Curriculum Opinion

Prescient Words on Testing and Schools

By Deborah Meier — October 28, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

As I sort out more old letters, papers et al to send to Indiana University, I find it irresistible not to stop often to browse. Last week I came upon the essay I wrote in 1983 for Dissent magazine which set off some fireworks between us. It was a review of The Troubled Crusade. I was delighted to re-read my comments (one sometimes shudders over something written 26 years ago), but I have a few regrets about the tone. I grew up in very polemical surroundings, and then spent many years in the one socialist sect that did the best polemical writing (and to which my editor at Dissent, Irving Howe, also belonged). Actually, I still enjoy the style, but try to avoid it.

We had a sharp exchange afterwards, and Irving was worried whether I could handle it. No doubt we both thought we came out on top.

But I’m amazed to read those prescient words of 1983 which were, I argued, that your book was a recipe for the wrong reforms: “more tests, more homework, longer school hours, mandated state requirements, stiffer standards for promotion, stricter discipline codes, merit pay, and sometimes, tuition tax credits.” I also noted that what was new (in 1983) was that the latest round of reports was so heavily populated by corporate interests.

We agreed on a few things. The “crusade” you titled your book after was Thomas Jefferson’s “crusade against ignorance,” which focused on the essentials of democracy and of a well-informed public. Unlike most of the critics, you did not buy the idea of limiting your vision to whatever helped make America more economically competitive. You were, as I was, critical also of the “life adjustment” goals of public education—aimed particularly at the poor, and, above all, poor immigrants. In retrospect, those agreements between us have held steady. Nor is it probably an accident that it was Al Shanker who recommended that you visit me at Central Park East. While I was less of a friend of Al’s than you were, we both held unionism in esteem.

It was probably in our assessment of testing that we most disagreed, along with the history of progressive education. But, in hindsight, it was our agreement on the importance of intellectually serious curriculum for all that led us to embark on a less adversarial relationship. We may still disagree about how such a curriculum is best developed and by whom, but we’ve come to agree on the misuse of testing as a means toward a better-educated citizenry—versus a “better” (more) tested one.

But perhaps the fire in our earlier correspondence came from one disagreement that still exists, and which has been critical to my own work. Given our agreement on issues threatening the survival of public education, this now seems less relevant.

You, like Rick Hess in the book he recently sent me, use the word “progressive” in a pejorative sense and define it so broadly that I can’t recognize in it my “progressive education” tradition and the tradition of the school where you sent your own children. The three books I thought you misread—by Herb Kohl, John Holt, and James Herndon—were exciting to so many of my colleagues because they described the complex classrooms and teaching dilemmas that such progressives in real schools sought to tackle and the real-life dilemmas confronting our belief in such a curriculum for all. And while I chided you on seeming to agree with Arthur Bestor‘s belittling remarks about teaching Head Starters how to blow their noses, we agreed far more than either of us acknowledged. I went to the University of Chicago precisely because I liked (university president) Robert Maynard Hutchins’ definition of its task: teaching “the power to think” and his “activist” agenda: “Our mission ... is to change our environment, not to adjust ourselves to it.” But we perhaps had both been trained in the school of thought that liked to jump right into the disagreements, not the agreements.

I think if you re-read it, you’d like (p. 69) my warnings about “payment by result.” I was so right on that score, as well as the “consequence ... of a shift in decision-making from the classroom to the program experts...” to their corporate allies. The inclusion of parents and teachers in decision-making remains for me one way to measure the degree to which public schools are public.

Since I identified myself (then and now) as belonging to the progressive, “left” wing, my “advice” to you in that 1983 piece was to be less preoccupied “with the critics on the left” and spend more time challenging the “powerful and widely practiced challenges” on the right. Labeling you a “neo-conservative” at the time, which you rejected, seemed self-evident to me. In that, I was wrong. Just as “progressivism” has many virtually opposite definitions, so does the label neo-conservative, I suspect. I had no idea then that you’d find it insulting.

I haven’t fully recovered from getting my pleasures out of a smart attack. It’s rather fun to re-read that exchange and see where we both came from and where I hope we are both headed—with some disagreements that I’d enjoy exploring more. And your sharp tongue is a pleasure to read now that its barbs aren’t aimed at me, but at our now-common “enemies.”


P.S. Diane, check out Mike Rose’s superb summary of the current education situation at www.mikerosebooks.blogspot.com.

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