School Choice & Charters Opinion

We ‘Choose’ for Poor Children Every Day

By Deborah Meier — February 25, 2014 5 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her blog correspondence with Robert Pondiscio today.

Dear Robert,

I’m in complete support of the title of your letter last Thursday. “Running the wrong race” is precisely at the heart of the problems we face—you and me both.

I get confused at times about who “we” are. The businesses that are leading the current school reform drive in education have invested in the whole world—they have no stake in “beating” this or that country. They will do well regardless. Many even live abroad in mansions here and there around the world. They have no particular roots, loyalties to this town or that, except affection for their place of birth, perhaps. If they do have loyalties, they are completely a matter of choice. The “race” to beat x or y is being run mostly by our most vulnerable children, who have become a larger and larger slice of our nation.

We tell 5-year-olds they better get down to business or else they’ll never have a job, and certainly not one that pays a living wage. And jobs that once were done by folks with less than a high school education now require B.A.s. (This fact strikes close to home.)

Meanwhile, we all know (or think we know) that the good spots go either to exceptional geniuses or the “ordinary” children of the wealthy. There’s, by definition, a limit on “exceptionalism,” and one can’t “choose” to be the children of the wealthy.

But on this we probably disagree. I’m still trying to get at the core of it. I use words like “corporate reform” because I refuse to give up the word “reform.” I have never ever been for the status quo when it comes to schooling. Although the “other” reform movement—the one I think you are part of—labels me that way. But the status quo may even be better than many of the new deforms I’m watching. Maybe when young people could leave school at 16, with their dignity intact, they—and the country—were better off. (Read Mike Rose’s Minds at Work.)

Like New Orleans, Detroit, too, may be a success story someday. But for whom? We dismiss, or seem to, the suffering that brought the two cities to their knees. But not everyone suffered equally. Who will cheer because in the end it will make possible a new gentrified 21st century city? Many will no longer be able to call Detroit home. Ditto for Manhattan and Brooklyn.

But, no doubt, I am forgetting that some things are, if not “wonderful,” enormously better in 2014 than 1914. My brother always reminds me of this. And Alexander the Great destroyed—murdered—whole cities, women and children not excluded.

You challenge me: “What gives you confidence that we get to choose?” You insist that “I don’t pretend for a second that I get to choose. At least not for other people’s children.”

But in fact you/we are choosing, every day. In acts small and big, from deciding small classes don’t matter, to deciding to gentrify Manhattan. The people of Harlem didn’t have a choice. It’s some other “we” who are moving other people and their children to locations not specified. What/who is it that didn’t “adapt”? It wasn’t the working people of Detroit or New Orleans or Manhattan who failed to “adapt"—it was the industries they counted on, the expertise of those well-educated people who did have the power to make some choices and failed to do so.

It was my dear old mother who warned me about people who cry “crisis” too often. I should beware of them, she said. Tell me what years there hasn’t been a “crisis” that was blamed on our public schools? (Read Richard Rothstein’s The Way Things Were—it’s truly a fun read.) Yes, in some ways, I’m more “conservative” than you: I know who gets hurt first when we “disrupt” regardless ....

Yes, there is a lot of money spent on education, and any good entrepreneur seeks his or her opportunities where the money is. And then looks for ways to make more. That’s not a plot or a conspiracy. Just good straight thinking. But not all entrepreneurs are equal when it comes to pushing for their self-interest.

So we agree on tests? If we do, then it wasn’t test scores that revealed the rot in Detroit’s schools for the poor. If you walked into them, without any data, you’d know immediately that you wouldn’t CHOOSE to send your children there. Although for many parents it was a “home” of a sort, better than having none.

You wouldn’t CHOOSE to live where these children do either. So whites moved out—by choice—and left Detroit what it is today. Whether the kinds of solutions that those who remained are exploring are utopian or not, I’m on their side. They’re trying to reconstruct a city built on a different set of assumptions—that a community can be rebuilt out of the ashes. I wish them all the best, and offer any help I can.

It’s too easy, from perches of comfort and adaptability, to say that factories come and go, as do oceans and rivers and mountains, and species. But the triumph of the human species, up to now, rests on its use of its brains. We’re not exempt from some “laws” of nature. Adaptation isn’t accomplished overnight. If we don’t use our brains better (and more empathetically) we, too, will become extinct—although I can’t adapt to that idea yet!

You and I—or some other somebodies—are deciding the future of “other people’s children” unless we provide ways for “them” to have a voice, a vote, and the resources to decide their own future. We need to restore a better balance between local communal life (with its power to effect some immediate changes like we did at the small self-governing schools I love) and distant, “objective” moneyed power. It’s our democracy that rests on our rebuilding strength at the bottom. If we don’t, we induce a passivity that surely cannot be in the self-interest of the least powerful, but might (just might) be in the self-interest of others. And then we blame them for being passive?

The experiment in democracy may or may not survive this round, but I’m not giving up on it. “Self-governance"—of, for, and by the people, Robert, is what’s at stake. Do we agree that it’s an essential aspiration, another way of describing what we mean by freedom within community, or communities of free citizens? If so, what would it look like in schools given, as you remind me, the realities we must all “accept"—for the moment. Until we create new realities.


P.S. I love the title, and the contents, of a newly published book by Jeffrey Benson called Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most. It reminds me of why “hanging in” successfully requires resources, both financial and intellectual. And heart, which Benson’s stories illustrate so well.

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.