School Choice & Charters Opinion

Divided We Fail

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

How did we let “them” pit so many good people against each other? Maybe it’s just New York City? Parents, teachers, and kids are fighting each other over who is invading whose turf, who belongs, who is an insider vs. an outsider. A busload of mothers goes to Albany on behalf of charters and another on behalf of the “regular” public schools their children attend. Young teachers with fire in their bellies go into charter schools; others dream of starting one, while senior teachers see their futures imperiled. None of them are bad folks. Meanwhile, what you call in your book “the billionaire boys club” chortles? These are just the healthy signs of competition, they may say. A little blood may spill, but without an enemy, no one gives their best, may be what they believe.

Just two examples, one from the Houston Chronicledated Feb. 12:

“At a contentious meeting pitting parents against teachers, the Houston school board gave final approval on Thursday to a policy allowing the firing of instructors whose students fall short on standardized tests. Dozens of parents spoke in favor of the decision, while more than 750 teachers packed the school district’s headquarters to protest the policy, considered among the most aggressive efforts in the nation to improve teacher quality.”

Another from GothamGazette.comabout NYC:

“They stood under the scaffolding outside PS 188....separated by a narrow walkway and strongly held viewpoints. One group wore orange shirts and carried matching signs in support of the Department of Education’s plan to give Girls Preparatory Charter, an elementary school planning to expand into the middle grades, more room in the building. Facing them were parents, students and teachers from PS 188 and PS 94, the other two schools in the facility. They said giving Girls Prep additional space will squeeze the low-income and local kids at PS 188 as well as PS 94’s autistic students.

This rivalry on the Lower East Side represents one skirmish in a fight that has raged across the city—from Harlem to Cypress Hills—as the Department of Education attempts....”

Our president went to South Korea last year. What impressed him? That country’s determination to educate its children to out-compete American children. Thus—the Race To the Top. Meanwhile, some American corporations are pouring money into China and Korea to help them in the race. The billionaires club has its bets on the winners—its members are hedge-funders, not risk-takers, at heart. Regardless of who wins, it’s good for them.

There must be a better way to motivate the young. Setting “standards” (plural) is one—if they are used for something other than competition. A good carpenter knows good work and takes pride in it.

You and I may get into arguments about tests and standards occasionally. Not as enemies, but as fellow citizens trying to figure our way around complex territory. Some say it’s not true that standards are a curriculum. I agree—they needn’t be. But, if they aren’t detailed, then others say they are fuzzy, mushy, etc.

Did you see the following issued by the Cato Institute?

“The report attached to this email...goes beyond ...simplistic arguments and examines the actual research on national standards. What it reveals is that there is no convincing evidence that national standards drive superior educational performance.” Many of the high-performing nations actually don’t have national standards and many top-performing nations are not much bigger than our states—and far less diverse. Further, “among OECD nations, this and other studies show that standards and CBEEs (high school exams) had negligible effects on TIMSS.” Cato, with its libertarian ideology is as happy as I am about this. Additionally, test scores are not the measure of achievement I wish we were using!

I think part of our disagreement over the years has been a disagreement about “objective truth"—which is why I recommend the Max Hastings piecein the current New York Review of Books on the teaching of history. Our argument, of course, is not about whether there is or isn’t—but whether we dare claim we have it. My old friend Sy Fliegel used to remind audiences that, while nowadays we want all the kids to join in when we sing together, when he was a boy the principal would order those with a tin ear just to pretend to sing. No one was shocked by the advice. What, he asked, are we not shocked about today that will, in retrospect, look equally harmful or absurd? The way we “see” the past is affected by the present, which in turn influences the future.

That’s why we, on occasion, clash over how we tell the story of progressive education, or even about public education’s role in our history. We are partially arguing about the present. And since we agree about the present now, it’s easier to dismiss our other disagreements. But it reminds me also of why it’s not always wise to do so. Doing so suggests that disagreements are an evil we should avoid, rather than—as this exchange hopefully demonstrates—their being useful and even critical. It makes it easier, not harder, to learn from each other—as I think we both have!

Between now and next week, all readers must go out and buy Diane’s book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System). It’s an important book and lays out the basis for Diane and my agreements and, on occasion, our disagreements. It would be fun to explore it with an audience who has at least dipped into it, or has it at hand to refer to.


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