School & District Management Opinion

Where Do We Go From Here?

By Deborah Meier — December 03, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

A powerful statement which ought to be sent to everyone in a position to influence policy and legislation! Thanks.

I just read a letter from Steve Jubb, an Oakland-based colleague of mine: “For my part, I agree with Kenneth Bernstein’s blog post some days ago. We have inherited a form of education that is sedimentary in nature. It has a 19th century structure, overlaid by 20th century aspirations about equality and opportunity, with the expectation that it should produce 21st century outcomes. It has been remarkably successful for the chaos of its design, but I believe it no longer serves the public’s interests personally, nationally or globally. We should celebrate its remarkable successes and then get busy designing what Mr. Bernstein described as an approach that is ‘far more humane’.”

It’s important not to further the mythology of the “good old days"—it is easy for me to slip into it about my own “golden days.” I certainly did not foresee how our efforts in the ‘70s and ‘80s were going to pave the way to the demise of “public education” as we know it, in favor of a system that is not responsible for the common “public good.” But in part we’ve all suffered from failing to do what Kenneth Bernstein proposes: designing an alternative.

I saw little danger. I remember even encouraging wealthy friends of mine who gave contributions to private schools to consider giving money to public schools. I blush to think of it. They took my advice—alas—one step further.

Like you, Diane, I came from a family of immigrants. My father arrived in 1908, settling on the Lower East Side, and my mother’s parents arrived a decade earlier, settling in St. Louis. Both of my parents were active in NYC politics and philanthropic work. Still, like many who made it in NYC, they sent us to private school, because they wanted the “best” for their children. That’s long been part of our convoluted history of affection for public schools, but.... When I returned to NYC in 1965, I was told “no one sends their children to public school anymore.” (Except for the families of 1.2 million students.) We decided, however, to send our three to the local public schools. And I had more than occasional second thoughts.

Some years later, my colleague, literary critic Irving Howe, was indignant when I told him “we” intended to close his old alma mater, James Monroe High School, over the next four years while opening new small schools to serve the same population. It currently graduated, I told him, only 27 percent of its incoming freshmen. He swore to me that in his day Monroe graduated nearly all its students. I looked up the data. It was way under 50 percent. “It can’t be,” insisted Irving. “Everyone I knew graduated.”

Ah ha! Everyone he knew.

I was fascinated by the amount of misreading of the data on our public schools. Not until I was born did a majority of young people even start high school, much less drop out! The success of many immigrant groups was only in small part due to our public schools. It was also due to the growth of American industry and the education so many got through their local unions, churches, and other workingmen’s associations. It was not until AFTER World War II (thanks to the GI Bill and City College’s open enrollment plan) that the offspring of earlier Polish and Italian immigrants begin to complete high school and move on to college. And, women and people of color?? The Census data shows, I’m told, that, in 1960, 22 percent of African-American adults had graduated high school while 41 percent of all others had. By 2000, the former figure went up to 72 percent and the latter to 80 percent. That’s an impressive achievement over half a century—for a bankrupt system.

But the myth about a golden past—which I have at times argued with you about, Diane—was also an inspiring one, as long as it did not undermine the realities facing us. The old schools did not serve all children well. And the once vaunted equity that America has represented to the world required us to attend to economic equality, decent wages, leisure time, voting rights, better housing, a secure old age, and more. It still does if we are to close the critical gaps.

We’ve abandoned the “war” on poverty, the idea of the dignity of labor, and the sweat and blood that went into achieving a more level playing field for all children. We have gone from being the most to the least equal of the 30-plus industrial nations, and amazingly enough, one of the least mobile! More of our children are in poverty, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. Far more of their parents are in jail. Not because we haven’t the resources, but because we’ve CHOSEN not to tax ourselves to help those at the bottom. We have the lowest tax rate of those same 30+ nations, by a lot.

I happened to have fallen in love with teaching in the 1960s: the three-ring circus of school life with its many interactions and stimulating conversations. I think schools matter a lot. But I hate the pretense that our relatively poor performance on tests is due to bad teachers, unions, and “government” monopolies, rather than a whole set of policies abandoned and a whole new set pursued over the past half-century.

Our new lopsided pattern of wealth helps create Bloombergs, versus LaGuardias. It helps undermine the credibility of public data. I want some credible agency to check me, too, from inventing the data that serves my opinions. It’s a slippery slope easy to justify on the basis of what “all the others” are doing.

But, Diane, I think you have the essential argument right. So, where do we go with it?


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