Curriculum Opinion

The One Best Way ... Not

By Deborah Meier — November 03, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Thanks for the news from San Diego. We can use happy stories. One of my favorite educators, Anthony Alvarado, was out there for a while, and it wasn’t one of his shining success stories.

Tony was a brilliant, young superintendent of a fairly autonomous New York City district in the 1970s and early 1980s—East Harlem. He launched a “reform” that consisted mostly of encouraging and supporting teachers with interesting ideas—and then freeing them to start their own schools. He used his power to find ways to help them get around foolish rules. It was a decade of creativity and enthusiasm throughout the district. He and his assistant, Sy Fliegel, ran their own creative noncompliance regime, and they extended that mindset down to the rank and file. It paid off. Some of the innovations that came out of that period are still alive and kicking (like Central Park East), outlasting him in New York by several decades and outliving one after another draconian reorganization and top-down reform waves.

Unfortunately, Tony discovered “the one best way” while subsequently superintending in Manhattan’s District 2. Unfortunately, he took this one-best-way “package” to San Diego. (He was actually second in command, but with sole educational responsibility.) Probably a lot of the opposition he faced was foolish, but that’s the way we humans are—we resent being told that someone in a position of power has THE answer in fields in which we imagine ourselves experts. No doubt Tony was equally annoyed at being viewed as an untrustworthy “outsider.” So it was “warfare.” It’s too bad because we could use Tony’s wisdom these days. I’m glad, however, that San Diego is doing well. (Note that my Boston “colleague” Tom Payzant was also the reform superintendent in San Diego before Alvarado arrived.)

Will we ever learn? There’s an old Eugene V. Debs quote that I love: “I wouldn’t lead you to the promised land even if I could, because if I could lead you there, others could lead you back again.” (If you don’t know who Debs was, try Googling.)

Reminder—Resistance to authority by teachers, students, and citizens has played an enormously positive role in the history of democracy. Growing up during World War II, seeing “resistors” as our heroes and “collaborators” as the enemy was second nature to me. That teachers have resisted reform is hardly surprising when you consider how many reformers have tried to improve them by imposing their latest ideas.

Perhaps that’s part of what I enjoy about the Wall Street Occupiers. They are trying to avoid that mistake. In some ways their occupation is just like what the Flint automobile workers did in 1936. While the 1936 occupation alarmed a lot of people, it was critical to a new stage in union organizing.

It will take longer and more complicated “sit-ins” to impact on the inequalities now rampant in our country. It will take creative thinking and an attitude toward each other’s compromises that is sufficiently tolerant to allow for many routes to recapturing democracy.

I spent a few days last week with the teacher-educators of Pennsylvania (PAC-TE) and was fascinated to hear encouraging stories about innovative work going on in teacher education. I hope the enthusiasm I experienced isn’t killed off, Diane, by the latest nonsense: to require colleges of education to publicize the test scores of the students of their former students!

Teachers often complain that their principals aren’t tough enough on the “bad” kids. I sympathize. But we need the kind of school settings where “toughness” (suspensions or expulsions) can have a wider range of meanings. The same goes, of course, for U.S. society as a whole, which under the rhetoric of “law and order” has a prison population that dwarfs the inmate numbers of any other nation. Even as crime figures have declined, more people are jailed and spend more years in largely inhumane prisons in the name of creating a more civil society. (See Dissent, Fall 2011, “Criminalizing Kids: The Overlooked Reason for Failing Schools,” by Heather Ann Thompson)

The “discipline” issues we confront in schools are much like those in society writ large, which is why I was outraged, Diane, when the New York City introduced armed police in school hallways. We had the data collected by another educational giant, Steve Phillips, about “incidents” in NYC’s alternative schools (which served the most troubled students) that suggested another way. That’s another good story for later.

A reader complained that I was being far too positive about so-called “open education” in the ‘70s. Given how relatively short-lived it was (I’m not talking about the idea of eliminating walls between classes!), I’m sure his criticisms were just. Lots of folks thought that Progressives were against planning and “structure.” Actually, Progressive practice requires both more pre-planning and more structure than the traditional model—where eyes are always supposed to be on the teacher, who is the only real actor in the room. A charismatic adult can wing it under such circumstances. But, I want to assure my colleague, that if I were Emperor I wouldn’t mandate even my ideal form of “open education.”

Resisting the temptation to want everyone to do what one thinks is best is not easy. Power can corrupt, even Progressives! Which is why we disconnected the PA system in my office when I became principal—we knew how tempted I might be to use it.


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.