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In Defense of Politics—Sort of

By Deborah Meier — November 29, 2007 4 min read

Dear Diane,

It’s fun occasionally to be reminded of why we were considered by so many to be “in opposition.” When you took pleasure in the NY Times editorial promoting tests (this time national), I was reminded of our disagreements!

Allowing a national definition of success to rest on so many unaligned tests is patently absurd. You would “align” them, I would eliminate them! My quarrel with NCLB is with its power to define success, and then with its use of tests to do so. A more “sensible” NCLB, with a single consistent test, would make it more, not less dangerous. If teaching to the test is bad now, it would become suffocating if tried on the scale the NY Times suggests.

As I gather, however, you are not for tests that are high stakes, but just “fyi”. It’s important, if you hold this view, to spell that out. I doubt if it’s what the NY Times has in mind, nor am I sure it’s do-able until the politicians (and reporters) understand the limits of test data. I would argue that the task of strengthening schools that serve the larger purposes of education cannot be achieved until we flesh out the possible definitions we each hold of what being “well-educated” looks like. There may be more than one answer—which is why I go back to that other idea: a Consumer Reports on schooling. One that allows us to compare and contrast, but does not seek a single answer.

You suggest, as does NCLB, that if folks were forced to acknowledge their failure (by true scores, and true consequences) they’d go about fixing them in ways that would improve true test scores. For reasons good and bad there’s no evidence for that. Just suppose Atlanta’s improvement is related to just better prepping? Would you recommend we all do the same? No. You wouldn’t. But once we go down that road…….

There is no way to be well-educated in everything by age 8, 12, 16. And which qualities of mind or skill we think deserves to push out others is hard to agree about. And unnecessary! We don’t all agree about cars either, or any of the other stuff covered by Consumer Reports. But we can make our own judgments—or at least better ones than we might without it. Probably we rely in the end on what our friends and relatives also say, but that’s fine, too. For cars and schools.

So, I want to pursue this. I met with a few people recently who were really struck by the idea of a CR-type review of NYC schools. I think it’s do-able.

I ought to quit now. But I want to shift ground a little to an old obsession: where in the world do folks think we learn about the arts and science (and history and practice) of democracy? We once based it on such small, geographically close and “common” constituencies that it didn’t take as much counter-intuitive understanding. But even then, the Federalist Papers did quite a job bouncing the ideas around. How can we ignite a similar debate? What role could a Consumer Reports play in such a debate?

Why aren’t the major Universities—and I don’t mean the education departments—convening folks to dig into the deeper question of the relationship between democracy and K-16 and beyond. We know that there are stress points in a democratic society—what do we know about how we weather them and what we lose during such historic moments. How instinctive was Giuliani’s idea of postponing the election in NYC after 9/11? Or Chavez’s retreat from democracy in Venezuela, or Putin’s or Musharraf’s dodges? Why do reformers look for the man on the white horse over and over? Or for technocratic solutions—the perfect test? I enjoyed James Traub’s comment in last Sunday’s NY Times piece (“Persuading Them”): “What we say about ourselves no longer has much effect; but what we are seen doing—on occasion, what we are caught doing—matters immensely.” Maybe too many youngsters reach 18 without ever having seen democracy “done"—much less reflected on the dilemmas involved, guided by wise adults.

How can schools—without being inappropriately political—teach politics? How can we counteract our natural tendency to elevate “nonpartisanship” above politics, rather than seeking a more vigorous politics, with all its self-interested warts?

When we knock politics, we undermine the struggle to make democracy work. No politics, no democracy! While you and I are both feeling a little weary about how politics has distorted schooling, we both know that it takes renewing that discourse again generation after generation, not giving up on it.

Part of our weariness is that it takes a somewhat leveler playing field for the game to work at its best. When we lay the task all onto schools we undermine what schools can do, and forget about all the other parties to democracy’s warts.

Ted Sizer and I once tried to get Harvard interested in the topic. Everyone said “yes yes”, “great idea”. But it never happened. Maybe NYU? Meanwhile we can also look around for folks to help us launch a CR for schools. Anyone else out there interested?

Deborah

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