Assessment Opinion

Time to Enlarge the Public’s Imagination

By Deborah Meier — January 15, 2009 3 min read

Dear Diane,

Fair enough. The “idea” might even be good (downplaying college education and going straight for occupational education at 18), but getting from here to there is a puzzle to me, too, even if it were the right idea. Under far more egalitarian circumstances I can see how we might re-organize so that we put most of our hopes in K-12, plus lots of opportunities (like Elderhostels for less elderly people) for a widely available general education at all ages—more “school-like” settings where novices and experts gather to satisfy their curiosity.

But continually flogging the old horse isn’t going to turn it into an automobile. We simply go from one failed idea (if that isn’t often too grandiose a name for them) to another. I was watching amusing Newsreel footage from the 40s about progressive education as “the answer.” A kind of boot-camp schooling in “academics” for the young followed by 21st Century skills for adolescents seems to be latest “new” idea. At least for the masses.

The NCLB “idea”—other than the name—has obviously now failed every test under the sun, but its proponents are still high on it and I don’t see that changing very soon. Even on its own terms—standardized test scores—it has only succeeded when it can teach directly to the test of choice. On NAEP, kids have at best not lost ground for the past decade. And what kind of measure is even NAEP of an “educated” citizenry? Nor has the past decade seen improvement in graduation rates, college attendance, or college graduation rates. (See Alain Jehlen’s summary on the NEA Web site.)

It’s time at the very least to open ourselves up to some rethinking about how, where, when, and what good schooling should be about. Including reexamining some old ideas. Just as it may at last be time to reconsider the Dvorak keyboard, proposed in 1936 and adopted at the time at the University of Chicago’s Lab School. It may be that modern technology not only makes the “qwerty” keyboard passé, but the new technology may offer a way to phase the Dvorak in painlessly.

It may just be a matter of resources. After all, the richest kids go to schools with 12-15 kids per class, the poorest to 25-30 per class. Of course, the richest kids get good test scores in large classes also, if that’s our only measure of merit. Maybe we just have to make everyone rich. And yes, some of those reforms (better pay, better healthcare, etc., would help).

But if we still hold to the idea that democracy is the best form of governance, even the rich man’s school isn’t designed to teach the young a lot about sharing their power and wealth—and given the current state of America, not much about running a successful economy!

So I go back to thinking it’s a good time for folks like us to enlarge the public’s imagination about what “could be” and stop arguing about the hopelessness of the current wave of small-minded and stingy reforms being offered by the Rhees/Kleins et al of the world. More of the same isn’t going to get us anywhere much different. It’s any big sense of “possibilities” that seems missing in a lot of the current reforms—not just in education. The old “new deal” was much more refreshing than the one we seem embarked on today. It’s time to energize the discussion with some new big ideas.

We both know that on the biggest question—of human potential—Murray is dead wrong. It takes only one example to prove that point. It is no longer a matter of hope or faith for me, but experience. Although one example doesn’t demonstrate how it can be done on a larger scale.

The “other guys” have had their little experiment with our kids. It isn’t working. How can we at least open the doors again—as they were for a short period in the 80s and early 90s—for those who want to really be experimental? I had hoped that charters would at least produce some fresh ideas. In fact, constrained as they are by the same set of shabby goals (higher test scores) they’ve mostly “pioneered” only more of the same.

We agree, I think. What we’ve been calling reform for the past 15 to 20 years is not going to work, never has and never will. It’s a waste of energy to keep proving our point. Let’s move on and think about how we might release energy for exploring other paths—at least for those ready to move on. It hurts too much to be so discouraging to the many young people I meet who want to teach at the old CPESS and can’t find many places as exciting today, places that can offer them a lifetime of useful work in the company of interesting and powerful colleagues.

Let us dream with them about how they might unleash such efforts again.


P.S. Diane and others—check out Mike Rose’s latest blog for a fine summation of the “two sides” of reform—and read his books if you haven’t.

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