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Who to Trust?

        February/March 2007

This is a three part essay on why the solution to the long-standing “crisis” in both education and democracy are intimately connected and, why when in doubt, we need to try more democracy, not less. Part I is on why short-cuts are not an answer; Part II on what the “crisis” really is. and Part III, on scaling up the right reforms.

Part I

These days, I alternately wring my hands in despair and find good cause for cheer! I’m a sucker for a visit to a good school and a wonderful classroom. And I seek the latter sufficiently often to keep my spirits high. However, I’m nervous whenever someone tells me we’re in a state of crisis (even if I find myself doing so on occasion too). When someone yells “crisis!” the next sentence is usually a call for everyone to follow their grand old/new idea.

I remember an expression from my youth about being wary: When someone tells you to trust them… check for your wallet! Decisions over what goes on in schools has been moving further away from those close to the kids because, we are told, we cannot trust them. Instead we should trust those at the State or Federal level, corporate think tanks, and private consultants. Why? Schools are in crisis, and only drastic changes mandated at the highest levels can fix things.

Recently it isn’t even just one curriculum fad after another, but one “systemic” fad after another. The latest is mayoral control as a means for restructuring the whole kit and caboodle. Some dreamers see mayoral control as insufficient and argue for State and Federal control and privatization—all at the same time (see last month’s column). In short, “experts” are lined up to tell us that our messy attempts to make schools responsive to their publics (lay and professional) have failed us. Given the grave economic and moral “crisis” facing our entire civilization, the time has come, they argue, to admit defeat and turn our schools over to other more astute managers. The “for the people” slogan is okay the experts argue, but it’s the “of “and “ by” that’s too complicated for “the people.” A report from Center for Public Education (sponsored by the National Association of School Boards and private corporations and individuals) suggests we might be wise to “just say no” to these calls for centralized control.

I reread an essay by the critic and democratic socialist Irving Howe written a half century ago in Dissent magazine in which he described our current troubles and it occurred to me it could have been written yesterday. It may be that crisis is the state of the human species in modern times, or that we cry “crisis” when we hope to mobilize folks for action without a lot of inefficient collective thought. I’ve been reminding people for more than a decade to buy Richard Rothstein’s The Way Things Were and to keep it by their bedside to reread frequently when tempted to use the word “crisis.” I was not surprised, therefore, by the findings of Center’s report: Our public schools are not the worst nor have they been getting worse over time. Neither should we be yelling ”The sky is falling!” nor is “Dr. Pangloss” right that all is well, notes a Washington Post editorial.

(So take my alarms of late about early childhood with an awareness that when I first started teaching in mid 60s I was also alarmed at the absence of playfulness—what I view as essential precursor to all serious intellectual life—in most kindergartens. So, it was never the way it once was in the good old days. I recently reread a 1966 article I wrote in Dissent called “Head Start or Dead End” on just this subject—which I could have written yesterday!)

Democracies may, on occasion, feel it necessary to give way to less democratic solutions “in a crisis.” However, unless we’re thinking of giving up the kind of balance of powers that has always been at the heart of the American democratic experiment, we better not risk giving it up in the very institutions designed to teach the next generation about democracy. When we hand over our children to “the state” and renounce our direct power to influence the way they are raised in our schools the loss may be more than we had intended.

Some reformers agree that the risk of a highly centralized government system of schooling is too great, and suggest a private free-market solution—competition solves all. Since these reformers are, however, also determined to measure everything by test scores it’s odd that they haven’t noticed a simple truth. Neither private schools nor charter schools as “systems” have shown any evidence of better test scores than local public schooling (if you keep the demographics constant). Individual schools of each sort have shown promise, but successful schools by anybody’s definition are found in every kind of system so far invented. (Perhaps both sets of reformers need to rethink whether standardized test scores ought to be the proper definition of success).

While the experts search for “the system” that will produce good schools, an older radical proposition for reform has been abandoned—promoting and nourishing the conditions that the best schools thrive in. What are these conditions? Schools that rely on the power of their own constituencies, their own parents, teachers and young people, plus a watchful and loving lay stewardship. This is a common ingredient that runs across almost all schools that “beat the odds.” It’s trust of those close to the action—with space for disagreement—that keeps a democratic culture alive. It’s schools that connect with their immediate public, not pull away from it, that serve kids best. And conveniently lead to better educated students!

We have very good reason to be impatient with reforms de jure. Every false search for the ideal “system” is time lost from the real struggle that must be pursued.

Part II

  Last weekend I spent 3 days with 100 new and old friends at the annual retreat of the North Dakota Study Group—in Illinois. It brought back many memories of how and when I got into this business. It also reminded me of what the culture of a strong and trusting school is like. We mirrored what we sought over the weekend in a way few adult education conferences do. It also reminded me of what I found when I first began my 40-something years inside our urban public schools.

It began when I became a sub in southside Chicago schools. It was quickly clear that kids spent too many mind-numbing years being mis-taught—above all to distrust their own smarts and common sense. Fortunately many held on to their own ideas, but unfortunately they didn’t learn much about how to sift through competing opinions, how to speak up cogently on behalf of their ideas, and above all how to enjoy the “having of wonderful ideas” (as my friend Eleanor Duckworth so aptly put it). They even grew to distrust “ideas” per se, their own as well as others. We see this in the easy anti-intellectual rhetoric so pernicious to democratic life. And this attitude that thrives alongside the idea that “academics” is what is “good for the children.” Equally, they didn’t learn anything about community, what it might mean to trust each other. In fact, “trusting each other” was a form of solidarity that usually expressed itself in anti-school protest.

Despite or because of all this, I found school teaching a fascinating lifetime’s work. While I figured even the most talented and well-meaning teachers weren’t going to “change the world” at least we could learn to “do no harm.” The fundamental changes we could work for as teachers were those that restored the bonds needed between public institutions and the publics they serve—from classroom to school to the larger world. That’s what the current wave of reformers have lost sight of.

Forty-five years later my impatience remains as great as my patience. They cannot be “led to the promised land,” said a wise Eugene V. Debs a century ago. “We must lead ourselves.” But we can do our best to persuade and be persuaded, whether it’s math or history. We must do this one self-governing community and school at a time, just as each teacher must do the same one child at a time, within the context of a stimulating and loving schoolhouse.

If we only want to close the test score gap (and I say “only” carefully), the simplest solution is to produce greater socio-economic equality and leave schools alone altogether. Close the income gap, the health care gap, the incarceration gap. We lead the developed world with the largest gaps in all these areas. But there’s nothing wrong with trying to create better schools at the same time.

With democracy in mind it’s not hard to see that putting kids from the age of 5 on in institutions that are organized to be distrustful of children’s competence does harm. Equally dangerous, and central to such distrust of children, is the fact that these institutions distrust the competence and integrity of their caretakers, both their teachers and their parents (above all their mothers). When I told a group of teenage boys many years into my career that they had to leave the gym where I “caught them”— playing, basketball unsupervised at 4:30pm, I defended my action by saying “it wasn’t safe.” As the boys complied, one turned to me and asked, genuinely curious, whether I thought it would be safer for them to play ball on the street. I was taken aback by the realization that I was, of course, referring to my own safety as the principal, not theirs. In my sloppy phrasing I had hit upon an uncomfortable truth about our relationship to our students. The trust of adults is critical to the amazing learning curve of very young children at home. Similar forms of trust are just as critical to maintaining the learning curve at school. To trust us they must believe we put their safetybefore our own.

We can’t ever bridge the trust gap entirely, nor should we. Trust is by its nature provisional, based on experience and relative power, gained over time. Teachers are never quite parents, nor should they try to be. However, in some schools the gap is greater than others. Even if we can’t tell, kids can. Which is why very young children, having had limited experience and little power, most need trustworthy caretakers. But we can do a lot better if we focus on the nature of the relationships between the parties to schooling in which “trust” is even an apt concept, rather than on overblown rhetoric about trust that leads wise people to reach for their wallet.

One of the newcomers at the North Dakota Study group commented ruefully that this was one of the rare times in her life when she felt completely comfortable with the fact that the doors had no locks. Someday, so it will be in our schools.

Part III: Scaling Up

Now on to the really tough question: how do I think lots of local decision-making can produce a “system” of good schooling for many, most or all children. As a result it’s also longer than usual, and a lot more tentative.

To start with, I have no plan capable of reproducing the kind of schooling I like best, because I haven’t convinced most teachers or parents or citizens that I’m right.  Nor have I a way of reproducing pretty good schools anytime soon,  much less by law!  Anymore than I know how to produce a good society.  But since I have a more modest goal, I have a few ideas.  My more modest goal?  Schools that contribute to the equalization of power by providing all children with more powerful schools. That in turn means schools in which kids keep company with more powerful adults—both in terms of families and teachers.

However, I also know that the only way I’m going to get any closer to having more schools that I like is to respect the decision-making of such powerful self-governing schools. Than means they won’t all use their power my way.

But what mandates might I recommend that stack the deck a little on my side?

First off, I’d get rid of all existing laws that conflict with any new ones below!   That would mostly leave laws that pertain to safety and civil rights (e.g. equitable treatment to all regardless), and to providing money.

I’d suggest we “pass a law” that requires all schools to have an elected board of governors, and that this Board discuss both means and ends. The law would require that they publish their conclusions and revisit them regularly, along with any evidence (data is the latest word) that justifies their claims to be living up to their published rationale. Each school would need to develop a system for describing student achievement—their evidence—that can help its own Board and constituents see how well its doing, disaggregated by race, color, ethnicity, financial means and gender. I’d be sure to put some money behind these requirements.

I’d recommend that we “pass a law” that sets into motion various forms of external review of such a document and of the workings of the school—including an inspectorate that every x years spend a week in the school and reports on its findings to the constituency the school serves. This public document then becomes the basis for further conversation about the school, and about its means and ends. This might require some form of local networking.

Wherever possible I’d also “pass a law” that enables families to have a range of choices among schools—all of whom operate under public scrutiny.

Who should pass these laws? Public bodies—local and/or state-based systems. I’d even pass a law that says that the leadership of the school serves under the auspices of a lay board, one that includes teachers, parents, local citizens and kids.

I’m sufficiently open to various forms of networking—required or voluntary—as we learn more about how such systems work best.

I’d also pass a law that requires schools to provide a salary for its faculty that assumes that they are spending the equivalent of x additional hours in various forms of professional work—on behalf of their own class, discipline, school, etc.

I’d also mandate that all federal monies be allocated on a weighted basis dependent on whether the state has narrowed the gap between the monies spent on its most wealthy and least wealthy school.  How they do that might vary.  Federal funds then would insure that the kids most in need actually get more, as they should, not just cushioning the difference; furthermore the law would require that all kids are served in ways that do not discriminate or segregate by race, social/economic class, color, creed , academic ability, or gender. And that all localities provide disaggregated data regarding graduation, future college attendance, daily attendance and suspensions along with other pertinent evidence of student achievement.

Finally, I’d pass a law to provide a wide range of ways in which the education of teachers be a national priority—including an apprentice-based system of induction; and that it be funded on a state and national level with special regard to hard-to-staff localities.

I could also happily tolerate occasional mandated high quality standardized national testing (like the old NAEP was) on a sampled basis, that can be used to get the Big Picture—statewise and federally, and that is also disaggregated as noted above.  Not to control funds or schools, but strictly to inform. We need to put the best minds to work on how we might provide reliable and interesting data to help us learn, not to help us reward and punish.

However, I’d pass none of these laws until I had explored all of them on a small and human scale, and encouraged others to adapt and adopt those that fit their circumstances. I’d opt for a bit of messiness and gradual change as the old ways gave way to the new, and communities embraced the new responsibilities each in their own way.

Of course, when all is said and done, we’d need to scale up all the other supports families across the nation need if we are to close the gaps that matter. To imagine that schooling can close the gaps that society as a whole is widening daily is dangerous policy, a policy that will inevitably lead us to blame the victims of our inequities, not the perpetrators.

As readers find flaws in the above, I may have to start over again! For those interested, read the chapter in my book In Schools We Trust, on Scaling Up.

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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