School Choice & Charters Opinion

We Need Changes Beyond School, Too

By Deborah Meier — April 03, 2014 6 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Robert Pondiscio. The two will finish co-blogging next week.

Dear Robert,

Let’s use these last letters—our blog partnership ends next week!—to pursue your question: Do We Need Changes In Our Schools? Yes. Yes. Yes. (But maybe “reform” was never quite the right word.)

Given the nature of the beast, we are probably doing better than we ever have. That’s important to remember. And we always needed better-educated citizens! But we won’t get them until we identify both (1) what it is we are looking for and (2) what we know it would take to get there. That’s where there’s a serious divide among “reformers.”

At present, we apparently have settled for closing the test-score gaps between the poor and rich on at least math and reading tests. Some, more realistic, just insist they all be proficient—although what that really means may be just as utopian. (Some may even not care as long as the reforms end teacher unionism and public education.)

But that’s not the goal that has driven me (or you) for the last 50-plus years.

“Closing test score gaps” is probably an absurd goal even if we had great assessment tools. E.g. I could design an objective, standardized test that would close the score gaps between my three children or three different tests that put each in turn in the top spot—if I had the power to choose the test items based on my definition of merit! What I’m questioning is a sorting system whose outcome has been largely predetermined by SES (socioeconomic status).

Yet that’s what we face on all past and current standardized testing!And that’s why standardized test-makers pretest items to insure that those selected are measuring the right thing—that the “best” and the “worst” students are responding appropriately based on criteria that predetermine the outcome. In short, “good” tests must differentiate properly.

What we tried to create at Central Park East Secondary School and Mission Hill and with many other Coalition of Essential School members, was a redefinition of what it meant to be an educated citizen. We said that meant one capable of exercising judgment when confronted by novel situation—to weigh evidence, to wonder “what if,” “how else,” to look for connections, and to want to know “so what: why is this important?”

We also had specific criteria for how students went about the task of demonstrating these habits, including how they presented their understanding orally, practically, and in written form; and, how they responded (under pressure) in a “high stakes” conversation, etc. We decided that one of the most efficient ways of learning such “habits” was to spend time in the company of those who are at a higher stage of development—older students and adults. K-12 students are apprentice adults. That meant making sure that they had wide range of adults to learn from—including adults who are not teachers—as well as at least one school-based adult who knew them and their families well. And it meant we could revise, revise, revise as we got feedback.

Of course, you can’t exercise judgment in the absence of subject matter that requires judgment. And that means interesting and complicated subjects, which will also often be those that have been critical to the development of modern society century after century. (See the delightful essay in last Sunday’s New York Times by Lewis Dartnell about what well-educated people don’t know.) Skills and habits and knowledge are joined together at the hip, as they are from the time we are born. It’s finding ways to keep that phenomenal early rate of learning going after they enter school. They are “ready,” but are we?

Diane Ravitch, like me, knows the difference between great, good, mediocre, and bad schools. She chose what she thought was a great school for her own children. After years of bad vibes between us over matters of substance, she decided to visit CPESS. I wasn’t happy about it but, as she said, you’ve had a chance to criticize my work, now I’d like to see yours. At the end, she said, more or less, that had CPESS been around when her own kids were entering high school, she’d have seriously considered it.

She was (maybe still is) a fan of E.D. Hirsch’s K-12 curriculum. I’m not. But I agreed that it was an improvement over some of the programmed lesson plans mandated in many public urban schools. Hirsch’s curriculum was entered into voluntarily, and there were no “high stakes” tests that went with it.

Common core may be better or worse, but it is not “voluntary” and the high stakes—for teachers, kids, and schools—require one to stick close to the test questions. Furthermore, the common-core PreK to 3rd grade “curriculum” is a surefire way to undermine young children’s intellectual growth. It’s not even a tiny step in the right direction. I feel less horrified with grades 4-12 curriculum, but that’s because they aren’t as bad as Pre-K-3rd. But even where I think they are “good,” I know others who are horrified. They have a particular “take” on mathematical or reading competence (and probably science or history) that cannot (and should not) be settled by the vote of some distant authority.

What Ravitch and company are saying is not that schools can’t be a lot better, but that it’s an enormous mistake to ignore the impact of other inequalities—and lay the blame for most of our economic woes (and social and moral lapses) on teachers and/or schools. Or on low-income parenting.

If we are serious about closing the gap, we’d naturally start by throwing money at schools, as we do on improving our military might. We’d be sure that at least the rich do not get more expensive formal schooling than the poor. We’d think about what the advantages the rich have out of school, including the widespread adult networks they can count on in times of need. And we’d accept the fact that after declaring America at Risk in 1983, we increased these out-of-school disparities. Instead, for the next 30 years, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. We also declared that integration was a utopian goal (since it would require shifting housing policies) so we now have more segregation than ever.

Those most in need, it has been discovered, do not need the smaller class sizes that are common in schools for the rich, nor art, physical education, or science labs, or even more experienced teachers! What needed to be tackled was “grit,” “character,” and learning the right answers to questions that might appear on the tests. If what this takes is putting more pressure, more fear into students and teachers, so be it. No excuses.

Schools, I think we agree, are simply one institution that needs to change, but it just happens to be where I landed 50 years ago. Starting over, I’d maybe see our inequitable system of justice, housing, or tax policy as more exciting paths. It just unexpectedly happened that I fell in love with kindergarten. It was the most intellectually, socially, morally, and aesthetically interesting experience I had ever had, and it has remained so for all the subsequent years, including teaching 7th graders! Speaking of closing gaps—How about closing the income and wealth gap, the health gap, the criminal-justice system gap. Just imagine the reaction to requiring employers to close the gap between their wages and those of their employees? Personally, I’d applaud. How about you, Robert?

Preparing our youngsters for jobs that may or may not ever appear, or pay enough to live decently, is another matter. I think the kind of schooling I’m proposing would be a step forward for vocational purposes, as well as for the purpose of helping us reinvent a democracy that is now at risk.

I’ll miss your interesting responses after next week, Robert, but we’ll meet again soon. And stay “on the line” for my coming-soon exchanges with a new partner.



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.