Accountability Opinion

Until We Take Democracy Seriously...

By Deborah Meier — April 08, 2010 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Diane,

Here’s an essential question: When trying to get at the truth of things, what role do data play? Most of the time our “habits” take over before we can exercise any form of reflective judgment (which is why John Dewey focused on “habits of mind” as the goal of good schools). Habits are slow growing so slowing things down could help. It takes a “leisure class” to rule well. Leisure has a democratic purpose because “data” rarely speak for themselves. That’s true whether the data are numbers or observations. Sometimes, highly structured and standardized “observations"—standardized tests—work. Sometimes, highly structured debates or formal proofs work—with the rules of the game and the judges chosen by those viewed as most expert or representative. Often, we decide on the sheer logic of the argument, calling upon the data life itself has brought us.

But there are other habits we fall back on: our values, purposes, beliefs, preferences, inclinations. These are the things that make us hard to predict—and essentially human. Note: what I’ve left out from the above is one such purpose: “self-interest"—or, as they say, “follow the money.”

One thing we know about teachers—they have an underdeveloped inner drive for money—which made them harder for unions to organize. But over time they developed a high compensatory drive for “self-esteem,” as it is sometimes called, and money, of course, can also be a stand-in for that. They were once recruited from a captive audience (women) and settled for neither esteem nor money. Just praise for being dedicated. Fortunately, since the rise of teachers’ unions, they’ve become more decently paid in some states. Taken together, this may be one reason that money for test score results won’t make a big difference. But, of course, what I most worry about is that it will make a difference—not only because of the money, but because of its effect on their status within the school and community. And, above all, with the parents of their students.

But I worry also about what is driving the current crop of reformers. I know one could argue that it is love of country—their concern over our economic conditions. But it’s hard for me to imagine that something that would not show up for at least a decade or longer would be driving so many entrepreneurs into the school business. I also happen to doubt that our test score rankings have anything to do with our past, present, or future economic woes. It might just be self-esteem—are they embarrassed at the low rankings and blush for their beloved land? But I notice that they never boast about our accomplishments. I can’t recall anyone heralding our standing on reading tests, that Massachusetts has for decades or more led the world, nor seem alarmed at our low ranking on infant healthcare, poverty, crime, et al.

The recurrent cry of crisis must serve some purpose. The “Sputnik” crisis increased money for the STEM subjects—to compete with the then-Soviet Union. What actually did it produce? The Soviet Union fell on its own, and not from the lack of high test scores in math. What should that data have shown us about crying “wolf” too often? Nothing.

It’s clear what publishers like McGraw-Hill have their eye on. And all the other publishers of standardized tests, and prep organizations, and prep courses, and a whole industry of coaches, consultants, guaranteed-or-your-money-back new teaching schemes and materials. Money.

What mayor could resist getting his hands on all the money that goes into schooling and the contracts that flow from it and the political power and the ...? This is why we once took mayoral control away from mayors! The un-bid contracts the NYC mayor now controls outweigh all the petty corruption and misspending of which the 32 NYC local districts were accused.

But what about the new people of wealth who are getting their sense of satisfaction by starting new schools for the poor? Is it money, ideology, or just the search for a meaningful hobby? Perhaps it’s just hard to discount the importance of what you do well—making money. Perhaps they are proving a point: that in the end the marketplace is wiser than political processes—especially when armed with objective score data.

They are all for democracy. But... Deep in our hearts many, not just hedge-funders, believe that democracy is a luxury too important to be in the hands of ordinary miseducated adults, parents, or teachers. After the revolution, some suggest, democracy can be restored. But the changes needed require draconian, long-term power. Some oldsters will recognize this as a version of the ideology that many Communists held in the 1930s, breaking eggs to make an omelet.

I think our belief in democracy is shallow. It rests on a bunch of naïve lessons we were taught as children about electing the class president or choosing our favorite color. We sort of knew as kids this wasn’t the real thing. Lots of our fellow citizens still wonder.

Still, if we don’t “get it,” I believe we still like the idea. Even Tea Partiers.

Until we take democracy seriously, we’ll keep having manufactured crises, while the real ones go unattended. Read my Web site because the piece on this topic I originally intended for this space will be there soon (www.deborahmeier.com).


Related Tags:

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.