School Choice & Charters Opinion

Teaching Students About Trade-Offs

By Deborah Meier — April 25, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Elliott,

You remind me of what always gives me hope—about myself and the world! We are insatiably inclined to learn from our experience—although too often we do less and less of it as we grow older.

Schools have the unique potential of being conscious places for thinking aloud together—across ages and different histories. They are the heart—potentially—of the answer to “how best to teach teachers.” Bringing faculties, K-12 teachers, parents, and students together to genuinely reexamine their ideas, over and over—daily, weekly, annually, etc.—is the untapped resource that can change the world. And schools are where it can happen.

I overstate my case. But it was precisely this that made our mutual friend Emily excited about “comparing” Mission Hill and the KIPP school you were so long associated with in Houston: the liveliness of the staff’s questioning of their own practices, sharing ideas, and even revising some. I gather the approach was more subtle than throwing things out and inventing new practices, but more tweaking, or as you note “explicitly” deemphasizing SLANT, using it “less and less” in your own teaching as a central tool.

I also agree that in the first year or two of teaching we often feel a greater need for rules that are fixed, unchangeable, etc. There are just too many decisions to make, and kids are too aware of how uncertain we are. It’s what made substitute teaching for me so hard—because I wasn’t able to appear confident in my own judgment! But my incurable curiosity about “excuses” didn’t interfere with my success as a kindergarten teacher or, later, as a full-time teacher and principal. But it was ill-suited to being a sub!

But finding better ways doesn’t happen automatically. If we’re lucky, we find good mentors, live ones or in books. Or, one is lucky and starts working in a kindergarten. My curiosity about “excuses” may well have cost a little, but we pay a price for all our choices. Those are trade-offs one has to accept as part of just being alive. It was my curiosity that made me fall in love with teaching—even if it meant I learned the “tricks” a little more slowly. What’s scary is how many teachers never get over the bad habits they needed to start with.

Part of the complex moral message we are teaching the young in school is being aware of the trade-offs that complicate life, and which are not always possible to predict ahead of time is a major part of it. It’s the seemingly impossible paradox of learning to “accept” authority on faith while simultaneously being skeptical about even the best of authorities.

The term “no excuses” bothers me the same way “three strikes and you’re out” does, and a whole host of other slogans that harden our hearts and brains to the fact that there are “excuses.”

At its heart our legal system rests on the demand that defendants have a right to present their “excuses"—to be heard. I have experienced the sad fact that Some Folks learn to expect their right to be heard out—with their “excuses"—and some not. On the whole, it’s partly because of their skill at making excuses and partly because of who they are—gender, race, class, etc.—that some do and some don’t. Some kids have “a way” of charming you out of your immediate harsh response and some have a way of digging themselves in deeper. In examining who does which we learned a lot at Mission Hill about the kids and ourselves: their “prejudices” and ours.

I see less “great progress” than you do, Elliott, re. race and class and schooling. I perhaps question the data that you rest your claim on—that zip codes are no longer (in Los Angeles or elsewhere) a very sound predictor of school success. I also think we have unnecessarily complicated the potential for breaking the zip code prediction by using test scores and four-year graduation rates as measures of our success. Both are designed to widen the apparent gaps. Yes: designed! (It’s perhaps time we re-tackled the correlation between zip codes and class/race by changing the correlation between zip codes and race/class!)

Schools alone cannot be saviors—even in the long arc of life—even as they were for so many of our students (and yours). Scaling up has its costs. But better conscious planning re. schools and much more can be the saviors. If we choose to use it for that end. But perhaps our greatest contribution—the specific schools we put so much of our lives into—will be encourage a new generation. That it isn’t “in their genes” or their “bad parents’ genes” and that it isn’t in test scores that take their starting point in the necessity to rank order, to differentiate, etc. to believe that individual success does not run counter to collective success, that schools can contribute to building a democratic base that helps design our collective future. Maybe our students will be better able to examine the particulars of our democratic experiment for perhaps better ways to balance the power of money and the power of “the people,” to reconsider some of the trade-offs that come from different forms of democracy—different compromises and trade-offs. Maybe.

Democracy is in a state of crisis—and it’s not a good sign for those in the bottom half, or perhaps for those in the bottom 90 percent. The top 1 percent have been getting away with a lot of excuses to explain their often felonious behavior, the gross inequality they accept as natural, and their ability to invent explanations for why their good fortune is really good for us all. And it’s eating away at one institution after another. Including our respect for the law.

I like grit, curiosity, and zest—so much better than rigor. Thanks. I’ve lately tended to translate rigor into vigor! It takes a zestful, curious, vigorous body of adults to create a community that kids and families can truly be members of—and I’m for virtually any school that a least starts with asking the tough questions—such as who do we mean by “us”? Which “us’s” make the decisions the rest of us live uncomfortably alongside of?

Query: Do you think that “models"—such as ours and yours—can be replicated or should, beyond the first few years perhaps? What are the trade-offs involved? Did you always feel you had sufficient flexibility to use your own experiences freely in making changes within “the model”? What have you learned from this? “Scaling up” as an idea always makes me nervous, but I’ve seen many successful attempts, even though I suspect most involve flexibility and leeway: like Waldorf schools, Montessori, the MET schools, the International schools, etc. But I’m also aware of some of the drawbacks they have experienced in getting this “right.”


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.