Federal Opinion

Trust and Its Misuses

By Deborah Meier — November 01, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Pedro,

Thanks for reminding me that of something I haven’t mentioned—why I’m voting for Barack Obama. In part, it’s a no-brainer. No matter what issue one addresses. Just consider Ann Romney’s recent blithe comments about getting rid of the whole education system. Charters (or private schools, I assume) are the answer. But I also fear a war on Iran and the end of Medicare and Obamacare and support for national infrastructure. I worry about any future for the young and the jobless and the underpaid part-timers, and the existence of trade unions, and the end of legal abortion and maybe even birth control, and on and on. This is a “gotta” election. But even a sweeping Obama victory won’t answer the serious questions you and I are discussing, and a lot else that relates to the same mindset that has led his administration astray on education.

It all comes down to “seeing like a state” (author James Scott). Which, in turn, rests on distrust as a matter of policy, especially and perhaps only (?) in dealing with the non-rich. We don’t even punish the very rich for willful crimes worth millions while we dream up punishments for 12-year-olds and put people in jail for decades on marijuana charges!

Today, I’m going to respond in detail to your blog of Tuesday, Oct. 23. I’m a little late, but ... If I think about what schools COULD and SHOULD be for all children I start somewhere different, but it may come in the end to what you describe, too.

Alas, trust is critical for teaching and learning—at the very least! Trust rests on acting “as if” everyone has the best of intentions. Not easy to assume. In fact, is it always really wise? No! But in the wider world I’m naturally distrustful and tend to want to dig a little deeper before I presume everyone’s intentions are similar to my own. Of course, once in a while I wonder whether my intentions aren’t tainted, too—if only by wanting to be proven right in the path I have chosen. But the distrust of the parents of all races, but particularly people of color, is proper and fitting! I expect it.

So I read your measured appeal to not get as entangled in a debate over charters et al, but instead to presume that they also are seeking positive change with caution. But for various reasons I’ll admit to becoming obsessed when I hear so many ready to jettison public education. Romney’s wife, I presume, speaks so openly about it because she thinks it’s now “common sense,” And so then I rant a bit.

I think we fundamentally agree on what kind of school reform ought to be the agenda. I can understand that some folks will never be convinced that their panacea—that in the long run the marketplace and competition outdo all other forms of organization—is just absurd. Their argument is circular because, as some libertarian friends of my contend, of course it can’t be fairly tested by real-life “evidence” until we truly eliminate most (maybe all) government intrusions. Still others are motivated by the blinders they wear, as they consider the direct financial rewards that come to them from this or that school reform. Still others enjoy being part of the rich man’s “club” of “reformers.” Many others are simply mistaken.

And you’ve raised some critical issues that unnecessarily undermine our arguments among otherwise reasonable supporters of their “reform” agenda, who ought to be on our side.

We do live in a world in which instinctively we think public is mediocre and private is better. Poor kids buy into this, too—as do their families and communities. (Many of our students at Central Park East etc. used to refer to our school as a “private” school!) If it’s selective, it must be better, most assume. We used to joke that our applicant numbers would soar if we spread the rumor that it required passing a test. Ditto: If it costs more, it must be better. Secret disclosure: My father viewed it the same way, although he also led New York City’s largest philanthropic organization. He felt demeaned when I bought a great second-hand baby carriage for HIS grandchild and sent my kids to public schools. That was a reminder of his past, not the future he dreamed of for his grandkids. Yes, we are full of hypocritical and contradictory beliefs.

Incidentally ... my definition of “gifted” (kids whose talents enable them to make the best of most situations) still holds up well. But it’s probably a minority view. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to send his daughter to a Washington, D.C., public school brought tears to my eyes because it was so unique and startling. The fear that poorness (and blackness?) may be contagious is deeply part of our so-called white culture (sometimes called “middle-class”) and infects rich and poor alike. There is, of course, even something true about it: we are influenced by our peers. And our teachers are influenced, too. Yes, there’s a sliver of truth to the idea that in the absence of peers who easily do well on school-based skills otherwise gifted young people won’t try hard. I actually thought that a positive since it would allow my children to explore areas of life they weren’t so naturally good at, without fear of losing their “place” in the hierarchy. But I had the luxury of being able to take my place in the hierarchy for granted if and when I chose. Networking with the “right” people—as parents and as children—is an asset in life, and it too affects family decisions about schooling. (For later: I think KIPP’s notion of “middle-class” values wrong.)

The compromises we make are worth noting, as you have. There are trade-offs all over the place. We could outlaw private or selective schooling. Aside from the fact that we wouldn’t win (democratically), there are downsides to closing off choices that might bite us down the line. But in the meantime, I expect parents to do whatever they think they can afford to do that will benefit their child. When my father accused me of “sacrificing” my kids to my ideals, I noted that actually I think the children benefited by those ideals. Was I right? Since I don’t have a control group to compare them with, who knows? But I like the adults they have become.

It’s harder and harder to spend time in our regular public schools given the pressure on kids, teachers, and communities to focus on test scores—and just two scores out of the many subjects of importance in the world we live in. And when the stakes are so high—their grade placement, their teacher’s job, and the future existence of their school—how dare I ask them to do otherwise. Fighting against the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top are not abstract battles, but also a diversion from the real work of school reform.

You’re right, I am very concerned by the privatization tendency in all areas of life, and my colleagues at the International Education meeting in Brussels were worrying along the same lines. With austerity driving ever-increasing chasms between the rich and everyone else, I don’t see what will stop it. It goes along with increased racial and social class segregation and a deepening of a very old tradition—one that stunned me when I began teaching in Chicago’s South Side 50 years ago. I refer to the view that educating poor and black children is essentially “different” than schooling the rest. That smaller class size, well-educated adults trained to teach, interesting curriculum, etc., etc. don’t “work” for the poor. “These children,” I was told over and over, require a form of training that seemed (to me) closer to animal training than human education and precisely designed to ignore their strengths

Maybe we can take this up next? Because if we don’t do a better job of closely examining what teaching and learning has been like for the past half-century in schools for “the other America,” we won’t make the changes we must, but will wallow in either nostalgia or fads that just repeat the same old story. We don’t just need to get rid of NCLB and RTTT: We need new ideas and examples of serious democratic schooling for all.

It’s only in the past half-century that we’ve made the claim, even rhetorically, that “all children” shall learn to be powerful citizens of a democracy. Yet, in reality, we may have extended the years of formal schooling for all, but we’ve still not got the means or ends right for the vast majority of the population. I hope, as you do, that nothing deters us from working for schools that instill hope for the very kids who are most at risk of losing hope.


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.