Accountability Opinion

Keep Your Eyes on the Money

By Deborah Meier — January 07, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Do we hope our children leave school placing truth above money? Good ideas over “the Race to the Top”? Or, that they just “follow the money”?

Recently, Laura Pappano wrote in The New York Times about a new world of jobs in education: "...new education leadership jobs: running charter schools, directing turnarounds of troubled schools and founding nonprofits with creative answers to education challenges. Such work demands educators who are more M.B.A./policy-wonk than Mr. Chips, which is why universities are unveiling degree programs that pull professors from schools of education, business and public policy... While such programs include public policy training (school change can be a political minefield), the emphasis is on business. That’s because more money is flowing into education.”

So, yes indeed, keep your eyes on the money, Diane. Recent events in the ‘marketplace economy’ have not affected Arne Duncan et al’s belief that there’s a correlation between having money and being smart. They don’t see how one individual earning $1 billion while another takes home $35,000 makes them unequal as citizens.

In December, the American School Board Journal, interviewed seven people on Duncan’s approach to education. Liberal Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy is optimistic. Liberal Andrew Rotherham praises Duncan for taking on the “vested interests.” Reform will move faster, he says, after “they take care” of those people (unions and teachers and bureaucrats). I used to count on the true conservatives to oppose a centralized agenda, so I was happy to see that some (Frederick Hess and Eric Hanushek) still favor decentralized schools. And, then there’s you! Short and simple: “We are on the wrong track and heading in the wrong direction.”

It’s not easy to line folks up on today’s education issues. I like that. Conservative constitutional fundamentalists should be up in arms—nowhere were the founders clearer about who leads who re schooling. But there don’t seem to be any Tea Parties in the offing. Perhaps Christian fundamentalists have been persuaded that charters will serve their parochial purposes?

You probably know Alan Ryan’s Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education whose liberal biases seem close to mine—and still closer to yours. I find myself saying “Diane would agree with this, but maybe not that!” As one of the great experts on this, I’d love to hear your view of Ryan, Diane. Having gone from Antioch College to the University of Chicago, I lived the tensions Ryan describes between the two faces of Dewey. In deciding that education in and for democracy is essential to its survival, John Dewey (like Jefferson, Mann, Lincoln, DuBois) knew we could not simply replicate schools designed for a small ruling elite and expect it to serve democracy.

My friend Vito Perrone in the closing essay of Roots of Open Education in America (1976) reminded us that,100 years earlier, most Americans dropped out of school before 5th grade. In the Dakotas, half didn’t even make it to 2nd grade and only 1 percent completed high school. Nationwide, people of color couldn’t even start school! Perrone also reminded us (as you do, Diane) that the fight between centralization and decentralization goes way back, as do the arguments for and against field trips, lockstep curriculum, traditional readers, rote learning, and spelling bees. Small vs. large schools, ideas vs. skills vs. facts, and academia vs. vocationalism have had proponents and opponents over and over. But the context has changed—in 1820, most political decisions occurred close to home.

I suspect that these contradictions don’t cross the minds of Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, or Michael Bloomberg. The latest idea, that science and modern technology has provided us with a whole new way to decide on Truth is a cop-out—one Dewey sometimes fell into. In fact, even psychometricians have been largely excluded from the accountability discourse about the instruments they design, in ways that would have once been scandalous. When it comes to accountability by test scores, neither testing experts nor citizens make the decisions—we rely on accountants.

If I had known more about this history, would I have been more cautious about the reforms in NYC’s District 4 in the 1970s and ‘80s—with its promotion of small self-governing schools of choice? I hope not. I believed then as now that the experience of a face-to-face-sized democratic community is vital for developing understanding of democracy’s complexity. Raising democrats is thwarted in large, anonymous, “tracked” schools where democracy is—at best—a charade. Such schools stifle the intellectual and moral discourse between adults and adults and adults and kids. The complex trade-offs and compromises are necessarily ignored. Instead, such factory-style schools sow seeds of distrust in the democratic idea.

Democracy, I argue, is not “natural.” It develops best in settings where vigorous defense of the absurd idea that human beings can be “smart enough” to overcome democracy’s flaws must be reexamined over and over. If all people may not be “equal” nor “deserving” of respect, why do we insist that we “act as if” they are or could be? Yes, we’ll have moments of despair and disbelief.

You and I have different “pedagogical” views about the best way to get there, and a different interpretation of the history that got us to where we are. This is why I do not favor prescribing my favored curriculum or yours. But both of us are deeply suspicious of a society that sees self-interest—in the form of money—as the primary mechanism for making decisions. The power over others that the “advantaged” seek to perpetuate may be “natural"—but democracy depends on human inventiveness to create a system that reduces the advantages that distort democracy’s potential.

How sad that we’ve gone from a slogan with roots in democracy—No Child Left Behind—to an essentially divisive race to the top? Top of what? And why?


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