School & District Management Opinion

When We End Up Defending, Not Proposing

By Deborah Meier — June 30, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Money maybe can’t buy everything, but it can buy influence. (Which is why some semblance of financial equity is so crucial to democracy.) For example, it can buy the terms of the debate in a way that gives one side a leg up.

Part of that staging is capturing the right words. Example: “Choice” is such a nice word that the Right grabbed onto it re. schooling—although it’s object was privatized schooling, just as the Left did on abortion when they were stronger. Defining “our” side of the education debates has been difficult as a result. We end up defending rather than proposing. It’s been additionally difficult because the “other side” has co-opted a lot of the language that my side “invented,” while moving fast in the opposite direction. Examples: Empowering schools, one of Joel Klein’s favorite claims for his New York City reforms, means only that principals have more power over teachers (and less power in relationship to city and state). Similarly, knowing kids well has been turned into having reams of computer data—mostly test scores—on kids.

To avoid endless semantic and historical debates, Al Shanker once told me that he had given up arguing about whether schools were actually getting better or worse because it was hopeless. The facts couldn’t penetrate a public already sold on the story of a glorious past, lost because of unionized teachers, bad parents, a permissive society, progressive education, and university ed schools. He said he had given up refuting the myth and rested his case for reform strictly on the need for a better-educated workforce than was needed in the past. I think he made a mistake. As you and I, unrealistically perhaps, would insist, the truth is always useful—in the long run. I have meager evidence to prove this point, but it remains an article of faith.

When I suggested your crisp statement of June 21 was perhaps a bit too celebratory of our history, I was worrying about how others might misread it. That the USA was a pioneer in promoting the ideal and practice of public (free) education and the degree to which, over time, the nation made it universal for all 6- to 18-year-olds was, you are right, remarkable. That the rest of the modern industrialized world has caught up with us—at last—is also good news. On these facts we are in agreement.

To celebrate the past while also being its severest critic is a tough stance. Rather than being defenders of the status quo, you and I are defenders of some very hard-won past triumphs. But, alas, the Billionaires Club seems to be want to kill the very best of our historic victories—not only in education but many other areas of life. The progressive income tax was a triumph that we have largely lost; ditto Social Security that might really provide security, ditto re. Brown v. Board of Education and on and on. And now the 200-year-old struggle to create a universal and equitable public system of education under the control of “the people” is not merely endangered but fast slipping away under the name of reform. (And regaining what is being lost will not be easy, which is why they are moving so fast to un-do as much as they can while they have the chance.) The Billionaires may be legitimately called “revolutionaries;" the Left has no monopoly on that term. They are not reformers—patient or impatient—and the revolution they are seeking is not one focused on teaching and learning, but on ownership of our schools.

Neither you nor I are for the status quo—we are, however, seeking ends always more, not less, compatible with schooling for democracy.

Before we quit for the summer I want also to alert you to what’s happening at one 37-year-old school where I left part of my heart: Central Park East. CPE was the harbinger of an idea that our Billionaires have co-opted—a small self-governing public school of choice in East Harlem.

Instead of seeing Central Park East, and the other schools that burst like genies upon the scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as an exemplar of what they seek, they have done the opposite. In strictly “free-market” terms, CPE, for example, has always had a long waiting list and parents eager to have CPE extend through 8th grade. But year after year the Klein department of education has turned them down. Now the department has chosen to place a charter school in the building! Instead of betting on a proven innovator, they have invited in an unproven one and squashed the hopes of CPE’s families. The current CPE principal’s plan to open another CPE-like school in upper Manhattan in response to that neighborhood’s strong interest was simultaneously turned down in favor of still-another charter. These are examples of what the United Federation of Teachers and NAACP are fighting about in their court case—the misuse of co-locations and charters to undermine the public system. The well-orchestrated outcry against the NAACP has been amazing to witness, as though it were odd for them to stand for a level playing field, greater rather than less integration, and the importance of public institutions.

By the way, in preparation for discussing the role of colleges/universities/trade schools next fall read this piece in The New York Times. David Leonhardt provides data that suggests that having a B.A. increases one’s salary, but he also suggests that this is true regardless of what the job requires. Dana Goldstein’s piece in The Nation tackles a similar conundrum behind “the college for all” debate. In short, the evidence suggests that the value of the B.A. is as a sorter, not a qualifier.

Isn’t it amazing that at just the moment in history that the private sector has demonstrated a combination of appalling ignorance and incompetence—to the detriment of billions of ordinary people—they’ve managed to use their monstrous profits to shift the argument to the sins of the public sector?

Until we see each other at the SOS events in Washington, D.C., July 28-31, best,


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.