School & District Management Opinion

What Are the Trade-Offs?

By Deborah Meier — March 25, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Lucid and to the point, Diane. I’ll sign on. Once again, we may confront a law that penalizes schools that don’t eliminate differential test score outcomes that correlate with race, class, disability, or language spoken at home. (And that pays teachers based on scores, and favors charters, etc.) Higher teacher expectations shall overcome all, and, based on the Central Falls example in R.I., will cost the jobs also of “failing” principals, custodians, aides, and secretaries. To make matters more ludicrous, the tests involved are, it is agreed, grossly inadequate to the task.

I can think of one neat exercise that might help smoke out the nonsense. Suppose we give a high school test to everyone in Congress, with scores listed in rank order and serious penalties—including deselecting the bottom 10 percent?

Back to “standards,” Diane. I loved the answer by the former U.S. commissioner for education, “Doc” Howe, regarding what kind of standards he favored: “As brief as possible.” Plus, precisely the kind of external review you recommend, Diane.

We’re highly unlikely to get Howe’s wish. Instead, Susan Jacoby suggests, in The New York Times, there should be: “One Classroom, From Sea to Shining Sea.” It’s ironic that the David Brooks piece underneath Jacoby’s is entitled “The Broken Society” and “recommends rebuilding trust from the ground up.” Brooks praises a book by the British writer Phillip Blond about the price we’ve paid for having gutted local institutions and the celebrated “financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities.” It’s a conundrum, of course, because some issues can’t be tackled locally. Raising our kids is not one of them, however.

Every time we respond to our distrust by wiping out institutions close to ordinary citizens in favor of more distant authorities, we strengthen cynicism and weaken democracy itself.

Luckily, most of what Jacoby argues for in schooling can be done through persuasion alongside of high-quality, no-stakes measurement data—based on both in-depth, sampled student work and cheap, sampled standardized tests. In another headline that made me crack up (I’ll find the citation someday soon, I hope), the writer bemoans the fact that teachers at some schools gather to study student “work” when they should be studying “data.”

It’s the same mindset that let Detroit turn out lots of cars, rather than worrying whether they were the best cars.

I’m thinking about what we did at the old CPESS. We agreed on a common set of five “essential questions” that should be habitually asked. But then accepted more or less, the usual definition of academic subjects, added a few, and collapsed others. On our first go-around, we had 14 “portfolios” because we literally examined students on every subject listed in the state’s overview! Finally, we cut it down to eight and did the other six in a briefer, pro forma fashion. We added to the usual four the arts, external learning (outside of school and including the students’ six-year program of internships), and a post-graduation plan. And, one of the student’s own choice.

But the schools that built their work off of our model did not all follow our example—in their standards or in deciding how students should demonstrate proficiency and faculty affirm it. When I looked at those invented by my favorite allies, I always had second thoughts: maybe we should add this or that to ours. Every decision has its trade-offs, and one is breadth vs. depth. So, reluctantly, we stuck with ours (with minor revisions).

The sixth “habit of mind” that I’ve since decided we should have adopted is: “What are the trade-offs?” Or, as we used to say, “It’s not a perfect world.”

It’s a question that citizens should always be asking—is this the best compromise between difficult choices? At CPESS, we had that dilemma regarding faculty meetings: balancing meetings for everyone, for just the key teaching staff, just particular disciplinary staff, or those teaching the same group of kids! The arguments were good on all sides. So we just kept shifting, semester by semester.

Could it have been solved by our agreeing to a 10-hour school day? No, because that, too, would come at a cost to the kind of interesting adults we could recruit to join us, to the time available to meet individual students after hours, plus time to work on one’s own—reading and revising student work, as well as the work in one’s field and the development of hobbies and interests that keep us alive as full human beings. Oops, and, yes, one’s own family! Mike Walzer once wrote an essay in Dissent magazine on “a day in the life of a socialist"—which consisted of so many meetings on every conceivable topic of importance (such as the music played in the park, museum policy, transportation issues, etc.) that there was no time left to listen to music, visit a museum, or travel anywhere.

I thought of this as I listened to the stories told last week by friends, family, and colleagues of Alice Seletsky, who died last fall. She was for years a 5th/6th grade teacher at CPE. Reading and writing about what fascinated her, taking courses, studying new passions was as much part of her “profession” as her work within the classroom. There were lots of people who got up to celebrate her life who had been directly influenced by her long life as a teacher, and often in unexpected ways. All of our children deserve such teachers.


P.S. Meanwhile, an addendum: my Web site (deborahmeier.com) has a piece on my changing views on small schools of choice. Also read Mike Klonsky’s Small Schools, Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. If you’re in the NYC area on April 17th, join us at Julia Richman High School to help build a future for public education.

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