What Happened to Play?

        November/December 2006

Starting a year ago, a group of early childhood educators from local NYC universities and teachers in local public schools decided to get together to talk. One thing led to another, and we began to meet regularly with increasing numbers, in part to share “horror stories,” in part to talk about where we saw openings, and in part to think aloud together about the role of play in our own lives and what research has to say about it!

We decided we had to start something going—as fast as we could. We spread the word, and by the summer we had found enough funds to hire someone to keep our work moving ahead, to seek more funding, and to spread the word. Susan Ochshorn is the name of the person we found to do this, and she can be reached at s.ochs2@verizon.net. Part of the plan was also to join forces with the Alliance for Childhood, a group that had begun a similar effort in Washington D.C. a few years earlier. The plan: to get a grassroots campaign going in New York City and as many other places as we can, to aim at a nation-wide set of events next fall that highlight the risky terrain we are entering into as we try to do everything earlier and faster. By the time some kids reach kindergarten, they are already deemed “failures,” and parents of the most advantaged are more and more priming their kids for tests in order to get a leg up in the competitive race.

We need to reach folks everywhere to see if we can slow the race down a bit, and rethink the power of play for intellectual development and creativity both. Our national genius for inventiveness may be at stake, as well as democracy itself. A rather lofty claim, but we’re pretty sure that the self-initiated child play that constitutes the years from infancy to six is essential to developing the kind of opening-mindedness and empathy that democracy rests on. This hardly guarantees it. Democracy may even be sufficiently “counter-intuitive” to require far more than six years of such hands and minds on play. We ought not to to experiment with it on the scale we’re now witnessing.

Join us? Have thoughts? I’ll add a reading list on the subject soon.

Below is our mission statement:

 

IN DEFENSE OF CHILDHOOD

A Campaign to Restore Creative Play and Hands-on Learning to Preschools and Kindergartens

Child advocates must consider all factors that interfere with optimal development and press for circumstances that allow each child to fully reap the advantages associated with play.   — American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2006

The last decade has seen radical changes in early childhood education. The achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers and new insights from brain research showing the importance of learning in the early years have focused public attention on early childhood, from birth to age six, and sparked a national campaign for school readiness.

Preparing children for school and improving the quality of early childhood education are critical goals. But the means to achieving them now commonplace in preschool and kindergarten—including academic drills, scripted teaching, and standardized testing—are misguided and detrimental to the needs of children and society. Flexibility, perseverance, empathy, curiosity, social awareness, and resilience are best developed in young children through activities that are often dismissed as “only play.” A body of compelling research and pedagogical experience show that open-ended, creative play is essential for all aspects of children’s development, including their academic success. Yet, sadly and dangerously, exploratory play is missing from the lives of growing numbers of our youngest citizens.

Our purpose is to broaden and refocus public conversation about early childhood and its long-term implications for a child’s life and for society; to restore imaginative play and hands-on, experiential learning as central activities in kindergartens and preschools; and to support stable, loving relationships with all adults in children’s lives.

To ensure that the education of young children is in accordance with the precepts of healthy child development, we have set forth the following goals:

  • to develop and implement a public information, engagement, and advocacy campaign, with outreach to educators, parents, policymakers, and others concerned about the well-being of our nation’s children;
  • to cultivate multi-faceted media coverage—including print, broadcast, and web-based—that focuses on the broader picture of childhood and the need for creative play and hands-on learning; and
  • to realign the education and professional development of early childhood educators with the tenets of experiential learning.

 

New York Voices of Childhood
Deborah Meier, New York University
deborah.meier@gmail.com

Susan Oschshorn
212-316-9577
s.ochs2@verizon.net

Alliance for Childhood
P.O. Box 444
College Park, MD 20741
301-779-1033
www.allianceforchildhood.org

© 2006 Deborah Meier

Protecting Public School

        October 2006

When my friends and colleagues get together to talk about our best work, I note that sometimes we compare it, with pride, to “public schools.” At other times I hear adults in charter schools let the public forget that they too are public schools. It is as though our work is not part of that public sector, because we’re different than “them”–being charters, pilots, or alternative schools. We’ve entered a period of history when the connotation of “public” has been allowed to be synonymous with bureaucratic and mediocre, only of use to those with no other choices. But, when we lose a sense that “we” not “they” are the public, we have undermined our society in dangerous ways.

Reformers who urge us to drop the pretense of a local connection between schools and their communities lead us into dangerous territory. We forget, for example, that over 90% of our funding comes from nonfederal sources, most of it very public indeed. And when we plead for public schools on behalf of the most “at risk” we, in turn, risk fragmenting support for the very notion of public schooling. This notion that public institutions are only for losers undermines democratic responsibility and community, that what benefits the least powerful is allied to what benefits the most powerful. We are in this together.

Reformers of all stripes sometimes forget that the genius of our democracy is in sustaining the tensions and balances between various sources of power—including the power of us “ordinary” people. Think about how, by ignoring this notion of the public, those closest to children, their teachers and parents, have less and less direct influence on our schools. Or how in the name of professionalism, expertise, and efficiency we have narrowed the public’s involvement with its schools. For example, when I was born there were 300,000 school boards–one in virtually every little community that housed a school. Today with far more schools serving vastly more children for far more years, we have less than 15,000 boards and the most have very little power. In some cases, as in New York City, there is no longer any lay board for over a million school children.

Expertise comes in many different forms. Democracy need not ignore the value of expertise, but it does on the long run need to balance the forms of expertise that rule our lives. Teachers have one form of expertise and parents have another. Local community leaders hold still other expertise—representing as they do the wider community; and the same for state legislatures, and federal authorities. The same for professional organizations representing teachers in general and math teachers in particular, and so on. But if we cut off all those at the bottom from the decisions that are most vital because we think them ignorant or foolish, we have undermined the very concept of democracy which rests on tolerating what appears often ignorant and foolish: the voice of “the people.”

That language of “for, by and of the people” may sound sentimental, but be wary when you are told that we cannot “compete” in the world unless we give up our commitment to democratically controlled public schools as mere wishful thinking. And be cautious when we are urged to “be realistic,” because the “special interests” of ordinary people are more dangerous (i.e. more ignorant) than those of powerful people. It’s even rather comforting to realize that at heart it’s keeping such wishful thinking well grounded and effective that schooling is all about. The purpose of any school reform is to insure that good public schooling happens not just for the children of the wealthiest, but for the children of the least powerful as well. To level the playing field when it comes to both “wishes” and “effectiveness” is at the core of what we ask for from democratic public schooling. While the struggle to level the playing field can’t only take place in our school houses, at the very least we need to be sure we’re not using our schools to head in the opposite direction!

© 2006 Deborah Meier

Collaboration & Resistance

        September 2006

From the London Review of Books, some advice for the classroom teacher.

“One finds here reasons for not repeating the past century’s mistakes, for not falling back on false certainties,” concludes Jacques Attali in a book in French about Karl Marx. One finds school-relevant wisdom in the oddest places! (LRB, Jan 26, ’06)

Attali, the reviewer tells us, is a man who was never particularly attracted to Marxism, He writes about the Marx that wasn’t celebrated—the man, as the reviewer notes, whose life was lived out in “resolute and unbreakable dissent, [in] a recognition that absolute good is the source of absolute evil, and that theories are made to be contradicted by each successive turning of the human river, because responsibilities are never causes, and people are not classes, ” and that certainty is something to be wary about.

So too with kids, schools and all the “classes,” the categories, we try to place individual children, their families, teachers and schools in.

We are living in an age of new certainties even when it comes to how to organize our children’s daily lives, scripts for teaching that promise success for all (or your money back?) What’s needed is a new resolution to honor the importance of dissent, of theories that are continuously open to be questioned, and that look upon the past not for recipes (“evidence-based” or otherwise) but for insight, often insight into our mistakes.

One advantage of being old is that one can remember how words and phrases have changed meaning. When I grew up “collaboration” was a word reserved for traitors (to their class or nation), and “resistance” was the word for the anti-fascist underground. For the past few decades, in contrast, we have spoken of collaboration with glowing hopes and seen resistance as the negativity of laggard teachers, educationists and bureaucrats who refuse to embrace the future. I wonder.

We are enamored of “scientific truth” (except when it comes to global warming and evolution) when it comes to how to teach reading or math, and we rely on shoddy tools like standardized tests to determine scientific truth. We dismiss the fallible judgment of those who know each child best for the certainties of self-proclaimed Prestigious task-forces. We dismiss the objections of parents and teachers as “self-interested,” and ignore the “self-interest” of the certainty-pushers. Even as we laugh at the promises made by each food and diet fad based on apparently “hard evidence” we nervously ignore our inner voices when it comes to the “evidence” offered us about our children.

It’s time to restore the honor of “resistance.” Even if our resistance sometimes may be futile, and even wrong-headed. It may slow the steam-roller down. We need time, to take a deep breath and look closely at where and how we best understand the world about us—including those youngsters sitting in our classrooms (or in our families).

This is not a call for gloating (or despairing) over the present, or being patient about the sad state of so very many of our schools, but it is a call to not allow our justifiable impatience undermine our good sense and our ability to “just say ‘no’” to nonsense.

© 2006 Deborah Meier

In Education, Small Is Sensible

          June/July 2006

It’s not an antipathy to bigness that makes me a fervent champion of small schools. Rather it’s the conviction that unless we start thinking small, none of the recent consensus that has developed around needed school reforms is remotely feasible.

Small schools are not the answer, but without them none of the proposed answers stand a chance.

What teachers need is a direct voice in the decisions they implement. ”Teacher empowerment” is on everyone’s list of needed reforms.

But what does this mean in a school with 100 faculty members who rarely see each other work, don’t share the same students and differ widely in their pedagogical assumptions? We all agree that a good school can’t work without greater trust and support from families. But trust comes from parents, teachers and students knowing each other over a period of time. Parental apathy develops as a rational response to large, anonymous schools.

We agree that students fail to use ”higher-order thinking skills” — intellectual reasoning, engagement and curiosity. But we still place these neophyte intellects in schools where they rarely witness strong-minded, articulate adults defending ideas, exchanging views or making reasoned decisions. Hugeness works against lively intellectual intercourse.

No one denies that school reform won’t get far until we do something about drugs, violence and vandalism. But the solutions appropriate to a large anonymous school – metal detectors, quasimilitary pass systems – increase the depersonalization that contributes to antisocial behavior.

We claim that young people need settings that help them develop strong values and moral vision. But large schools operate, of necessity, on the basis of bureaucratic values. In a bureaucracy, the worst ”crimes” are those that create disorder.

Young people cannot learn democratic values in a setting that does not value individual achievement, that cannot notice triumphs and defeats, has no time to celebrate or mourn, or respond with indignation or recognition as the situation requires.

Small schools offer opportunities to solve every one of these critical issues. School-site empowerment can be tackled efficiently and naturally. Staff can meet to discuss issues and differences without complex governance structures; understanding the budget does not require an advanced degree in accounting. Looking in on colleagues and, sharing ideas, becomes possible.

In small schools, parents hear about the same teachers, students and families year after year in a variety of formal and informal ways. Trust builds and issues that arise get settled handily. Accountability to parents, as well as to the community, is a less knotty problem.

In a small school, strangers and strange behaviors stick out and can be addressed with dispatch. Trouble-making strangers can be identified and peer pressure has an inhibiting effect on violence or other antisocial behavior. It’s hardly surprising that private high schools in New York City have always had student bodies of under 500. That’s the right size.

Are small schools economically feasible? Huge school buildings may have been pennywise, but they are pound foolish. But just as the Empire State Building houses many companies, large school buildings can house many small schools.

That’s happening right now. In New York City’s District 4 in East Harlem, there are now 51 small schools in the same 19 buildings that contained 19 schools in 1974. Each cluster of small schools can choose how to share equipment and space, based on the trade-offs they want to make. District 4 schools have become nationally known as schools that are good to teach at and good to attend.

Yes, small schools, like small towns, can be small-minded. But they offer the flexibility and structural simplicity needed to tackle the complexity of learning.

Just as language immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language, immersion in a small, caring school community is the best way to learn what is a foreign language to too many of our young: the language of participation, that difficult public language necessary to becoming a member of a democratic society.

(originally printed in the New York Times, September 8, 1989)

Afterword

Guess what? That was written 17 years ago as we were, we thought, about to embark on a large-scale project to create an autonomous Learning Zone, consisting of networks of small empowered schools –supported by the Mayor, the Chancellor, the NYC School Board, the UFT and the State Commissioner of Education. It was funded by the Annenberg Foundation. The plan: putting small empowered schools at the center of the reform, and designing the rest based on what they most need rather than vice versa. A system to fit schools, not schools to fit a system. The 150 schools that would be involved were promised a waiver from all regulations that were “waivable,” and NYU and Columbia University offered to track the project’s work to see when and how it could be expanded to the rest of the system. At it’s heart was respect and trust for the constituents of each school, who together with self-chosen colleagues, would be the “deciders” about everything important, and would design a way to hold themselves accountable for their decisions, and their outcomes.

The project never got off the ground, interrupted by a change of administrations at the Board of Ed level. Instead the small schools involved just got some extra money, to spend as they pleased. The project helped many schools improve their practice and stabilize their more innovative work, but otherwise died a quiet death.

In the past few years the idea of small schools has made it back to NYC in a big way, and the words “autonomy” and “empowerment” have too. By an odd twist of fate the most top-down managerially-oriented administration in the history of NYC education has adopted all three of these Big Ideas as their own. So it will be interesting to see whether this is another Orwellian twist or the real thing; are we being offered an ever more tightly controlled system—tied closely to test-mandates and test-prep teaching, with everyone accountable to a single un-elected Chancellor—or a real opportunity to rethink paradigms of teaching and learning that have not served us well in an age when we demand that “all children” be truly well-educated? NYC now leads the nation in drop-outs, kids who have given up on the idea that schooling can work for them. The kind of re-engagement with schooling, the article above suggests, rests on a re-engaged faculty, and a community that sees itself as respected and that has the time and power in is hands to dream big.

Some of us are dubious about the latest NYC plan, following in the path of so many similar management schemes blossoming across the nation, all borrowed from the business world. It’s time for us to form an Educators for Better Business, to introduce ideas of accountability and innovation in a sadly lacking American business community who have sold out our industrial capacities for a mess of pottage. Write me if you want to join. Meanwhile, back at the schoolhouse, we need to hear from the voices of those most immediately affected.

© 2006 Deborah Meier

Parent Rap

          May 2006

Kids need to be keeping company with knowledgeable, skillful, interesting and strong-minded adults. They can only learn about grown-upness in the company of grown-ups. It all seems so obvious—and has been the basis for human civilizations as long as human society existed. No one ever imagined otherwise. Until recently.

Over the past half century we’ve invented something new. While the family has retreated as the educator of its young, the teacher of the habits of a lifetime, schools have replaced them. At least so we claim.

Meanwhile we’ve invented schools that occupy more and more of children’ lives, but in which adults are largely superfluous. Kids come to school to meet and mingle with their peers, plan their after-school social lives, exchange notes and gossip. The well-educated adults in school are merely passing anonymous entities—whose expertise rarely impresses the young. What it means to be a life-long learner becomes, as a result, largely rhetorical. Some kids are willing to play the schooling game and ostensibly do well by school, others lose interest; but almost none use the school to learn to be adults.  They simply don’t run into adults in ways they can learn from—unless, perhaps, they want to be teachers. A tiny enviable minority connect with the school’s adult community through after-school clubs, teams and seminar-like AP courses.

Meanwhile, another educational force—the world of advertising and the mass media—are engaged in an effort to win over the hearts and minds of the young, to help them become life long consumers. They have far greater resources—time, energy and drive—to influence the tight peer packs that our kids form—the small adultless “schools” they are immersed in. Even schools are increasingly part of the commercial market place. There are actually schools in this country that consider it their duty to curry favor with the world of commerce—in order to raise an extra buck. A 15 year old in Connecticut was expelled for challenging a McDonald’s representative on the quality of their food, another was suspended for wearing a t-shirt advertising a competing company. Menus sent out by the Boston public schools to all families are paid for by advertisements for junk food. Textbooks are covered by advertisements, courtesy the local school. The kids learn about the news of the world, sandwiched between Channel One advertising. A generation’s culture and values are being shaped. Fast-paced and reactive but rarely thoughtful.

Until we fix our schools, so that they are places where the elders are able to connect with the young in ways that can engage their hearts and minds, they are almost irrelevant. Kids are thus doubly abandoned. While parents need time to be together with their young, and the courage to drag them kicking and screaming along with them—they are often helpless to do so. They’re too busy surviving – and too intimidated by the media and the schools to rely on their own best judgment.

Parents (like teachers) are more and more asked to follow expertly designed scripts, to supervise rather than design the work kids do at home (as in class). We need to remember that we—as adults– are sufficiently expert at a whole lot of stuff that kids need—even those of us who are poor or disadvantaged. We need to remember that parents are not defective educators. Nor are educators defective learning machines. We just have our limits—re expertise and time. We shouldn’t imitate at home the didactic practices of schools. Quite the opposite—schools should be more like the home or like the familywhen we have the time and expertise to connect to our kids, one by one.

We need, in short, both strong schools and strong families—working together Because we have something that the world of advertising doesn’t have—us. Real versus virtual reality wins out if we give it a chance.

Fact gathering

Parents and teachers might look around and start counting how many adults the kids know well; at home and at school. Where and when do kids see adults interact, argue, compromise, and get the work of the world done? When and where do they get their cues about how to negotiate tough times, speak their minds, stand up for what matters—or hold back and regroup when necessary? How do they know how we sort out what counts and when—how we make decisions, when we call upon past knowledge (history), calculate the cost (math), look for alternate possibilities (science)? Little ones do this when they have a chance to play house—pretending they are grown-ups. But where do kids do it as they grow older?

Action steps

Instead of shipping the kids off to summer camp, maybe we can—with the support of the larger society– invent “camps” for kids and adults alike—where we indulge our passions and hobbies, and where they can do so too—in each other’s company. How might we organize communities so that kids join adult choral or musical groups, act in play alongside adults, build houses or mend fences together? Even as we watch the screen together, can we make sure that we carry on a running dialogue that links what we see and hear to the realities we know, joining our laughter and tears, and commentary, to theirs.. And in our spare time, we need to fight for a saner work schedule—shorter hours, more not less vacation. Back to the future: we need to fight for both decent wages and decent hours. Those two steps alone would do wonders for raising the next generation. (Plus universal health care.) School reform—even higher test scores– would naturally follow if we had our priorities right.

Public Schools: Whose Schools Are They?

          April 2006

Who do public schools belong to, and where should decisions be made is the topic we ought to be discussing. And aren’t. Except in a skewed way.

In a promotion for David Matthew’s new books  Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy,” in the Public Education Network’s NewsBlast the article states: “[there are] significant differences in the ways citizens view problems in the schools and the ways professional educators and policymakers talk about them.” The presumption is made that “education professionals” is a category that includes classrooms teachers and policy makers. It couldn’t be less true that they see themselves that way. In my own travels about I find parents and teachers are more likely to be saying the same thing, although they often don’t know it! They both think that those closest to the action–the kids and their daily lives–have least to say about what matters to them. Even local school boards are more and more paper organizations. Policy makers are usually talking from as distant a vantage point as they can, assuming that policy will be most powerful if it comes from the Federal Government, next most powerful from the states and on down the line. They are interested in finding “levers of change” that can by turning a single switch alter what happens way down the line inside a child’s heart and mind. So it’s hardly a wonder that the “policy” makers approaches often seem frustrating to those who want to see themselves as the makers of important decisions. But, citizens may be right in their view that teachers fall somewhere uncomfortably in-between, too often thinking of “the public” as a synonym for resources, not ideas or co-responsibility for thinking about teaching and learning.

The headline itself “Do Americans Believe The Public Schools Belong To Them?” is part of the obstacle, and few are those who go beyond the summary. The headline presumes there is a group called “Americans” who believe something, although PEN (and Matthews) above all knows that there are a range of beliefs, some of which use the same language to mean different things, and who–depending on how one asks the questions–can often say contradictory things. This phenomenon is what makes schooling–or all acts of learning–so fascinating. We can think we are saying one thing and be heard to mean many different things on matters as fundamental as that two and three “makes” five or that a verb connotes “action.” Simple words like “up” and “down” enter our vocabulary naturally at a very young age but can cause us trouble if not re-examined deeply year in and year out. Two citizens clamoring for more basics or more discipline can be imagining quite opposite means as well as ends. The trouble with trying to decide policy close to the ground is that such differences flare up and interfere with practice, precisely because they get to the heart of what is at stake. Papering over differences is easier to do the further up the ladder of power and status one goes, until we’ve lost what speaks to the passions of our citizenry. We breathe a sigh of relief. We can now talk about objective and neutral matters–such as test scores. Who can be against them being higher? In the process we’ve lost the real public–us as citizens, parents, kids, teachers.

Until we acknowledge and celebrate differences, and figure that disagreements are the lifeblood of democracy, not its downfall, we will perpetuate the divide between the arena of “policy” and the arena of “practice.” When all the power of coercion rests with the policy-making side of government then the actual implementers of policy fall back at best on trying to interpret what they aren’t invested in, or quietly resist and sabotage on behalf of what they do believe in, or worst of all numb their own minds and hearts in the presence of kids. A democratic society defines the act of social responsibility differently than a top-down corporate body or totalitarian state would. It’s not mostly a matter of pulling one’s weight in accomplished prescribed tasks, or even caring for others so that they too can pull their weight, or even having the skills needed to improve the nation’s (or organization’s) position within the world of other nation states, and on and on. None of these are evil goals, but the most difficult and counter-intuitive skills needed in a democracy require rethinking the way we divide policy from practice. We rest our democratic vision on the absurd and unprovable notion that ordinary people’s ideas must be respected–and not only respected, but carry weight equal to that of exceptional people That’s what “one person-one vote” means! And to make matters even more difficult, democrats argue that this can work even in a society in which “the people” come in so many different shapes and sizes, with very different underlying assumptions about matters of deep importance. We pass over the demands that such beliefs make upon us far to swiftly, and at their heart is precisely the issue that we need to be talking about.

The trouble is, we are unlikely to take the time it needs to unravel the dilemmas posed by democracy, much less the time it would take to respond to them so that the discussion moves forward, not just goes back and forth between alternating fads. If we hear each other out only in sound-bytes rather than conversations around real live local schools and local school “systems” we may appear to make progress, but never stop to consider whether it’s progress toward what matters most to us. When schooling occupied a minor interruption in our early years we could better afford to ignore a discussion of ends. But ironically it as schools have become more critical that this conversation has moved further and further from “the people.”

Education for What?

          March 2006

A few years ago I started speeches by suggesting that the time would soon come when “big schools” were re-discovered. There’s nothing more fickle in the world than the successive reform waves that occur in the field of education. Rereading David Tyack (e.g. Mangers of Virtue and The One Best System) should be a must, alongside Richard Rothstein’s The Way Things Were. I keep the latter on my night table to soothe my sometimes irritated nerves when confronted with another old nostrum in new guise. Fortunately, most of the reforms never really get practiced, we just talk about them.

In part our fickleness is due to a long-term failure to confront the question of “why public education anyhow—especially for 13 plus long years?” Our failure to do so wasn’t so critical when schooling only took up a small part of our lives and when most of the important stuff we learned elsewhere. It’s dangerous today. We settle for asking —“who’s doing best?” and “what works?” Historically our answers were usually based on nostalgic anecdotes; but of late we are getting more and more pseudo-scientific, i.e. we use more numbers. Our answers to both questions–“who is best” and “what works” rest almost exclusively on test scores, which are among the least sensitive tools invented for answering either question. If we’ve defined “success ” and “works” as just doing well on test scores then of course its a tautology—just another way of saying the same thing. But down deep the answers don’t match our desires, and so we’re always open to another cure-all.

To make matters worse, the tests have gotten worse too. Bad as the “old tests” were—with their bell-curved norms in which by definition half had to be scored “below” and half “above grade” level—the new ones, often referred to as criterion referenced tests, are simply embarrassing, with the norms set on the basis of politics rather than statistics.

There’s an old joke which I wish I could tell well. But you probably know it. It’s about the man stumbling around under the street light looking for his keys. A passerby joins him and asks, “Exactly where were you when you lost them?” Our hapless searcher points across the street. “Then why are we looking here?” asks the passerby. “Because this is where the light is.” And that’s pretty much the answer I get when I ask why we are using test scores to find out about student achievement. It’s the stuff we have.

So? Get better stuff, I answer. And in the meantime don’t use test scores as a pseudonym for achievement—it’s not accurate and it’s even ludicrous. It’s only cheap. But getting better stuff requires thinking about what we are trying to get evidence about? For example, in the schools I like best the answers have something to do with the kind of society we hope kids will help us nourish and support when they get out of school—which is not merely a question of finding their own job market niches, but shaping the way we design the future, including world of work, the “economy” as well as the social fabric of our lives, and even the future of the planet. Nourishing democracy, for example, requires activity not just rhetoric. It requires judgment, weighing pros and cons, trade-offs. It requires assuming responsibility for ones ideas and practices. Do our graduates show signs of engaging in such work–now? In the schools I’d like my own kids to go to they’d align their practices to such ends. There are schools out there like that. And if my ends aren’t yours? If you’d put more weight on x instead of y? It’s okay as long as you are willing to look kids in the eye and say: these are our expectations, here’s how and why we arrived at them and here’s how we’ll all know if you’ve met them. Within a wide range of possibilities, let there then be choice. Let us try and persuade each other not just by arguing in a vacuum but by example.

At the very least, there’d be fewer fads if those closest to the action–kids, parents, teachers and communities–had the chance to work year after year connecting means and ends, digging deeper instead of covering our… bases; doing better at what we think matters instead of switching horses every few years.

It’s probably true that closing health and income gaps would be a quicker and easier way to close testing gaps–and maybe even real achievement. There’s some pretty strong statistical evidence for such a claim. But that’s another story that no one these days wants to hear about, we’re too busy designing methods to keep kids’, their parents’ and their teachers’ noses to the grindstone.