College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Miracle superintendents and nonsense

By Deborah Meier — July 03, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

As I was watching the Democratic party presidential wanna-be’s the other night, I thought about our misuse of language. Was that a “debate”? But worse, what does it mean to ask serious potential presidents to talk about important matters—in 30 seconds?

So, in answer to: why educate? So that someday we might have a public that would be embarrassed to watch such nonsense and a media that knew better.

I turned off the TV at last and started reading my cousin Judith Larner Lowry’s book on restoration gardening in California—"The Landscaping Ideas of Jays”. After reading it I changed my mind. The central purpose of schooling is to help each and every child find something worthwhile they love to do the way Judith loves to garden and to be good at it the way she is. If we could just do that!

That’s what I hoped education would do for my own children. As John Dewey said, what we want for our own should be what we demand for every child.

Questioning nonsense and doing work one loves well are not incompatible or unreasonable goals. And maybe only a democratic society can hold out the dream that both of these are possible for all of us.

How does this fit in with your questioning, Diane, of the Mayor’s data on the success of his NYC reforms? Maybe if we had the schools we deserve neither readers nor writers of our daily media would be so easily fooled; and we’d be asking for data that’s harder to fool us about. Note that every superintendent in the country has, for half a century, touted the increases in test scores and graduation rates under his/her tenure. They never go down. Can this be? Yes, if we devote only 30-second sound bites to education.

The “miracle” superintendents are over and over again replaced by others who instantly declare these same schools to be in dire crisis, e.g. Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego. [Paul] Vallas has now saved two cities and is off, with the media’s blessing, to save a third. The day the miracle-workers leave, amnesia sets in. We start all over again. The New York Post and New York Times reporters repeat, like parrots, that small schools started in 2002 with Klein! The NY Times actually once ran a front-page series on the old wave of new small schools, the pre-Klein one. (They can’t even check their own files?) Like you,
Diane, I would like to make it harder to get away with nonsense—in part so that I could safely celebrate the successes. But Bloomberg’s comparing apples and oranges.

Martin Luther King Jr. H.S. now has a 90 percent graduation rate (vs. 41 percent in 2002)? Ditto for Erasmus, Wingate, South Bronx et al? (NY Times, Saturday, June 30). Julie Bosman (the writer of the above), be serious! Questioning nonsense is surely at the heart of being well-educated, not to mention trying to educate others.

My old secondary school (CPESS) had a 90 percent graduation rate between 1989-95, and I know what that took to do. It’s not impossible. I also remember that I warned my colleagues, when they started similar schools in the Bronx, not to compare their data to ours. We were working with many kids who had been with us since elementary school, we had a more heterogeneous population than they’d have in the South Bronx, and we had 100 percent experienced teachers. I knew a lot about how to fudge data, but I also knew the risk was not mostly in getting caught as in discouraging one’s colleagues, spreading an already deeply cynical culture.

Diane, you suggest national tests—in reading and math as one answer. Without stakes, given less often (I’d add, to a sample population) and with the interpretation of the results left to lay bodies (note the plural)—I’m ok with it. But using these still requires a public media willing and able to ask questions about complex data. Bloomberg is a reminder: even national standards that define graduation rates can’t control for changing the kids served, for example.

Sure it would be nice to tie my banner to Bloomberg’s claims. As the “grandmother” of small schools it ought to feel pretty great. But, it doesn’t. In part, because they are un-believable. And, in part because we can’t learn from experience when we simply proclaim it a success and move on, without paying attention to the casualties we’ve left behind. The best of reforms requires caution. The more recklessly we surge ahead, paying little heed to the voices on the ground, the more dependent we become on questionable, highly manipulable, self-serving data.

The ordinary people working in ordinary big and small schools are silenced in the process, classified as “whiners”, “losers”. Meanwhile the heralds of the “good news” will, as usual, have left for new ventures by the time the next Chancellor brings us his bad news and promises to “turn the system” around once again. And again.


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