Assessment Opinion

Trust and Schools

By Deborah Meier — October 02, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

John Dewey spent his life warning us about false dichotomies. One of our readers, I notice, warned fellow readers of our column not to slip into the same trap. I thought of that after watching the Obama/McCain debate: some observers thought Obama was mistaken to remind voters that McCain was often right. I liked that.

In face of the Obama/McCain debate, I’ve lost track of ours, Diane!

The fun part of our formulaic debate last week in D.C. (at the Fordham Institute) was how hard it was sometimes to tell the “ayes” from the “nays.” But thank goodness I was on your team. If you have your opening three minutes, maybe Education Week can pass it on to our readers. (Editor’s note: Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch debated Jon Schnur and Gov. Roy Romer about the role of the federal government in education.)

I think that where we differ—on national curriculum and assessments—you are not quite in Gov. Romer’s court either. Tell me more about where you and he agree/disagree.

Back to Paul Tough’s new book. I was reading the blurbs on the back and decided that some of the authors hadn’t read the book. One says “Canada is a man...who knows what it takes to ensure that every child…” etc. In fact, it was a book about a task Canada undertook and at which he failed. His definition of success (the state’s test scores. Period.) and his skewed timetable both doomed his efforts in my view. But there’s much to be learned from failure—as scientists will tell us.

I was happy to read Tough’s response to my column (see comments). My point was that Canada didn’t stick with that first group, the “guinea pigs” as kids in our first class at CPESS reminded us. “Science experiments,” as Stephen Dubner calls the school in his blurb, take on special responsibilities when experimenting on live people. If he had allowed himself a broader vision of the task (than test scores) and stuck with it longer he might perhaps have been surprised by success. (Read Brian S.’s comments about KIPP’s work in D.C. in response to a recent letter of Diane’s.)

The constant I find in educational “experiments” that succeed, even if they are otherwise very different, is that the people closest to the kids are those making the decisions and that they never give up, especially on their relationships with the kids. (Thanks to Tough for describing Canada’s subsequent efforts for that first class.) It’s why first-borns, who by all odds should be our least successful, are often our most—we often have the strongest ties with them. It’s that fact that gave me the courage to keep starting new schools and “promising” success. Schools are living organisms—like families—that need our constant attention. We have to be good kid-watchers, as well as helping them be good adult-watchers. We have to be constantly in the process of learning—being tough on ourselves as we are on the kids. But also compassionate and forgiving—of ourselves and them.

The saddest part of the story for me was that when Canada announced the closure of the 8th grade (based strictly on their test scores), he had nothing to say to stunned parents and students who asked him how they might help keep it open. That could have been a teaching/learning moment, the beginning of an experiment in community building.

The dispute between Canada and his tough-minded third principal is a magnificent example of dichotomous thinking. I like Canada’s comments better than Pindar’s, but they both miss the point.

Canada to kids and families: “It was basically my fault.” “It wasn’t the kids’ fault…I’m not blaming students for the failure to get good scores…That’s our job and responsibility. That’s what we got paid for.”

Pindar on Canada: “Yes, we failed them. But. …the way it came across was like we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. The truth...is we’ve got great teachers, we’ve got great staff, and if we had willing participants, we would have great students.”

To trust schools, they must be trustworthy. Everything we do must be weighed with that in mind. The standard test of trust: “have I kept my promises to you?” is only Step One. But it’s critical. We demand trust because we implicitly know that it’s the only way we can do our best work. (It pained me sometimes that parents’ trust in us so often rested on the fact that they didn’t see any other choice.) As schools go about earning trust, other people’s timetables often get in the way—state officials in some cases, Canada’s board in another. But the kids’ timetables are first. (Vanity can help or hurt, depending on what we’re vain about.)

Which gets me to Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s “Trust in Schools.” Bryk and Schneider focus on what they call “relational trust,” between professionals, and argue that it impacts on curriculum, pedagogy, and governance in ways we often ignore. It’s a scholarly and extensively footnoted book based on very down-to-earth case histories. More next week. (Incidentally, it just so happens that “In Schools We Trust” was the title of a book I wrote years ago about my last school, Mission Hill.)

Trust and accountability are closely linked, which ties in with current electoral debates. How do we establish acceptable levels of trust in American government and business, without which neither political nor economic life can prosper? Distrust of politics and business is warranted; so the means of restoring sufficient trust may have lessons for schools, and vice versa. As I hear the stories about corruption (from Cindy McCain’s abuse of trust in a foundation she ran to corruption in almost every branch of federal and corporate government), I’m amazed at our resigned acceptance, as well as Obama’s passionate cool. I read into it the kind of “reformer’s” attitude we may need toward schools, however. We need to be passionate and impatient while developing living possibilities that don’t dichotomize us into false camps. (Am I stretching a point too far?)


P.S. Diane, try “Democracy” by Charles Tilly (Columbia)—on connections between democratization and trust. Quite a different path to some similar ideas on the subject.

P.S. 2: I re-read “The Great Expectations School” by Dan Brown, who gave us both a signed copy at our debate last week. Thanks, Dan. It’s a great must-read. Yes, indeed Dan, why can’t all kids go to a school like the ones where the very rich send their children?

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