Education Funding Opinion

From Castles to Factories

By Deborah Meier — June 10, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I couldn’t resist this piece from the Rev. John Thomas of the Chicago Theological Seminary, entitled “It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers.”

When you travel across the country through numerous county seat towns and cities, it's easy to see what was important to those who established those communities. They built—at great personal sacrifice—churches, schools, libraries, and courthouses—public institutions that provided for the general welfare of their communities rather than simply the private mercantile interests of its citizens. Usually these buildings were architecturally grand, dominating the landscape, announcing to all that the spiritual, intellectual, and moral enrichment of the public was a central priority. What do we build today? Sports arenas. In the New York area alone, the last five years have seen the building of two new baseball stadiums, a football stadium, and a basketball arena, all built around lavish accommodations for those privileged few who can buy luxury boxes.

When we moved from P.S. 171, built in the 1920s, into I.S. 13, built in the 1960s, we went from grand to pedestrian, from castle to factory. Looking at high schools, it’s even more startling. The old buildings were statements about the power and glory of education. Of course, they weren’t for everybody—especially the high schools. The trouble is that once we claimed them for “everyone,” we forgot to build them to be inspiring.

Our definition—ala the “Race” to the Top—is built on a pyramid, just as the invention of standardized testing was (although we called it a bell curve). The castle disappeared. No matter how fast we run, there can only be exactly one who crosses the finish line first and exactly one in last place. (A few decades ago, we built a castle of a sort for NYC’s elite along the Hudson River with a bridge over the highway that cost more than the average. The whole model upon which testing was built followed the same pattern.)

We claim we can’t afford the kind of testing that former elites used. And efforts to create a test based on “common standards” may sound egalitarian, but it, too, is based on a predetermined scoring pattern. We can’t imagine a whole new ball game, and one for which the current crop of testing experts were not trained. Maybe it’s possible? Probably only if we can also acknowledge that there might be more than one instrument, even (horrors) more than one “core curriculum”? Could we ever settle not for a ranking of scores, but pass/fail on a short list of “essentials"—the public core of what being a citizen of democracy demands of one and all? It’s a conundrum. And, toughest of all, such a “common core” would not be the task of elites, but based on a citizen-led discussion about the common purposes of education in a democracy.

A hard task given that we devalue anything that everyone can pass, and don’t trust a rank order that doesn’t privilege certain fields of knowledge and expertise over others—on grounds that are beyond public debate. We want equality and diversity, but we also want a pyramid based on a single standard—that we can justify as objective and unbiased.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, we confront reality. In the past two decades, we’ve experienced both a startling increase in the wealth gap between whites and blacks/Hispanics, rich and poor, and an explosion of standardized testing.

Maybe there’s a correlation between these two facts? Maybe “no excuse” is just a slogan for dismissing this ugly new reality?

Yes, we’re all inclined to believe in things that confirm our own self-interests and prejudices. Democracy is essential, in part, as a check on this very human fact of life. The folks at the bottom of the pyramid are compensated for their absence of wealth by the plenitude of their voting power. (And, I would argue, by their equal access to the kind of knowledge that is needed to steer the ship of state.)

When things look good for “our side,” we have an amazing capacity to delude ourselves into thinking it’s—in the end—good for everyone. Reading Michael Lewis’s amazing account in The Big Short of how very smart, “well-educated” people deluded themselves—for some with the noblest intentions (spread the wealth to those who were poor mortgage risks)—into believing in one of the grandest Ponzi schemes ever confirmed this for me. One might argue that they really knew that they’d be bailed out, that they’d end up somehow being winners. Maybe. (And they did.) But Lewis convinces me that they deluded themselves out of self-interested stupidity. They counted on the bean-counters (just as we count on the test-makers and data-producers), the experts in the media, and their colleagues (who seemed to be going along, so it must be ok). They had the same kind of sketchy access to the real data, just as we do about the world of schooling. If their data were corrupted, why can’t we imagine that our data about schools has been, too? Corrupted in so many ways that that would take a whole column to list.

As former voucher champion Paul E. Peterson of Harvard notes, all our favorite silver bullets have failed to change scoring patterns over the past half-century: the end of legal segregation, extra federal dollars for students in poverty, high-stakes tests, schools of choice—via charters or vouchers, teachers with more degrees, teachers’ unions, improved wages for teachers, and even smaller schools. Of course, we’ve never done any of these wholeheartedly, but would we want to? We’ve in reality increased the separations across race and class. And no legal victory has produced equal school resources for the rich and poor. At one short moment in the 1980s we contemplated rethinking the nature of the “evidence” for improved schooling—shifting from “credit hours” and standardized tests to an older form of assessment:"Show me.” It didn’t last even a decade. Peterson’s latest hope is technology and distance learning. Actually, I lived through that once before. Remember? But, I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely—as I wouldn’t any of the fads. We will not be a nation in the forefront of invention, however, if we stop inventing different answers to the $64-million-dollar questions: What do we want? And, how much do we all have to agree?

If, as Rev. Thomas suggests, we believed everyone deserved a royal education, we’d build castles for learning, not football stadiums, and the best seats would be for those who need them most. And we’d invite everyone to join the discussion about what’s essential before making it The Law of the Land.


P.S. Speaking as I was last week, Diane, about how language shapes perception: How come we are calling that huge oil spouting hole in the sea’s floor a “leak”???

Note: See also New Republic review by Richard D. Kahlenberg of Paul E. Peterson’s book Saving Schools

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.