Accountability Opinion

Making Alliances With Open Eyes

By Deborah Meier — January 20, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

When it comes down to it, what motivates me is my dislike of bullies. I can’t recall who recently wrote this—or words to this effect, but it struck me that my dedication to democracy boils down to precisely this—a loathing for bullies. And, I suppose, a fear of them, which goes back a long way to my youth. Part of our task is connecting that natural aversion (and attraction) to bullying to democracy. A substantial state of equality is the key ingredient.

Are we born with it?

Who cares, I suppose. But it’s a good place to unravel what democracy is and isn’t about. Like all things good, it also reminds us that getting rid of bullies probably comes at a price. We are always in the process of making unintended trade-offs, with consequences we later rue. But often don’t learn from.

There is no way to avoid such trade-offs, but the more consciously we make them, the more prepared we are to handle the less-desirable consequences.

I think of this often when colleagues/allies with whom I align on current educational policy disagree with me on other fundamental issues. I remain silent often because it seems to me that it’s “the wrong place or time” to quarrel among “ourselves.”

Yet we need to do so. We need to make alliances with open eyes to what we are ignoring or overlooking and what the consequences might be of doing so. Ignoring them allows us to pretend to innocence later on, rather than accepting some blame for what we helped create.

Diane, as you and I have come to agree more and more, are we purposely avoiding some topics because it’s pointless and risky to our alliance? Pointless because we don’t imagine we will succeed in persuading each other, or just because the energy involved is not worth it, or because our enemies will use our differences to undermine our collaboration. (Or they will try—they will fail.)

One list serve I fondly read, especially to keep up with New York City doings, is run by a group called Class Size Matters with the persevering dedication of Leonie Haimson (who also prominently boosts your work). But I realize that much of the energy behind the faithful fans of this site is in conflict with some of my own favorite ideas. For example, small schools and choice. It always surprises me that small class size is understood to be critical to teachers and students knowing each other well by some who then condemn small schools. It surprises me that so many of this blog’s regulars see choice itself as a misleading goal, but favor choice in so many other areas.

But there’s another reason for my “going-along.” I’ve become more wary of such terms myself! I see how they have been abused by the current wave of reforms and shrink back from my own history of support for both small schools and choice.

I think, however, that we are mistaken to avoid these topics precisely because they must be part of our better solutions. Our critics are right—JUST pouring money into the existing schools will not work. Just smaller classes or just ... Our critics are right that just defending teachers and teacher rights and teachers’ unions will not suffice. Nor are school boards the obvious solution to the absence of democracy. Our critics are right that people with choices feel more powerful and more dedicated to the work that needs to be done than people without.

But we do not have to abandon public education’s bottom-line virtues to honor these three ideas: smaller schools; the role of teachers and their organizations to protect due process and fight on behalf of schools that are good for adults, too; and the advantages of choice being distributed to all families, not just the families of the rich and powerful. We don’t have to abandon the idea of accountability: “I owe you an account of what we did and what we plan to do,” nor must we abandon “high stakes” for kids or teachers—or communities that hold each other to standards for which they take responsibility, as we did at Central Park East Secondary School. “We’ll stand behind you forever, but we will also insist that you meet our mutually agreed-on standards.” But mutual agreement requires a school small enough for all voices to be heard and sufficient choice so that it’s not “those standards or no standards,” so that one’s disagreement isn’t a dead end. Representative democracy is a necessary evil, not the ideal.

Yes, “if you don’t like it, leave” (“go back to where you came from”) OR, “if you don’t like it, tough—you have no choice.” These are two ugly comebacks in some choice settings. Both of these positions undermine democracy; both are stated in the language of the bully.

We must continually imagine what schools that support democracy, that do not bully, might look like. We must acknowledge that some of the allies of privatization and marketplace choice probably do so as their answer to bullying. We can’t begin to answer these challenges if we avoid tackling their existence. Acknowledging their existence is one critical step to the bold thinking needed to imagining alternatives to My Reform or No Reform.


P.S. Diane: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is an example of a terribly untrue saying. But to use language powerfully, one must not be afraid of words—that’s the nub of truth in the expression which you tackled in your letter about the N-word. Thanks.

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.