Data Opinion

What All Kids Need

By Deborah Meier — May 07, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

It was fun seeing and hearing you in D.C. and hearing ABOUT you everywhere I went the past few weeks—Denver to Maine and in between. I’m very grateful. Of course, I wouldn’t be so grateful if it wasn’t that we were agreeing so much—although there are still those provocative disagreements.

Somewhere along the line—maybe even soon—we could get back to discussing some of our differences about curriculum, maybe even pedagogy! And choice.

Meanwhile—having returned home at midnight last night—here are some further thoughts.

I was intrigued by the piece by Charles Murray in The New York Times—and, I imagine you were, too. He ends up agreeing with us on the Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, et al from a stance that is deeply disturbing to me. It’s hardly surprising given Murray’s longstanding view re. the inferiority of certain “kinds” of people—a conclusion he reaches on the basis of testing data! So the test achievement gap confirms his theoretical views. Someone suggested to me that we should accept allies from anywhere. I’m inclined the other way. It was and is views of this sort that justified NCLB’s absurd response to a real dilemma. Just as I hope we will criticize the many reform ideas that rest upon false assumptions about the differences between “us” (especially middle- and upper-class whites) and “them.” The “these kids need” arguments that I find most distasteful about many of the charter schools networks I know—spouted by folks who are hardly experts on “those kids,” and whose solutions support the continuation of schools with a test-prep curriculum and military/prison-style behavioral norms. (See the popular current fads being pushed by author Ruby Payne about educating poor kids.)

I want all kids to have a chance to go to schools of the sort where Arne Duncan and President Obama send their own kids. I want us to stop assuming that only “some kids” can handle complexity, uncertainty, and depth of curriculum or self-regulation—what we used to call “agency.”

I want us to stop pretending that the only thing upper-income kids get from their mothers is more books and reading aloud! Nonsense. What their parents offer them most of all are advantages that come from money, money, money and status, status, status and a sense of entitled power.

I’m excited when I meet up with folks around the country who are coming to the same conclusion. What all kids need is an engaging, stimulating curriculum on one hand and engaged, stimulating adults on the other. Kids need to be keeping company with a lot of adults who have qualities kids of all races and classes admire and imagine they, too, could emulate. Interesting people with power. Keeping company with interesting peers and adults is half the battle, especially across lines of class, race, generation, status, and expertise. Then comes the hard part. Having unconditional respect for each other (as we learn to decide how much to trust each other). We need enough of the latter—trust—to feel that we are amongst people whose intent is probably trustworthy. What we can offer each other in the way of expertise is what time alone only can reveal.

But, explain to me, Diane, why our media outlets are so uninterested in our low standing when it comes to child poverty, access to health care of every sort, homelessness, rates of incarceration, etc., and so obsessed with test scores—and like to pretend there is no connection? Teachers who are desperate to make sense of their experience of failure as teachers are then most seduced by the “experts” like the Ruby Paynes with their theories about “those kids.”

Ditto for our laments about parents, especially parents of the poor. Connecting respectfully with parents is not hard” at all—but it is time-consuming and requires mutual respect. We need to listen better to each other. Above all, schools need dramatic changes if they are to be in a position to hear and learn from children’s families—and not just when they are little. It’s not only class differences—I felt as helpless as many impoverished parents—when “confronting” a teacher or principal with a problem my child was experiencing—in short, with bad news.

Rich parents solve this problem with their feet (changing schools or moving to other neighborhoods) or by using their political power. But most others can’t rely on either. Charter schools are, in part, a response to this. Or so I hoped. Public schools of choice—as practiced in the old District 4 (East Harlem) once did this as well. That’s another area of disagreement we might venture into, Diane. I’m far more aware of the trade-offs than I once was, but ... there is so much good sense about having choices that we shouldn’t abandon the idea because it has been misused. Juan Gonzalez’s presentation a few weeks ago at the Meier Symposium reminded me about how choice can be used to split us up into separate niches. Yes, it can divide neighbors from each other rather than helping them join forces for change. But there is more to it than that.

Charter teachers and “regular” teachers are now fighting legislative battles against each other because it’s so easy to offer different promises to each, positioning them as rivals for pieces of a shrinking pie. And a shrinking pie is the climate under which the new reformers are unleashing their attack on our “ordinary” neighborhood schools.

Lots of thinking to be done. Two memorial events recently—one on behalf of Seymour Sarason’s work, at AERA in Denver and the other, yesterday at Harvard, on Theodore Sizer’s—remind me of how much harder it will be without them. It’s a good time for rereading both.


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