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Accountability Opinion

A Thought That Might Help Explain Public Denial

By Deborah Meier — April 16, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Ah yes, miracle promises are dangerous.

In the bad old “decentralization” days, we were told local “corruption” ran rampant—thus the need to centralize. Your account of the Al Sharpton/Joel Klein deal, not to mention all the no-bid contracts under Klein, the high-paid consultants, etc., makes the bad old days seem pretty good. It’s true that for me 1975-95 were heady times: I thought we might break the mold! The innovative work going on in District 4, District 2, and the Alternative High School division were the result of a lively teacher conversations occurring all over the city. We mistakenly thought we were on a roll toward serious bottom-up change made possible by some classy top-down superintendents.

I’ve been rereading work published by the old CUNY (City of New York) education department, where I first learned to think deeply about education. “Building on the Strengths of Children,” published in 1981, collects the work of some wonderful teachers—of children and adults. “The child learns to recognize objects only by working with them, that is, by transforming them in one way or another,” notes science educator Hugh Dyasi in an essay on Jean Piaget. The central role of childhood is constructing a “picture of reality,” they note. This in turn requires time of a sort which schooling rarely allows author after author reminds us. The alienation of learners from their own learning that results from trying to speed up learning is profound, they argue. Every essay is a gem.

I’ve tried over the years to practice teaching in ways that respect a child’s prior picture of “reality.” But harder still has been to transfer that mindset to my fellow adults. I’m much quicker to label them, with all the stereotypes such labels carry with them. I’m much quicker to try to overwhelm them with expertise, rather than struggle to understand where they are coming from. I get madder at them. But building a good school means to remember that teachers, like students, need the time and power to explore alternate realities.

I am truly having a hard time “getting” it when it comes to public gullibility about NYC’s Bloomberg/Klein. But it’s there. Ditto for the public’s innocence about test scores, or the theory that poor kids of color need military school discipline while privileged kids learn best in open and respectful settings. I just don’t “get” why so few of my fellow New Yorkers can’t see through the false data that their mayor is presenting them.

I shouldn’t be so shocked. After all, I’ll bet most educated people still believe in Rod Paige’s Houston miracle notwithstanding exposure to the truth. Ditto for Paul Vallas in Chicago. He was acclaimed the hero of another miracle, was briefly exposed, and then went on to lead school reform in Philadelphia (where he failed) and now in New Orleans. And on and on. Arne Duncan enjoys the same PR glow, with equally dismal real data behind him. Michelle Rhee will be next.

One thought that maybe helps explain public denial:

When I came back to NYC with three school-age children in 1966, friends told me that “no one” sent their children to public schools anymore. Do the 1.2 million children attending public schools come from some other planet, I asked? Of course, you and I, Diane, know what they meant. And, this fact—which is true in D.C., Chicago, Houston, and New Orleans—helps explain the flim-flam. Those who “make” the news have only the PR data concocted for them to write about. They have no “reality” with which to check it out. It makes them dumb in much the same way as children are made “dumb” when they have no experience with the realities we want them to believe in. The media has constructed its own reality with the help of some powerful players.

The enormous disrespect for practitioners and education scholars—and ordinary parents with kids in our public schools—makes it easier. They are written off as less than the “best and brightest.” Plus “self-interested.” Some combination of Harvard and Wall Street smarts are seen as all-purpose disinterested expertise, fit for any purpose. The master key. While disregard of educators has a long history, and demonizing of teacher organizations is hardly new, it has reached new heights. A mere 20 years ago one could not imagine school systems would be run by people who never practiced or studied schooling or education. The assumption that “smarts” based on hands-on knowledge is valuable has lost its historic place in our view of reality. Law and business and finance smarts have ruled the day for this generation. At a cost. And not just in schools.

We have forgotten that we were once a nation of do-ers, makers, creators with ingenuity and perseverance and respect for “manual” labor. That’s what distinguished us from “the old world.” The aristocratic disdain for getting one’s hands dirty was “un-American.” But we have lost that special American strength. There is, as Mike Rose and Jean Piaget remind us, no conflict between “hand” smarts and “mind” smarts. They go best together. Our schools and our economy—and, above all, our democracy—require us to restore the balance.

Where, Diane, do we start on this journey? Perhaps with “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” What have the past 10 years of mayoral control actually produced?


P.S. How about our setting up an easy-to-read chart: What the mayor says and what the real data say?

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.