In Schools We Trust

          (This article orignially appeared in the Boston Globe on 8/28/05)

When I was born, most Americans weren’t even dropping into high school. Today, most finish it. Good news. So now we’ve decided it’s too easy, and to do something about this, we’ve overnight made the sole measure of 13 years in public schooling standardized test scores.

When Alice asked the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” the cat responded, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice said she didn’t care, so the Cat said, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

The same applies to what’s happening in education today. We can’t make judgments about schools until we take more seriously what we think the primary purposes of schooling are. We’re avoiding facing the destination, as we focus instead on which route is cheaper and easier to explain. We still have local school boards – 15,000 of them nationwide, compared with 200,000 in 1931 – but they have very little power. Fewer and fewer significant judgments are now made by people we can look in the eye. There’s no one around, as a result, who can answer the “whys” of the particulars of one’s child’s schooling. But if you don’t care (or know) where you’re going, any road can get you there. Boston is a good case in point it’s instituted the current wave of reform as well as anyone, but it’s missed out on talking aloud about the “why” of it all.

In the mid-1980s, amid great fanfare, a nonpartisan group of politicians and corporate leaders told us we were losing our dominant place in the world order to our better-educated competitors (Japan and Germany). Kinder-garten-through-12th-grade education had let us down. I waited, in vain, for an “oops, our mistake” throughout the 1990s, as American economic preeminence came zooming back. Even if the connection between academic test scores and the economy is soft, at best, at least I knew what these spokespeople thought the purpose was: the economy.

Similarly, I appreciate that the latest federal intervention – called No Child Left Behind – added equity to our goals. But simply narrowing the test-score gap between rich and poor, black and white, is not a solution to our class and race inequities. In fact, test scores are particularly sensitive to reflecting family income and race. At a time when all other measures of inequity are growing (e.g., income disparities are wider than they have been since the turn of the last century), it seems a lot to expect schools alone to re- verse the trend, especially if we restrict the evidence to test scores.

But I look at the task of public education with a different eye to what it’s all about. I figure that a society intent on spreading democracy abroad ought to first concern itself with democracy at home – and it’s in our schools that training for democratic life must take place. Where else? That once was, and should remain, the prime public rationale for involuntary schooling, at enormous public expense. The gap we need to think about is the appalling voting gap between rich and poor and black and white, not to mention its disparate influence on politics. Luckily, I know of no reason why in learning the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind upon which democratic life depends that we have to sacrifice other purposes, but I do know that if we aim just at test scores, we undermine the culture of democracy.

Nothing requires more rigorous training than the habits needed to exercise complex judgments in real life. The paper-and-pencil part of a driver’s test can get more and more difficult and arcane, but it won’t help at all if it’s at the price of forgetting about the performance end of that test – driving a car. But that’s exactly what we’re thoughtlessly doing in schools, starting with 3- and 4-year-olds. “Hands-on” experience is not a luxury in a democracy.

Substantially reducing the size of the school and classroom may or may not improve testable “basic skills.” It may or may not stop the outsourcing of jobs or solve the racial or class test gaps. What it does is provide a stronger tie between what adults and kids think is important, if we use it for that. Having a good test-prep factory, plus doing something about the “out-of-school” gaps facing youngsters (gaps in family income, gaps in access to health care), is a surer way to produce test equity.

But that alone won’t suddenly get more 18-year-olds to participate in politics.

The Boston Pilot School network that I was part of for a decade, and my own school, the Mission Hill School, have been labs for showing what can be done in the public sector if we keep a broader view of education alive. (Test scores at both schools have not suffered in doing so.) But in the current climate, they do not find it easy to remain true to their original democratic missions: enabling those closest to the classroom to make important decisions. State, and now federal, regulations get in the way even when a progressive superintendent like Thomas Payzant seeks to offer greater school empowerment.

We’re ignoring a 300-year history of raising our young that took a very different view of what it meant to possess “smarts.” Our special American disdain for “elite intellectuals” was not all bad. It had its roots in respect for ingenuity, inventiveness, perseverance, and practical good-sense-vs.-aristocratic skills. What we have never tried doing on a serious scale is to marry the two ideals – the academic elite ideal and the practical ingenuity side. The world has changed, but both of those “smarts” are still needed. We’re wasting the precious energy, passion, and skill of our youth as we plod along with goals that might once have made sense for 2 percent of the population in the 19th century.

Try sitting through a school day as a student. It’s a deadly bore. Amazingly, two-thirds of our kids do it doggedly and dutifully, so they can get the certificates that can lead them endlessly onward and upward – toward tasks that never connect to what they’ve so dutifully learned and mostly forgotten. Wasted perseverance.

Let’s be clear on what we want. Then let’s imagine how much learning could take place in 13 years if the students wanted the same things we did. Maybe that’s the magic that Fenway, Boston Arts, Boston Tech, and other pilot schools can show us: how kids mostly doing actual projects of interest to them can demonstrate their smarts. It might even be that what’s missing in our youngsters’ lives is keeping company with all of us – experts who are doing stuff they’d like to do or might possibly become excited by. That’s where advisory programs and small classrooms and knowing kids well over many years make such a difference. It’s what the pilot schools in Boston – small, largely self-governing schools of choice – gave us a chance to explore here. They took advantage of the power and energy that come from those voluntarily engaged in the work – students, their families, and their teachers – not from distant experts.