School Choice & Charters Opinion

Considering ‘The Same Thing Over and Over’

By Deborah Meier — October 14, 2010 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

The subtitle of Frederick Hess’s new book is intriguing: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas. Hess is hardly an ally of mine so I was surprised when he sent me his book—pleasantly so. It’s an interesting book for just the reason the subtitle suggests. He even mentions me and CPESS (p. 113) favorably—although he dismisses our work as unsustainable. More on that later.

But Hess is arguing (in many ways like my ally Ted Sizer) for a radical departure from almost all the traditions of American public schooling. He goes considerably further than Ted but there are lots of similar ideas: rethinking the geographic structure of schooling, more attention to the Internet and media in general, departing thoroughly from the seat-time requirements, and rethinking the definition of private vs. public. Ted and I used to argue about these matters, too. As Ross Douthout notes in a New York Times (registration required) op-ed on Hess, “if charters “only” create a more cost-effective system that makes parents and students happier—well, that would be no small feat, and well worth fighting for.” That’s what “high expectations” looks like?

On the personal: in fact, CPESS outlasted me by quite a bit. And it spawned dozens of other schools that survived better than it did—and are still popular alternatives to the traditional public or charter schools. Struggling against the grain as they must to sustain their own work, they have little precious time or resources left to challenge the “Waiting for Superman” fads with their heavily subsidized PR work and status as the darlings of hedge funders, corporate foundations, and mayors. David Denby, in the New Yorker last week, chided the media for its attention to the superficiality of Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” compared with Fred Wiseman’s documentary about CPESS (“High School II”). The latter was a rebuttal to an earlier film he made about the traditional American high school. Both documentaries attended closely to the ways in which the schools send messages—of very different sorts—to the students. Wiseman was a close observer of the messages; Guggenheim was intent on sending one.

So far hype has won out over reality despite very poor results. It has distracted us not only from looking more carefully at schooling, but also from the fundamental ways in which America must rethink its economy and policy if it wants to “compete” with the countries with higher test scores! It has distracted us from even thinking about the connections between democracy and schooling which so absorbed our founding fathers.

We’ve settled on anything that keeps the more ambitious poor black and Latino kids—especially boys—in line and obedient while producing some small improvement in standardized test scores. Such schooling reinforces, rather than challenges, an old claim—with long roots in history. What’s good for the well-off is different from what’s good for the underclass. That brains, ambitions, motivations, or something else make the kind of intellectual foundation that we offer in the schools where folks like the Clintons, the Obamas, and the Bushes send their kids unsuitable for most of the poorest. I was hoping the Obamas would consider following Jimmy Carter by sending his daughters to public school, but it was hard not to sympathize with the choice they made. The Quakers have long had good schools and good camps—and my family has benefitted from both. But Arne Duncan/Barack Obama/Michael Bloomberg and I have learned different lessons from this. My experience leads me to believe that what’s good for my children is good for all children, as long as we treat each child as a unique example of whatever class, race, language group he “belongs” to.

It won’t create a level playing field at 18—family wealth and power still trumps. Having everything tilts the odds. But it will create a stronger citizenry for taking on the challenges that face both America and the planet these days.

Hess asks the right questions—the ones we are mostly avoiding. Alongside of Anthony Bryk’s relentlessly careful analysis of the Duncan-led reforms in Chicago, and your own work, I think we have a framework for a good debate*. But Hess doesn’t tackle the implications of a re-distribution of power between semi-private networks and geographic/political ones. Nor the question of whether democracy can be sustained in a society as increasingly unequal as ours. When the few have such overriding power, what must the many build to counteract it? Is this the business of schools?

Progressive educators—in my definition of the term—are often accused of favoring very “unstructured” school environments. I’ve always said that it’s quite the opposite. In traditional schools, the only structure is “keep your eye on the teacher and do as she says.” In a progressive classroom, one needs much more explicit structures in order to insure that learning is not sacrificed to freedom, that the available choices are healthy ones, and that the rights of both the larger community and the individual are kept in balance. These are the same issues that democracy at large requires us to tackle. They lie at the heart of the quarrels we have over public schooling. The title of Hess’ book—"The Same Thing Over and Over"—is a reminder that political democracy must also be rethought over and over again.

I’d like your thoughts on these questions, Diane (and other readers).


* Maybe we need to add in a few books that remind us what powerful learning is all about—like Eleanor Duckworth’s classic The Having of Wonderful Ideas, or Samuel Freedman’s compelling narrative Small Victories about one teacher in one school, or any of Robert Fried’s books on “The Game of School” or Mike Rose’s description of the power of a certain kind of schooling to enlarge our minds in Lives on the Boundary—among many. Probably we should add someone like Richard Rothstein to the list of “musts"—someone tacking the connection between schooling and economics. Now I’m stacking the deck in my favor!

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