Teaching Opinion

School Choice, Common Core, Too Much Testing, & Other Thoughts

By Deborah Meier — January 20, 2015 5 min read
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Deborah Meier’s conversation with Joe Nathan continues today.

Dear Joe,

I’m enjoying this; you? I wish we could do this in person, so we interrupt each other for clarification.

Now, for my responses to your recent post:

1. Segregation. Are you arguing for segregated schools or only pointing out that going to all-black institutions doesn’t mean you can’t get well educated? I think race and class do play important roles--and black colleges certainly attract more middle-class kids whose families have in some senses arrived--joined the BLACK middle class. At least there’s a mixture.

Furthermore, my reasons, and maybe yours, for being for integration has perhaps as much to do with what whites need--the common good--as the “special interest” of African-Americans, Hispanics, etc. The failure of integration cannot be laid to the claim that people of color don’t want mixed schools, but to disgust and disappointment with the feeble and misguided ways--if any--in which it was “implemented,” not to mention sabotaged.

2. Choice. Yes, and all things being equal (as I thought they were in District 4 at the time), choice is definitely worth considering. In small towns? In such cases I think everyone should be forced (ugh) to go to school together, and there should be no tracking within such schools. But in urban centers with high density and schools that could be integrated with minimal busing, I think it’s still a great idea.

But it needs an attentive eye if it seems to be leading toward class or race or language segregation--and steps taken to help it develop a broader appeal. After Boston’s quota system was dropped, Mission Hill had a crisis. Lotteries are one thing, but given what we know the odds are that many more middle-class people make a serious effort to “look for” the “best” schools or one fit for their kids. Family lifestyles (work schedules), uneasiness about going into “other people’s” terrain, and a need to have their children close to home, plus to my surprise “old school” loyalties are much bigger factors, above all for K-8 education.

We engaged in a lot of devious tactics to keep the school 2/3 black and Hispanic--and to have 50 percent (at least) receiving free/reduced lunch. When Boston forced the school to move to Jamaica Plain (from Roxbury), the task became almost superhuman. We’ll see. Something similar has happened to Central Park East and other progressive schools that were also especially attractive to middle-class families--even those living a considerable distance from the school. (“Labor Lawyer’s” comments on our blog raise interesting questions about choice, as well as tracking.) We’re not quite in agreement here.

3. Re “tracking.” Yes, yes, yes. I’m against all choice methods that give the school the right to choose rather than the students and families. We’ve had some success in the country around tracking--but far from what I would desire. And NYC now has far, far more schools that restrict entry to kids who qualify on the basis of test scores. We are unlikely to get much further on this at the moment and in NY it rests in the hands of the state of NY--as does much of the city’s school authority. It’s an outrage--and one particularly aimed at that one particular city. Hmmmm. We agree here.

4. Unions. Of course, it’s always somewhat harder to unionize when schools are scattered over many sites (chains) and small in size. But there are locations in which the right to organize does not extend to charters. So, here again, we agree.

5. Corruption, et al. Indeed, the argument for centralization in NYC was made on the basis that decentralization encouraged corruption. Actually in NYC and many other big cities Mayoral control and centralized system are simply corrupt on a far larger subtler scale. It’s not just a contract for cleaning rugs, or an aide here or there, but huge contracts for laptops etc. that centralization leads to. And hundreds of bright young things running central offices--friends’ children, fellow Harvard graduates, etc.

When the school’s governance lies strictly in the hands of the “company” that manages the school or chain of schools we encounter something similar, and worse. For such operations we need very different, and perhaps intrusive and costly, measures to see that public dollars and hiring practices are made on behalf of the common good vs. private benefit. The one advantage the private, for-profit (publicly funded) school has over traditional public schools is that it frankly is out to make money--and needn’t apologize for doing so. (Nursing home scandals?) It may thus be more inclined to rest everything on manipulated test scores and it answers, too often, to a board that has no skin--except money-- in the game. And, yes, maybe good intentions. Which leads to governance issues. We’d need more data to prove our points here.

6. Charters. Having found these four-five common grounds, what would you think about capping the number of schools that can be chartered by any one company--to two-three maybe, and that their boards must include x% teachers and x% parents from the schools they serve? Plus that they have to have publicly accessible fiscal accounts, as well as data on expulsions, dropouts, and some sort of due process for teachers and for students who are being asked to leave??? Still plenty of disagreement here.

7. Testing. I’m guessing, Joe, that we still agree on the fact that standardized tests give us no useful information, and inescapably lead to narrowing of the curriculum and a variety of forms of cheating. And, as long as such testing has high stakes attached, it does far, far more harm than any good claimed for it! Common Core--as a recommended outline for curriculum is part and parcel of the testing mentality, since it’s via the test that schools’ use is monitored--needs to be drastically reduced and/or, better yet, eliminated, except where schools choose to adopt it. Where are you on these issues? Could we add them to our agreement column?

8. Governance. I’m glad to hear that there are charters that are teacher-led! One dilemma is how to be sure that such schools include serious governing roles for parents and other community members.

I think Mission Hill’s solution (based on a modified form of consensus) has been very good--and should be adopted even where schools have no legal status as Pilots. It is easier to fight outside interference if the school is actually “run” by all its constituents, with clarity about who and how decisions are made. So--I like your “step further”. Let’s pursue this a bit.

And last, but not least, we need to restore human judgment to its rightful place, versus judging schools on mathematical compilations of so-called objective data with automatic consequences--the three strikes, you’re out mentality. To prepare all democracy’s constituents we must all be held to standards fit for rulers, not the ruled.

I’ve laid out a lot for further conversation. Too much!


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.