Education Funding Opinion

Imagine Standards for the Common Good

By Deborah Meier — April 22, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Last Saturday’s event—"Remapping Progressive Education"—was great. Someone remarked as I went into the auditorium to start the first session that they felt they had died and gone to heaven—seeing all their old colleagues from so many years ago. But there were far more young colleagues. And that was unexpected. The major speakers were terrific (UFT’s Mike Mulgrew, NYU’s Pedro Noguera, The Daily News’ Juan Gonzalez and City University of New York’s Michelle Fine); all 45 a.m. and p.m. workshops seemed to have been a success. And the awards to former alternative high school chief Stephen Phillips and to Nancy Sizer, the widow of the late Ted Sizer, were such a pleasure to present: inscribed copies of a leather-bound book containing Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech.

Getting together with so many friends reminds me that disagreements are just as essential as agreement. Even my best and most compelling arguments don’t convince other thoughtful and intelligent people—sometimes. It’s one of the reasons why my default position is usually on the side of voluntarism, choice, and sometimes changing my mind! But there are those knotty conundrums when everyone can’t have their choice—because one precludes another. Then we have decisions to make, and that’s where democracy gets sticky. Sometimes it all works out, though—as it did on Saturday.

If we agreed all the time on most things, we’d never need democracy. But if I want schools that encourage disagreement, it follows that I, too, must compromise. E.g. If I want schools to include the same mix of kids that make up our body politic, then that imposes on someone else’s ideal of public education. If, as Juan Gonzalez argued, schools are the backbone of communities, then neighborhood schools need to be preserved! Ditto for tracking by ability. Can we outlaw schools for “the gifted” to preserve heterogeneity? Can everyone have what is best for themselves while still having the best for the common good?

I also constantly am amazed at how difficult it is to agree on what constitutes good evidence, in part for the same reasons. Richard Rothstein just sent me a study published by the Economic Policy Institute about the naming of Tennessee and Delaware as winners of millions ($500 million for Tennessee and $100 million for Delaware) in federal Race to the Top funding. When we use very precise numbers we think the answers must be objective. But the authors (Rothstein and William Peterson) point to the range of subjective judgments involved in awarding these two states 444.2 and 454.6 out of 500 points, respectively. Yes, they have a check list, but like good grading systems everywhere (from the Olympics to college courses), someone decides how much weight to give different criteria, and scorers decide how many points each proposal merits. Pennsylvania would have rated higher had they abandoned their decision to focus on early-childhood education, for example. Based on what research was that the wrong decision? The authors break down the measuring process very carefully and in the process expose the false claims behind many objective instruments. Including multiple-choice tests, as well as the kind I prefer. But then the purpose of education for democracy is all about making judgments, which are always open to dispute.

There’s no getting around our being judgmental human beings. Nor should there be.

But there can be some agreed-upon “essential questions"—such as those Ted Sizer tried to help us base our teaching upon. Tony Judt’s piece in the latest New York Review of Books entitled “Ill Fares the Land” (also the title of his latest book) poses such fundamental questions for all of us. How did it come to be that the USA ranks by far the worst (off the charts) when it comes to income equality, as well as on health? How come the USA, once the leader when it came to social mobility, now ranks near the bottom, and has fallen steadily since 1980? And on and on. “How,” he asks, should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else?” He suggests that we start by telling our children “it wasn’t always thus.” It’s not in our genes or our history. An age of insecurity does not bode well, he says, for a renewal of democratic spirit. Economic, physical, and political insecurity breed selfishness. Schools have a role to play here by creating for their communities a proxy society—a community that cares for one and all and that practices the habits of democracy, not consumerism. If Judt is right, school reform needs to address its impact on such “essential questions.” Judt tackles the issue from the political Left, but I think much the same could be argued from any political persuasion that holds itself accountable to preserving and nourishing democracy. Warts and all. “Smartness” of the kind we seem lately to revere—the kind that gets you into the Ivy League—is not the purpose of the public’s support for public education. Imagine if our standards were set, not on Harvard, but on our concern for the common good?

I’m off today to Missouri to speak to a gathering of parents from around the nation (Parents for Public Schools). I’m exhausted from last weekend, but eager for this trip, too. Especially as Missouri is my mother’s home state; and it was my mother who convinced my brother and me not to attend an Ivy League school! So we both went to college in Ohio—which we, born-and-bred New Yorkers, thought of as the “far West.”


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.