School Choice & Charters Opinion

Let’s Find Issues to Unite Around

By Deborah Meier — October 04, 2012 6 min read
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My Dear Pedro,

Actually, I was only responding to one paragraph of your Nation piece. It probably suggests disagreement, but hardly would lead me to conclude that you were anti-teacher or anti-union.

I may even be more open to closing large, failing schools than you—if we could do it as well as we did with Julia Richman High School in New York, with the union’s support as we had there. But the way closing schools is now being used, we both agree, is as a tool on behalf of another agenda: privatization.

For a while I felt we were being paranoiac about claims that this was part of a conspiracy. But I have discovered that it really has been a conscious PLOT. Not, of course, for all the charters.

So what’s my beef with that paragraph of yours, which said, among other things: “The teachers [in Chicago] have been bold in their denunciation of the high-stakes testing that has been used to rank students, schools, and now teachers. But they have been less clear about what should be done to promote change and improvement”?

I just don’t know how much you can expect teachers’ unions to do! They supported our Annenberg Challenge proposal for a “network of networks” in New York City tackling both innovation and accountability in new ways back in the mid-1990s. That was a brave act because a lot of their members were afraid of the strategy. And management ultimately vetoed the plan. Could unions do a better job of educating their members, really build a union with educational sophistication? God knows it would be hard to do and wouldn’t leave a lot of resources for the union’s other tasks. And teachers would need more time to discuss education together!

The unions would definitely need support from a wide range of union activists to spread the word. Sandy Feldman (Al Shanker’s successor at the American Federation of Teachers) tried to get at that—I was at the meeting when she kind of scared the delegate assembly into acknowledging that real danger lay ahead and they needed to take some risky paths. I think they lost that battle. Instead, I think they have taken up some “reform” packages, gingerly, that are popular among the De-Formers and that create ever more rage and demoralization among the rank-and-file. So while I’m not a shoo-in fan of the current leadership’s approach, I sympathize with their dilemma. I think Chicago’s Karen Lewis got it right, and maybe she can now take the steps you suggest. I only say “maybe,” though.

So, one by one, let me take up a few of your points. I don’t think the Coalition of Essential Schools failed because too few of their schools had high percentages of low-income and minority kids. They were probably skewed in that direction although they included the whole range. I think, in fact, it helps when I can say that it’s good for the wealthier and the poorer: It works. Period. They had their failures, of course. But I think the major mistake we made was going after big money, which meant scaling up too fast. It was tougher for them to find the “extra” monies required (the cushion) in low-income public schools where it took far more ingenuity to get the numbers right—which was at the core of Ted Sizer’s (and, relatedly, the CES’s) proposal. He sought to put all our energy into achieving the smallness that would allow for deep and sustaining relationships between adults; between students; between adults and students; and between adults, students, and families.

Ted did not take up the issues involved in Geoffrey Canada’s school—changing the surrounding neighborhood—although some of the CES schools did. CES was out to prove that if one looked just at the “essentials” of “using one’s mind well” it could be done. In fact, at Central Park East Secondary School we convinced the faculty NOT to get into a family’s interpersonal or social issues as a way to make it hard for us to fall back on excuses. We decided our job was “strictly” influencing their hearts and minds to become “intellectuals” excited to use their minds on behalf of our agenda and their own. We hired a classy social worker who, with help from the Ackerman Institute and Mt Sinai’s adolescent clinic, gave us back-up when family issues were directly interfering with kids having the energy, focus, and stamina to handle both the life of home and school. I don’t know whether the band-aids Canada provides are making a difference. But band-aids are not to be sneered at.

I’m not feeling defensive, Pedro. But our failures had less to do with a failure of vision. Rather, it was because our resources were limited and we agreed to tackle the tasks we were fundamentally paid to engage in. Less than a decade from our first experiments, the Reform Agenda came sweeping in. (A Nation at Risk preceded CPESS by one year.) We suspected it would be better to have others focus on strategies of community and political organizing. We did a lot of thinking about that.

We also thought a lot about our responsibility to engaging families. We did invent and seriously experiment—with the help of some foundations and psychometricians—a form of accountability that would support the innovations needed and in which families could play a role. It’s as wrong to judge teachers as students—as well as families and communities—by test scores. Such scores are not measuring what is both most important and most accessible to change. Using test scores as gatekeepers was tackling the most intransigent element.

Teachers are probably not a lot better as people than doctors, although greed is the one thing you can’t accuse them of. And it’s unlikely they entered the field because they were not interested in putting in a long and hard day’s work. But they (and me, too) are the products of a racist society, and expectations that carry race and class biases ARE often subtle. Like the kids, teachers also look for ways to avoid guilt and blame. Pointing the finger elsewhere is not unique to the corporate deformers. It’s not even our worst trait—although maybe we’d prefer our colleagues give up teaching when fear and pity begin to dominate their practice.

Schools and the media have for decades told folks that tests were fair and unbiased, so, of course, the public believed in them. It took years to convince Central Park East and Central Park East Secondary School parents otherwise; it was time consuming, and we offered reasonable alternatives (like twice-a year-taping of children’s reading). Our assessments were made available to each and every parent in written and face-to-face conferences. The latter occurred two or more times a year, 45 minutes to an hour each.

Some of the new “reformers” are our enemies. And I think we got marginalized more because we didn’t distinguish friend from foe, rather than recognize and confront the attack on public education from the start.

Let’s imagine some strategies to link us with those who are not following the Jonah Edelman agenda. Let’s think of three, four, or at most five issues we could unite on, principles that might cut across some of the unnecessarily warring parties. Amongst our potential allies are many who I think primarily disagree about the trade-offs we’re willing to live with. (For example, perhaps I’d buy the focus on the test-score achievement gap argument if I thought addressing it was any easier to do than putting my energy into serious achievement.) We focused on serious performance assessment, and we were mostly successful at getting it!


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