The Conversation

Dear friends,

A whirlwind month visiting friends and colleagues around the country—from Maine to Denver. However, as usual I end up seeing more people who agree with me than disagree with me on the fundamentals of school reform. I had a chance in D.C. to talk to a friend of a friend who support Michelle Rhee’s reforms. I was dying to get into it, but as a guest I felt constrained and we dropped it quickly. What a shame. Was I right or wrong?

If we are to engage citizens with issues relating to educating the next generation of citizens, we have to get over our reluctance to talk about controversial issues. Maybe that is one reason we are, as Al Ramirez notes in last week Ed Week commentary, so eager to hand over our education policy to the federal government. Maybe it is not just the money they are bribing states with, but also a chance to get off the hook by appearing helpless? I think that appeals at times to teachers also. “Why blame me? I followed the recipe and if it did not produce the results you wanted, I’m not at fault.”

Teachers are (alongside mothers) very prone to guilt for all the mistakes they made in the course of 6 hours, day after day. Hundreds of decisions each hour that may or may not have subtle or not so subtle ill-effects. I hated it when I made one of those “I should know better” mistakes on Friday at the end of the day. I had all weekend to stew about them, hoping I could undo it n Monday.

Maybe if the penalty was “just money,” I could feel less upset about it? Fred Meier once said that he preferred playing card games for money, otherwise it seemed like he was playing for his honor.

Does cheating on the results make one feel less guilty? Probably not, but it makes one’s honor a more private matter. Besides, I have discovered that people forget they fudged the data, and begin to boast about it as though it were real. Reporters, for example, boasted that the high school I was directing at the time, CPESS, had a 90% graduation rate before we graduated a single class. Did I correct them? It was so foolish that I let it pass…. Would I have tolerated such foolishness if the media had made public false bad results?

I have been following Tony Judt’s memoirs in The Nation avidly. His skepticism about democracy’s potential is refreshing. How can we argue about this more broadly than in the pages of The Nation? How about in school? How about a continuous curriculum that raises questions about democracy, that accepted Judt’s bald statement that “democracy has always been a problem.” One problem is that everyone now claims to be for it: Chinese, Burmese, South Africans, George Bush, Tea Party’ers as well as Obama and I. It is a “dangerously empty term” Judt argues. We “either re-educate” the public in some form of “public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism.” Dare we risk such a conversation in our schools?


11 Responses

  1. well said – we need to find a way to wade through the partisan sides and have a real conversation about: what do we want, how might we get it, what will it cost, how long will it take, can we keep sensationalism out of it…

  2. Conversations are beginnings, and if we are to re-invent ourselves we need to articulate our principles broadly as well as engage in the work with integrity. Seymour Sarason got my attention with this comment in The Predictable Failure of Education Reform: “..if favorable conditions for creation and change are rare, do we call it a day? Of course not. Unless you enjoy wallowing in despair, railing against a world inhospitable to your ends, unwilling or unable to commit yourself to what you believe in, retreating as if you have learned nothing and there are no truths, allergic to approximations that fall far short of perfection, there is no alternative to taking a stand. From a purely personal as well as a societal perspective, there is too much at stake. To live in perilous times is no warrant for imperiling your integrity."For me, this means that while I am not required to succeed, neither am I permitted to desist – as I continue to support challenges to status quo that align with what I value and hold true: personalizing learning and schooling is the best path to humanizing our work…provided we engage in collective sense-making, collaborative problem solving and thinking systemically, by design.

  3. Deb,Though I don't think I've drank the kool aid when it comes to Michelle Rhee, I'd be more than willing to offer a perspective from a DC charter school teacher who thinks much of what she's tried to do has helped the students in the district.

  4. This woman seems to be more educated and well understanding . She has positive approach in every thing that's why more people agree to her.

  5. Deb: you should have enaged the friend of a friend…She's up to any intellectual discussion. But after working the polls today in mostly Republican Franklin County PA I wonder about the ability of people to break out of their habitual mindsets to look with a fresh eye at ideas rather than prejudging as "socialist", "radical" and "antifamily" anything that would bring about changes that help the poor, minorities, immigrants or even teachers…so many of the voters (Republican) seem irrationally angry about "something" but they can't articulate it. Maybe it's just that they lost.

  6. Deb,check out Ross Greene's CPS – collaborative problem solving model. Designed to promote lacking cognitive skills displayed by challenging children and collaborate with them to solve problems , the model is great for conversations especially with people who don't share your views. The idea is to focus on ' concerns' rather than solutions. If we focus on the others concerns first , trying to understand their concerns first before putting our concerns on the table we show respect and a will to take the others perspective. When we do this , the other person is in more of a postion to listen to our concerns. Once we have concerns on the table , we can address his concerns with our solutions which would also naturally address our own concerns and of course hear how his solutions would address our concerns. Discussions tend to focus around solutions without the proper understanding of the ' concerns'there are 2 CPS sites , the book ' Lost at school ' I don't know but working with the other side may be more challenging that working with at-risk kids.Allan

  7. Deb, I realized re-reading this post that I do have a part of me that was hoping this Obama version of the federal government would begin to address our education system in ways that would make me smile….I think most of us had those hopes. For me, it's not about getting off the hook, but about it being scary big stuff. School districts – and most schools – are bureaucracies extraodinaire. Bureaucracies are very hard to humanize and very hard to change, as I learned from my 10 years in disability rights advocacy. (Wolf Wolfensberger's normalization theory is as relevant today as it was when he created it) I'm already spending every ounce of time and energy I have working on education reform in my professional DC life…so I can see how it would be easy for most of us to pretend wishes were horses and 'give it up' to the feds.

  8. Left the wrong link on the last comment – this is the right one…

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