The Search for Gold

Dear friends,

Perhaps it’s a good thing that we keep looking for someone, somewhere who has created the utopia we’e dreaming about. In my lifetime I’ve lived through a number of grandiose claims: Russian communism (for some Fascism), various third world utopias, then Cuba, and of course, China. And many in-between. Ditto for schools. We keep reinventing “success” rather than exploring the history of our past successes. Instead we let them die for lack of support whenever a new fad rolls in.

Even the ones–the schools– I co-created with friends young and old in NYC and Boston were always short of what I hoped for. Having been through it personally I laugh when others are heralded not because they don’t “deserve” it but they deserve it usually for every reason except the one acclaimed: their high test scores or graduation rate, etc Like Obama’s peace prize, I got a MacArthur for the success of our CPESS secondary school in NYC before it had anything but 7th graders. I appreciated it because it gave me just the extra leeway I needed to actually become a 7th-12th grade success–until finally it too succumbed approximately a decade after I moved on. But it enabled me to go from being a lowly elementary head teacher to a very wise and renowned leader of Education–even a “genius”.

I thought about this as I was reading David Kirp’s latest book: “Improbable Scholars”–the success story of a the Union, New Jersey school district, relying on no miracles or gimmicks, just nurturing and protecting good teaching and good school mastering.

I’m halfway through and I half believe it. Especially since in January 1989 David believed me when he wrote a piece entitled BadAss Principal for Mother Jones magazine. Actually its about 3 principals: Badass Joe Clark, George McKenna and Deborah Meier. They made a movie about Joe, called Lean On Me.

He ends his well-baanced piece with the following: “Perhaps Deborah Meier would be eaten alive in the Pattersons of this world. But maybe she’s onto something….better the intimate enclave of learning than either the plantation of fear or the factory of love.”

I know, I know…but is it “replicable,” can we “scale it up” to serve millions? The answer is yes and no. Remember, it wasn’t even strong enough to survive the next decade. If we wanted to we could make it easier, rather than harder, for others to explicate, if not replicate, their own “intimate” settings in which young and old get love with learning. More, David, after I finish your book. Your words 23 years ago made a difference. Let me repeat what you said then about our work at CPESS: “we might be onto something.” There have now been enough of “us” to convince me that it’s the right track to follow–and that the paths our “followers” will take will never be identical, but they will off and on meet and comfortably recognize each other’s dreams.

And the “fad” this time may be more damaging, because Joe Clark’s work might be a closer description than CPESS of the dream that the so-called corporate reformers have in mind.

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