer a glimpse into that process.

Third: What about trust between colleagues? Amazingly enough, what I finally concluded was equally puzzling was building the specific kind of “trust” that enabled colleagues to be honest and critical of each other’s practices. I discovered that often personal trust—and affection—can make it even more difficult. I consider that Mission Hill did this best of all the schools I was intimately connected to, but not nearly well enough. I’ve changed my theory about what blocks us, and how rational our fears are, over the years. It’s a big and critical conversation.

There are, of course, other incredible puzzles that I’d like to think aloud about, or on paper, like why should we all go to college, what lies behind the hierarchy of values that make some career paths more honored than others, and how we might totally redesign the patterns we are so accustomed to that we think they are natural: age-grouping, 12 years in a row devoted to the same “stuff,” the very notion of “curriculum”? In the practice of designing three quite innovative schools, maybe we never pushed the envelope far enough.

I watch Dennis Littky’s work at the MET schools and the Big Picture Company. His tenacious half-century focus on figuring out how to both create a community while also acknowledging that in the end it’s one child at a time makes me hungry to connect our work to his insights.

Maybe I’m in the mood for writing another book. (Actually, I wish I had the physical energy to start another school.)

Meanwhile, I go back to policy talk, trying to figure out what obstacles on the “policy” side are most critical. What, if any, help could an ideal system provide to make these issues easier to grapple with, including lack of time, like being responsible for understanding too many kids; and how to open ourselves up for honest intellectual inquiry when we have to spend so much time evaluating and grading our students, and being evaluated and graded ourselves?


P.S. My website (deborahmeier.com) can help you get onto the Mission Hill school site, and allows you to download a short film about a 2nd//3rd grade class at Central Park East in 1978.

** I haven’t been able yet to locate the Haskins’ movie. Anyone who knows, get in touch with me. He had an amazing career, but the movie focuses on his years as principal of the Morgan Community School in Washington, D.C.

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