Best for What?

November 2007

I was feeling sad about the Yankees, and worse about Joe Torre. He vindicated my belief that “good guys” can be winners, and he was a good guy in just the way I like my leaders to be. He believed that treating everyone with respect was a winning strategy—or more likely he just was unable to treat people any other way. I actually suspect the latter. Why I am a Yankee fan is a story in itself that goes back about three quarters of century. Why I have remained one in my old age has something to do with Joe Torre.

One has to fight hard these days to “justify” the kind of stance Torre took. You have to prove that respectfulness “works.” At least in educational circles. (It was nice to see headlines in the NY Post and Daily News that considered it disgraceful to treat Torre disrespectfully regardless of rationales. It wasn’t letting him go that was the problem for sports writers. Rather it was the terms offered — an incentive bonus for winning. In education “it works” equals getting good test scores, and the means used to get them are not questioned. The assumption that only money will motivate us–kids or teachers–to do our best seems okay in the educational business but questionable in major league sports?

I just got back from a Common Good conference in D.C. about “restoring respect to our classrooms.” One focus was on how children take cues from the way others treat their families, their teachers, and, of course, themselves. What worries me is that I am running into too many anxious parents these days who start looking at their 2 and 3 year olds through the same skewed lens—what “works best.” They’re looking for successful short-term strategies, without exploring what matters to them and why, or what the obvious moral and social side-effects will be of different strategies.

Argument in favor of early childhood play often rests on arguments about it being a good “investment” in our economy, or producing improvements in test scores. Possibly. Even my favorite argument—that preserving a playful childhood is critical to building a democratic, respectful and inventive culture needs to be looked at with care. Maybe I, too, am using little children on behalf of my own set of values?

Which is why I wish we would stop all the accountability talk and spend a bit more time on deepening the discussion about “what” we are accountable for—what the values are that lie beneath the practice. Acknowledging that perhaps we don’t all agree—for some our standing in the marketplace is as legitimate as my concern for democracy. Fair enough? Are there nevertheless some things that we should all be accountable for? On what grounds? We do after all have a pledge of allegiance that claims that there is something “for which we stand.”

When Ted Sizer started the “standards” discussion 20 years ago, he was trying to open a conversation. Instead it got cut short, and replaced with—standardized tests. Period.

Until we take the time to have that discourse, as a nation, we are open to incredible abuses in the name of improving test scores. Requiring kids to remain silent at all times unless spoken to by an adult “works” a friend told me—sadly. Mandatory testing 4 year olds in order to pick out the top 5% makes sense to others. Paying kids for test results. Paying teachers for their students’ test results. And on and on.

We’re trying so hard to get a lot done at once that we have plunged ahead with Reform without having that conversation about purposes. That is perhaps why it is easy to forget that throughout most of human history leisure and security were deemed the “standard” definition of a good life. Both are viewed as risky luxuries in today’s schools—and in society! Without leisure that kind of conversation abut purposes cannot happen.

© 2007 Deborah Meie


October 2007

(link to photos)

I’m back from a week in Russia—Moscow and St. Petersburg. Hardly enough time or places to pretend to any profound understanding—but still I can’t resist a few less-than-profound ones.*

First of all. Despite lots of bureaucratic hassles around getting a visa, the trip was largely hassle-free and wonderful. Joining me were my two sons, educator Nick and computer expert Roger. They took care of photos (note Roger’s on the link above, more will follow). I enjoyed the people, the sites, the food, along with all I learned.

Second. The folks who invited us were wonderful hosts, and so were my school-traveling companions. The invitation came from Artion Soloveychik, who publishes teacher newspapers and magazines in Russia, and is a great new friend and colleague. It was Jerry Mintz (of AERO, an alternative school network) who initiated this contact. We were also lucky to be joined by Brett Schlesinger, former leader of City as a School (a sister school in NYC) who is a Russian history buff. Jerry and Brett were both a co-speakers, and Brett ended up being our fellow-traveler throughout our week. Since he has been to Russia (including the old USSR) many times he was the best kind of guide.  But, adding more spice to the travels was having Artiom’s son and daughter-in-law, Timofey and Svetlana, as companions and guides from our arrival at the Moscow airport to our departure from St. Petersburg.

Third. We were lucky to have a chance to visit a very innovative public school in Moscow, started by a very famous Russian pedagogue named Alexander Tubelsky. Tubelsky died last spring, and the conference was in large part devoted to his ideas. His school (now under new leadership) is a pre-K–12 school that many of you who know Central Park East and Mission Hill would recognize as in the same general camp, albeit with interesting differences. For example, the general climate was I think even freer and more joyous, while the classroom set-ups seemed far more traditional (rows of desks, with the teacher in front). However, the focus was on interesting student-centered projects, a great deal of respect and trust for all three constituents—parents, students and staff.

Fourth. The conference itself was a reminder that our victories and defeats are much the same around the world. Despite a flowering of reform over the past decade—with many interesting new schools popping up, there is a general tightening up, which includes more exams, focus on a standardized curriculum, and orthodoxy in many forms. Including religious orthodoxy.  There were several hundred kindergarten through high school educators present. It was hard to get the “facts” about Russian education, much as it is here in the USA. We heard various claims about graduation data—ranging from 70% to 100%. But one thing worth noting is that kids who leave high school and those who don’t go on to college have to serve 2-3 years of military service. Those who go on to “higher” education—passing exams being the major route into universities—are exempted. Women are also exempt.  I heard some talk of a change—one year for one and all. But it puts a different kind of motivation for staying in school and for doing well. Still, most do not go on to University-level schooling.

Finally. Being a tourist was wonderful. We enjoyed every bit of it.  Red Square, the Kremlin, the old-style Churches, the parks, the opera (Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky), in Moscow, as well as the Winter Palace and The Hermitage, Nevsky Prospect, Peter and Paul Fortress, a nighttime canal and Neva boat trip, Peterhof (summer home of Peter), and more in St Petersburg.  And we never stopped eating.

More on education in Russia, and thoughts that stemmed from the trip, in the future.

*Note also, that we saw nothing of the rest of Russia!

© 2007 Deborah Meier

Back to School … for Three-Year-Olds?

September 2007

It’s hard to sit by as a new school year starts and not be in the trenches.

Aside from the sheer fascination and pleasure that was part of my life each fall, I realize another side effect of being on the side-lines. My total immersion in the daily life of the school distracted me from observing some of the gloomier aspects of the larger world.  If  I were in the midst of school right now, for example, I’d have less time to anguish over New York City school chancellor Joel Klein’s latest wonderful idea—rigorous standards-based schooling starting with 3 year olds.  (Not to mention Iraq, etc).

But, I do have time, not only to read about it, and worry about it, but to think I ought to do something about it.

Klein’s latest idea is the logical outcome of a way of thinking that is dangerous. I refer readers to a book that came out 9 years ago—and I just read—Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott of Yale University. What we’re witnessing, suggests Scott, is the kind of Expert Rationalism that has long led many a well-meaning reformer down disastrous paths. It’s a “way of seeing” that can only be counteracted by another way of seeing, the kind that is usually experienced by people who, alas, generally see themselves as powerless—the folks with the “know-how” or what he calls “metis.”  False utopias get an easy foothold to start with out of a false modesty (who am I to think I know better than experts?) plus fear on the part of ordinary practitioners that they’ll pay a price for being troublemakers. But alas, it is also, Scott notes, why “reformers” are often blind to their failures. Soviet five year plans never ever failed to meet their goals. Thirty years of plan after plan to produce higher test scores has been exactly as successful as those Soviet five year plans.

Three year-olds already have both standards and “rigor.”  From birth on they are natural artists, craftsmen, and scientists—all rolled into one—with well-focused “standards.” And rigor? Last weekend I watched my one-year old grand-nephew as he over and over again practiced getting more competent at clapping.  He was engaged—mind and body.   Our delight was sufficient reward, assuming he needed anything outside of his own satisfaction.

What Klein is proposing is a systematic attack on this intellectual potential, although of course he doesn’t mean that to be the case at all. Little children are just not his “thing.” Of course, he also hasn’t bothered to look the word “rigor” up in the dictionary or he (and others like him)  would look for a better synonym for what they have in mind.  Or would they?  Look it up.

First three definitions: (1) severe, (2) harsh, (3) cruel.  Think “rigor mortis”.

Mastering the complex—driving a car, designing a house, building a bridge or learning language, as James Scott notes, require both the same perseverance and the attentiveness that 12 month old Charles was putting into getting clapping just right. Figuring out how to translate this into schooling is what made me stick with schooling for 40 years. More and earlier imposition of adult “standards” (e.g. academic tests) is not the way to go.

Unfortunately such an agenda also endangers an equally important task of early childhood:  honing our uniquely human capacity for “wishful thinking”— imagination.  What separates us from animals living simply to survive is that strange ability to imagine what isn’t, to live in alternate realities, to step into the shoes of others—including other species and objects. It’s what Charles’ three year old brother Max was busy doing upstairs with a box of years of collectibles I had accumulated. While we may complain that school children lack a willingness to persevere, his parents—like the parents of all thee-year olds, couldn’t drag Max away.

Imagination is what enables us to have a language full of “as ifs” and “supposing that’s—language that lies at the heart of mathematics, science and ordinary living. It’s also at the core of the kind of moral responsiveness that goes deepen than compliance.

There’s a reason that for centuries the ruling classes were  known as “the leisure class.” The two went together. It takes leisure to play with powerful ideas. It’s not an accident that one of the earliest demands of working people’s institutions was the 40 hour week.   Work is honorable but so is “play”—the play of the body and mind, as the ancient Greeks proclaimed. We’ve lost that luxury even for the middle and upper classes perhaps. We need to regain it—for everyone. So let’s not take it away from 3 year olds. This year 3 year olds, next year it will be 2…. and on and on.

To be “fancy” and high brow I renamed play “self-initiated cognitive activity.”  Some friends really liked it although I had intended it as a joke. However, it’s what’s endangered these days. Team sports on the field or solo games on our Blackberries are no substitute for inventing our own.

Stop trying to skip childhood, Mr Klein. Play with these ideas a bit longer before you go rushing into action;  read Seeing Like A State when you get some “free” time.  As for the rest of us, just imagine what it might be like if we all responded with an “it’s unthinkable, Mr. Klein.”—and meant it!

© 2007 Deborah Meier

Thoughts on the Work To Be Done

  August 2007

It’s 6 weeks since I returned from China, and it has stayed on my mind (click here to see photos).

Someone wrote to ask me: can there be progressive schools aimed at developing the habits of heart and mind that nourish democratic life in a country ruled by a single all-powerful party. Does the existence of capitalism, side by side with a ruling Communist Party create any useful contradictions that have educational implications?

I’m inclined these days to think that many of the leading forces in our society, like China’s, mostly see schools as serving an economic, pro-development purpose. Thus they sincerely want schools that develop future employees who can think on their feet, take initiative, work with others, and in at least some cases, come up with new and different ideas—be creative. But…

How many of such students are—in China or the U.S.—needed for “the economy” to be competitive is unclear to me, and whether “they” care whether such employees are American citizens (in the case of American-based corporations) or not, I truly have no idea. Surely we still need lots of low-wage so-called low skill employees (see Mike Rose’s book, Minds at Work, regarding what we mean by “low-skill”). And is it useful if they also think “creatively”?

Nor do I know whether many of those powerful enough to be leading educational reformers actually care about or, in fact, favor employees who ask deeper political and organizational, “meaning of life” questions. Being creative may be less desirable than we rhetorically proclaim. It’s an open question whether in seeking one kind of out-of-the-box thinking one can avoid producing the other, less sought after kind! Furthermore, if the low-skill types are still needed, and no one denies they are, how does society think about what their education ought to be like? (Off hand, the answer we’ve settled on seems to be a two-tired school system—one more like boot camp and the other more like rich-kids summer camp?)

Simon Head’s review of three new books on capitalism et al in the NY Review (They’re Micromanaging Your Every Move, August 16 ) raises a question that has, I fear, direct connections to current schooling reform. He describes something called “ES technology” (the ES stands for “enterprise systems”). ES, the Wal-Mart approach, stream-lines not only the “business” side of corporate life but the personnel side too. And it’s the direct parallel to what I see Klein, Bloomberg et al doing regarding schooling. Maybe unintentionally? Head sees ES as a way, in the “new” information age, to reduce employees to the status of factory line workers once again. Read it.

Reading Stanley Fish’s column in the NY Times recently reminded me of still another way of looking at what we’re going through. Fish, perhaps unrealistically, hopes for a return to a traditional authoritarian classroom. He believes in schools—including those for adults—that do not encourage students to question beyond very tight academic limits, set by the faculty and trustees. To quote Fish: “Although Thomas [Clarence] does not make this point explicitly, it seems clear [in a recent Supreme Court decision] that… when he tells us that it was traditionally understood that ‘teachers taught and students listened, teachers commanded and students obeyed,’ Thomas…is someone who shares that understanding… As do I. If I had a criticism of Thomas, it would be that he does not go far enough.”

I can’t even see such a stance working well for Production. It would be like having schools train auto-mechanics where the students were deliberately unable to observe the give-and-take trial-and-error that goes into being a good mechanic. But perhaps the ES technology has found a way around this dilemma. But it’s even more of a puzzle how such an approach will nurture adults who can defend democracy.

How one sees schools depends on one’s hopes for our shared future. I see the central function of K-12 schooling being to “produce” 18 year olds ready to take on the world’s weighty as well as frivolous questions; To be partners in running it. They probably need more specialized further education in the fields they hope to enter. However, K-12 is needed to set the stage for a powerful citizenry—for, in Dewey’an terms, joining the “ruling” class politically. It’s the only institution we have for doing so—however weak a reed.

I’m as pleased therefore with the kids who went straight on to become policeman, hair stylists, legal paras, etcetera as those who chose Harvard .  I wanted our K-12 graduates judged first of all on their democratic “habits”—including participation in society. This includes, naturally, the capacity, and desire, to become productive in some field—to do things worth doing well. Then it also means that if there is productive and useful work to be done in society we must insure that it pays well enough to offer young people a decent future. If we “merely” did these two things, I’d be euphoric.

Both useful work and citizenship (in both the smaller and larger society—including one’s family) rests on habits—like reliability and trustworthiness, and exercise of initiative, perseverance and judgment. And specific expertise. Hopefully we can keep improving K-12 schooling so that it simultaneously supports both the work ethic and intellectual habits that range from curiosity to skepticism—to know how to dig deeply, and yet also think outside the box, sift evidence with care, and tolerate uncertainty when need be. I know, I’m dreaming. But in fact, such schools can be.

My late friend Tony Kallett, whose work has been collected in a booklet published by the North Dakota Study Group (see below for ordering) starts the first essay asking: “Should our children grow up audacious? bold and daring? spirited and adventurous?…How can we but say, yes.” Amen.

But I fear China’s rulers probably can say “no”—for the vast majority anyhow. Ditto for Stanley Fish and Clarence Thomas and the ES crowd. And I fear the same “no” dominates the American school reform wave we’re now in the midst of.

My landscaper cousin, Judith Larner Lowry, says it well in Landscaping with Jays in Mind (University of California Press, 2007). You have to see each plant in context, it’s not enough, she knows, to be a narrow garden “expert.” One needs to keep the jays, the worms, the people—including oneself—and the terrain in all its specificity, in mind at once. She quotes at the end author Elaine Scarry: “Beauty often comes to us through no work of our own, then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.” The work of building a democracy, like building a landscape requires giant labor; and “hope.” “Hope pours through it,” Judith concludes.


*Few Adults Crawl, Essays of Tony Kallet, 1995, University of North Dakota, PO Box 7189, Grand Forks, N.D. 58202-7189

© 2007 Deborah Meier


  June/July 2007

(click here to see photos)

(Click here to see a blog on the courrent political situation in China, which seemed to make a worthwhile, and provocative,read)

I’m back from 3 weeks in China with my son, Nick, and my friend from Harvard, educator Eleanor Duckworth.

I’m exhausted and stimulated; it was an unforgettably great trip. But I haven’t yet digested it all. I’m by no means now a China expert, so this is mostly for friends.

Someone—was it George Bernard Shaw?—in the 1930s came back fro the USSR and announced: “I’ve seen the future, and it works.” We know how wrong he was. Yet in some ways, I might say the same about China, except with fear and sadness. It may “work,” but…

The trip had three aspects. One was being a professional educator! Which I’ll get to last. Second, a tourist of great classically Chinese scenes and structures. We did “everything” on the short China tour list, such as seeing some of the greatest of Chinese gardens, temples, walls, ruins, etc. We visited only one Museum (in Shanghai). We boated on many rivers and lakes. We even bicycled around the Yangshuo countryside (plus rafting down a river). I also fell of my bike (with minimal injury). But, actually, I was thrilled to discover I could still bike at my age! I had thought that was a pleasure best left for the past. The third was seeing modern China.

The old China. It was very hot and humid (mostly in the 80s and 90s), but we walked our legs and feet to their limit. Nick and Eleanor did everything I did plus some things I didn’t on that score. Sometimes I sat in a quiet spot and read. I was reading a book about 19th century China, and I was pretending I was back there when women chose foot-binding over servitude. In my “pretend mode” I walked the Great Wall. My walking companion (a young man who is making his way up in the new China) and I imagined his life in the Ming dynasty—as a solider on this wall. In Beijing Nick and I sat in a Princely palace by a pond with ducks that reminded me of the children’s story Ping, and read our books side by side in a gazebo. We “covered,” in all, Shanghai, Suzhuo, Hangshou and the West Lake, Guilin, the Li River and Yangshuo (and caves), Xi-An (terra cotta soldiers), Beijing and the Great Wall at Mitanyu (several hours out of Beijing). We visited the Forbidden City, Heavenly Temple, Tiennaman Square, and so on. We saw mountains of many sorts—which matched the visions we saw at the Shanghai Museum’s landscape painting halls.

Then there was modern China. First and foremost was the impact of Shanghai. It was the city skyline out of a futuristic movie—like Star Wars. Miles upon miles of gleaming glass skyscrapers, lighted up in fanciful ways (advertising), in a maze of overpowering shimmering glory. The city was crisscrossed with futuristic elevated highways (that reminded me of scenes in the 1939 GM exhibit at the NYC World’s Fair), joined together by circular ramps going every which way. Down below were trucks, rickshaws, cars, taxis and thousands of bikes of every sort rule-lessly and ruthlessly making their way here and there.

Across the river was an entirely new part of Shanghai (Pudong) that 10 years ago didn’t exist at all—just farmland we were told. It mirrored the “old” city, except that it was unbrokenly new. In Shanghai “proper” there were many old sections left intact, and probably a few restored for tourists. The highlight of our stay there was watching some men put up a bamboo scaffold in order to take down a sign on a building across from the famous tea houses and gardens of old Shanghai. We were mesmerized. (We also had a delightful cocktail overlooking the Bund in an elegant “club.”)

Our favorite hotel was in Yangshou, a town on the Li River near Guilin. It was a 4 story little hotel looking out on the busy street of this still quaint small town. We felt for two nights that we were in the heart of China, although in fact it’s a town full of tourists and hippies! We visited a remarkable cave there, and also this is where we took off on our biking and rafting trip.

We visited a professor in her “country home” outside of Hangshou—set midst a bamboo forest and attached to a rice paddy farmer’s house! It was a lovely evening. She’s a busy woman so she ordered dinner “out.” Imagine being delivered a Chinese dinner in China! Our last night in China we were invited to a fancy restaurant in Beijing where we had an enormous feast and watched a charming Chinese stage show—supper club entertainment, We certainly ate—everywhere. Ate and ate and ate. One beautiful dish following another and then another……and then still more…and more. Ending with soup.

We felt very comfortable talking with people, although aware that speaking English is not as widespread as many told us it would be. Even those who were well-educated understood only some of what we were saying and translation was very helpful. At least we think so, although of course we couldn’t understand the translations. Still there were lots of signs in both languages, and sufficient visual and verbal cues for us to get around on our own. But in fact we rarely did. Eleanor’s former students met us everywhere! They and their families and friends insisted on treating us royally. We rarely paid for a meal, were mostly met at airports and delivered back at the end of each stay.

Throughout the countryside as we drove or trained through parts of it we were astounded by the huge housing developments often sitting isolated in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Literally square miles of tall ugly skyscrapers that reminded me of the Taylor public housing in Chicago—with no Chicago attached. Many were still under construction and/or still empty. But they are apparently being built for the anticipated rise in the urban population over the next ten years. Instead of the rich moving into the suburbs, the suburbs are being constructed for the poor. I think.

And we visited with people, mostly in restaurants, mostly Chinese but occasionally fellow Americans. A Dissent contributor, Dan Bell, met me at his University in Peking (the MIT of Peking—MIT being the only school besides Harvard most well-educated Chinese consider to be legit). We had a lovely lunch as we shared his sense of China. He’s been in Asia for nearly 15 years and is married to a Chinese woman, and his child goes to a Chinese public school. (See his pieces in Dissent for more on his interesting ideas. The last was published a few months ago and is called From Marx to Confucius.) In Shanghai my brother’s friend Bruce Robertson took us to see the Shanghai Racquet Club (actually it’s a luxurious housing development surrounding a club.) which Paul designed. It was beautifully done, although sadly the counterpart to it (phase two) has been done on the cheap. Bruce claims that much of the new housing we see in China has been designed in such a way that it will look old and deteriorated in ten years.

Nick and Eleanor took hundreds of photographs. They come later.

On the “professional” side:

Eleanor and I spoke in Shanghai at least twice—once to East China Normal School students and once at a conference on the new school reforms being instituted (perhaps) in China. It was billed as a World Conference, but the audience was almost entirely Chinese school people and the speakers mostly Americans (some working in Canada) and a few Japanese. We each gave our usual speech, and we were well received (we did it again in Hangzhou, and Eleanor also talked at Peking University in Beijing). The idea is that the Chinese government (Communist Party) wants to reform the school system to encourage innovation and initiative, and to inspire the young to appreciate the practical not merely scholarly arts. To this end they are “flirting” with progressive education although very hesitantly. The exam system is the be all and end all (it was taking place while we were there), and is entirely based on rote memorization of scholarly matters. The Chinese believe that nothing else will count but doing well on such exams (getting into college is entirely dependent on one’s exam scores). This rather limits their reforms, and is an underlying contradiction to their interest in our ideas. (All the speakers they brought in were decidedly progressive in my sense of that word and all spoke quite frankly about their ideas).

The schools we visited were schools working with the Shanghai Normal College on reform. So far as I could tell at this point the only “progressive” aspect was an occasional attempt to create smaller groups (the average class size in China is about 50), and to encourage the use of “doing”, not just passive listening. The “doing” we saw was pretty rote too—e.g. everyone copying butterflies out of books. I don’t know what Chinese schools looked like in the old days, but they were pretty super-traditional in American terms. There was, however, some grouping in math classes, that reminded me of the USA. Kids were called on frequently, and stood and loudly and clearly explained or repeated answers. Teachers talked in loud voices, and there was a lot of choral responses, but they appeared orderly and cheerful. The schools we visited were on the more middle class side, and possibly even exam schools. It’s as hard in China to get straight answers to such questions (as I find it to be in NYC, and other major American school systems these days). The kids all wear red scarves denoting their membership in the Communist youth organization—the Pioneers.

We were told that conditions for schooling in the countryside was bleak, as few teachers wanted to go there and resources were limited in rural schools. There is, of course, an acute shortage of teachers. The government wants all kids to go to school from 1st through 9th grade. But since all schools also charge some fees, some kids don’t. We got differing estimates of the effect of the fee structure—some claiming anyone could afford them and some claiming otherwise. Aside from rural China, cities have substantial “migrant” populations—many of whom are “uncounted” because they are only semi-legal. I do not know exactly what that means, but apparently one should have permission to move from country villages to cities.

Since returning to the U.S. I realize there are literally articles every day on China, and many on Chinese schooling. So probably many of those reading this know as much as I now do.

General Impressions?

Of course, one also “knows” that all of this that we saw was part of a deceptive picture of the “whole.” Imagine a complete foreigner “generalizing” on America after three weeks visiting NYC and Washington D.C. with well-connected friends? And China, while the same “size” as the US has 4-5 times the population. We did not see almost anything about how the other 80-90% live, or feel the impact of tight censorship (in some realms), etc. We did notice that we couldn’t get Wikipedia! And that no western newspapers were sold, even in American-style hotels. On my return I read a piece in The Nation by Jahangir S. Pocha that reminded me of the appallingly low wages most Chinese get, and the price they pay if they object, protest, etc. But the only constraints we saw were mild, and reminded me mostly of what happens in the average school district meeting—where “dissenters” are quickly shushed.

On the whole the Chinese we met were remarkably open about their own views, their cynicism, etc. One woman we met talked about her experiences during the cultural revolution (she was born in 1956 and soon went with her professorial parents to the countryside). She even had some “nostalgia” about that experience. She is chilled, she said, by the absence of concern today for the poor, and the obliviousness to the growing income gaps. But otherwise, while cynicism was high we didn’t get much sense of “politics.” We spent one evening with a wealthy Chinese philanthropist (married to a Communist stock broker), who ran a foundation for the poor that provided food for several thousand poor students. She was intrigued by the “idea” of poor kids getting free breakfast or lunch in the USA. Nothing like that exists now in Communist China. It reaffirmed my amazed feeling about being in a so-called Communist Country that outdid the west in its materialistic and capitalist aspects—and the divide between rich and poor!

(We were frequently reminded that any external semblance to “representative” government was a sham. The Communist Party and bureaucrats ran everything—the latter two terms being used interchangeably.)

It was a startling experience, and one I shall never forget. I felt immensely and instantly embraced by many of the educators we met, and eager to stay in touch with them. There was a kind of naive (?) enthusiasm in many of their comments that touched me. Being treated so well has an effect—-leaving me with a sense of emotional connection that most trips I’ve taken have not.

But as we stood in the vast Tiennaman Square one evening, in front of the large picture of Mao, I thought back to 1989 with an immense sense of sorrow. Have I seen the future—and is this it? Or is this too a “phase” on the way to a more equitable society?

I might even go again.

© 2007 Deborah Meier

Stay the course…

        May/June 2007

“Stay the course? Surge? Or rethink the mission? The parallel with Iraq is oddly appropriate. The No Child Left Behind Act has created an upheaval. It’s had myriad consequences, positive, negative, and unintended. Its critics say that the 5-year-old law is replacing a bad system with one that’s equally oppressive, the tyranny of multi-choice testing and a narrow curriculum.” Thus sayeth John Merrow, and I say, “Amen.”

If one high sakes test a year is not sufficiently leading to improved scores, maybe if we give one every six-weeks (also with high sakes) that aligns well with the big one at the end of the year, we can do better. Or maybe once a week? Or built into daily lesson plans? Or all of the above. One commonly heard current response to the law’s failure: “surge”—more of the same. Anything but some serious rethinking.

In NYC every act now has a consequence—either directly financial or indirectly (like losing your job). They’ve got it all figured out. Points are given for dozens of detailed steps a principal can take that are believed to correlate with better test scores. Bonuses of up to $25,000 are in store for principals that get the top scores, and the bottom 5% are targeted for removal. Probably these are also built-into the contracts the city has with the new management subcontractors that many schools will work under starting next fall. The people who invent these systems naturally are not people who respect that their own motivation for working hard or doing the right thing isn’t externally driven —if there isn’t a bonus attached, or fame and higher office. It’s perhaps no wonder then that they don’t even trust the drive of little children to learn for its own sweet sake, to seek to make sense of the world, and to master its increasingly more complex tasks. It fits together. Alas. The question is: where and how best to break into this vicious circle and remind us that a very different paradigm exists.

My blood runs cold when I think of what the current paradigm does to the everyday culture of a school, and the kind of discourse about children and their learning that it leads to. Not to mention what kind of future society its proponents have in mind for our children.

© 2007 Deborah Meier

Great Ideas

        April/May 2007

(reprinted from the Forum for Education and Democracy blog)

Some people wake up with great ideas. But I’m a night person. Right before I fall asleep I think I’ve finally found just the right way to say what it is I’m thinking. Often when I wake up I’ve either forgotten it or it seems banal.

But here are two ideas that keep reoccurring, and it is morning now so I’m going to try to capture them.

Great Idea 1:
The whole point of public education (vs job training or even some forms of private education) is to prepare a public for its responsibilities which, in a nutshell come down to exercising careful, thoughtful and reasonable judgment in the face of complex evidence. In the two tasks that confront 18 year olds—voting and serving on juries—these are the presumptions that lie behind the privilege.   Our best judgment is what in the end we bring to the table. Note there are neither admissions tests, nor licensure requirements for either voting or serving on a jury. It’s the unspoken and awesomely heavy presumption and also the most irrational facing governance by democratic principles and practices. It makes no sense, except (as Churchill said) it’s better than any of the alternatives.  But for every problem confronting this absurd idea—that everyone has a “right” to such power—there is a solution. Better education.

Not just formal K-12 schooling, surely not just or even college—which comes too late for many voters and jurors and is not open to everyone. But, as the slogans say, our aim is “lifelong” learning, on-going adult education. Newspapers are one of these educating forces, as are all the new technologies. Public access to books, libraries full of resources for getting at “the truth”, public spaces for communicating one’s ideas, and for demonstrating on behalf of them, etc, etc. I’m enamored even of the idea of subsidizing adults for going back for a liberal arts education later on, when they are more likely to appreciate its usefulness. But the one and only institution we set aside for this and only this purpose—with no obligation to make a buck in return—is our K-12 system of schooling.

I challenge any of us to spend a day with a kid in an average school and try to connect the dots between what is being learned there—formally and informally—and what a citizen of a democracy requires (in contrast to citizens perhaps of countries that don’t even pretend to be democratic).  The world is full of virtues. And economic necessities. But what are the explicitly democratic predispositions, skills, habits of mind and heart that we are not born with, but could learn in a setting devoted to such a purpose?

Great Idea 2:
Then, one night it occurred to me, that for all my ranting and raving against the term accountability, in fact the idea of being accountable lies at the heart of democracy. Democracy is a form of accountability—a concept intended to hold the powerful’s feet to the fire. Naturally as our schools have moved further and further away from being attached to their publics, it has become more and more important for us to invent other non-democratic, bureaucratic, “mandarin” forms of accountability. When there were 200,000 school boards serving a population less than half the size of today’s, a lot of people knew who was making judgments about their schools.  Today with as few as 10,000 school boards, and with some of them having almost no realistic power over anything but floating bonds, well….  No wonder! There ought to be a half million school boards or more, if—big if—we really believe in democracy as our most special and effective form of accountability.

Given that I’m not a fan of many of the decisions reached by democratic decision making bodies—including many school boards as well as state legislatures and Presidents—this is a leap of faith. I make it because I still agree with Churchill about the alternative to holding on to this often counter-intuitive and even counter-reasonable faith.  Neither various forms of benign dictatorship or market-place utopias seem more reasonable. Although if I got to choose the dictator it does some nights appear to be the solution. But by morning I have to face the fact that it’s unlikely to be someone of my choice; and if it were I’d probably be in the opposition the day after—coercion just has its limits when it comes to the important stuff—the stuff inside our hearts and minds.

These two ideas have become more than nighttime fantasies, but daytime ones too. I long for a more robust discussion. We confront the increasing  daily power of BOTH my dystopias— increased centralization of public schools in the hands of the few, and increased “selling off” of our schools to private interest groups. And yet we confront a very thin response to both.

What, readers, would we have to do to make these issues part of the conversation about K-12 schooling among our friends, parents of our children’s friends, colleagues, fellow citizens?

© 2007 Deborah Meier