Education Funding Opinion

It’s Not Too Late...Probably

By Deborah Meier — March 04, 2010 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

They say the best reason for studying history is that it helps you see that the future is still a work in progress. And your new book—The Death and Life of the Great American School System—is an important step toward moving forward. Your clarity and quiet passion, I’m happy to say, are now not directed at me!

The title is brilliant. My first reaction was that, like the Jane Jacobs-titled classic on the American city, it suggests a golden past. (The cover helps.) But public (and private) education never had such a past. And, it’s not enough to say that it served its purposes, but we have new ones. The purposes you and I have in mind were never well served by public education. It didn’t provide the kind of intellectual, social, and political power to “the people” that good education should. It wasn’t even invented to include most of them, and at the time of my birth even white males were just beginning to drop into high school, much less drop out!

But on second glance I realized both you and Jacobs reversed the order! It changes the entire picture. It both resonates with the fear so many have about the dream we held for public education, and its promise, and offers hope, not despair. You have pulled the dream and reality together and turned it into a good and provocative story.

I wince a bit over your critique of my colleague Tony Alvarado, to whom I owe so much. He was open-minded and supportive of passionate teachers who, with a few colleagues, wanted to do something different. He had a kind of blind respect, alongside a properly skeptical trust, for the people who worked with and for him. Unfortunately, he discovered “the truth"—the one best method, the right practice—during his years in New York’s District 2 and thought it could be imposed in San Diego. He made the same mistake that another nice guy, Arne Duncan, is making.

Your discussion of choice, of course, also had me a bit nervous—since it’s one of those essentials I saw/see as key. But it was just one part of a larger strategy. Smallness made it easier for students to become better “known” by adults and for adults to become better known by their students and above all by their colleagues. Not better known as buddies and pals—but for their work. It thus made it more reasonable, it seemed to me, to put more responsibility into the hands of the faculty. It made it more reasonable to hold the faculty responsible as a community to put together strategies that would help the actual students in front of them solve the actual problems facing them. I knew that smallness could also become a management strategy for monitoring productivity, which is why most factories and armies are also broken into smaller units.

But I warned the Gates Foundation people 20 years ago, that if we weren’t careful the next big fad would be big schools. I saw choice as a necessary component of smallness—if it were to serve democracy. Any group of adults who get together to create something for which they are prepared to take responsibility will design something anywhere from slightly different to very different from the work of their colleagues down the hall. And if such schools were going to be coherent and cohesive units, they could not do so if only one of the three constituencies (parents, students, school staff) had choice and voice.

East Harlem is a tightly packed, geographically small area—so one could more or less have choice and neighborhood schools. Since the neighborhood school buildings were not overcrowded, it provided an opportunity to do a little racial integrating, too, drawing parents from the whiter east and west side of Manhattan to interesting District 4 models of schooling.

At its heart was a respect for every individual member of our small communities, aligned with an obligation to get to know each other over time in ways that built trust.

That meant transparency. We had to work in the open, and we had to develop tools of assessment based on accountability to each other that rested on face-to-face agreements and open and public tools. No more “behind the closed door.” My own expert knowledge and history with standardized testing led me to believe that it was a mis-educative force. No one understood the tests, including reporters and politicians. We weren’t even supposed to see them until the day they were given, and the results took many months to get back to us. Yet kids defined themselves in the misguided labels that the tests placed on them. So did we. We began to refer to kids as “non-readers” and “3rd grade readers, and two months” or two years “below grade level” without a basis in reality. We redefined reading itself as whatever one’s score was, despite the fact that psychometricians knew this was voodoo. (We’ve since simplified it to 1,2,3,4!)

We decided to design really tough alternatives that inspired the best from students and teachers. It was “old-fashioned,” but convincing to parents and experts, as well.

But, as you note in Chapter 10 of your book, the so-called “Billionaires Club” wasn’t working on the basis of real kids in real communities; possibly the club members all had been good testers (although many successful people weren’t). And they had precious little respect for those who went into K-12 teaching, unless it was just on the way to becoming a policy wonk. I knew this well and fought it for 45 years. I think I’m almost over the sting of it.

What I treasure in your book, Diane, is that it doesn’t taste of condescension. I can encourage friends to read it without thinking they will be offended. How often is a book written that describes one’s change of mind? It’s rare. Unfortunately, the current scene requires us to spend most of our time on this blog looking for ammunition to prevent the business-takeover rather than to dig out our fascinating disagreements. Since corporations are now fully acknowledged as humans (humanoids?), the opposition looks fiercer than ever. But probably it is not too late.


P.S. Readers: I hope you’ve got a copy of Diane’s book in your hands as you read this.

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.