Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Challenging the ‘Longer Hours,’ ‘Try Harder’ Wisdom

By Deborah Meier — June 19, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

“We live in interesting times.” A statement generally said more in sorrow than joy—and that’s how I’ve felt this week over the coverage of the two contrasting reports to which you referred. Probably not many folks will read either, but many will notice the gist of each. David Brooks’s interpretation is the oddest. It’s probably the first time in my life I’ve been labeled part of the status quo on education! I’ve almost given up on the word “reformer” anyway—given the company it too often puts me in—so that wasn’t the shock. It was the straight-out teacher-bashing that surprised me.

“Thinking like a state” vs. “thinking like an educator” won’t do either, because—as you and some of our readers reminded me, teachers need to think Big, too. In an ideal democracy, these would be interchangeable roles for all citizens.

I’m intrigued at the anger that the statement that “schools alone can’t do it” elicits from the Katie Haycock/Joel Klein/Ed Sector/David Brooks folks (the “Education Equality” report). This confrontation has a long history. In its modern garb it began with the unfortunate “A Nation at Risk” statement in the mid-80s that carelessly labeled teachers and public schools as America’s No. 1 domestic enemies. (Followed later by the Bushies declaring the NEA “terrorists”.)

To lay at the door of schools all the ails of society—and particularly those that afflict people of color and low income—is such a cop-out and so transparent that it’s hard for me to believe they’ve gotten as far as they have with that message. Our vast industrial preeminence overcome by lazy teachers? (If it’s such a cushy job, why, one wonders, is the turnover rate so high?) Given the disparities in health care, I’m waiting for the same crowd to propose a cheaper, simpler healthcare solution: raise standards (all citizens shall be equally healthy) and mandate closing the gaps by 2014. McCain/Obama!

How schools can build a more powerful nation and better undermine the inequities in American society are important, debatable issues. I believe schools have immense potential in both arenas. That’s why what interests me most of all are the questions that Mike Rose asks in his blog; and why I wish policy folks would reread Richard Rothstein’s “The Way We Were?” and Ted Sizer’s “Horace’s Compromise”. If it were as simple as the Kleins of the world imagine, why is it that the ‘best’ private schools are reluctant to educate any but those who start off with high test scores? Why is it that the poor have historically worked harder—sweat more for longer hours—than the rich?

I hadn’t, of course, thought of policymakers as the spokespeople of democracy, as the elected representatives of citizens when I complained about them. You are right to remind me, Diane. I usually run into them as the paid lobbyists for various interest groups, hired to turn “self interests” into State policy. There are “my” policy wonks, and there are “theirs”. So I should use my language more carefully. But the sad fact is that “my side” doesn’t have as many paid lobbyists, think tanks, foundations as “theirs”. That’s why it’s crucial for parents and teachers to take themselves seriously and be policy wonks on their own behalf.

Accountability is what democracy was invented for, and the kind teachers practice daily gets closer to the roots of that idea than most other schemes. Finding the way to capture that form of educational accountability writ large is why the Coalition of Essential Schools was started almost 25 years ago. (I just left the Coalition’s board meeting). Its 10 Principles were put forth as ways for schools to build standards, and for young people to “show” what they could do to publicly meet them. In an odd twist of fate, most of the Coalition’s language has been co-opted—like the small schools movement—to quite different ends: e.g. standards evolved into standardization and performance assessment into right answers on multiple-choice tests.

It’s hard to keep the craftsman and policymaker view from splitting into irreconcilables. It’s why as principal I kept some classroom responsibilities that put me in a similar position with my colleagues.

It’s why I decided to retake piano lessons so I’d remember my vulnerability as a novice learner. Balancing the particular and the more global is tougher for me to do these days when they are so estranged and when I’m an observer most of the time.

But writing this has cheered me up. It’s actually been a pretty good month. The earlier “Democracy At Risk” and the new “Broader, Bolder” reports have challenged the “longer hours”, “try harder” wisdom. The old saw that the best way to tackle income and political inequality is through those at the bottom working harder for less has produced two good policy rebuttals. Good for us.

It will be interesting to see how the presidential candidates take it on in the months ahead.

Deborah

P.S. These thoughts remind me that Michael and Susan Klonsky’s provocative new book—"Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society"—deserves our discussing some time, Diane.

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