School & District Management Opinion

The Futile Search for “Trust-Proof” Systems

By Deborah Meier — March 15, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

As the poor get poorer, and college tuitions keep rising, the media declare that no one without a B.A. qualifies for a living wage. Something’s rotten in this proposition. It isn’t that way in Finland, for example.

Finland didn’t do it overnight, but they built their education system around critical democratic habits: competence and trust. They didn’t trade off one for the other. Looking for a trust-proof solution is the fragile error. David Remnick says it well in the March 12th New Yorker:Democracy, he writes: “At best, it’s an ambition,a state of becoming,” and “the fragility of democratic aspiration is a brutal fact of history.”

Every time we try an end-run around it we at best distract ourselves from useful next steps, and more often undermine our own aspirations.

Trust and skepticism go fine together—alongside a sense of humor. The leap of faith we make is always somewhat foolish, whether it’s a question of when to lock one’s car doors, leave things out on the lawn, etc. But leap we must. It’s one reason why I like both small classes and small school size. It makes it easier to learn the culture, or what’s reasonable to expect. It’s also easier to verify things; there’s a chance that the school and family can keep in direct touch and build trust on the basis of repeated experiences.

But looking for trust-proof “systems” is penny wise and pound foolish—and an endless task. We substitute the indirect evidence for the “real thing.” The more we depend on such data, the more it loses its validity. (That’s why test-publishers used to forbid schools from engaging in test prep: It invalidated scores.)

And, yes, yes, yes. Race complicates the creation of trust, and acknowledging that is critical. Socioeconomic class does, too. Some children have good reason to come to school with distrust—passed down from generation to generation. I do not expect that my good intentions will overcome such distrust quickly. But how much easier it is to be successful once family and school trust each other’s intentions, at the very least. I think of the kids we “saved” together—when we were able to work together.

In short, we should not be surprised that none of the systems that we are putting in place to “catch” weak teachers and kids work. So nearly 25 years of ever-intensifying use of external—presumably indirect measures—have produced results. Madness. In fact, they have served to increase distrust. OK, some bad guys get caught. Some don’t. But, as the testing manual used to remind us, everyone is getting cheated.

Visiting Denver was a reminder of the above. I visited four schools with very different assumptions about trust. I’ll report on more next week after I’ve better absorbed my notes and reflections. But, as I promised, I came back more cheerful. Three of the schools have built in other time-consuming ways to make assessment part of learning. They have developed “systems” similar to those we used at Mission Hill and Central Park East. For example, the habits that were the foundation of CPE and Mission Hill included not only learning to collaborate, but also learning to resist the fast and false solutions. It was, in short, dedicated to learning how to exercise judgment based on as many forms of evidence as we have available. In these schools it was more obvious how means and ends were joined.

My friend from ETS, Ted Chittenden, used to remind us that test scores are indirect evidence—at best! If we have access to the child, why not use direct evidence, he said?

Sometimes we have to “see like the state” (this is a play on the title of a great book by James Scott), but let’s not make it a habit!

Ditto for teachers.

Sometimes I get a clue from the language used by a school staff member. “Those kids” is a show-stopper for me. So is “rigor,” which, according to my dictionary, means rigid, inflexible, and harsh. But I need to get over that one perhaps? While “accountability” has some positive meanings, it’s a poor substitute for “taking responsibility.” When talking about actual human beings I hate short cuts, like calling a kid a “SPED,” or an “at risk,” or, worse yet, a “1,” “2,” “3,” or “4"! I abandoned using “grade level” once I realized no one knew what it meant anymore. I began to share direct hard evidence—and listen carefully to the feedback. I was thrilled to hear so little of this jargon in the schools I visited in Denver.

Which brings me, Diane, to your discourse on tenure. Actually, as you note, it has nothing to do, historically, with unions. But it fit together with insistence by unions on “due process,” a fundamental bedrock of a democratic culture. It requires simply more “due process” for senior staff than new staff. That, too, seems reasonable. And it works best in a society which offers substantial security to all its citizens—so that losing one’s job is not sudden death. And because security allows us to exert our energies where our curiosity takes us rather than reserving our energies to maintain safety or ward off danger. This goes for students and adults. I presume that very rich people worry about getting ever richer because they want security several generations out ... for their great-great-grandchildren. The scramble for safety is not good for the kind of fraternity that also stimulates creativity and individualism.

While schools have a special obligation to concern themselves with societal needs, democracy, and the economy (how people make a living, if they do), they also have a legitimate concern for the “pursuit of happiness.” And we know as a fact that inequality and unfairness undermine all of these. I simply cannot successfully teach children who view me as unfair. That’s why due process is so critical for kids and teachers.


P.S. I just picked up three books that address timely concerns of yours and mine: “Heterogenius” Classrooms: Detracking Math and Science, by Maika Watanabe, foreword by Michelle Fine; Redeeming Democracy in America, by Wilson Carey McWilliams; and College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco. It would be fun to undertake a critique together—of the latter especially. It’s likely to take a no-nothing beating in the coming election season.

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