School & District Management Opinion

The Language of Reform

By Deborah Meier — June 03, 2010 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Alice in Wonderland, I’m told, has now been released as a horror movie. Life imitates art: Nonsense that once amused me is also turning into a horror documentary.

The prologue to Michael Lewis’ amazing new bookThe Big Short is out of Lewis Carroll too; except it’s based on fact. The folks Michael Lewis describes are identical to the ones you now run into at the New York City department of education headquarters--amusingly called Tweed--maybe one rung down in “smarts?”

The language nonsense on Wall Street may be more intimidating but it’s just as much of a cover up as the jargon we’ve invented for schooling (like “high expectations,” “no excuses” “children first”). They blur our understanding rather than clarify it. Which is why I enjoyed Warren Buffet’s reminder that sometimes “low expectations” are a better road to happiness.

Like Wall Street no one at Tweed wants to acknowledge blame. Instead we hear lots of excuses. Why don’t we ask why we should trust the financial wizard to invent a new system of schooling for the most victimized kids in America after all the harm they’ve done to our financial system (without, on the whole, hurting themselves or their children much) ?

Doublespeak of the sort that would make Orwell wince is part of the everyday language of reform on both fronts. “Anything goes” (if it raises standardized test scores) is a mindset that has been around since I began teaching in 1963. No questions asked. Much as we did with the stock exchange--as long as the Dow goes up. By the mid-1970s we were in the midst of a colossal media-advertised “Education Crisis": The U.S. was then competing against U.S.S.R. schools and we (not they) would soon collapse economically if we didn’t correct it. Most leaders of foundations and the corporate sector viewed teachers as too dumb (they didn’t come from Ivy-League colleges and weren’t rich either) to look to for advice.

This was the climate that I met with when I became a teacher in the early ‘60s--and that still rules my world. Much of the work I did for the next 40 years was to explore how to work within this mindset, while also discovering what schools could accomplish regardless of the failures outside their sphere of influence.

Growing economic worries and flat test scores over the past decade have led to blaming teachers, more tests, and tying test scores to teacher’s salaries. This focus on test scores is a strictly American thing--maybe one could even claim that the nations who are outscoring us are doing so precisely because they gave so many fewer tests and paid so little attention to test data? This narrow U. S. test-based agenda has blocked the advance of slower long-term reforms that might have made a difference to the lives of our youth--and the culture of our country. If...

There was no golden age. Schools in poor communities aren’t the victim of some new-fangled schooling foisted on us by unions, progressives, parent empowerment, or senior teachers! In the old days most children who now do poorly in school either weren’t there at all (special needs, etc.), or were expected to leave between 6th and 9th grade or when they reached 16--whichever came first.

But other things have changed too. Never in my lifetime have wages been so unequal, alongside of the disappearing job-related benefits that working class whites and blacks had begun to think of as “the American standard of living.” We did, indeed, have a short and unfinished “golden age,” before equality was declared un-American.

And never in my life have I witnessed as much nonsense being paraded as fact on behalf of shifting the blame to “the victims.” All will be well if we get rid of the monopoly of public education, local control, unions, and seniority. Only disinterested wealthy philanthropists (and hedge-funders) can be depended on to save the disadvantaged from absent fathers, unwed mothers who don’t read to their children at home (some are busy reading to wealthier children), greedy union bosses, and selfish senior teachers. It’s the new civil rights project. Just as the subprime mortgage fraud was justified by some as a wealth-equalizer, the privatizing of education becomes a civil rights crusade.

The high test-scoring classes have joined together to ask: “if ‘they’ did it,” pointing to those rare individuals and schools that have broken the correlation between poverty and test scores, “then why not YOU?” Central Park East Elementary I and II and CPE Secondary school were such exemplary schools in the ‘70s. I wonder these days why there was no comparable interest on Wall Street in the work of the dozens and dozens of public schools that followed our path in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Maybe we didn’t interest them because there was no money to be made from our kind of work? Maybe because it rested on teachers being powerful--"special people?” Maybe because we operated with the blessing of our local teachers’ union, not their hostility? Maybe because our youngsters’ families had strong voices in our schools? I used to think it was simply because we were hard to replicate. Because, it’s true, we weren’t a solution that could be mandated from above. We supported making schools smaller, but we were not hellbent because we believed smallness was simply one of the critically linked deep changes needed. It was how smallness was used that made a difference. As the late Ted Sizer warned us, building a responsible community of parents, teachers, and youngsters takes time. The “proof” would come in the form of public demonstrations of the school’s work. His ideas rested on trusting those closest to the children, not those most distant.

Sizer’s work has survived, barely, despite current threats posed by competitive marketplace reforms. Plus more test scores. And no excuses.

The campaign against public education took coordination and planning. And lots of money. Whether it’s greed, power or ideological satisfaction that drives the reformers I don’t know, and assume some of each. Good intentions even: After all if I can believe Michael Lewis’ account of his protagonist’s motives, why not?

The comic quality of the educational nonsense that surrounds us these days is not up to the comic standards set by Lewis Carroll or the straight thinking by that other Lewis. Defining high expectations to children in terms of a race to get the top score is mean, shabby, and pointless. Racing, like casino betting, may be designed to have only a few winners. Like any good Ponzi scheme one can temporarily have a lot of winners. Kids deserve better.


p.s. Playing for Keeps, by Meier, Brenda Engel, and Beth Taylor is now for sale.

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