Assessment Opinion

Phony Stories About Schools

By Deborah Meier — March 08, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Yes, Diane. Why? Why? Why are “they” doing it, and why are people buying it? I tend to speak to teachers, who are less inclined to buy into the idea that they are the source of the trouble and must be replaced. But ... the others?

I’m counting on you for some wise advice on how to tackle the larger fear that feeds it.

Like you, I find that the totally uninitiated tend to be surprised when I tell them I’m against the school/teacher/public bashing. That the best schools are those that have not abandoned respect for their teachers, students, and families comes as a welcome surprise to many. Yes, read about Finland, I say. Read Richard Rothstein’s “old” The Way We Were?. Read Diane Ravitch. Read me.

Most find it unbelievable that there was no past golden age of schooling, or that our economy didn’t tank because of school failure. (Were GM workers less skilled than Japan’s in the 60s? Do the Chinese have a more technologically sophisticated workforce than the USA? Be honest Mr. Gates et al—you went to China for cheap labor.)

What makes folks so susceptible to an almost entirely phony story? Aside from widespread ignorance about statistics. I remember how annoyed I was in the ‘70s to hear reporters note that, alas, after so much effort, half the kids were still reading below grade level—which was statistically how grade level was defined.

It’s easier to balance the budget by cutting “extravagant” pensions for middle-class public employees than to question why CEOs of “failing” corporations leave with pensions worth tens of millions. Still, why is there so relatively little uproar about the “unfairness” of it, although the Occupiers have broken through the veneer.

In part, it may simply be that most people hear the same sad story from many different sources, and few hear any other to explain our decline in world power. Whether it be good or bad power—the power to enlighten or the power to bully—neither, we’re told, works for the good old USA as well as it once did. We’re growing accustomed to the idea that our kids and grandkids may not do as well as we did. It’s hard to hear, especially for those who counted on their sacrifices to improve the lot of their kids. But our expectations, we’re told, were simply too high.

It’s like being a Yankees fan. We lived boastfully for years off the reputation of “our” team. We were “it.” If we didn’t make it into the final round, someone’s job was on the line. We fans demanded nothing less than 100 percent success.

Thought: We didn’t go to war to save democracy, but to once again be the Yankees of the world league. Enough—although it was pretty painful working in Boston that terrible fall of 2004! Maybe that’s how many Americans are feeling?

What we desperately need is reminders of why democracy is good for us—all of us. Not just as a way to beat out others for the title. What would we be willing to trade off for the sake of democracy? It scares me when I hear fellow Jews in Israel say that abandoning democracy may be a price worth paying. Or when I recall that in World War II citizens of the United States agreed to the imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent. Probably they saw it as a temporary wartime measure. But wartime is now all the time. Have we accepted the idea that democracy is not an efficient tool for protecting ourselves and what we care about? Is democracy an idea that periodically just comes and goes?

Our fight for public schooling is a fight for democracy, for one-for-all-and-all-for-one solutions to our problems. But what is this democracy idea? Or as the Occupiers say: “What does democracy look like”? We need to use schools to sell democracy—even to explain it! It doesn’t just live on neglected and compromised. Even many of our parental allies seem content to view public education as a private concern for their kids’ futures. Period. In such a world the only thing that matters is rank order and, as I used to remind colleagues, no matter how fast kids line up, there’s always just one in the front all the way back to one at the end. We’re fighting each other these days to see if by hook or crook we can get “ours” nearer the front. (And “cutting” the line is allowed.) We live, too many of us, in a climate that makes us all compete for the shortage of private goods rather than tackling the “shortage” issue.

How to overcome the tendency to pull into our private well-armored tanks, fending off enemies everywhere once the barbarian within us all has been set loose? That is the question. Schools that can belong to all of “us” are too few, even among public schools. So we have a dual fight—to prevent privatization and to shore up public ownership.

My colleague, Connie Brady, died recently. I remember when she came to tell me—so many years ago—that she was going to march in the gay pride parade for the first time, because coming to Central Park East helped her be unafraid. She was a fighter to the end; fighting day by day for herself, but always also for others, to stave off the limitations that multiple sclerosis had placed upon her in the last decades of her life. With the limitations only of age, I’m determined not to let her down.

I’m reminded by witnessing a single act of caring, empathy, and kindliness that we have it within us to change priorities—if we can figure out how to act together. So, save the weekend of Aug. 2 for a Washington, D.C., convention on education. S.O.S. (Save our Schools) is planning, along with many allies, to use the occasion to put forth a platform on behalf of all children.

Next week, I’ll have returned from Denver with better news.


P.S. Re. Chicago’s Lab School. The good news is that it is still fighting John Dewey’s good fight. The bad news is that the school is under pressure, too. It is a reminder that even in a school where 99 percent of student are predetermined winners, parents worry, and schools respond to their fear that their children won’t be ahead of the pack—the 1 percent.

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.