Trust and skepticism

Dear friends.

The poor get poorer, and more get poorer. Meanwhile college tuitions keep rising. Meanwhile the media declare that no one who hasn’t got a BA can possibly qualify for a living wage. Something’s rotten in this proposition. It’s a catch-22. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t that way in Finland, for example.

Finland didn’t do it overnight, but they built it around critical democratic habits: competence and trust. They didn’t trade off one for the other. They joined competence and trust—just as we do when we hire a baby-sitter. I often go back to this metaphor because it seems so odd that we understand trust when it comes to a babysitter (even when our children are so young that we can’t really get “their side” of the story) but keep looking for a trust-proof solution to system-wide public schooling.

Trust and skepticism go fine together. The leap of faith we make is always temporary—whether it’s a question of when to lock one’s car doors, leave chairs out on the lawn, etc,

It’s another reason why I like both small class and small school size. It’s easier to learn the culture: what’s reasonable to expect. It’s also easier to verify; there’s a chance that the school and family can keep in direct touch and build trust on the basis of repeated experiences.

But looking for trust-proof “systems” is always both penny wise and pound foolish—and endless. These trust proof systems have to be based on external measures. We start looking at the indirect evidence as a substitute for the “real thing.” The higher the  stakes for any “indicator,” the indicator lower its validity. (That’s why test published used to forbid schools from engaging in test prep—it invalidated scores.)

And yes yes yes, race complicates the creation of trust—and acknowledging that is critical. It’s why we must all read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Anderson (MacMillan, 2012). Economic class counts too. Some children have good reason to come to school with distrust—passed down from generation to generation. I do not expect that my good intentions will alone overcome this distrust. But how much easier it is to successfully teach once family and school trust each other’s intentions, at the very least.

In short, we should not be surprised that none of the systems that we are putting in place to “catch” the weak teachers and kids will work. So nearly 25 years of ever intensifying use of external—presumably indirect measures—have not produced results, at least not in terms of improved learning, or even improved test scored! Madness. In fact they have served to increase distrust. Some get caught. Some don’t. But, as the testing manual used to remind us, everyone is getting cheated.

Visiting Denver was a reminder of the above. I visited four schools with very different assumptions about trust. They were all definitely above average. Kids looked pretty happy and I think the staff were glad to be there. One, a 35 year-old K-12 public school called Jefferson Open School was a remarkable example of what it was that folks said “didn’t work” but does. They’ve kept track of their graduates and reconfirmed the results of the 8-Year Study (done during the 1930s) that the more adults and students are trusted the better and tougher work they take on. I saw another public elementary school in “inner city” Denver that has been designed along similar principles and appears to be a great success. I also saw two high schools that serve very similar populations—one of which has adopted many of the “no excuses” behavioral norms and one of which didn’t at all. The latter was sponsored by the Asia Society, and the former is one several new schools built around STEM subjects—with high technology. They are even similar in size. The kids in the “no excuses” school felt that the requirements for silence were reasonable as a way to avoid bullying, fighting, etc and the latter had equally few problems with bullying and fighting—despite “noisy” hallways. In general I was uplifted, even though I saw some of their best examples perhaps.

Three of the schools—while worrying about test scores—also have built in other time-consuming ways to make assessment part of learning. They have developed “systems” similar to those we used at Mission Hill and Central Park East (CPE). The habits that were the foundation of CPE and Mission Hill included not only learning to collaborate, but also learning to resist: in short exercising judgment based on as many forms of direct evidence as we had available. We measured reading by bi-annual “standardized” and individually administered interviews—and  audio or video recorded them to share with students, family and external evaluators. Ditto for graduation requirements which rested on a series of “rigorous” presentations—designed to bring different perspectives together on the work and the presentation, a model that several of the schools I visited have also invented.

The purpose of education is precisely to help novices develop judgment. The use of “advisories” that last several years are an example now widely copied. One of the schools purposely has multi-age advisories so that expertise could rest not only with adults but older peers.

Sometimes I get a clue from the language used by staff. “Those kids” is a show-stopper for me. So is “rigor” which according to my dictionary means rigid, inflexible and harsh. But I need to get over this perhaps? While “accountability” has some positive meanings, it’s a poor substitute for taking responsibility. When talking about actual human beings I hate short-cuts—like calling a kid a SPED, or “at risk,” or worse yet a 1,2,3, or 4!  I abandoned using “grade level” once I realized no one knew what it meant—including me. I began to share truly direct hard evidence—and listen carefully to the feedback. I was thrilled to hear so little of this jargon in the schools I visited.

My friend from the Educational Testing Service—Ted Chittenden—used to remind us that test scores are indirect evidence—at best! If we have access to the child, why not use direct evidence, he said?

Sometimes we have to “see like the state” (title of a great book by James Scott), but let’s not make it a habit!

Ditto for teachers.

Which brings me to the issue of on tenure. Actually it has nothing to do, historically, with unions. But it fit together with insistence by unions on “due process.” That’s all it is. And it requires more “due process” for senior staff than new staff. That too seems reasonable. And it works best in a society which offers substantial security to all its citizens—so that losing one’s job is not sudden death. We know that the children of secure families have an easier time coping with life, statistically speaking. Why? Because they can exert their energies where their curiosity and interests lie if these are not undermined by fear, rage and sadness.. This goes for students and adults. What’s bad for kids is bad therefore for adults.

This goes incidentally for police as well. Until our cities have police they largely trust, cities will be more dangerous than they need be. What we need, in both cases, is a rethinking of governance so that we will come closer to having trustworthy cops and trustworthy teachers. Distrust produces fear and secrecy—the two most potent enemies of democracy. Discussing what “acting as if we trust each other” would look like and what it takes to make it a reasonable idea should be something we talk about..

And it surely matters when one speaks of living joyously and lovingly. While schools have a special obligation to concern themselves with societal needs—democracy and the economy (how people make a living – if they do), we also have a legitimate concern for the “pursuit of happiness”. I think, on the whole, the three go well together. And we know as a fact, that inequality and unfairness undermine all three. That’s why I know I cannot as successfully teach children who view me as unfair. That’s why due process is so critical. Incidentally, so too for seniority! More on that another time

It fits neatly with last month’s blog—displaying our ignorance requires trust.


6 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    Deb Meier is a pioneering educator in New York. I posted about the Finnish system recently. The key thing to remember is the Finns do not have a word for accountability. It is what is left when we are done with being responsible!

  2. Reblogged this on elketeaches.

    • I’m not sure why any of us find this acceptable ethier. I think part of the problem is there is no high profile organized advocacy for public schools outside the typical parent teacher venues. I don’t know that we want corporations to single handedly resolve the crisis but we do need prominent business leaders to take up the cause in a consistent visible way, via print and television advertising, social networking etc.

  3. Thank you! And could we please take rigor off the plate and replace it with diligence? Trust is the main distractor in education. We have created a climate of distrust. If Nissan took on the same marketing plan as education they would be out of business within a year. Pursuit of Happiness IS the main goal. What is happiness? Changes person to person. How can we trust what someone else considers to be happiness? Our charge as educators is not to provide happiness but the tools to pursue it, the foundation to make choices. Choices can not be true choices without Exposure (Exposure to what the WORLD offers and expects). Exposure should lead to Trial, the opportunity to try on what we have been exposed to and “see how it fits”. Trial may or may not lead to Attainment, if there is no “buy in” after trial then it’s back to the Exposure menu. People young and old need Exposure, Trial and a road map to Attainment to pursue what they deem as happiness. If they don’t know all the options, how can they truly have a choice and if they don’t have a choice how can they truly have happiness? We need better PR in education. We need diligence in ETA (Exposure, Trial, and Attainment). We are absolutely making learning tooo complicated and unattractive.

  4. What a treat to read your blogpost. I came to it after reading about the magnificent book that your students wrote.

    Your comments about trust hit at the central issue in today’s schools — and society. As a longtime former teacher and now writing, I am convinced that trust is the core issue for making our schools work. I felt trust in my early years in the Hanover NH schools and when I taught in Oxfordshire in 1970-1. In both instances, I never looked over my should to se who was watching. I felt full support for being the best teacher I could become. As a result, my students, their families, and I had some remarkable experiences.

    Once we feel we need to look over our shoulders at who’s watching (supervisors, tests scores…) it’s a diferent ball game!

    Thank you, Debbie, for the great work you continue to do every day.
    Frank Thoms
    San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

  5. I enjoyed “Trust and Skepticism” as it reminds me of numerous experiences during my work in Chicago. I have seen students who trust their teachers succeed inspite of socio-economic barriers, and I have seen students, whose teachers treat them like convicts, turned off to learning. How can we transform education in a setting where 32 students huddle in a dark and hot room, seated in rows, filling worksheets, answering “yes” “no” as teachers conduct a monologue for most of the class time? Who has the backbone to address this issue once and for all?

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