I used to, but now…?

Dear friends,

My working table is a mess—piles upon piles of clippings and interesting articles to comment on. I watched a TV show today about pathological “hoarders.” I think that I am one—all the stuff I know I’ll want to use someday in the future.

When I started blogging for Education Week with Diane Ravitch I thought, ah hah—at last. I’ll have plenty of time and space to say everything. But oddly enough it hasn’t had that effect at all. Everything connects with something else and eventually the pile is so huge I can’t use any of it. What’s such fun about education as a topic is that everything leads to so many connections.

In a way, this reminds me of the way a good curriculum develops. Almost any starting point can lead on to so many connections, and by the time we have to call it quits we’ve barely scratched the surface. It turns out that virtually everything is interesting, and that most interesting things find a way of reminding us of other interesting things, that in turn influence how we think…and so on.

Of course, one must make decisions in life as in the classroom. Which means we are all the time acting on our latest and best hunches, and hoping that in the process we’ll uncover new possibilities for when we come back to the same questions again.

This was precisely the basis of our curriculum design at Mission Hill. We designated some broad topics—three per year—and then jumped into them. Every four years we more or less came back to the same questions—when we were all four years older and wiser. In this spirit I recently reread several pieces I wrote for Dissent magazine in the 60s. Then I began to reread the short essays I sent home to parents after Central Park East started in the 70s. What changes could I detect over these 40-50 years?

Why was I so much more optimistic back then? When I think about how discouraging those years were–Vietnam, the bankruptcy in NYC, etc–why do I feel things may be worse now? Many of the issues I now wring my hands over were surely worrisome then too. Like standardized testing. Like top-down decision making, passive elementary school teachers, the shortcomings of the UFT (my union) and the patronizing put-downs I received from folks when they discovered I was an early childhood teacher.

So when I saw Harvard professor Richard Elmore’s essay in the Harvard Education Letter (Jan/Feb 2010) entitled “I Used to Think…and Now I Think” I decided it was time for me to do the same. The most enlightening/amusing point in Elmore’s essay came early: how the idea of consciously revisiting one’s old views was so thoroughly rejected by his colleagues. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall.

Says Elmore:
1. I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think that policy is the problem.

2. I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices. And now I think that people’s practices determine their beliefs.

3. I used to think that public institutions embodied the collective values of society. And now I think that they embody the interests of the people who work in them.

I found myself agreeing with many of his thoughts as he developed them on all three topics. But least of all about #3. So I’ll start my own list with his three. In my next letter you’ll get my “I used to…and now” thoughts. But a few hints.

Grandiose policies avoid the realities of practice. But they are both less and more important than I once thought. The practices/beliefs conundrum intrigues me. When Elmore quotes poet Yeats, who said he increasingly saw the world “with a cold eye and a hot heart” I took a deep sigh… Me too. But unlike Elmore, my heart still goes out to all the constituents of our schools—children, their families, and their teachers. I’m less worried than he appears to be about some kinds of “self interest.” I still believe that we can develop practices and beliefs that bring together the self-interests of at least those most directly affected by schooling. The connecting link between community, family, teacher and child does not seem unbridgeable. I still believe in our potentially shared interest in…well, almost anything and everything, if we believe ourselves powerful enough to have an impact. And finally, I still have a tendency to worry when a “Crisis” is declared and quick solutions demanded. Democracy works best when we have the leisure to do some hard thinking together.

More later….

10 Responses

  1. Deb,I think CREDO over at Stanford is using this approach. They used to think (in their June study) that charters were doing worse than neighborhood schools. Now (in latest study) they think they're doing much better. You have to respect their open-mindedness and empirical flexibility.

  2. Dear Debbie,Yes, Elmore has insights but I wonder if this is an American problem and or a simplistic view without looking outside the US for new answers.I am in India,learning about education done by community health workers with mothers and children.They combine the spiritual, the educational and the nurturing to offer their young strength to endure and create health.Is this what the US needs?Evangeline (Van)

  3. "2. I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices…." This, I believe, is the primary reason for our paralysis. We load our journals and other presentations with beliefs many (maybe most) of which are perfectly sound, but nothing happens. There are reasons for institutional inertia beyond the control of classroom teachers, but I suspect the fundamental problem for most is an inability to translate theory into practice. So deeply embedded is the procedural status quo, it limits imagination and creativity. Years ago, when writing a couple of textbooks at the request of Prentice-Hall, they agreed to use their sales force to identify teachers willing to pilot specific classroom instructional activities. Those activities didn't allow teachers to "teach" in the usual sense of the word, so they HAD to change their percepton of their role to continue. Of the 50 or so teachers across the US who agreed to participate, some backed away. But many of those who didn't said the experience had permanently altered their approach to teaching. This is what has led me to write a course of study that nudges teachers toward the role of "co-learner." This is what led me to write a course

  4. Deb:As I said to you when I saw you recently, I don't know why an increased pessimism is warranted. In my lifetime we have watched as education became a sustained interest at the highest levels of government, we have seen a science of learning unfold so that 'best practice' can now, like medicine, be increasingly demanded; we no longer define 'success as good schools with good demographics; there is a heightened attention to value added. And most people I work with have a far more sophisticated view of the role of design, assessment, and the use of feedback in learning.Put differently, if education wants to be a real profession and get the national attention it deserves then it has to mix it up in the policy world – and be held accountable. And on balance I think it is a good thing that education has been in the public eye for the last 25 years.

    • Maybe we see the goals of education differently? I think the special attention is an effort to obscure the rel causes of our growing inequity, the financial crisis, the jobs being outsourced, etc. It been an effective distraction from talking about poverty and inequality.
      I just found these comments, so, how are you all?

  5. Marion Brady's comments come close to my own perspective on these issues, viz. the "institutional" aspect of education, and the elusive–actually prohibited goal of nurturing the "self-learner".K-12 education/schooling is an institution. What is the sole and primary goal of any institution? To perpetuate itself. The quality or day-to-day vicissitudes of the classroom are superseded by the overarching goal of the institution. It matters little what some teachers do in their classrooms–most of their make-a-difference victories are achieved in spite of their institutional role.What surprises me in DM's post, "I used to, but now…" is why she does not see the great need of young people to feel and act upon their interests, to reach for knowledge and expertise in areas meaningful to them, when they arise. (We used to call this "just-in-time learning"; but alas, there is no time or venue for this: the institution forges ahead to meet its own goals/needs, according to its own timeline, dragging its minions along no matter where they are in their learning.All of the standards and curriculum goals are established by stakeholders other than the learners; it is no surprise that the learners, by grade 8 have taken either a passive stance toward their own knowledge, or a passive-aggressive stance ("make me learn"), which they carry with them into adulthood where they fail to provide the base of critical thinkers and activists we desperately need to improve our society and culture.

  6. I welcome this thoughtful posting. After almost 40 years of teaching writing to enhance democracy, I found myself working with science students applying to medical school and Ph.D. programs. Many of them had succumbed to our leaders' rhetoric of certainty as the only way to write about themselves. "I used to think…but now I think…" turns out to be a terrific heuristic to combat this assumption that uncertainty or changing one's mind is a sign of weakness. It also turned their attention to what they'd learned as science students but hadn't thought worth writing about. With George Bush the rhetoric of certainty was a profound national embarrassment; when Obama embraces that rhetoric, he challenges us to consider whether a constructive pedagogy and social demeanor (which I think he represents) can be successful in the White House. –Don Rothman

  7. I used to think…that having a department of education at the federal level was helpful and rejoiced when Pres. Carter created it.But now…I no longer feel this way and am talking to folks about starting a movement of educators committed to its dissolution.

  8. A few responses from Deb.To Mike K–"ha ha," but a good reminder. Actually, they were studying a different set of schools, as I recall. But you raise another question: is inconsistency always to be avoided?Marion. Have you followed u with them. Could they sustain that radical insight in practice within the context of their work for long?Grant. This sounds like an argument I always have with my brother. But it's also related to how we use the word "profession". Actually the parallels with medicine cannot be sustained for long given the much larger consensus on what constitutes good health. Furthermore I think doctors actually practice more like teachers–for good and bad reasons. I also think that when they stop doing this, we will not be in better hands.Sharon. Thanks. Now we're touching upon another area where I used to" and "now I" applies! I thin I've gone too far because essentially I'm still in your camp – re the emergent curriculum – especially for young children. But within any framework, there's usually a lot of room for what you describe.Van – unfortunately, we're looking abroad but at the wrong answers.After spending a few days working in Springfield, Mass. for Coakley, I'm wondering about the same, Don.And finally! Yes. I was always a bit worried about the Dept. of Education. I generally doubted that they'd be on my wave length. That's where perhaps Diane Ravitch and I have most disagreed.

  9. Dear Debbie,I started my teaching career at CPESS in the mid-90s and then went on to teach at East Side Community High School with Jill Herman; though at the time I thought there was so much to do to improve the work of NYC's small schools, I now look back on that time as a golden era for small schools and educational reform in NYC more broadly.I, too, read Richard Elmore's letter with great interest. Many years of mentoring and coaching in small schools, and 1 PhD later, I find myself struggling to see where I can do useful, meaningful work on school reform. It feels like all of the policy and politics of education are going in the wrong direction. I do not have as many years of perspective as you, but yes, things do feel really bad, and I was so struck to hear you say that they feel worse than the 70s. So: now what?

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