Assessment Opinion

Trust, Community, and Schools

By Deborah Meier — September 11, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m not entirely ducking it—just partly. I’m also getting at it in a circuitous way!

Of course, at heart, I am struggling to understand the American “people.” I know I am hopelessly out of the loop, although I keep circling around for common threads. The enthusiasm for Sarah Palin is a case in point.

How can I simultaneously want to keep more, not less, power in the hands of the same public that might elect a pair like McCain/Palin? And, they aren’t by any means the worst we might do. I’ll feel better about the public if they vote Obama/Biden, but after all it will actually only tell us about a marginal shift in the public’s mind.

Democracy rests on a kind of skeptical trust that is both risky and hard to stick with. If I knew of a better way, I’d bet on it. But I’m stuck where Winston Churchill was when he declared that democracy was a terrible idea, except if one considered the alternatives.

I think I end up having a secret fondness for local corruption vs. centralized efficiency, in part because I have a sneaking suspicion that behind that centralized efficiency lies a much more powerful form of corruption.

I was stunned to read so much about the new heroine of education, Washington’s new star Michelle Rhee. In explaining why paying teachers and students for results is, after all, the American way, she makes a scary point. Rather than seeing it as a complex trade-off, she appears to see it as an unambiguous good, even if it had no effect, on scores. I haven’t got the quote in front of me, but maybe it was in Education Week? You and I argue that schools should conduct themselves in accordance with democratic values—whether or not doing so produces improved test scores. It’s why I note, in admiration, that the Catholic Church wouldn’t argue for dropping religion from their offering even if it raised scores. You and I worry, similarly, about the future of what we see as “the liberal arts” in an effort to raise scores. (Even if we differ somewhat on what it is about those “arts” that we value.) Rhee worries, too, in accordance with her highest values: that kids aren’t sufficiently aware that school equals making more money and making money is what we’re all about..

It goes back to our uncertainty over the purposes of publicly funded education.

One of our readers has sent us a longwinded, but interesting “comment” on the virtues of the teen cell/tech culture. Since my grandchildren are into all this, I read it with some interest, and hope. I’m not convinced, but I do intend to ask them more questions about it. As you can see, I’m looking for signs of hope almost anywhere. So, I urge readers to explore his argument and see where it gets us.

I think the issues of trust and community are very high on my list of priorities. The notion that these may be bedrock basics for democracy’s possibility, hard to replace if not nurtured when we are young, and built into our accustomed ways of thinking, may be arguable. The ease with which we’ve replaced human judgment with “hard data” has both strengths and weaknesses, of course. Mothers for a long time have been unduly influenced by the latest expert opinion on child-rearing—as though these were strictly “scientific” matters. The evidence is hardly unimportant in the exercise of judgment, but it needs to be set within the context of ordinary experience and beliefs. I was always worried when parents or teachers would tell me that they thought a child was not a good or bad reader until the scores came in. Instead of using this as a chance to wonder why the two pieces of evidence didn’t match, they shifted their stance in the face of “hard evidence.” But I am equally disturbed when citizens dismiss “evidence” with mindless claims that they have a right to “their opinions.” In short, replacing potentially biased direct evidence with potentially biased indirect evidence is a bad habit, just as the opposite is.

[Editor’s note: Deborah Meier submitted the following revised paragraph after the blog entry was initially published.]

But I’m counting on conflicting dumbness (maybe another word for half-digested experiences) to keep new or now passe ideas alive. When the mayor of the largest city in the nation, famous for its intellectual elitism, promotes the idea that we can’t teach 5-year-olds if we don’t test them, it’s hard not to despair. And, when he proposes to somehow combine scores on a paper-and-pencil group test in math with one in literacy to come up with a single number that can be used for teaching purposes, I tremble. When his education chancellor defends the need for a single number so we can compare kids across the city (state, nation, planet), I wonder at the quality of both of their educations. The worst thought is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein believe this nonsense; the best is…that it’s a ploy. A way to wrest even greater mayoral control? Or is it part of a more general view amongst his crowd, one that sees virtually all public institutions that rest on a restless, often ignorant public, as inferior to ones controlled by people more like themselves? Former Chicago and Philadelphia miracle worker Paul Vallas says he loves working in a New Orleans where he has total power. We don’t need “privatization” if we can have public schools minus the nuisance of teachers’ unions and public input seems to be the new liberal reform slogan.

We live amidst a profound lack of respect for democracy and a profound weariness in the face of enormous conundrums that cannot quickly bring us comfortable answers. My naïve hope is that we can make schools themselves a place for examining the strength and value of democracy.


P.S. So much for my idea about shorter columns! You’re doing better at it, Diane.

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.