Budget & Finance Opinion

The ‘Alternative?’ Transparency & Honest Data

By Deborah Meier — December 17, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Time to rest up and maybe start 2010 in a more hopeful mood.

I just put down an article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande entitled “Testing, Testing.” But it’s not about schooling, but medical tests. The author is a doctor at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and grew up in Athens County, Ohio (his parents were doctors, not farmers). He uses his experience and inquiring mind to think about the advantages of not having a master plan for curing our ills. He describes the history of the government’s role in agricultural reforms and suggests that maybe the hodge-podge we call our latest medical reform plan might lead to interesting places if we pursue the trial-and-error pilots that the bill proposes.

Assuming, which many don’t, that we trust that most school people (and parents), like most doctors and farmers, want to do their best, and even think they are, what can we learn from Gawande’s ideas, Diane? What would happen if we spent more time and money on actual trial-and-error pilots and then neutrally spread the word about what happens when....? If we collected honest data, not to bribe folks or to get them to comply, but on the assumption that information is desirable, sought after, and needs no bribe? Or, at least, that enough people don’t need bribes or mandates to spread the best ideas—over time.

That was our idea in NYC when we proposed the Annenberg Network for School Renewal. It was the idea behind Boston’s Pilot Schools. It was the idea behind—going back still further—Ralph Tyler’s Eight-Year Study, Lillian Weber’s Open Corridor program, the Central Park East schools, and the networks that grew out of them. Suppose these experiments had been supported wholeheartedly. Suppose we had visited each other, not competitively, but supportively. What if we had initiated a climate of inquiry into “what works"—which would have required (and, this is where medicine and agriculture may have it easier) laying out our different definitions about “what works” means? The Annenberg project, incidentally, did not include only “progressive-style” educators. Our alliance included New Visions (eclectic, lots of moneyed backing, etc), the Manhattan Institute (conservative, even pro-voucher), and a few nascent schools connected to ACORN’s community organizing work and Ted Sizer’s Coalition schools. What if we had learned the lesson economist Paul Samuelson talked about? (See “P.S. 2" below.)

The mindset behind this work requires three essential agreements: (1) that our purpose is not to mandate “our approach” vs. “your approach,” (2) that we make the work transparent and public, and (3) that school decisions be responsive to their own constituents. It would require that schools and “networks” have a lot of flexibility and autonomy, and that the central authorities mostly be in the business of collecting data, making it accessible, bringing people together, plus monitoring basic financial, health, and civil rights compliance to state law. A very thin master contract between management and labor—such as was agreed to by UFT locals in Boston and NYC—supplemented by schools developing their own work agreements. The data we collect—none of it high stakes—could include exams of many sorts—perhaps one that we all use—alongside sampled data on potentially intriguing practices and experiences and a Tyler-type study of long-term impact. I’m laying this out for the umpteenth time because people keep asking me: “What’s the alternative?”

Why not?? It was Rudy Crew and Richard Mills who vetoed our plan after we had gotten the go-ahead from their predecessors. State Commissioner Mills said that it would have worked in his old job in Vermont (a small state), but wouldn’t work in N.Y., so why experiment? Crew said he was in too much of a hurry to have an impact on NYC to wait five years, but that he would borrow some of our ideas.

It is painful to think of where we might now be if we had 15 years worth of such data collected by NYU and Teachers College, not to mention the city and state! Now the states are rushing to reinvent public schools in the model of privately managed chains of schools. (The Massachusetts state Senate has passed a shocking bill to that effect. Massachusetts was one of those states whose test data outperformed virtually all international competitors before NCLB and charters!)

Two recent books bring together the two ends of my obsession with schools. Sam Chaltain’s American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community, and Elizabeth MacDonald and Dennis Shirley’s The Mindful Teacher. Chaltain tackles the Big Issue through specific experiences in democratic communities, and MacDonald and Shirley start with a close look at what good teaching and learning is about, and tease out its implications for schooling writ large. Both suggest some “practical” directions.

Meanwhile back at the ranch (NYC’s schools): Mayor Bloomberg will be holding one evening public meeting before the vote to close 22 mostly neighborhood high schools, move a bunch of other schools to new sites, implement new rules for procuring supplies, and new regulations regarding the role of parents and communities in their schools’ operations. Speakers will have 45 minutes to comment on one and all, followed by a vote by the mayor’s largely hand-selected semi-board. Then—"it’s done.”

He has won his election, and nothing will stop him, not even a state law requiring greater participation by parents and the public under mayoral control. Democracy may be a fragile and utopian idea at best. But this is “democracy” as satire.


P.S. The Mass Transit Authority (MTA) has just voted for a budget that would eliminate free and reduced transit fares for NYC schoolchildren. Since schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the mayor have built their master plan around kids being able to travel from “x” to “y,” this means their initiatives would now be restricted to those families ready to pay nearly $1,000 a year per child in transit costs!

P.S.2: According to a WBUR report, the late Nobel economist Paul Samuelson “lamented that the financial industry’s blind faith in numbers helped cause the current recession. ‘Fiendish, Frankenstein monsters of financial engineering had been created,’ he said at a forum at Boston University. ‘A lot of them at MIT. Some of them by people like me.’ ” And, now, it seems number-obsessed financiers are taking over our public school system! Who could have believed that the very hedge-funders who have gotten us into our current financial and unemployment crisis are now going to use their smarts to rescue and remake our educational system—in their image?

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