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Standards Opinion

School Is Conservative, Education Is Progressive

By Guest Blogger — April 08, 2014 4 min read
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Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep concludes his blogging partnership with Deborah Meier today. Deborah will respond on Thursday and then take a one-week blogging break before returning with a new co-blogger the week of April 20.

Dear Deborah,

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

First, let me wish you a belated happy birthday and thank you for the opportunity to be your blogging partner these last few months. I’ve very much appreciated the chance to stretch my thinking on the many issues we’ve grappled with. I’d also like to thank your many readers for the (mostly) civil give-and-take in the comments section. I was somewhat reluctant to engage here, I confess. The comments on too many education blogs and websites can be shrill and strident. I’m always grateful when people are willing to discuss ideas without vilifying those who disagree. Once the debate shifts from ideas to divining the motivations of those who hold them, I tend to lose interest. I’m delighted that hasn’t happened here.

A few concluding thoughts before I say farewell:

I’m pleased you acknowledge the differences between and among “reformers,” even if you do paint with a broad brush from time to time. Within the universe of those I’ve worked with are some who seek to improve teacher quality or certification, chartering, accountability, testing, standards, curriculum, instruction, and various funding mechanisms, to name but a few. Some of these are priorities I share, some less so. But I don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning determined to destroy unions, privatize education, or who sees reform purely as a means to those ends. If there’s a cabal, I haven’t been invited.

I’m glad you agree with me—and Grant Wiggins—that change is needed in schools. This is our best and broadest common ground. Likewise I stand with you, now and always, on the need for a better-educated citizenry. I’m delighted to have you as an ally in restoring citizenship to its proper place as the primary goal of schooling. It’s an idea whose time has come ... back.

I wish you were a little bit more measured in your rhetoric around Common Core and that you didn’t conflate “standards” and “curriculum.” It is one thing to oppose the standards and criticize the way they were adopted and implemented. However to pronounce Common Core “a surefire way to undermine young children’s intellectual growth” is a bit over the top. For all the sturm and drang over standards, they remain virtually silent on what teachers teach and children learn on any given day. Those decisions remain a local matter.

Finally, I can’t agree with you on the benefit of “throwing money at schools.” Is throwing money ever the answer to anything?

Throughout our correspondence, you have been resolutely focused on the underlying problems of income inequality, poverty, justice, and the generally fragile state of our democracy. I’m not dismissive of those concerns; quite the opposite. I simply see them as largely beyond my direct control as an educator. I continue to believe firmly in education as an engine of upward mobility. It is easy to be overwhelmed and defeated as a teacher by all we cannot do and all that conspires to thwart our best efforts. I choose to focus on the possible. Is there a serenity prayer for teachers? There should be.

There will always be more education differences that want bridging, Deb. In part this is due to a paradox that lies at the heart of education in America: The act of schooling is inherently conservative, while the purpose of education is inherently progressive. We send our children to school to give to them the best of our civilization—our language, literature, history, scientific discoveries, and artistic achievements. But these conservative institutions called schools are a testament to our faith in human progress, for our children, our nation, and the world. Schooling looks backward; education moves us forward. We teach the past to secure the future.

This paradox, I think, explains why our biggest fights occur when we make schooling less conservative or education less progressive. When we dismiss the value of knowledge, radically alter curricula, insist on making school more “child-centered,” or attack traditional ideas about language or mathematics, there is always a backlash.

Likewise, when we narrow the goals of education, making it less progressive, it is an affront to our ideals and faith in the future. When someone takes a utilitarian view of education as merely a means of producing workers or maintaining economic advantage, parents are quick to remind us that they have bigger dreams. Our children are not data points.

This tension between the conservative act of schooling, which serves the progressive ends of education, will always be with us. So here’s to bridging the differences that can be bridged, accepting those that cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.

And with that, I take my leave.

Thank you, Deb, for the privilege of this forum, the benefit of your great heart and wisdom, and for the gift of your friendship.

Time to get back to work.



Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

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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.