Post Election

          December 2008

Dear friends (and foes alike),

Wasn’t it a glorious ending to two years of tension? It was for me. I wish so many of my friends had lived long enough to see this day.

When I was a youngster people of color were not allowed to go up our NYC West Side of Manhattan elevator. It is hard to believe. And shaming to remember.

But better yet, the man who will be our president is quite extraordinary—not just a breakthrough on race. He represents the kind of tone, reflectiveness, knowledge, and spirit that gives a boost to everything else I care about.

But still there are glitches. His economic advisors seem a very centrist bunch. I was so delighted that Krugman won a Nobel just in time to help Obama. But his advisors are largely from the old school—anti-regulators. Odd. Maybe only they can fix what they helped create???

On school issues we keep hearing names like Joel Klein and his ilk—top-down public school reformer at best, privatizers, at worst. And utterly insensitive to the realities. As well as that, they are big statistical fakers. Klein, for example, has neither improved test scores (on tests that he does not control), graduation rates, achievement gaps, dropouts, stronger and more thoughtful curriculum (it is all test-prep). Plus he has purposely and utterly posed himself as an enemy of unions, parents (if they are organized in any way), and sees principals as more or less like foreman to supervise their work crews. If you agree with me, send the word to your political leaders. This is not just an issue for New Yorkers (who know Klein best). (for more on this issue see Alfie Kohn’s piece in The Nation, Dec. 10, or Nick Meier’s latest column) . (See my response to the Arne Duncan selection on Democracy Now)

We do not need “accountability” experts from business and finance—whose record hardly suggests that they have “hands on” knowledge about that subject. I have my fingers crossed for some of the experienced educational leaders who have bravely pushed a bottom-up agenda in their cities and states, such as: Christenson of Nebraska, McWalters of Rhode Island, Rivera from Rochester, and many more. To head research? How about: Richard Rothstein, from EPI/Columbia/former New York Times columnist.

It is good to be home after a month of travel—to Minnesota, Manitoba, Pennsylvania (where I joined Ruth Jordan in south central Pennsylvania for a week of campaigning and had a great time in a bright red county), and for the annual Coalition of Essential Schools and Forum for Education and Democracy meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina. Note that every place I went (except Manitoba) voted for Obama. Such is my magic touch—plus that of thousands and thousands of others.

I also just traveled to Bloomington, Indiana to celebrate their school of education’s 100th birthday and the opening of the Meier Institute and Archive at the Lilly Library at the University.

We are hoping to create a special archive of contemporary (and old, if we can find them) progressive schools—their stories, their defeats and triumphs. It may serve to assist others who want to embark on this task.

I rather liked the idea that Indiana was, for sure, a Red state, thus countering the rumor that only “blues” were for progressive education. But, of course, by the time I arrived, Indiana had voted for Obama.

More later,


© 2008 Deborah Meier

Obama’s Secretary of Education

Obama’s victory is an amazing if belated triumph. It’s been a long time since we’ve had someone who is as thoughtful, reflective, responsible, and knowledgeable in the presidency of any color or party. Obama is an intellectual in the best sense of that word.

And, one of the ideas Obama’s been playing with just so happens to be one I too am fascinated by. How do top-down and bottom-up join together to make policy, not just run campaigns.

It’s pleasing to see the names of people like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling –Hammond come up as possible Secretarys of Education. They do differ on many issues but they are open, experienced, and independently thinking leaders who understand the needed tension amongst local, state and federal authoritie. When I read that the list might include Joel Klein of NYC and others like him beholden to top down reform and to simple minded test accountability, I shudder.

The so-called New York miracle is as phony as the Houston, Texas miracle that ushered Rod Paige in. We cannot afford a repeat of this. NYC’s “reform” has been at best a waste of precious years, and at worst a disaster. Test scores have not risen, nor have graduation rates, nor has the content of education (which has merely been narrowed to test prep), nor the culture and climate of our schools, nor the achievement gap, meanwhile economic and racial segregation have grown apace. We’ve got hard data to demonstrate all of this.

The folks Joel Klein hangs around with are not leaders in the field of schooling, education, or youth building but precisely the folks who gave us our current fiscal crisis. Their knowledge of accountability, even in business, is shabby at best. There is very little first-hand knowledge of the public schools that educate the vast majority of our children among his associates and those he hires to make big decisions. The voices of parents, teachers and principals have been drowned out by a system that makes clear they do not know or care what “they” think.

If we are to capitalize on this time of hope, we most raise our voices as to the need of an education leader who understands and is willing to rectify the imbalance between “we the people” and those who want to tell the people what to do.

There are lots of steps for folks to take now. Signing petitions (see below) is only one; and that’s if you agree with me! Writing influential people you know in your own voice is another. But the choice of key people in D.C. is on the agenda right now because we’re in transition time and people do count. The real message of Obama’s victory is not to wait for Obama or anyone else to tell us when and what to act on, but, to organize where we are on issues that count in our own terrain.

Best, Deb

Mayoral Control

          October 2008

The following column is based on my remarks from a recent New York State Legislative Hearing on continued Mayoral control of schooling in NYC.

I sometimes wonder: What would have happened if the Governor or State Legislature had wiped out all the School Boards in the state, and replaced it with a system controlled lock-stock-and-barrel by the Governor, under the slogan of accountability? Lots of citizens, like those in my hometown upstate, gripe about their local school board, but you and I know there would be hell to pay if we abolished their voice in their schools. Why is it, then, so easy to eliminate lay voices only in our big cities with predominantly low income students of color as our school clientele? Who are we afraid of?

We are in the midst of a period in history that has profound disrespect for experience and knowledge—and those who whine most about our incompetent teachers and schools are leading the parade. Auto companies are run by people who know nothing about cars, and schools by people who know nothing about schools. Even as a principal it was hard not to fall into that trap:  those neat ideas I had as I fell asleep, that fell apart under the scrutiny of my colleagues who might have had to implement them. How odd that the folks who have been advising the Mayor represent some of the most unaccountable players on the American stage—resisters to the most basic forms of oversight.—NYC’s business and finance community. (And by a mayor who publicly argues in the NY Times that there should be no, zero,  “oversight” of his powers.)

But let me switch to some truths from a very old-timer, one who spent nearly 30 years as a teacher and principal in some of NYC’s most innovative and successful schools. Me. Reform did not begin with Bloomberg; and in fact there is not a scintilla of evidence that overall the children of NYC are better off today than they were before he became Mayor. I am sympathetic—the problem is pretty huge and no other city has solved it; except that he either really believes he has succeeded or has tried to convince all of us of that there’s been a small miracle under his leadership. Neither graduation rates nor test scores confirm his enthusiasm for his own reign.

I would even sympathize with that if he was not such a zealot for so-called “hard” data. There is no hard data that says he has moved us forward. Not that he has not tried, changing plans every few years, and so have all his subordinates. I know first hand all the ways in which principals are capable of giving their bosses the hard data they want. They could not give it to him because it was not there. The hard data simply does not show what he claims it does. But saddest of all is how easy it is to fool a lot of people a lot of the time—to invent myths that become common wisdom.

I heard one in D.C. last week about China—as a well-meaning congressman asked how it could be that China now graduates 97% of its young people, when we graduate only 50%. Of course the reality is that 90% of the Chinese do not even start high school. But like everyone else, I did not correct him. We’re just too damn polite. And after a while, we’re not merely polite, but we pass the myth on. We forget it was nonsense. And so it has been for decades about our schools; and NYC is a prime example. We are not alone, but not far behind the Texas or Chicago miracles—whose myths collapsed as soon as the next politician inherited the mess.

We pay a price for the lack of an open process of governance. Democracy is not a sure-fire cure—for sure—but it is the one and only possibility. And even if it is not, it is the one we claim allegiance to. It’s what our schools are all about teaching us about.

Here is another example closer to my life story. The claim is that Mayoral control may appear centralizing, but that, in fact, at its heart is decentralization down to the school level, the empowerment of principals! Right? What principal dares to stand up and say it ain’t so! It is unanimous. I became a principal in 1974 of a K-6th grade school, and of a second in 1978, and then of a third, a 7th-12th grade secondary school in 1985. There is not a single power that current principals now have that I did not have, and a lot that they do not have that I did! And I was hardly alone—just ask some of my old colleagues. Some used their powers, some did not; and it is true neither the Central nor the District boards encouraged them to do so. It is a myth that principals had their hands tied in the bad old days. Yes, there was a lot of bureaucratic tangle. And there still is! Yes, we did not solve the question of how to take advantage of the best wisdom available to us in open and transparent ways. And we still don’t. Yes, we couldn’t get rid of people without due process; and I wouldn’t want it otherwise.

But the union that the Mayor complains about eagerly embraced our ideas, and moved to change the process of hiring – and they convinced their members and changed the contract. The first major example of high school reform of an existing failed secondary school was the joint project of the union and management who together championed a process that led to the Julia Richman Educational Complex—one of the leading examples nationwide of successful big school to small schools reforms—and which is now under threat of closure, by the Mayor.

It is when we are not afraid that we find it easiest, not hardest to talk truth to each other, take some risks. When we want dictatorial power is when unions are most needed, not least.

At Central Park East Secondary School, and the other schools we worked closely with, we had control over our budget, our curriculum and our assessments. We designed, with the assistance of city and state and union, a challenging process for determining graduation standards that led to unprecedented success in a student body of largely so-called “at risk” students. We graduated 90% of whom 90% went on to 4-year colleges.

There was in the late 80s and early 90s, the beginning of a stunning opening up of ideas about schooling. An ever enlarging alternative school division, encompassing 50,000 high school students, was thriving with some of the least likely students, and proposals were on the table for spreading these ideas across all five boroughs—with the union’s support!

The mayor has found a solution to that that we had not dreamed of. Change the population. District 5—central Harlem—looked bad. Ditto for East Harlem. Now they are being gentrified, the poor being pushed out. The Bronx—which if it were a city has a school record equal to D.C.—will apparently have to wait a while for gentrification to improve their schools. Meanwhile, all over the city the wonderful idea of small schools of choice has evolved into small schools for different kids. Are small schools still a good idea? Yes, but it began under decentralization, not Mayoral control, and it is time to reassess it’s impact on equity.

I am not calling for a return to the good old days.

What’s changed? There are still oasis of good practice, amidst public hype that suggests vast improvements. Hard working colleagues continue to struggle, and they make a difference. But they are handicapped for many of the same reasons—not enough power—or even voice—in the hands of those who can best make a difference. Mayoral control has moved us further and further away from hearing the voices of citizens or professionals, parents or teachers, much less kids! It has moved us further and further from the kind of mutual respect and trust that allows expertise to be used well, and the voices of those who know the most to reach the voices of those with power. The further apart these two are, the greater the suspicion, fear and dysfunction.

Mayoralty controls need to be rethought, root and branch. We need ways to insist that schools be responsible for decisions that are best made inside schools by the people who are most affected. We need to look at Boston’s interesting work with “pilot schools,” for example. We need to enlist school people, not Wall Street experts, to design wiser ways to hold people accountable. We need to remind ourselves that democracy itself was invented as a way to hold leaders accountable, not the enemy of accountability.

Before we decide whether it is okay to pay children (and teachers) to learn and do well in school, we need to ask who has the right to make such decisions on our behalf?

I came back from China—the real one—a year and a half ago, and I am intrigued by how many ways NYC is beginning to remind me of Beijing, and alas it is not a happy thought. We are not ready to trade in our democratic voice in the raising of our children in the hopes that the Mayor’s friends will have better ideas than we all collectively do.



© 2008 Deborah Meier

Schooling for Democracy

          September 2008

The citizens of a state should always be educated to suit the constitution of their state. The type of character appropriate to a constitution is the power which continues to sustain it…. The democratic type of character creates and sustains democracy; the oligarchical type creates and sustains oligarchy. – Aristotle’s Politics, Book VIIII

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand . . . has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” … and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.” –Karl Marx and Fredrick Engel’s, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”2

Generally speaking, all freshmen are either now or soon to be voters. Does not the University owe them a duty as such? “Reorganization of Undergraduate Instruction,” – Stanford University, 1923

Dear readers,

Grace Roosevelt starts a provocative essay about the fate of the liberal arts with the quotes above (Teachers College Record, Nov 7, 2006). I think they suggest an argument well worth taking on by proponents of school reform. Roosevelt’s thesis lauds all three of the above versions, up to a point. But I enjoy their juxtaposition, suggesting between them their different contexts. Aristotle wrote in defense of a state that was far from our ideal of citizen-rule; Marx and Engel’s words were for many years used to defend a state that practiced virtually no democratic processes; and Stanford is the home ground for a small selected-elite with tons of resources gained through free-trade.

But the message outlives the messengers, and calls us to rethink how education and politics connect—and their relationship to the liberal arts.

I grew up with the conviction, largely unconsidered, that democracy was the natural outcome of high thinking and liberal-minded ideals. The thinking went that it all started in ancient Greece with American democracy as its latest and greatest exemplar. Democratic socialism was, in my family’s lexicon, merely the next civilized stage of democracy, when greater economic equality and democracy would bring the liberal arts dream to every man and woman. We, too, were passing over, to some degree, those still excluded from even the semblance of political rights within our own midst.

It seems naïve today; but there’s still a kernel of truth to that story of democracy—one I hold onto romantically. It’s that romantic ideal that connects with my passion about the potential role of education for democracy.

There are, indubitably, social and economic analyses of what makes democracy more or less likely. They cannot be ignored. But the idea itself has not ever been more popular rhetorically than it is in modern times, even as it remains neither widely nor deeply practiced. It is in this contradiction that I propose school reform to put up its flag—to exploit the chasm between the ideal and the practice. I propose we seriously imagine what schooling might be like if its one and only purpose were to prepare 100% of its members to think in ways—not ends—compatible with democracy.

That’s where I’d start. Once satisfied we’ve done our best, we might look more broadly at its potential to, say, teach advanced algebra. There might, or might not, be contradictions—except in terms of the time and resources required

I think any fair examination of the 13-17 years young people currently spend in public institutions would convince us that democracy is nearly the last goal of such institutions. Young people have very little time devoted to its explicit study, or to studying the problems as they might be approached by a future policymaker (citizen). Almost none involve students living as observers of a democratic institution in progress (their school or department), much less their local community. Their own personal exposure might go no further than voting on favorite colors, teams or classmates. Students have a very cursory attention span toward State or National politics, and virtually no understanding of the rules of its deliberative bodies. At best they have “heard” of the idea of “balance of power,” but they have no feel for it as other than an arrangement of countervailing vetoes of executive, legislative an judicial bodies. Students are rarely obliged, or even invited, to think about public priorities—except in the abstract task of answering opinion polls. The connection between formal equality and ordinary equity, between justice by law and the ideal of fairness, all these are at best a few paragraphs in a history book crammed with far too many other important matters—and only one course among many—to seriously interfere with life.

Interfering with life is not a comfortable role for schools. Education for troubled waters is dangerous, risky, and seen as best resolved through neutral paper-and-pencil right-and-wrong tests. Or formally well-structured essays.

But how else might it be? What would we have to give up if we took teaching for democracy more seriously? Would there have to be dangerous trade-offs? Is it a matter of teaching less rather than more? Teaching differently? Or re-conceptualizing the ideas at the root of democracy in ways that enhance all proper democratically taught intellectual disciplines?

The academic disciplines weren’t invented for democracy. Nor is democracy so naturally inherent to human experience. But that doesn’t mean democracy, academia and humanity can’t be useful to each other. If the core of democratic thought is not a task that will occur overnight or without struggle, shouldn’t schools themselves be one of the laboratories for such conceptualization, and experimentation? Shouldn’t “academia” prove its worthiness precisely by taking it on, along with the ABCs?

Might this be at the heart of serious school reform? The most traditionally organized school or the most progressively oriented can accept such a challenge. Until we have “proof” (which may never happen) that one or another approaches guarantees a more democratic future, we better not construct obstacles to these different paths—however superficially local a case we can make for it. Differences should be highlighted, cherished, enjoyed—as well as the long-term study of their possible impact on the future of America. That future can include more than democracy as an outcome worthy of study. But couldn’t democracy be the one common goal that all publicly funded, and perhaps even all publicly accredited, schools agree to keep in the forefront of their “reforms.” Such funding and accreditation could be based on how both the pedagogy and the content of young people’s schooling increased or decreased the democratization of society.

Let’s weigh in.


p.s. I urge readers also to buy Charles Tilly’s Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

© 2008 Deborah Meier

Democracy in Crisis

          August 2008

Dear readers,

I have been mulling over all the many ways in which democracy and education could intersect. At present there are amazingly few instances where they do. This is due in part because we think of “process” questions as boring; they do not arouse mass passion—or at least not until they very personally interrupt our lives.

Yet the necessary balance which enables democracy to be better than all those other forms of governance, despite its flaws (to paraphrase Churchill in the 1940s) is not guaranteed to survive the number of crises we appear to face, crises that all require “instant” solutions.

In times of crisis, democracy begins to appear to be a luxury, as it has many times in the past. We did some pretty awful things in every war we fought. But, as Orwell reminded us, in a permanent state of war these luxuries can disappear permanently too.

These concerns have led to my recent (45 years) obsession with both democracy and schooling. It is worth our all spending more time trying to put them together. I think I have the right question, but I am still unsure I have the right answer, or better, answers.

To help me think about this I have started with two problematics…

A. Assuming that the average human being could be far smarter at making sense of the world, is it possible to do anything to make this happen? Would such a state of well-educated “intelligence” enable us to better sustain and extend democracy?

B. Assuming that you can only build tomorrow with who and what exists today—and that includes the people and their state of education—then how would we go about creating the intelligence we need for tomorrow with the citizenry of today?

In short: we have a conundrum. If it requires a better educated citizenry to protect and nourish democracy, how can democracy be used to get us such a citizenry?

It might be that it is not do-able, even if desirable. Or it might be do-able but undesirable. Or it might be that the best we can do is just muddle through with what we have and hope good luck and smart leaders will keep us on course.

The usual answer for solving this very old conundrum lies in one version or another of “poppa knows best.” The vanguard party; the vanguard class; philosopher king; or divine rule; or, of late, the free market! Some proponents of these solutions promised an eventual “withering away” of the Vanguard, but in vain. We have all, I would argue, had occasion to defend, in times of emergency, one or another of the above. So I am not going to write about what’s right or wrong with them. I can also see why the “market place” attracts people who have seen the others first hand. The trouble is that I see the “market place” not as an alternative but as just another form of secular “dictatorship.” Governance—under whatever name it goes by—quietly becomes the direct hand-maiden of the market’s winners—even if sometimes utilizing other mediating forces to soften the impact.

When IKEA recently defended its private chain of schools in (of all places) Sweden they defended it in eerily Marxist terms. It works for hotels and airplanes, says IKEA, so why not for schools. They stoutly boast that standardization is the key—that kids are much like other commodities. In the name of high profits and high quality it works whether one is talking about hotel rooms, furniture or future citizens. Does there seem something scary about this vision?

Next month, I am going to try to think up some alternatives that might lead us out of this conundrum–democratically.


© 2008 Deborah Meier

I Wonder…

          July, 2008

I wonder, as someone not trained as an economist, whether there is any connection between the future of the American economy and better schooling—not just better test scores, but a better educated workforce. Clearly the biggest reason for jobs going overseas is lower wages there. So, why would a better-educated workforce draw them back here? How much smarter would Americans have to be to make them worth paying two and three times as much? It is easier for me to see how a smarter workforce might also be a smarter citizen-force. Then I think, maybe a smarter society might help us devise new ways of thinking that could, in turn, create alternate ways of living better while earning less?

I wonder what would happen if we stopped talking as though the future were predetermined: that the 2lst century was something we had to adjust to, rather than reshape. Is this just a different version of the first musing?

I wonder just how adaptable and resilient the human species is. For example, if I am right that there is a serious loss of play in the lives of young children, will it matter in terms of the creativity of the adults of the future? Their resiliency? Their capacity for self-governance? Two possibilities come to mind. One, I am wrong about the role of play. Two, that play cannot be stamped out–new forms of play replace old ones as circumstances change.

I wonder, maybe connected to the above, what the impact of all the new reality shows and videos are on what happens to human minds and hearts. My grandson, Ezra, was telling me the other day more about the nature of the new war videos that allow users to participate as active agents in “war play”—as though it were real. I had just watched Ezra and Daniel (my other grandson) “playing” baseball on a huge screen. I was stunned. It looked (almost) like a real game, but they were controlling it! They were “being” players. It led Ezra and I to speculating about the impact of participating in killing on the big screen. Given that one knew it was not really happening did it really matter or was I being unnecessarily fearful? Or will it reach a point where it becomes harder and harder to tell that it is not “really” happening?

I wish sometimes that I could live long enough to find out some of the answers to these questions. But for the sake of my grandchildren I am certainly wishing that the answers are hopeful ones for our ornery, unpredictable and surprisingly adaptable species.

© 2008 Deborah Meier

In Memory of Florence Miller

June 2008

A good friend, educator and writer, Florence Miller, died on May 26th after a long struggle with cancer. She worked with many of us from the early 60s on as a New York City teacher and wise counselor. Many of us keenly remember wise and witty things she told us–about our work and our world. I reread a piece we co-wrote in 1988 in The Nation–and reprint it below.

Diane Ravitch and I have become better friends in the past 20 years; colleagues and co-thinkers. Of foremost importance to us both is the survival of public education and a commitment to trade-unionism, including teacher unionism. We are even in greater agreement than we once were—times do change—on the uses and abuses of high stakes tests. But on national standards—we’re still far apart. (Although she agrees that there shouldn’t be high stakes attached and I see such a use as inevitable once we officially declare what “all children should know”)

In Florence’s memory, and the current relevance of the piece itself:

(originally published January 9, 1988 in The Nation magazine)

The Book of Lists
A Book Review by
Deborah Meier and
Florence Miller


By Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Harper & Row. 293 pp.

When Jean Piaget noted that 6-year-olds gave surprisingly ignorant answers to his simple questions, he didn’t rush into print with the information. How interesting, he thought. The answers I expected are not self-evident. Thus began a life’s work of examining children’s ignorance.

Seventh-grader Mariette points to the sky when asked which way is north. How interesting, thinks her teacher! For Mariette, “north” is “up.” How shall I help her think about north and south as opposed to up and down? Reframe my question? Dig up useful evidence? Explore with her the way she thinks and be mindful that once told she’s wrong, she is likely to mask her ignorance with the right answers yet still be confused about “north” and “up.”

Ignorance is interesting and useful to many thoughtful toilers in the vineyards of education, and while Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr. also toil in those vineyards, she at Columbia, he at Vanderbilt University and in the U.S. Department of Education, their view of ignorance is familiar and fruitless. They miss the vital connection between knowing and not knowing, and because they do so, not knowing is failure, or bad schooling—a case in need of a remedy, a cause for alarm, a reason to rush into print.

Under the aegis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ravitch, and Finn and a panel of experts they chose developed two lengthy questionnaires designed to determine at mid-eleventh grade whether students know what the authors think they should about history and literature.

The literature section is a mixed bag that included Moses, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Aesop, Hemingway, Goliath, Gulliver’s Travels, Mars, Cain and Abel, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Jonah, Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, Pandora, Genesis, Martin Luther King Jr., Dickinson, Melville, Zeus, Atlas, Macbeth, the Iliad, Poe, Noah, A Raisin in the Sun, “Blood, Sweat and Tears” (the speech, not the group), Byron, Pip, Beowulf, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Ibsen, Ellison, Joyce, Blake, Bunyan, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Hughes, London, Dickens, Daedalus, “Rappacini’s Daughter.” And more.

The history section includes Harriet Tubman, Pearl Harbor, Watergate, Lindbergh, Jamestown, Prohibition, the cotton gin, secession, Susan B. Anthony, the Brown decision, Sputnik, checks and balances, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Gold Rush, Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan, the Bill of Rights, Winston Churchill, Jim Crow, the Magna Carta, Betty Friedan, Reconstruction, Common Sense, D-Day, Jane Addams, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Ida Tarbell, the Seneca Falls Declaration, Lyndon Johnson, isolationism, John Winthrop, the Scopes trial, the Three-Fifths Compromise, John D. Rockefeller, Eisenhower, the Dust Bowl, Stalin, the Monroe Doctrine, laissez faire, the Missouri Compromise, Joe McCarthy. And more.

The questions are in the familiar multiple-choice format.

The Return of the Native, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge were written by:
a. Sir Walter Scott
b. Thomas Hardy
c. Oscar Wilde
d. Robert Louis Stevenson

Which of the following was NOT addressed by New Deal legislation?
a. Agricultural price supports
b. Labor unions
c. Social Security
d. Restrictions on immigration

The authors score the test with 90 as A, below 60 as failing. They correlate the results with demographic data, tell us what it all means and offer recommendations. Graphed and in tables, their findings confirm their suspicion that our schools and pedagogy are failing.

There are major and minor irritants throughout. People is sniffed at, TV Guide gets a footnote. Public funding paid for six pages of acknowledgments, with special thanks to the woman who spent Mother’s Day reading a draft of the manuscript. Under the scary heading “A Generation at Risk,” Ravitch and Finn offer fifty pages of dusty recommendations, all of which recall undergraduate papers for Aims of Education 101, written in the hope that the professor wouldn’t notice how wide the margins were:

  • Devote more time to the teaching and learning of history.
  • Devote more time and attention to teaching literature, beginning in the earliest grades and continuing in every year of elementary school, junior high school and high school.
  • A hefty dose of good literature should be part of all students’ English studies.
  • Only those who are well educated in history or literature should teach those subjects in the schools.
  • The historical interconnections among different nations and societies should be understood.

There are statements that defy analysis:

  • The power of the facts-versus-concepts dichotomy has grown so great within the social studies field that some professionals now harbor an instinctive distrust of facts per se.
  • It is fatuous to believe that students can think critically or conceptually when they are ignorant of the most basic facts of American history.
  • When public libraries and museums celebrate Black History Month, for example, exhibitions should be designed not merely to commemorate some aspect of black history, but as an education for visitors who know little or nothing about the past.

    They flip and they flop. Multiple-choice tests have “defects.” “We were aware that many thoughtful people mistrust multiple-choice tests … we shared most of those doubts.” Nevertheless, test data are “hard documentation” and “the results of this assessment reveal serious gaps in 17-year-olds’ basic knowledge of history and literature.”

    The study comes down against teaching skills without content but insists that students cannot engage in critical thinking unless they have “prior knowledge of the material they are reading.” In other words, teach content without thought. They approve of student discussion and Paideia-like seminars, but given the prior knowledge requirement, the chances of struggling through the masses of prerequisite information to the cool reaches of reasoned thought seem remote indeed. Theodore Sizer, author of Horace’s Compromise, seems to be one of their guys, but they weren’t paying attention. Less, Sizer says, is usually more. For Ravitch and Finn right answers mean good schooling. Twenty-four percent of those tested matched Thomas Hardy with The Mayor of Casterbridge. That’s bad schooling. A stunning 94 percent got Noah, right. Good schooling? They call their 60 percent cutoff for passing “generous,” but few junior high math teachers or graduate school professors would risk using that figure on an exam given a year or more after their courses were taken. So, what exactly is being measured here? If the 8,000 students questioned had all scored 90 percent or more, would that mean schools were successfully teaching literature and history?

    There are good and proper reasons to scrutinize the state of American education. Too few students have read any of the books on the questionnaire from cover to cover. Most have experienced our best authors in a hit-and-run fashion as they rush through curricula oriented to tests like this one. Too few have had the to engage in discussion about the books they’ve read. Too few have been directed back to the text to support their feelings or opinions or preferences.

    Too few express strong convictions about anything they are exposed to in school. Seldom have they been encouraged to abandon their present identities long enough to enter the unfamiliar worlds created by authors, thus making themselves vulnerable to the expansion of experience and insight that good literature offers. It is not the nod of recognition nor crossword puzzle savanterie that identifies the well-schooled person. It is habits of the mind.

    There’s a ferment in the world of school policy today and a lively discourse is going on, for a change. Good minds have been set to work figuring out how pesky human beings actually learn and are trying to relate that knowledge to schooling. It’s a lively and unfinished conversation. Best of all, there’s an exhilarating consensus that there is no one best answer to many of these questions, although there are clearly some very bad ones.

    It is a time too of discussion about the aims of education. The business community sees the goals of education as outperforming Japan, curing the ills of our economy and providing a useful labor pool. Academics call for schools that produce students prepared to handle subject matter in the way college professors dish it out. But there are those who point out that neither the employer nor the academy is the rightful beneficiary of a good education. Such people declare that the principal function of secondary education is to create a lively and strong civic culture, an active citizenry with the knowledge and understanding requisite for engaging in reasonable and responsible discourse, an education as rigorous for those who go straight to work as for the college-bound. In other words, the cosmetic surgeon and the cosmetician need an equally sound liberal education.

    The argument for the humanities, which Ravitch and Finn are so passionately eager to strengthen, traditionally rests upon this latter claim. In the foreword to What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Lynne Cheney writes that the study of the humanities “can expand the mind and enlarge the soul.” She quotes Thomas Jefferson to the effect that the study of history “will qualify (people) as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

    Oh, the dangers of fooling around with original intent! Repeating well-worn phrases about history and literature as guarantors of democracy is naive or cynical. Free schooling in a democratic society was a novel and exciting prospect in Jefferson’s time. Two hundred years later, we are forced to acknowledge that successful, universal schooling can coexist with tyranny and gulags. Education alone is no guarantor of democracy.

    How schools educate is then critical. Schools can cherish or ignore, prize or disdain habits of mind. Schools may preach respect for knowledge of the past, but if students are rushed through hundreds, perhaps thousands of years using generalizations as mileposts, such respect is not demonstrated and not learned. Sweeping survey courses given to the young and inexperienced student are essentially disrespectful of the complexities and subtleties of history. We telescope a thousand years of ancient Greek history so that we seem to be looking at a single coherent society that barely changes over ten centuries. There is no time to consider the nature of evidence, the credibility of witnesses. To help youngsters who, by virtue of their youth, distinguish poorly between a hundred and a thousand years, we pin catchy labels that often hide more than they reveal. In the rush to cover the curriculum, there is no time examine those who stood in the way of Progress. Only the winners are remembered. The Vince Lombardi school of history.

    History as a discipline for citizenship needs to be treated with the respect we I ask our students to use in examining the present. Only thus will history serve to assist in developing the dispositions that might serve our society well, that might “expand the mind and enlarge the soul.” With such habits of mind people are ready to consider alternate viewpoints and possibilities, weigh evidence with care, look cautiously at claims of cause and effect. Such habits of mind include a romance with the past that stays in place long enough to come alive.

    And time is a factor. The current interest in re-examining schools and education’s goals won’t last long, if an educated backward glance means anything. The struggle to put deeper and more authentic content and pedagogy into our schools will not be easy, at best, and I will require its proponents to do battle with well-entrenched customs and interests. The textbook publishers and the testing corporations—the two are often the same—are waiting in the wings to see which way the wind will finally blow. Then they will rush in with surefire solutions: Curriculum from Kindergarten to Twelfth Grade, Guaranteed to Improve Scores on the Latest National Assessment in History; Sixty Days to Mastery of the 5,000 Words Every Cultured Person Should Know by the Age of 17; 100 Days to 100 to 100 Great books.

    Following the publishers and the testers will come the busy local and state curriculum teams, with their scores, sequences, stanines, pretests and posttests at the ready. What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? seems written for just such a constituency. Given the influence of Ravitch and Finn, new curriculums are probably already in the making. If so, we will have foreclosed on the real debate and be witness to one more cycle of alarm and reform, swinging from fad to fad and never digging deep. We’ll move from the mindless teaching of skills  to the mindless teaching of content as measured by mindless multiple-choice tests. We’ll have missed the opportunity to develop a responsible approach to schooling, one that disdains the quick fix, that probes beneath the obvious, one undismayed by ignorance and ambiguity, one patient in the face of tough and persistent issues, one first and foremost attentive to developing thoughtful, educated citizens.

    © 2008 Deborah Meier