Teaching Profession Opinion

If We Want Schools for the Future, not the Past...

By Deborah Meier — January 29, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

My head and heart are in a muddle—politically. I enjoyed your letter, Diane, and realized our mutual support for teachers’ unions may have something to do with the degree of our rapprochement. It’s not a coincidence that it was the late AFT leader Al Shanker who suggested you come visit Central Park East Secondary School. I’ve just been rereading our prior exchanges in Dissent magazine. They were tough. Some of those differences still exist, but in a softer form.

As I noted in my response to some of our readers, the idea that there would be more inventiveness in the states which have no collective bargaining just isn’t so. There are a host of such states and they haven’t used the absence of contracts to launch anything better, and (in fact) those states’ schools are among the least promising in the nation.

Nor are private schools often innovative. Most experiment only with who they accept, and then are pretty conventional. (There are exceptions: Both Chicago’s Lab School and Sidwell—where the Obama girls go—are examples, although of limited use since they “experiment” only on pretty proven winners.)

In every place I’ve worked I’ve found the union an ally—even if covertly. They are braver where they feel secure, and/or where they avoid the lawyer-like mindset typical of all American institutions. Example: Rochester. In Boston, they even offered to waive everything but salary and benefits to match charter-like conditions. It was harder getting the central board to do the same. And it was the central board that went back on the deal by misusing the Pilots (the name for the innovators) in a really dumb and/or shameful way. Of course, changes in leadership may be partially responsible, too.

The notion that, without contracts, “bad teachers” would be easier to fire, is true. But it’s equally true that “good teachers” would be easier to fire. I have very close personal ties to many a teacher caught in that situation—being too outspoken, being unpopular with the board for his beliefs, or just too expensive, etc.

Public unions do pose different issues. The old USSR argued, for example, that when everything was public, to strike was treason. In many states (like New York), teachers pay a huge price if they strike—it’s against the law. But in fact, public bodies are just as prone to “exploit” their workers as private firms. Why? The lower the wages, etc., the further the money will go; managers often are control freaks, etc.…

If we want schools for the future, unlike the past, that truly “produce” graduates with a much higher level of intellectual curiosity, perseverance, and inventiveness, we’ll need schools in which the kids are surrounded by the kind of adults that represent such a future. They need to witness the power of ideas in the hands of smart adults. Schools can only get from here to there if we create structures that enable them to be learning labs, for young and old alike. Even if we got it right the first time it would take a generation to turn this huge, labor-intensive “industry” around. You can’t close these “plants” and retool: unless we see our fellow human beings as machines, tools, appliances. We can’t have it both ways. Not only do teachers burn out fast, but so do kids, and in the end so will America.

There is nothing about human learning that suggests this approach is a good one. But if those designing the schools of the future consist of plant managers, or worse still, experts in banking, stock markets, mergers, and money management, they’ll do to our schools what they’ve done to the American economy.

Re.: your most recent letter, Diane. I’ve had a soft spot for KIPP schools—which are the latest “wave of the future”—despite the fact that they are so fundamentally in conflict with my progressive ideas. Their founders were teachers! But I’m leery partly because the “results” are not in. Partly because we don’t have full disclosure—about who they accept and how many drop out along the way, nor what the graduates are like in high school and then in college. I suspect—no data yet—their graduates may be like the “successful” under-prepared students Mike Rose wrote about many years ago in “Lives On the Boundary.” Everyone should read that book!

I thought about Mike and KIPP when watching an amazing new movie called “The Class.” It’s a French film with English subtitles. It helps us understand the dilemmas facing not just French inner-city schools (which are located in the suburbs in France) but my schools and KIPP’s, too, when we have too much of the wrong data.

It reinforces my support for the folks who have their eyes on what kind of “system” might accommodate schools that—each in different ways—simultaneously educated a generation of teachers and kids; schools which rethought the roles of teachers, parents, head teachers, and the State. Imagine my delight then in discovering that two KIPP schools in NYC have opted to become AFT (union) schools because they want a voice in building KIPP that can be sustained for kids and teachers alike, to remain mutually innovative for the long run.

I’m off to Boston as I write this. The Central Board (which really means the mayor and superintendent) has decided to save money by changing my old school from a city-wide school to a neighborhood school, starting next fall. It will produce a different mix of kids and much rethinking. But above all it’s a blow to that precious sense of ownership and empowerment that our little school has thrived on.

It’s a tricky moment in the history of Mission Hill. Keep your fingers crossed for us.


P.S. Thanks to several readers for providing the source of the Standards quote in my piece last week, including my friend Leslie Siskin who probably first alerted me to the book in which it appeared.

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