Accountability Opinion

Summer Reading & Other Thoughts

By Deborah Meier — July 09, 2009 5 min read
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Editor’s Note: After this week, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch begin their annual summer break. Their blog will return in September.

Dear Diane,

I’m still amazed at how fast the new educational establishment plans to “revolutionize” our schools. I acknowledge that your support for national testing and curriculum is a bit out of line with the train that’s long since left the station, and I suspect you will end up as dismayed as I am. So, too, will many Americans who have not in any way been consulted by their governors or their president. One look at who’s in charge gives me the creeps—SAT and ACT. Unbelievable! Hardly.

I quote IBM’s Louis Gerstner in a conversation with John Bussey of The Wall Street Journal and Joel Klein: “What I’m going to suggest (to Obama) is that he convene the 50 governors and the first thing they do is abolish the 16,000 school districts we have in the United States.” Why? Because “sixteen thousand school districts are what we’re trying to cram this reform through.” With only one—how much easier. (Note: When I was born, there were 200,000 school boards.)

Getting “around” the Constitution is hardly a new practice and, after all, I’ve supported it at times. But even in the case of gun control, I think I’m closer to the Founding Fathers’ idea than the NRA is. And I’m glad we didn’t try to squeeze African-Americans et al into the Constitution by legalese. Instead, “we” wrote an amendment. On local control of schools, I’m certain I am on the side of the Constitution, and I think it’s more critical, not less, in today’s world and that no such amendment would survive the American people.

I’ve become more conservative: not in where I hope to go, but in the means for getting there. Rapid changes on a large scale are dangerous—and while sometimes necessary we need to be persuaded. That slows things down a bit I know. It’s one of democracy’s intentional “drawbacks.”

If we were capable of coming up with a list of just one book or idea in each of the disciplines for a “common core” I’d buy it. But that would be a utopian wish—and probably dangerous, too! Maybe I wouldn’t buy it.

The problem with the old “new math” of the ‘60s was not the mathematics, but the attempt to leap ahead without either persuading or educating those who we expected to carry it out (teachers) or support it (parents).

Possibly we will raise slightly the intellectual content of what kids are presented with a national curriculum. With certainty, we will lower the chances of having an inspiring year with an inspired teacher. It’s a trade-off that seems unnecessary if we took advantage of our schools as places for everyone to learn—for teachers, students, parents, and the community. If we started with where all of these parties “are” and encouraged them—with resources—to dig deeper and more richly, with greater attention to the love of learning, we could have both. In a generation of two.

I liked your list, Diane. I think we could connect each of our lists to the future health of democracy, and by extension not only to a stronger economy, but a real understanding of what an economy is. Schools and the economy have moved lock-step into shoddy conceptions of what a strong mind and economy can be measured by and then substituted the measure for the object itself.

Books to read. There are many good books on education to read. And yes, “Middlemarch” can even help us think about schooling! That’s what I discovered about education—everything feeds it.

For example, I recently read an odd book that tells the story of the author’s encounter with a shelter for adolescents in Russia. Written by journalist Bob Belenky, “Tales of Priut Almus” delighted me. Exactly why? I’m still trying to figure it out.

I’d still recommend James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” for examining our current situation and Evans Clinchy’s “Reforming American Education: From the Bottom to the Top”—which has an introduction by me (“Supposing That..”) which I still agree with. I recommend my “In Schools We Trust” for a chapter on changing the odds, as an approach to school reform writ large—to those who keep carping that my ideas depend too much on exceptionalism.

Like your rediscovering “Middlemarch,” I rediscovered a collection of essays by physicist David Hawkins in a book entitled “The Informed Vision.” Ken Jones, formerly with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also edited a useful book, “Democratic School Accountability,” that is only three years old, but totally out of synch with the “latest” Gates Foundation wisdom. Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues Jacqueline Ancess and Beverly Falk’s “Authentic Assessment in Action” has a lot to show us, including a chapter on the old Central Park East Secondary School that I often refer to. Just this week, friends in NYC—including you, Diane—collaborated in producing a book called “NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know.”

There are many more, depending on one’s taste. I particularly love accounts by teachers—like Julie Diamond’s “Welcome to the Aquarium.” I re-read Mike Rose’s “Lives on the Boundary” yearly. Ditto for oldies, like John Holt’s “How Children Fail.” Or anything by Frank Smith—including his most recent—“Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices.” An oldie—“Horace’s Compromise” by Ted Sizer—should be read by policymakers every few years, alongside Richard Rothstein’s classic—“The Way We Were?”. Diane, there’s another history of education often forgotten even by the best historians and well-captured in “Roots of Open Education in America,” edited by Ruth Dropkin and Arthur Tobier—with a last chapter by my hero Vito Perrone.

(And as soon as I send this off, I’ll feel terrible about having left off mentioning x and y—like Seymour Sarason! Maxine Green!—and Linda Nathan’s not-yet-available book.)

Have a joyful summer—living the alternate life we didn’t live from September through June. Which is why I reject the idea of a longer school year. What kids need are fascinating alternate life experiences for two summer months. We owe them that, as we owe it to ourselves.


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