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Best for What?

November 2007

I was feeling sad about the Yankees, and worse about Joe Torre. He vindicated my belief that “good guys” can be winners, and he was a good guy in just the way I like my leaders to be. He believed that treating everyone with respect was a winning strategy—or more likely he just was unable to treat people any other way. I actually suspect the latter. Why I am a Yankee fan is a story in itself that goes back about three quarters of century. Why I have remained one in my old age has something to do with Joe Torre.

One has to fight hard these days to “justify” the kind of stance Torre took. You have to prove that respectfulness “works.” At least in educational circles. (It was nice to see headlines in the NY Post and Daily News that considered it disgraceful to treat Torre disrespectfully regardless of rationales. It wasn’t letting him go that was the problem for sports writers. Rather it was the terms offered — an incentive bonus for winning. In education “it works” equals getting good test scores, and the means used to get them are not questioned. The assumption that only money will motivate us–kids or teachers–to do our best seems okay in the educational business but questionable in major league sports?

I just got back from a Common Good conference in D.C. about “restoring respect to our classrooms.” One focus was on how children take cues from the way others treat their families, their teachers, and, of course, themselves. What worries me is that I am running into too many anxious parents these days who start looking at their 2 and 3 year olds through the same skewed lens—what “works best.” They’re looking for successful short-term strategies, without exploring what matters to them and why, or what the obvious moral and social side-effects will be of different strategies.

Argument in favor of early childhood play often rests on arguments about it being a good “investment” in our economy, or producing improvements in test scores. Possibly. Even my favorite argument—that preserving a playful childhood is critical to building a democratic, respectful and inventive culture needs to be looked at with care. Maybe I, too, am using little children on behalf of my own set of values?

Which is why I wish we would stop all the accountability talk and spend a bit more time on deepening the discussion about “what” we are accountable for—what the values are that lie beneath the practice. Acknowledging that perhaps we don’t all agree—for some our standing in the marketplace is as legitimate as my concern for democracy. Fair enough? Are there nevertheless some things that we should all be accountable for? On what grounds? We do after all have a pledge of allegiance that claims that there is something “for which we stand.”

When Ted Sizer started the “standards” discussion 20 years ago, he was trying to open a conversation. Instead it got cut short, and replaced with—standardized tests. Period.

Until we take the time to have that discourse, as a nation, we are open to incredible abuses in the name of improving test scores. Requiring kids to remain silent at all times unless spoken to by an adult “works” a friend told me—sadly. Mandatory testing 4 year olds in order to pick out the top 5% makes sense to others. Paying kids for test results. Paying teachers for their students’ test results. And on and on.

We’re trying so hard to get a lot done at once that we have plunged ahead with Reform without having that conversation about purposes. That is perhaps why it is easy to forget that throughout most of human history leisure and security were deemed the “standard” definition of a good life. Both are viewed as risky luxuries in today’s schools—and in society! Without leisure that kind of conversation abut purposes cannot happen.

© 2007 Deborah Meie

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