Standards Opinion

The Hidden Curriculum

By Deborah Meier — January 14, 2014 6 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst today.

Dear Robert,

1. Public Education. While I like many standalone charters—mom-and-pop shops—run by the constituents of the school’s “community,” I see no reason why the schools have to go charter to have that independence.

The three case stories I described last week, as well as my experience in District 4 in the 1970s and 1980s, reminds me that the best charters are just like the best public schools.

I am not for publicly funding charter chains that are essentially accountable to their “owners,” not their public. If your view is based on a general aversion to public institutions we obviously won’t find a compatible compromise. That would be too bad.

2. Who decides what? We might still agree on some guidelines for thinking through who should decide what: professionals, families, or the public? Choice doesn’t solve this. Especially if it’s the kind of choice in which parents, teachers, and kids who have complaints are told, “So, leave.”

If we could stop pretending there’s one right answer to what a “good school” is, including our definition of success, we could learn from each other. An independent agency collecting data—tests, interviews, site visits might make sense, too. Are we on the same page so far?

However, I fear that you fail to see how an imposed Common Core with its testing component, as well as charter chains, undermine the freedom to make critical decisions that we both cherish.

3. What can we do? What makes for a strong school lies somewhere else: in how the school responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them. There is no perfect curriculum, even for those who succeed at school, much less those who don’t. No one-size-fits-all pedagogy either.

It’s all that “noise"—the hidden curriculum—that interferes with student learning, including how he/she reads the teacher. How the school culture is interpreted by students must be unpacked, even though it means talking openly about race, class, and gender.

Children in schools or classrooms with predominantly low-income students quickly pick up on the fact that their curiosity is not valued, nor the way they speak or play, nor their precocious independence and initiative. Curiosity, independence, and initiative are not rewarded in many schools, but above all in schools for lower-income children. Schooling becomes just another ornery obstacle course—not a liberating force. That goes for teachers in low-income schools, as well as students.

Without encouraging such curiosity—and being curious oneself—we can’t teach students what they need to know. And when teachers assume they have no power over the conditions in which they and their students work, their natural curiosity is blunted too. They—students and teachers—then fall back on stereotyped interpretations of each other’s behaviors.

A small example: I was curious about why young teenaged men viewed our school’s rule against wearing hats as such an affront. I learned. For some it was another sign of our mainstream uneasiness with their “manhood.” (Note: We had very different reactions to girls wearing hats. And suburban schools are considerably less likely to have “no hat” rules.)

This uneasiness had repercussions. It fed resistance and resentment. The male students’ response rested on how they interpreted the prohibition, and our response rested on both our interpretation and what (if anything) we could do with the new information.

Many come to school—white, brown, black, 5-year-olds, and 15-year-olds—having been warned by those they trust: “Be careful. Don’t let your guard down.” Such children leave their real selves outside the school door at 8:30 a.m.

One reason we think the children of the poor have less or “no” language (as I was told by the Head Start authorities in 1963) is that they are not trying to communicate with “us” on our terrain. They are exploring ways to “stand their ground” emotionally when trapped in an alien land.

Another story. When we moved to New York City, my youngest son was entering 1st grade. After some months he mentioned, in passing, that his teacher didn’t like the way he talked. I investigated and found out that indeed he was right. When he opened his mouth the teacher corrected his Chicago accent/vocabulary/dialect. She thought she was doing him a favor. He had responded by not talking. This happens frequently to children who do not come from the dominant culture, and their reaction is most likely to be similar to my son’s.

Can we change these “facts of life”? Yes.

What is obvious to me about the schools that work well is that the students and their families have overcome the “us” vs. “them” pattern. They assume (after warily testing the waters) that most school employees have good intentions, even if ignorance or misunderstanding still sometimes get in the way. In good schools the faculty assume the same about parents. It’s a two-way street.

When families and the school adults are joined at the hip on behalf of the young, then the young are freed to learn. They may be mad at one or another of us, but on the whole they accept our “intentions” as beneficent; they trust us, we trust them. Curiosity about each other is the essential. A curiosity we generally cut off at the pass. As early-childhood teachers used to joke, “they probably wonder if we ever use the bathroom.”

Another story. June Jordan High School in San Francisco was facing a problem. They had a staff room where the adults had their desks, books, phones, and comfortable chairs to relax in when they weren’t directly teaching. When I joined the afterschool staff meeting, some were complaining about the kids walking through the office, coming in one door and exiting by the other. They were contemplating locking one of the doors until someone noted that the kids’ actions were actually remarkably encouraging. They used the few moments between classes to “spy” on the teachers, to take a look into their world. These side trips into the adult world were a sign of success, but the faculty’s response depended on the time and sensitivity they had to unpack the behavior.

Although it takes time, patience, and mutual affection—something, once again, schools don’t easily accommodate—helping young people find the mentors they seek is a must. To do it right you need to know each child well. That doesn’t mean knowing 150 (30x5) different students every semester or conducting a 10-minute annual “family conference.” Maybe there should be time for parents, students, and teachers to meet together monthly!

I learned to tell parents and students who had a complaint that I appreciated their telling me about it. How else could we work it out together? It meant that when we had Jehovah Witness families, we worked with them to make Mission Hill School a comfortable setting for them. We met with parents and students together, working out the necessary respectful compromises. Not a very useful strategy if our hands are tied. When all we can say is, “sorry, we have no control over such decisions.”

When structures, schedules, spaces got in our way, we put our heads together, on site, to change them—openly. You can’t do that in too many of our schools—charter, private, public, or parochial. That’s where you and I might have a common agenda? Until we have that precious liberty, we will keep “innovating,” but not learning.


* Viewing poverty as an unacceptable “excuse” requires ignoring too much evidence. Even on “objective” international test scores the United States beats the top runners on PISA tests if in schools where fewer than 10 percent of the student population is poor. If poverty reaches over 50 percent, or every point in between, the USA still slightly outscores most equally “segregated” schools. It depends on how many poor people are in the sample. (OECD, “Equity and Quality in Education”) And tests, I contend, exaggerate the impact of poverty and racism for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere.

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.