Teaching Opinion

Making Better Sense of Our Differences

By Deborah Meier — October 29, 2013 6 min read
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Dear Mike,

Amazing. We’ve found important legislative reform we can both sign onto. (Even if it’s not, perhaps, to either of our mutual self-interests!) Make inheritance taxes more draconian—enough to ease the way so that children don’t go cold turkey from riches to rags, but severe enough so that they don’t start miles ahead. It still won’t be “fair"—since by the time their parents die they’ll already be well ahead on their way to the finish line on that imagined racing track. But it has the practical advantage of directing more funds to lessening, by even a little, that awful gap between the haves and have-nots. A little closer to requiring everyone to start somewhat closer to the same starting line.

Meanwhile, we might also work at changing the metaphor itself—life as a race.

Actually, what we’re hoping for when we make our wills is that we’ve provided a safety net for the ones we love when we can no longer do so directly. That safety net I believe is a great idea for everyone. Yes, it deprives a few people each generation of the opportunity to pull themselves up from nothing—without help—by their own bootstraps. I’m prepared to say goodbye to that opportunity—which few of the rich today were required to experience—in order to have the resources for providing other newborn babies with a wee bit of the same “head start.”

Re. rich vs. other parents. Is it really “virtuous” to put one’s own children ahead of everyone else’s? That baffles me. Have I misunderstood you? It’s not evil in itself to favor one’s own, although at a certain point it becomes so.

In addition, since the richest also exert more influence on public, as well as private, policy, it’s critical that we consider the impact of such “virtues” on the rest of us. It’s surely not, in my book, virtuous if one aims only to get a step ahead of ... someone else’s child. Perhaps we’ve found a very fundamental difference—our definition of virtue.

I’m rooting for democracy—and inequality becomes, at a certain point, its killer. Democracy (even in its very imperfect forms) is, I believe, the most likely approach to creating and protecting both community and individual freedom. I see no reason to suspect that the children of the rich contribute more to the world, or that their wealth doesn’t (in fact) more often lead to creating problems for the world. And, above all, creating problems for democracy.

While we also agree on the value of integration, how does gentrification lead toward it! I’d love suggestions for creating more integrated schools—before we create integrated neighborhoods, which is certainly equally important on its own terms. My hopes that small schools of choice might be a small part of the answer has clearly been disproven. (Although I’m still for the threesome.) It would take determined and coordinated public policy to create schools (and neighborhoods) integrated by class, income, and race.

Alas, in Boston today we are going to have to work harder to maintain our integration at Mission Hill. Why? The board of education went out of its way to move the school into a less integrated (more upper middle class and white) neighborhood! The increasing gap between rich and poor, white and black, etc. doesn’t augur well for creating more integrated anythings. (An “old” issue of Boston Review, May/June 2012, has a short piece by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon entitled “State of the Nation: No Middle Ground. “ They document how the neighborhoods we live in are growing more economically homogeneous.)

Claude S. Fischer’s “How to be Poor” in the same issue of Boston Review is interesting. He reminds us that there’s always a nub of truth on the side of both “blame the victims” and “blame the victimizers” arguments. We develop habits based on likelihoods, lived experience, not lectures.

Furthermore, many vaunted middle-class habits fail badly when one is poor. (That same issue of Boston Review also has an interesting set of short essays arguing about “How Markets Crowd Out Morals,” which I know you will have thoughts about.) I’ll also read “The Diverse Schools Dilemma” by you!

Your other two ideas for collaboration are interesting possibilities, but ... I fear that even mandatory national service would play out in a divisive way—with Richie Rich getting the more interesting and satisfying service placements. If we could insist that all “serve” at jobs chosen by lottery, maybe it would help, and if all lived in shared and integrated residential “barracks”? Getting rid of legacy college admissions and unpaid internships are neat ideas. But they are possibly impossible to make good laws about.

Most good ideas rest on breaking the taboo in Congress against increasing the revenue side of the equation.

Good ideas require stopping the current effort to unravel the safety net for the poor and trying it out on the rich. It would above all require measures that open up jobs that pay decently (hard and even steady work that leaves one in poverty hardly sends a good message). It requires some tough economic rethinking. For example, in terms of education itself, resources are essential. Eric Hanushek (who sparred with me briefly on Bridging Differences) thinks otherwise. I believe his view is based on a misunderstanding of what a good education is and how to measure it.

I contend that the poor, more than the rich, need the kinds of schools 99 percent of the rich provide for their children. And more. Inventing a formula for funding schools with what we consider is appropriate for all children, as measured by what the wealthy think appropriate for theirs, would be fun to figure out.

For example, last week I visited a fine little Manhattan private school called Calhoun. Classes in the 2nd and 3rd grades have just 11 or 12 children, with a second adult often in the “room.” (The quotes are there because the space is largely open.) In the middle and high school years, they occasionally go as high as 18 to 20 students. Teachers teach four periods, a day—each 45 minutes long. So their maximum “load” is 80 students, and for many it’s under 50. (When Ted Sizer argued that 80 should be the limit in high school, he was called a utopian.) That leaves the grade 2-12 teachers with several hours “free” to do their planning, read student work, attend the classes of their colleagues, etc. One teacher who had taught for a dozen years in low-income public schools remarked to me that until she came to Calhoun she hadn’t considered having a family. Her job—which she loved—couldn’t be done properly in that setting, in a way that met her high expectations in less than 12 hours a day!

Self-governing small schools of choice within the public sector are still my preference. But alone it can’t create schools for all that meet both that Calhoun teacher’s and my hopes. They are worth doing, but ... If we continue to see normal adult needs—if they work in the public sector—as unattainable without sacrificing the needs of those poorer than them, we are fooling ourselves. It’s time to face that dilemma.

Maybe sometime we can resume this discourse. Calling our discussion Bridging Differences may be a bit of an exaggeration for what we hoped for when we set this up. “Making better sense of differences” might capture my hopes better. I think we’ve done that.


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.