Curriculum Opinion

Seeing ‘Reform’ as More Than a Horse Race or Marketplace

By Deborah Meier — April 02, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

A good narrative is worth a dozen treatises. For good and for bad, we are a species that needs a good story. It’s why simplified history has appeal—we always want to give it a good beginning, middle, and end with a useful moral lesson. We tend to seek, therefore, the “evidence” that supports our story line—and moral. It’s very hard to avoid, especially for those who are required to have a “story line” for every subject—such as presidents. In short, you can’t be President and not delegate, and you can’t delegate without a large measure of trust. He’s simply made the wrong leap of faith.

It’s also true that some story lines, and the facts that fit them, become so commonplace that they are hard to dislodge by counter-facts. Whenever I write a public essay claiming that our schools are not in a state of historic decline, fact-checkers call to ask for citations. They do not ask the same of those who claim the opposite. This is the way of all media, and the only thing worse would be the absence of public media to catch the mis-facts in Obama’s education speech.

I’m worried these days not only about the distortions you quote, but by the dismaying state of the American press. See The Nation story by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, on “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.” I grew up thinking the daily newspaper was part of the landscape of democracy. But both TV news and the daily press may be things of the past. That’s a loss for which democracy, above all, may pay a heavy price.

I may quarrel with journalists (why didn’t they catch Obama’s facts?), but it’s a lover’s quarrel. They’re not living up to their calling, and bloggers cannot replace them. This is a public policy issue just as critical to the 2lst Century as K-12 schooling. It’s part of the nation’s “education” crisis.

Using the current public schools as best we can to prepare future adults to exercise good judgment about whatever media is available (which hopefully will include writers they disagree with) is essential! K-12 test scores give us no clue to this. Sometimes our opponents’ challenges are critical, including the readers of our letters! Schools should be about preparing us to dig deep enough to make sense of truth claims, to act even on incomplete knowledge, and later to change our minds.

I’m a reformist, not a revolutionary, because revolutions in human habits don’t work. Humans resist discontinuity and unpredictability. We may be “wired” that way? In any case, I’m sympathetic, not hostile, to caution. So I’m betting on exploring what “works” within the context of both shared ends and different ends—honoring both continuity and change at the same time. They needn’t be poised as enemies. We need to see how we can invent rules of the game that honor differences, that can fit within the larger tent. We need to gather long-term data about the trade-offs embedded in alternate models of schooling: the KIPPS and the Mission Hills. Maybe the best of each is what we seek.

While we cannot produce miracles even with expanded hours, days, or even resources, we can produce impressive results if we dare build a consensus among families, neighbors, students, and faculty—school by school. The tendency to fit our facts to our biases is inescapably part of our competition with each other. Maybe Hirsch, KIPP, the MET, and the Coalition can fit under a common tent even if they appear to be in contradiction to each other. What policies would be good for them all, might be the better question to ask, Diane.

This would be easier to do if the President of the United States used his bully pulpit to initiate such a conversation rather than repeat alarmist slogans. And yes, Diane, I suspect there’s a purpose in this constant reiteration of bleak facts and non-facts. (Otherwise, why is there no cheering over our incontrovertible high international test score standing in literacy, or why is the NAEP data on pre- and post-NCLB so rarely made public?) But since you and I are right about the value of public education (of course), we have a good shot at either out-arguing them or winning them over. Hopefully, during the coming four years—if we are bold enough to imagine that we can coexist—we can see “reform” as something beside a horse race or marketplace with winners and losers.


P.S. Mike Klonsky’s blog, Small Talk, points up more misleading data:

“Philanthro-capitalist, short-seller, and former AIG boss, Eli Broad, is interviewed in Forbes magazine as saying:

In the last 10 years, we’ve [The Eli Broad Foundation] done a lot in training superintendents. Bill Clinton told me when he was governor 16 years ago there was one charter school. Now there are 16,000. Now we have districts offering teachers bonus pay for improved student achievement. Things are improving.

[Klonsky:] Eli, do your homework before you speak. There are approximately 4,500 charter schools in the U.S.—not 16,000. Better redo your business plan.”

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