May 2008

No Place but Here:
A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community
By Garret Keizer
Viking. 164 pp.

The Mind at Work
By Mike Rose
Viking. 249 pp.

The Craftsman
By Richard Sennett
Yale University Press. 326 pp.

Garret Keizer, Richard Sennett and Mike Rose are my latest “must reads”—and for much the same reason.

Keiser’s book, called No Place But Here, describes his work in northern Vermont today – in 1988 actually. Sennett’s is a broader more “philosophical” study of what it means to be a craftsman. Mike Rose’s Minds at Work is a study of the ways we use our intellects in the pursuit of both so-called low and high-skilled trades. He starts off with his mother—a waitress.

Keizer’s language betrays his bias at every turn. E.g. his “two great commandments for shaping the mind of student ….Thou shalt instruct criticism, thou shalt instill wonder.” From birth on, he claims, we are endowed with two qualities of mind: “to be critical and to wonder.” Schools must address both. All the rest, as we are reminded by Hillel on Passover, is commentary.* (On Sunday Keizer is a Lay Vicar at an Episcopal Church. And Jewish atheist that I am, it resonates with me.)

The three authors’ styles, experiences and strengths are quite different. But their work is imbued with a kind of respectfulness that literally takes my breath away—at a time when disrespectfulness seems ever present. I have to stop often and let things sink in while I am also wondering, with pain, at how often I have failed the test myself. The ways in which we speak of people as “smart” and “not smart,” “successful” and otherwise betrays something so pervasive that we do not even notice that it contradicts our aspirations—all the talk about “all children” can learn.

The Forum for Education and Democracy presented a report called Democracy at Risk at the Press Club two weeks ago, on the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. From 1983 on we’ve been told we are in a crisis—our test scores were not globally competitive. The test score “crisis” is much overblown, but there is a scarier crisis. We have no competitors when it comes to the rate at which we incarcerate our citizens, particular our youth. We stand alone, at the very bottom. And we stand alone also among modern industrialized democracies when it comes to the conditions of our prisons, for our own citizens but more appallingly still for so-called “detainees”—imprisoned foreigners. And a host of other statistics about the quality of life in America.

How do we account for a system of schooling that has produced such horrors? In what ways are they “accountable” for these hard facts? Keizer, Sennett and Rose talk to a different kind of crisis—and one (as Sennett notes) is not just American-made. Keiser describes it best in a chapter on Courtesy, of all things.

Behind our claimed commitment to democracy is a leap of faith. It rests on a imagining a level of mutuality that we are unaccustomed to articulate much less practice, an acknowledgement of each other’s worthiness that we don’t often even pretend to. It asks of schools something we haven’t seriously considered. Hoover Institute’s Charles Murray calls it romanticism. But it’s a romance that has led us to hold dear to an equally fragile idea—democracy; it’s an idea sometimes hard to defend until one considers the alternatives.** It’s the “romanticism” that led Rose to go back home to interview members of his family about their working lives, and Sennett to re-examine the place of craftsmanship in the ideal of democracy itself.

Keiser’s simple chapter on courtesy inside the classroom and school is worth everyone stopping to read and discuss. Figuring out how to practice such “courtesy” on a daily basis would constitute a major step toward unwrapping the mystery of what a democratic culture rests upon.


* Hillel was, in fact, referring to the equivalent of the “golden rule”—but the point is the same.

** Paraphrase of a speech by Winston Churchill

© 2008 Deborah Meier

“Discipline” and Learning

April 2008

Dear friends,

A reporter for the NY Times just called me to discuss a story she’s writing about a suburban middle school in upstate New York. It’s a school that is transitioning from an all-white rural population to a more and more African American population. This is probably happening throughout the country as our major cities begin to “retake” the center city, and she claims some of the responses seem similar.

She describes the school as appearing, to her eyes, like any nice suburban school—of about 600 students, 2/3 white and 1/3 black.

The news? They’ve instituted draconian discipline rules, including the elimination of all extra-curricular activities for students who are failing any subject. Assigned seats in both classrooms and the lunchroom, with silent lunch for all if there is misbehavior. And an automatic detention for failing to wear one’s ID tag. And so on. She wanted my views about it.

It coincides with a similar discussion on my EdWeek website with Diane Ravitch. But the back and forth gave me an opportunity to think about my point of view. As I said to the reporter at the end—more or less: I can sympathize if this is a response to chaos—a measure to restore some law and order so that all concerned can begin to tackle the real issues. As a “solution” to improving the learning curve of kids, it won’t get them anywhere. The kids who are already overage may drop out sooner, and some borderline kids may become more dutiful and compliant—which might marginally improve test scores. But it runs counter to any effort to have a positive effect on engaging kids in the intellectual content of schooling.

And, it’s hard not to wonder about the relationship of this new concern and the new population. I have long become accustomed to hearing from friend and foe alike that “some” kids, “those” kids, etc. need “more structure”, “discipline”, “toughness”—that’s what they’re used to, etc. In many ways the schools I’ve been involved in have been efforts to demonstrate that a respectful and civil (versus military) environment can work for all kids.

Many of the measures the reporter described, of course, have a prison-like quality. But then we don’t pretend that the prison guards are there to be role-models to inmates, nor that the prison is designed in the interests of the prisoners. The trouble is that prison-like schools are not effective, even if prison-like prisons may be. Of the latter I’m not convinced either—but that’s another issue.

The kids who get to 6th, 7th and 8th grade after unsuccessful years in elementary school truly don’t “get it”. If it’s hard for my 16-year-old granddaughter to complete her trigonometry homework, with her math-educated father by her side, imagine how hard schools are for the kids who are probably the troublemakers in school. Being dutiful won’t solve it for them any more than dutifully practicing the piano did for me as a kid. Instead of getting better, I just got more frustrated and more convinced that I would never be able to do it well. The 10th time I played the passage was no better than the first, and often worse. And I, unlike many kids in school, wanted to be a pianist, freely chose to take those lessons, and liked my teacher. I even knew what it was like to be good at it—I just couldn’t figure out any way to get there. Imagine how it must feel if you didn’t choose to go to school, don’t get the point of it, and aren’t sure you trust the people trying to teach you.

So schools need to tackle two things. Getting the relationships right for kids to want to do well, to want to be like the successful students and their teachers, and then to figure out how to engage them in ways that might bring success. Any “law and order” appeal has to be built on their at least tacit acknowledgement that we’re on their side—we’re allies not guards..

I believe this is possible; but it’s not easy. A school with 600 middle schoolers packed together, 125-150 students a day for teachers to get to know, insufficient time for faculty to work together on solutions, inappropriate pressure for inappropriate goals, and all the nonschool burdens kids face in life, work against us. Some of these we, as educators, can do something about—tomorrow, so to speak; others will take much broader public policy changes. My last month’s column about Brian Stoffer at D.C.’s KIPP is relevant to this discussion.

The flurry of boot-camp mentality may be one effect of NCLB (as scores don’t go up, tempers do), and some may even see this as a positive response (“they care”). It’s also likely that the gentrification of our center cities will produce more and more of these stories in the suburbs. They don’t augur well for our future.


© 2008 Deborah Meier

A Lesson from KIPP

      March 2008

Dear friends,

I’m just back from an 8-day sojourn in the Midwest. It ended up with 2 days in Grinnell, Iowa, which in turn ended up with a panel that left me feeling elated.

Four young(ish) people, graduates of Grinnell, described their life as public school teachers in D.C., Denver, St. Paul and Detroit. They insisted they are in it for the long haul and that while they found it often frustrating, teaching was also wonderful. I found myself drawn in, intrigued, in short—learning from them.

One of the speakers was working in a KIPP school. It’s a middle school model much praised for its impact on test scores. It is built upon many of the characteristics of the “military school” model. Tough love. No talking unless called on (including in the halls), uniforms, rote forms of “good manners,” and rewards and punishments for living by the rule. Some of you might guess that it’s not been my favorite model. So I was not prepared for his enthusiasm. But at the end he told a wonderful story, and it reminded me of why I’m still such an enthusiastic “democrat.” He told us that he had, at one point, considered leaving KIPP for another school. He and some friends had begun to explore what happened to many successful KIPP graduates in high school. They were sad, but not entirely surprised, to see how many of them fell apart later on without the tight structure and scaffolding that KIPP provided. They had learned to do things the KIPP-way but had not built in ways to handle more open-settings. Of course they were particularly disappointed at how poorly the kids’ writing held-up. Following this disturbing data, they—unlike too many of us—decided to visit some schools where they heard there was amazing work going on in writing (the panelist was an English teacher). They were surprised by the lack of “elementary discipline” (gum chewing, loud voices, no lining up, hats, etc.) at the school they had come to learn from. How could they learn this way, they asked themselves? But the kids were fluent and competent writers and readers, enjoyed a good argument, related well to adults and each other—in ways KIPP students didn’t. It gave them pause to think.

The good news? They raised it within KIPP and were heard; it got everyone to do some fresh thinking. Already, he says, his school has begun to re-examine some of their approaches to schooling.

KIPP wasn’t started by experienced teachers or education experts (both founders were Teacher for America graduates)—but they were firm “believers” in the power of knowledge to transform children’s lives. So they responded to issues raised about the school’s impact. If they can learn as they go, who knows where the KIPP experiment will go? But it depends on teachers who are committed to learning from their own teaching and exploring beyond the accepted boundaries.

There’s a lesson here for us all.

It’s one reason why the most impressive data we used at the schools I’m most familiar with were the results of interviews with alumnae conducted years after they left us. But even that only helps us if we’re open to hearing what they say. For the possibility—however unlikely—that we may be wrong about this or that has to be uncomfortably confronted—over and over. Sometimes it’s small things and sometimes it’s the big ones. It’s this that I hope good schools do for both their kids and their staff—because this habit of what I call “skepticism” is what democracy rests on. The “data” that are the most powerful are not all the proxy data—like test scores—which we have been inundated with. What we need to be listening to are the real experiences of our students and our graduates, and over time their impact upon the larger world as well.

More another time about the other three panelists—whose tales were equally compelling if less unexpected. Although… In its detail nothing turns out to be quite the way one “expected.” Not to mention the marvelous three days spent at the North Dakota Study Group (in northern Illinois), my two days spent visiting Chicago schools, and my cancelled speech at the University of Northern Illinois.


p.s. I’m still having trouble locating kindergartens that contain any of the following: paint, clay, living things (plants or animals), water, or blocks. I had one success.

© 2008 Deborah Meier

National Standards

January 2008

While opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) grows, there’s another idea increasingly being proposed, which may be even more critical. Is the cure for lots of incompatible and unaligned state-based tests one grand National test to which all schools could align their curriculum?

This idea scares me even more. But I have good friends who think it’s the obvious solution. My fellow Ed Week blogger Diane Ravitch is one such enthusiast even though we agree about NCLB. National history standards is a natural place for us to have a good argument. So far neither of us has budged an inch.

I think the problem with national standards is equally difficult in every field. At some future date I’ll explain why it effects even math standards! But let’s start with history. What makes me leery about any form of political curricular control even if a low stakes form. And the more remote the political authority is the more worried I am. I use the word political to distinguish government-sponsored standards from those put forth by individuals, groups, or professional associations. I do this not as a way of denigrating the word “politics”—which I honor as an essential component of democratic life—but because education requires “persuasion” not “compliance.”

One cannot simply pass on to the next generation an unbiased consensual historical story, based on “the truth” of history. The price of success is too risky.

I majored in history at the University of Chicago. I took history in the humanities rather than the social sciences division. In part this was because I preferred taking literature, not sociology courses as my minor. Besides, while I was a leftist with a Marxist bent, I did not believe that one could fit history into the proper framework of the sciences. I still agree. I’m hoping, in fact, that neither of the many sides of these disputes compromises for the sake of a consensus. It’s the debate that keeps us on our toes. Unlike deciding where to build Highway X or whether or not to go to war—it’s the lack of closure that I treasure.

It’s often precisely in the argument itself, and in the insights we gain from appreciating contradictory and conflicting ideas that new ones emerge. The “dogmatism” of particular scholars is what drives them to pursue their point of view in ways dilettantes won’t. More power to them. Even in the sciences we count on “believers” holding on to their convictions until persuaded otherwise—rather than shifting their stance every time a dilemma arises or seeking easy compromises for the sake of peace. (Ditto for so-called pedagogical fads. Nothing drives me crazier than the way political authorities adopt new pedagogies and drop old ones in order to be fashionable.)

Settling on The Best History Story undermines strong intellectual work rather than elevating it. A good course in history, starting in kindergarten, is consistent with, not in contradiction to, what the highest standards of history are about. We should not and need not treat 5 year olds to a falser view of history. We all love good stories. More power to us, even if the stories we love may not all be compatible, nor true. At least not the whole truth. Even little children are aware of how witnesses retell the playground fight from different viewpoints, and how leaving certain details out changes the way the story comes across. Every member of a family knows also how differently each retells even the history of their shared immediate family past.

But then, I also suspect that, unlike Ravitch, I instinctively suspect that my view will not make it into The National Consensus. My natural inclination is to assume that I won’t be the official designer of the official history. I suspect she imagines she will? I may over-identify perhaps with losers, and also with those who have poor rote memories for facts! As a result am I too vulnerable to seeing “the other side?”

I’m also acutely aware of how such national standards leads to the reasonable desire to measure how well we are succeeding. Next comes, a la NAEP, the standardizing of test items—deciding in short which items go with which and at what age. This pool of items, and even the pool of essay questions that could go with it, create a straight-jacket for engaging the young in the study of history. Any particular set of items, and any single test format carries trade-offs which we fail to acknowledge once we give ONE national body the authority to define “well-educated”.

So, whether it’s my understanding of the nature of historical truth, my fears for minority views or something else entirely, I’m worried. I’m far more worried about the consequences of starting down the path to building a Single American (or global) History Story than I am about leaving such decisions in the hands of champions of different stories.

© 2008 Deborah Meier