Assessment Opinion

A Loud ‘Yes, We Can!’ From San Francisco

By Deborah Meier — November 18, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m writing this from the West Coast following three days at the annual Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools. The big news is that we are moving forth—next year in Rhode Island! We are also in the process of rethinking and reinventing our mission and strategy—including, for starters, how we fund the network, especially at a time when the national school agenda is powerfully poised to dismiss any strategy that doesn’t put test scores in the driver’s seat. We’re falling back on an old idea—the reforms we want must come from the bottom up first and foremost. Money, too. So we are confident that reminders to members, allies, and well-wishers will help us raise what we need to do the core of our work.

Among the forum speakers was Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. She reminded us that, from the mid 1960s through the ‘70s, the decrease in poverty and the increase in school test scores went hand in hand. The widening of that gap once again coincided with the unraveling of the safety nets that are so much more robust in the countries that “outscore” us. The data Linda presented was as shocking to me as when I first heard it. If we look at wealth, not income, the correlation is even starker. It doesn’t augur well for the future. But it poses an even stronger reason to see our schools as community agencies focused on the development of all the assets a community possesses. That includes using our minds well—at every age level.

Visits to local Bay Area schools helped create an atmosphere of hope for the 700-plus registered attendees, including lots of high school students who held their own sessions and joined in others, too. Coalition founder Ted Sizer had in mind creating five to 15 such schools representing every type of community when he started out. How would we know we had succeeded? The conversation would have changed.

Ted’s widow, Nancy, also reminded us how much Ted treasured us all, how important his colleagues were to him, and how much his “design” plan flowed out of such respect for the minds of others. It was the quality that stood out for me when I read Horace’s Compromise, and which characterized the best of the Coalition’s work and vision: respect for others.

Nancy Sizer’s remarks at the session’s start last Thursday night reminded us of Ted Sizer’s goal 25 years ago: to support the invention of enough good schools based on his “common principles” to prove it wasn’t utopian: human beings of all colors, classes, and backgrounds could thrive in such schools without substantially increased resources—and demonstrate to all that their graduates “knew their stuff.” He thought 15 of such schools would be grand. (More than a 100 still pay CES just to be “part of” the network!)

Oddly enough, as speaker after speaker at the Coalition forum noted, our language has become more widely used, but that message of respect has been drained out of the words.

Pedro Noguera’s terrific opening speech challenged us to build an agenda that draws on what we share in common with others that helped rebuild a progressive coalition that neither under-rated the historic failure of schools to address the bottom half nor villainized schools and, above all, public schools for all the ills we face. Pedro always seems to be thinking aloud, carrying us along as his ideas unfold.

I gave my usual—never quite the same—session on play as the essential root of human intelligence, and how we can respond to the threat to not merely marginalize play, but eliminate it—at a cost none of us dare contemplate.

There was some grumbling about the conditions in some schools voiced here and there, of course, but the mood was up, hopeful. If President Obama seems uncertain of whether “we can,” the Coalition gathering seemed determined to see the battles through even if it takes a few years—or even many years. That was easier to do with the substantial infusion of students at the forum from so many of our schools, and their articulateness about the lives they are living today—topped off by a Boston Arts Academy short play that left us moved and inspired Saturday afternoon.

Of course, Diane, your recent work was mentioned over and over again. It has done something few books can ever quite do: present, without rhetorical flourish, the difficult truth we face, while also arming ourselves with the stuff we need to overcome! So I hope you stay on the road every day, while I also hope you give yourself occasional pause. And during that pause I hope we can still untangle the national standards/curriculum/assessment “debate.” Once again, a small elite has come to a “consensus” long before there has been any national debate. In the interests of our commitment to schools that foster democracy, how can we do a better job of including “the people” in the conversation? When Ted said he hoped to influence the “conversation,” it’s the latter he had in mind.


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.