Curriculum Opinion

Some Decisions Must Be Kept Close to the Learning Site

By Deborah Meier — February 21, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I just read a column about Sol Stern in The New York Times on why vouchers aren’t the answer. I’m glad he’s given up on them; alas, he has joined you in viewing a standard curriculum reform as the answer. The dilemma for me is not who is right on curriculum or phonics but with the idea of imposing either solution.

Democracy uses the tool of “majority wins” because sometimes only one decision is feasible: we either go to war or don’t, build the highway or don’t. But I’m a libertarian wherever I can be—like about the ways we organize knowledge, which knowledge is most important, and how best to help this or that particular human being learn. And within very broad limits, how we raise our kids. So while we can justify decisions about curriculum and pedagogy being made at any level of government, there are, I believe, strong reasons to keep these matters close to the site of learning. (Which doesn’t equal “anything goes.”) One reason has to do with the purpose of schooling, and the other has to do with the health of democratic life. Here I’m focusing on the first.

I admit that I have trouble understanding why constructivism is controversial. But I know it is—and opponents include smart democratically minded people like you and Sol. Still, I just don’t get it. It seems so obvious to me that we each “construct” our understanding based on the mindset and experiences we bring into each new situation. Part of what makes democracy difficult is precisely this “fact”. I take it for granted that it’s how human beings make sense of the world—and I want to encourage it, not discourage this way of approaching “making sense” and resisting “non-sense.”

But my problem is that my argument doesn’t exclude schools (and thus teachers and parents) from pursuing your ideal curriculum, whereas yours prohibits me (as parent or teacher) from pursuing mine.

Ah, yes. You think Klein is trying to mandate constructivism, outlaw phonics, promote social promotion, etc. I think you’ve got him wrong. We’re agreed that he is a petty dictator and ignorant about matters he has too much power over, etc. We even agree that he tried to mandate a particular “constructivist” curriculum—an oxymoron! But phonics is doing just fine—starting with 4-year-olds, and so is the lecture method of teaching, and all NY high schools (except a few I love best) have to pass the Regents curriculum, which whatever else one can say about it is pretty traditional. Dumbed down but traditional. Probably half or more of our students are entering high school over age, and increasingly can legally drop out before they even get to high school. Social promotion??

You mention claims made to you by “academics” about small high schools, including the vocational nature of some them. I need the who, where, what? Behind some of those vocational school names is a conscientious effort to connect serious ideas and subject matter to the interests of this or that youngster. I remember listening to a graduation speech by a young woman at the first MET school in Providence. She noted that the MET was the first time anyone honored her burning desire to be a hair stylist. That fact, she insisted, shifted her whole sense of herself and schooling. It led her eventually to decide to go to college to become a social worker because, as she explored the beauty business, she realized that behind “fooling around with hair” was a deep interest in how people saw themselves and led her into taking “academia” more seriously. I take this to heart rather than dismiss it as vocationalism.

I’ve got plenty of complaints about how the small school idea that I pioneered (ah, vanity) has been misused. But, keep in mind, kids were going to separate small “schools” within the old big schools for a century. My own kids went through public school before smallness was a fad and were almost always in classes with kids of similar backgrounds. The exceptions were those programs we fought for in the de-tracking movement of the 70s, when “progressive” educators and parents joined together to effect changes (most of which have now been dropped). We thought they required us to rethink pedagogy and curriculum, not just who sat next to whom. Progressives and traditionalists in the private sector, as you have made clear, never tackled that task.

Dozens of NY elementary and secondary schools broke the pattern in the 80s with results certified as success by our esteemed NYC state chancellor Mills and his specially selected committee of psychometricians! These schools succeeded by breaking with the traditional curriculum and pedagogy, while also taking ideas and knowledge seriously. Differently, but not less seriously. We tried to build a “system” around some shared ideas—people do their best work when they have choices, are working in settings where they are respected, have the time and resources to conduct their work well, and have a substantial voice in making decisions. This goes for parents, kids, and teachers. I don’t think it’s utopian for this to be done in the public sector, and Klein’s claim that this is precisely what he’s done needs to be exposed. Yes, it’s a fraud.

To make it real is what maybe we can both agree on?


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