Interview With John Merrow

(Originally published on “Taking Notes: Thoughts on Education from John Merrow” July 14, 2009)

John Merrow: Just about everyone seems to favor national or common standards: The Obama Administration, nearly every state, lots of prominent superintendents, and many others. Are you feeling like a lone wolf, a voice crying in the wilderness? Why are you so strongly opposed?

Deborah Meier: When I came back to NYC in 1966, I was told that “no one sends their children to public school,” even though more than a million children were attending public schools. “No one,” like “everyone” in your initial question, is in the eye of the beholder. But I am sure “everyone” on the inside of this debate thinks the debate has been resolved. Even they will be surprised down the line as the “details” get worked out. But above all, they are wrong about “everyone” just as my friends were about “no one.”

JM: Touché. But you didn’t answer the question.

DM: My opposition probably reflects the views of the founders of our Constitution and the vast majority of Americans up to….yesterday (so to speak). The current DOE/Duncan agenda—Mayoral control, and teachers paid by test score results were never even mentioned in Obama’s political campaign. (And recent studies indicate that mayoral control has produced almost no statistical changes in its two most prominent trials—NYC and Chicago, and as yet there is no shred of evidence regarding paying teachers by test scores.) What is interesting is how in such a short time we went from practically no one agreeing with such reforms—much less assuming it was an imminent plan!—to its being official policy. So too with a national curriculum and national testing, although it is already in the works! The process itself chills me. The “behind the scenes” nature of the decision-making by interlocking circles of “influential” interests on matters affecting the minds of our children appalls me.

JM: Tell me more.

DM: I think it is dangerous to the fabric of democracy. The nation has had a relatively long history with this fragile and possibly counter-intuitive idea, and its meaning is again in danger of being ‘shallowed out.’ I am in favor of reinvigorating the democratic underpinnings of our nation—which include the ideal of local control, respect and trust for ordinary citizens, and on and on—rather than seeking to “race to the top” by cutting schools off from their roots—their community. If any institution needed to remain close to those who are most affected, it is our public schools, because of their subtle influence the mindset of future citizens. Yet we act as if this were not true.

JM: I didn’t realize you were so upset.

DM: You’re probably right: I am! For starters, it undermines my own work in public education over the past 45 years. I am further dismayed, but not surprised, that the people who are to be entrusted with implementing this have already been named, and include largely the very test-makers and test-defenders that will be enriched by this work—Achieve, SAT and ACT. There is no talk about the local conversations that would need to go into such a novel task, nor the kinds of expertise that such work must involve—expertise close to the ground—not to mention the actual subject matter experts who might inform the test makers. They are all now outsiders, at best “looking on.” “Don’t call us, we’ll call you if needed.”

JM: How would you go about it, if you were in charge?

DM: What we needed first was a conversation about the purposes of our enormous dedication and investment in public education. If the purpose is not merely to keep kids out of the labor market, or to sort them into their future roles, then what is it? Apparently we claim to have reached a consensus: the aim of public schooling is to produce students, be first in standardized tests on the unproven theory that this will allow us to economically better compete economically. (First it was the now defunct USSR, then Japan, then…Singapore and Finland!) We have made what can be measured cheaply (and thus is easily ranked) the definition of being “well-educated.” We have defined “achievement” and even “performance” to scores on paper-and-pencil tasks, largely of the multiple choice variety, without any evidence that this is wise policy, or will produce either a stronger economy or a stronger democracy. (Or even stronger college performance!)

We’ve linked test results to economic health without asking ourselves whether the collapse of the American economy—above all its capacity to build, make and invent—was due to the low test scores of the average working American or because of decisions made by a small high-scoring elite? Is a test-driven education the most likely path for producing an inventive and feisty citizenry—the kind that has been the envy of the world for generations?

I like small hometown banks, and so I also like schools small enough to fail as they learn on the job. I want a federal government that insures that we spend the same amount of our public resources for all children, and that provides parents, kids, communities and teachers with high quality uncorrupted information about the relationship between means and ends. And that tackles the family poverty that handicaps too many kids. Democracy is “unnatural” and fragile precisely because at a whiff of trouble we imagine that the problem lies with “the people” and the solution therefore lies in finding a knight in white/black armor—or a quick fix gimmick. We need to decide if democracy is a luxury or a fundamental basic skill.

Wow. That’s more than you wanted to know.

JM: The Charter Movement is also picking up steam. Is this a good thing? What is the downside?

DM: Like a national curriculum enforced by a national test, charter schools have had a very short history. They were sold, and I bought into them, as a public means of trying out innovative ideas. Central Park East and Central Park East Secondary School (and approximately 80-100 like them in NYC) and the Pilot schools in Boston were precursors to charters. I thought of them as exciting labs—‘mom and pop’ stores—with a willingness to take risks. But instead I have noticed that few charters are using their freedom to differ much from existing practice—except for paying teachers less and requiring longer hours. Not surprising, since most charters are “run” by people without educational experience or expertise, much less “dreams,” they have spawned their own large bureaucracies, with their own top-down operations—with even less regard for parents and teachers than existing traditional urban school systems. They are adventures in “entrepreneurship” devoid of expertise (and unions). We have lost belief in real expertise, and invested it in the magical thinking of a generation of financial and legal Ivy League gurus.

The incontrovertibly nonpartisan (or pro-charter) study done at Stanford demonstrates that only 17% of charter school students in the 16 studied states performed better than their matched control group, 37% did worse, and the remainder about the same. If this were a drug being tested, it wouldn’t pass muster. It might certainly suggest that we not multiply their numbers until we understand the existing data better—or sought alternate forms of data.

JM: On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good? What is its greatest contribution? Worst effect?

DM: The greatest contribution of NCLB was to make everyone talk as though their primary concern was the schooling of poor and minority kids, rather than writing them off as genetically inferior. The greatest damage is that it has turned back the clock on what were burgeoning efforts to rethink schooling was picking up steam in the late 80s and early 90s. Secondly, in ignoring the role of other societal forces upon our poor and minority students we pulled the rug out from under efforts to build a more equitable economic structure (economic inequalities have grown rapidly during the NCLB years so that they are now larger than they’ve been since 1928).

We have never been so test-score conscious in our history—starting with 4 and 5 year olds—and we’ve never shown less trust in those closest to our children and more for those furthest. There may still be room for serious thinking about what it means to be well educated in precisely those upper-income communities and schools where it is least desperately needed. In fact if we looked at the schools our leaders actually send their own kids to rather than listening to what they propose for other people’s children we would be on the fast track to serious reform.

I went to my 60th high school reunion last week. It has been for more than a hundred years, and is today, a pioneer in progressive education—for the rich. The old or new NCLB will not do them much harm. But unlike today’s reformers, I still believe that Fieldston/Ethical Culture schools would have been good for every child whose families wanted to send them there. CPE and CPESS, like Mission Hill, were successful “experiments” in doing just that in the public sphere. The graduates of CPE/CPESS are gathering July 17th to reminisce, celebrate and be heard. You are invited to join them.

JM: I can’t tell whether you are still optimistic. Are you?

DM: Most days I am! Teaching has reinforced my belief in human possibility. I have rarely met a 5 year old whose intellectual capacity did not astound me. We need schools that challenge this curiosity for all our children and for the adults who keep company with them. There is a natural thirst for fairness, as well as for wonderment, curiosity and even empathy that suggests that we will keep trying to become a better world. Losing now and then is not the end of the journey. (But, on occasion, I want it RIGHT NOW, while I’m still around—which may be a bit less likely.)

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