Curriculum Opinion

Wanted: Creative Resistance

By Deborah Meier — November 10, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Like you, I was immensely cheered to read that my colleagues were speaking truth to power! Yes, I agree with virtually every word that those Long Island administrators said. The sad fact is that this is so rare is troubling. As I speak around the country to teacher-educators I remind them that they should “go after” their university colleagues, who should be defending the independence of schools of education from inappropriate dictates, and recognizing that they will be next. The decision to define what it means to be a well-educated person—by way of test scores and even diplomas—has serious intellectual, social, moral, and political implications.

Besides, most would-be teachers take a majority of their courses in the regular liberal arts and sciences departments, not in ed school. They bear considerable responsibility for the quality of our teachers of the future and should be sitting down with us, not distancing themselves from us.

I had a splendid time at Kappa Delta Pi’s 100th anniversary. It has an interesting history—they did not unite with Phi Delta Kappa (the other education “fraternity”) because PDK didn’t enroll women in its ranks 100 years ago! I left feeling that there is a decided shift in feistiness in our field. But we’re still recovering from shock.

When you read this, Diane, I’ll be at the Coalition of Essential Schools’ fall forum. I think it’s our 27th annual meeting. More on it next week. But it was in Ted Sizer’s writings that we began to imagine that our work in K-6 should be extended into secondary school. I miss Ted, but that we—the Coalition—are still alive is a testimony to how powerfully his ideas influenced us. Our readers would be well-advised to join us—as an institution or as an individual.

The Coalition represents a path not taken a decade ago, when the foundations took over the reform movement. But we have continued to play a critical part in keeping another paradigm alive, one that will, I’m now sure, soon be steaming ahead again. Good ideas never die, but they do need to be restated over and over.

Ted’s words still ring. The central function of public education, he argued, was to help young people use their minds well ... to develop strong habits of mind that will sustain their personal passions as well as the nation’s passion for democracy. It’s not enough to be willing to die for democracy, one needs to live for it. But that takes a reorganizing of our ideas about what it means to be well-educated. And it requires a reexamination of the relationship of schooling to democracy. There’s no simple answer, but in today’s climate we aren’t even asking questions.

I’m floored by what passes as serious proposals in education policy circles. Example: Telling teachers who work in fields that are not being tested by the state that they will be evaluated on either the state’s English-language or mathematics test—depending on which they choose, etc. Of course, it’s absurd. But her livelihood is at stake, and there is poor Alice (in Wonderland) trying to make sense of this strange world in which she has found herself.

They’re just a bunch of cards, I feel like shouting, and knocking them all over. But they are cards with power behind them. They can really “cut off heads.”

So we’ve distorted the meaning of education, or cheated to save ourselves, or cheated the kids. One or the other, and a little of both. But I’m hoping that most of us push the envelope as far as we can; find the cracks, close our doors, and creatively resist the madness.

I think of all the times I did so in the past—in the olden days. In my first year on the job I was required by “downtown” to teach my 5-year-old Chicago Southsiders about ... Los Angeles and Tokyo! Of course. Does that take your breath away? So I substituted Chicago for Los Angeles, and paired up with my principal, whose family came from Japan, to explore Japanese culture with 5-year-olds. Someone came from downtown, and was visibly shocked. How dare I switch Los Angeles and Chicago? And how dare I focus on all the ways in which children’s lives were different in Tokyo and Chicago. The whole point was to teach that we were all the same. Bah humbug, I replied. I’m hoping to get them interested in wanting to visit Japan and learn more about it. But why do that if I’ve just convinced him that Chicago is just the same as Tokyo? We argued, in the hallway. I hoped the kids were listening; my new colleagues certainly were. When the lady from downtown left, they came out of their rooms to apologize for not having explained to me how “we” handled such things. Just say: “I’m so sorry. I’ll get to work tomorrow and change everything.” And, “she won’t be back soon, so we never worry about her,” my experienced peers assured me.

I followed that advice for the next 50 years. But I also fought to create schools where we encouraged visitors and feedback, and respected each other’s judgments. It was my job, as principal, to worry about fending off “downtown"—and to find the powerful allies who agreed with us and helped protect us. This is an old story in American schooling, including in every small town I know.

And it’s getting worse as “downtown” moves ever further away—to the state capital and now to the White House and Congress—and worse, to Gates, Broad, Walton, et al foundations.

As I have often noted to others: One shouldn’t leave one’s children in the hands of babysitters you don’t trust, who you think require a script. If you don’t trust them to exercise good judgment, stay home. So with 16-year-old babysitters, so with teachers.

I have a button that reads: “Those who Can teach. Those who CAN’T become education policymakers.” Well, not all teachers can teach, and not all policymakers can’t, but ... it’s mostly true.


P.S. Hurrah, Ohio! That’s stunning news.

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.