Accountability Opinion

Public Education and Fact vs. Fiction

By Deborah Meier — January 06, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

There was one invaluable course I took at the University of Chicago that still sticks with me. The professor, historian Louis R. Gottschalk, gave everyone some historical facts to which most history books attested and asked us to explore them. We pretty quickly figured out that something must be wrong with them. In fact, they were all fictions that had crept into history books as facts. Mine had something to do with Napoleon’s Navy and the Caribbean.

Richard Rothstein’s wonderful The Way We Were? is a must-read on educational facts and fictions. If anybody who reads our exchanges hasn’t read it—shame on them. I keep it close by whenever I start to write about schooling in America.

A very smart lady whose blogging I sometimes read asserts, for example, that, until a few years ago teachers in New York City didn’t “do reading” until 2nd or 3rd grade. Actually, maybe she read that about Finland’s schools. Or Rudolf Steiner schools. The latter claim they hold off until the first adult tooth appears. I think it’s mostly so they have a chance to imbed their other ideals in kids before they get immersed into reading on their own. The Finns just prefer more play and more nature, and kids catch up and lead the way by 3rd grade!

Where do these “fact-lets” come from?

Another story: a recent New York Times article had a father complaining about all the work sheets in his son’s class and longs for the good old days when he was in school. When? Where? Work sheets—teacher-designed or commercial—have been ubiquitous since I began teaching 45 years ago. Every reading series came with them; ditto math. While one read with the Bluebirds, the Robins and the Hummingbirds did work sheets.

In the good old days—when most adults with kids in our schools today were young—I found Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City public schools appalling. Class sizes were huge, kids restless and often angry, parents wary at best, the curriculum as boring for me as the kids, and science consisted only of textbook reading and art of a rare “experience.” There were always exceptions. My oldest daughter fell in love with art in a wonderful, small South Side Chicago public school and then gave it up for good in a small public school in Philadelphia where she got a D on a delightful painting about a march for something or other she attended at the age of 9.

And on and on.

Here are some excerpts and headlines—can you guess the year?

1. “Attack Mounted on Dropouts/City Sets Standards for Schools”

2. “New York’s Great Reading Score Scandal”

3. “Diagnostic reading tests are being given this week to 150,000 high school students as the first step in a new program—the largest and most systematic ever. ...We intend to follow through...to overcome deficiencies.”

4. “The University of California (Berkeley) found that 30 to 40 percent of entering freshmen were not proficient in English.”

5. “Hope for the Blackboard Jungle: ... Every year New Yorkers’ performance had been getting a little worse, until by YEAR?* only 32 percent of the city’s pupils [were] doing as well or better than the national average.”

6. “Even Boston’s ‘brightest students’ didn’t know ‘whether water expanded or contracted when it freezes.’ And while 70 percent of this elite group knew that the U.S. had imposed an embargo in 1812 only five knew what ‘embargo’ meant.”

7. “Tougher Standards in Our High. The average freshman is a year and three months behind national standards in reading.”

8. “City Pupils Remain Behind ... Official Asserts the Tests Suggest Difficulty in Early Grades. Last fall 40.1 percent were reported on grade level or above ... but in March, 43 percent ... were reading at grade level or above"; and “Bleak drop out stats are raising concern.”

9. “Our standard for high school graduation has slipped badly. Fifty years ago a high school diploma meant something. ... We have misled our students. ... and our nation.”

10, “During the past 40 or 50 years those who are responsible for education have progressively removed from the curriculum ... the western culture which produced the modern democratic state.”

The quotes above come from mainstream publications over the past 150 years. The earliest is 1845, the latest ... well I won’t reveal it. Answers next week, or you can peek earlier on my website (deborahmeier.com).

No serious discussion can take place among people who hold so many different pictures of both current and past realities and have no patience for digging further. But is it any better when we confront any other “crisis"—environmental, Afghanistan, taxation, etc.? Probably not. And that’s not the problem. But knowing what to do about our particular ignorance is what schools OUGHT to be about: making it possible for citizens to join these debates in a less dogmatic way—especially when their dogmas are often based on plain, ordinary misinformation. Plus, schools should convince kids (and I mean this just as it sounds) that caring about the future requires speaking up and listening—and sometimes changing our minds—like you did so publicly.

Funny, Diane, I think we’d both agree even as I suspect we might not go about designing the same kinds of schools or curriculums to achieve this. That’s the kind of diversity I appreciate—yours and mine fit well under the same umbrella. But ... Joel Klein’s? Cathleen Black’s? Possibly yes, when they are thinking about their own kids.


* Editor’s note: The year is intentionally left blank in this quote so as not to give away the date of the referenced article.

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.