School Choice & Charters Opinion

Is Trust a Reasonable Default Position?

By Deborah Meier — June 28, 2012 8 min read
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Dear Diane,

Unpopular Mandate: Why do politicians reverse their positions?” by Ezra Klein in the June 25th New Yorker intrigued me. First of all, he reminds us that even politicians do it a lot—Example No. 1 being their position on the healthcare mandate! But what he’s tackling is that much of it is not simple opportunism, but sneaks up and soon becomes sincerely held. Not only by politicians, but the rest of us, too

His central argument is that it rests in part on a common human quality that is not wholly bad: the much-maligned “go along with,” groupthink, et al. We can’t all be experts on everything on which we have an opinion or about which we must exercise judgment so we call our neighbor or daughter (e.g., about this week’s primary in Columbia County, N.Y.). Since we generally “think alike” and she is more closely involved in this particular situation, I depend on her to have looked into the issue more deeply. From my viewpoint.

You are an odd example, Diane. As you know, I attribute it to a change in perspective—seeing the world through different eyes complicated your earlier assessment of reality. In a way, though, that’s in keeping with Klein’s view, and certainly coincides with my own personal experience. It’s one reason why money is so powerful in politics—it creates a common sense surrounding constantly repeated truths that is hard not to go along with—absent a lot of knowledge or a stake in disagreeing. It’s also why the loss of a strong trade union movement has hurt so much, because it means one less “trusted” and well-organized expert at a time we need every ally we can uncover.

Back to trust. Who and how does trust work is worth exploring. Next fall.

But right now as we end our school year together and head into our summer break, I have a few immediate thoughts to raise—even though it makes this column twice as long as usual (which is plenty long to start with).

1. Poverty. The 50th anniversary of The Other America by my very close friend and ally, the late Mike Harrington, reminds me of how much I miss him. It also reminds me how easily the poor disappear. Example: My trip to South Africa. Unless I was driving I wouldn’t notice the Townships—where the poor (and black) are concentrated. And since they are fenced in, I see them only at a distance—a quick snap shot.

If I hadn’t been assisted by the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, I’d not have been aware of the appalling state of Township schools. Instead, like members of the wealthier and whiter communities, one has a hard time not being delighted at the extraordinary beauty of South Africa’s landscapes, exotic animals, and very modern cities, where black and white seem to stroll companionably. It seems miraculous. (One can even imagine that those uniformed auto-watchers are actually paid city workers, rather than “volunteers” dependent on tips.) In the case of South Africa, I’m also handicapped because I don’t know what to compare it to: what it was or what it ought to be? But in the United States the excuse for forgetting that poverty is around the corner for a very large number of us, including the majority of people of color, cannot be excused. Just understood. And fought against. Read The American ProspectThe State of Poverty in America” issue for July/August.

2. No excuses. The “push out” rate at charter schools—not to mention the already too high rate at regular public schools—is a frightening example of how we push and pull at the same time without much thought. The New York ACLU has been keeping track, as well as Advocates for Children.

I may grind my teeth in rage when my favorite private schools exclude the problematic student (“They wouldn’t be able to keep up,” “They wouldn’t fit in,” “It’s for their own good”). With three times the resources they, too, can’t seem to “figure out” how to do right by everyone. (We once quarreled, Diane, over my over-use of "" marks. You are right. But it’s handy.) Why should the progeny of such elite schools not have gotten in the habit of making similar assumptions when opening schools for “them.” It’s a mindset that is so rarely challenged in the circles they travel in—another “getting along” habit of mind. It’s precisely what our (Central Park East, Mission Hill, etc.) schools’ “habits of mind” tried to challenge.

TC Record had a piece on “South Korea’s Model Education System? Think Again,” by Chris Duffy. Their schools are a caricature of where our charters for low-income kids are heading. It seems to work to improve test scores. It’s the mantra I’ve heard since I entered the public school world in the early 60s, only more consistently applied.

“Those kids” need less intellectually stimulating appeals to reason. It works, of course, and always has—until young people reach an age when they can fight back. But even with little ones it has a price, as I quickly noticed the children were less lively and full of language in school than out. Maybe because my kids went to the same school I taught in, I found it unacceptable. In the not-distant past, it was said openly by Arthur Jensen, Richard Hernnstein, Charles Murray, et al, who took it to its natural conclusion. It’s been the center of my rebellion: creating schools that reminded me of my own elite education that work for other people’s children, too. But that “Deweyan” idea has been swept under the rug and the racism embedded in the Jensen et al argument has been overlooked by repeated slogans about “the civil rights issue of our time.”

3. The “crisis” myth. Thank you Business Week for a column by Vivek Wadhwa called “U.S. Schools Are Still Ahead—Way Ahead.” The author reports on a study at Duke University, for example, that the skills expected of an engineer in China and India are simply not equivalent to those in the United States. As a result, industries in China spend a lot of money retraining their engineering staff, which takes them four to five years to bring up to the standards of U.S. engineers. It’s just one of many such debunkings that we read, but since it goes so against the grain we soon lose track of it. Is it or isn’t it true becomes a moot point. The possibility that common wisdom is wrong is too exhausting to pursue. We buried David Berliner’s early expose, and we rebury it daily.

4. Policing by numbers, which I wrote about earlier, and which made the news again. John Eterno in The New York Times notes the pervasive effect of police quotas on stop-and-frisk data. But what no story can capture is the rage that builds up in young black men who can expect to be treated in this publicly humiliating way at any moment. Despite my daily confrontation with the issue, on behalf of my students, I couldn’t bear to fully acknowledge the effect of the experience. What do they do with it? How can we not see the damage done? Bill Bigelow has a nice short piece on the topic in the current Rethinking Schools called “From Johannesburg to Tucson.”

5. Prisons. Point 2 above points to 4, which leads naturally to Point 5. James Forman Jr.'s recent critique of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, in the Boston Review, I was glad to note, is largely about strategy, not substance. To focus on it will not, he argues, create the kind of alliances we need to change policy. He’s probably right, and Alexander recognizes that herself in arguing that her book is not meant for that “other” audience, but for her allies. I buy that argument because we can’t argue strategy if we don’t acknowledge reality as a starting point. (Forman also has some factual complaints to which I’d like to hear Alexander’s response.) Sometimes we first need to wake up and imagine what the world looks like—what it is like—for some Americans and not others. It brings me back to imagining how those in the Townships of South Africa translate their reality.

6. Early Childhood. Even the best professionals are beginning to buy into the idea that we need standardized curriculum and assessment from Day One. (Or at least that since we’re going to get it, like it or not, we should be at the table.) The Center for American Progress claims that it has the support of the experts on early childhood in supporting the common-core standards in math and reading for pre-kindergarten. (And why not pre-pre ...?) It urges states to move toward uniformity for preschool programs and to align them with the common core, according to a recent blog post on edweek.org. Help!

7. Professionalism. Actually, I think much of what I have to say about this would make for better practice even for “nonprofessionals.” (See Mike Rose’s must-read book The Mind at Work.) But what there’s no doubt about is that we are witnessing a deprofessionalization by intent in K-12 teaching and maybe soon college teaching, too. The best recent piece on this is by Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves in the June 6 Education Week. It was called “Reviving Teaching With ‘Professional Capital.’” The best teacher education comes from creating a school community in which everyone is invested in learning from each other. Yes, there is value in off-site experiences which confront us with a broader range of views and expertise than we might find in any one school, but what kids learn from is the company they keep with adults, above all. And we need to realize that the company of adults is a rarity for the young today. I might add to that the issue of misogyny raised by the editors of Rethinking Schools in their summer issue. I felt it the moment I stepped inside a K-8 public school, and above all as a kindergarten and pre-kindergarten teacher 50 years ago. There are still two safe objects of vilification—women teachers and women parents. The editors remind us of the history that I partially experienced firsthand. More on that next fall, Diane. I wonder about how it plays into the particular venom of the attack on you by the “billionaire boys club.” You were invited “in” and then betrayed their generosity with betrayal.

Seven issues, seven days of the week. But all of these relate, in the end, to who, how, and when trust is a useful default position, and how crippling it is for democracy when we operate mostly out of distrust. We have good reasons to distrust, but a functioning democracy, like a high-functioning school, can’t go very far if distrust prevails.

Have a happy summer, Diane.


P.S. Readers: Like Diane, I blog on my own (sort of). Go to my website (deborahmeier.com). I’m not as prolific as Diane is, but I’m going to try to do better.

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.