Mayoral Control and Democratic Schooling

In an interview with the Journal-Sentinel published the day prior to the meeting, Secretary of Education Duncan noted:

“Where the challenges are so large, you need all hands on deck . The best way I can think to get everyone rowing in the same direction is from leadership at the top, and that comes from the mayor.”

Leadership or control? Duncan means control.

It is a funny conundrum. We invented (a century and a half ago) universal public education on the grounds that it was a prerequisite for democracy. But democracy is an idea we have such little faith in that we fear allowing control over schools to lie in the hands of their own constituents, or any combination of such constituents. I refer here mostly to parents and teachers, and the immediate community served by the school, and possibly even its students. But friends of mine often agree with Duncan on the grounds either that, on one hand, it is too dangerous (they might sneak in school prayers, creationism and, of course, racism), and on the other hand they would not dare take the kind of radical steps necessary for the sake of the children or our nation’s economy. In essence the new reformers argue that “politics” (local, close to the site) is bad for schools, while Mayoral and Federal control are good.

Every authoritarian movement or leader has for centuries made more or less the same arguments: that “the people” will misuse their power or that the people are too timid or selfish to take the necessary revolutionary measures that are in their interests. “We,” the enlightened, must do it for them.

Can schools, in which even well-educated professionals are seen as too risky to trust, a likely place to inculcate respect for democracy? Of course, democracy is filled with trade-offs that make it hard to always help us arrive at the best decisions. There are places where I too have favored federal, rather than local control. For instance, I supported the kind of authoritarian directives from the Supreme Court that, in the name of democracy, outlawed school segregation. (Of course, the limits of even such righteous power is well noted in the limited impact that directive had.) And I regret the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions against implementing such policy through affirmative action or quotas. Where they went wrong perhaps was in trying to micro-manage it? But both were essentially “political” decisions.

Nor, in the name of accountability, am I against the State’s role in the collecting of data that exposes the impact of schools and society on different races, ethnicities and economic substrata. Information is a form of power needed by “locals.”

The idea that we can decide virtually all of the important decisions made within a school through authoritarian means and then insist that the institution’s role is to promote democratic thinking is just plain stupid, absurd and, in fact, an oxymoron. To put this on a somewhat more trivial level, it reminds me of the experience kids have trying to invent board games. They have great ideas. They love doing it. But it’s only in actually playing the game that one discovers whether it works. Ditto for democracy. Churchill’s quote in defense of democracy—that it’s a thoroughly absurd idea “except for when one considers the alternatives,” is one I keep in mind morning, noon and night.

If we are to support democracy as well as invent better forms of it—appropriate revisions of the game—we need a citizenry that understands the game better. Why ever did we invent a rule that allows 40% to veto 60%? Why can nine men (or women) appointed in times past, outlaw legislation that 60% now support? Why do some individual citizens votes on national matters count 5, 10 or 100 times more than other citizens? Why do experts on the economy not get more votes on economic decisions than outright ignoramuses? Bah humbug to democracy if such absurdities define it….or, is it possible that I too at times count on such roadblocks to common sense? There may be good reasons—though debatable ones—for each of these. But students and their teachers need to be exposed to such arguments, not only through the written word but also through experience.

A democratic citizenry needs habits – of mind and heart – that hold them back from the momentary appeal of authoritarian measures. Probably not even democracy can guarantee that we make wise decisions about democracy. But both institutional and personal habits can provide us the time to correct and revise our passions of the moment. It is in crises that our habits are most tested. Skepticism, which I much value, is not the same as “the habit of distrust.” In fact, as a habit, I rather like the default position of trust. It is a habit that helps smooth the way for democracy. But—and this is a big but—we need to counterbalance the habit of trust with the habits of skepticism. We need to balance trust with an acknowledgment that there are good reasons to distrust.

The same goes for “civility” of manner and mutual respect and tolerance. These are all three good habits. But….. They are dangerous without a critical second opinion, the habits of indignation, the willingness to act even in face of uncertainty, the habits associated with solidarity and empathy.

In short—a good education requires us to continually rethink our own habits, as we also honor them, to take note of the consequences and accept responsibility for them. And on and on. Will schools that engage in this, while also engaging in teaching kids specific skills and academic knowledge, survive? Indeed, if they can’t, neither will democracy writ large. At least, for starters, we ought to try it out in the ways we adults interact and implement decisions in our schools. To do so, we need to leave more power inside the schools.

Finally, there’s a interesting auxiliary reason: kids are not comfortable in the presence of powerless “wimpy” adults. And adults who are always having to say, “I didn’t decide that, so don’t blame me” are actively promoting a mindset which runs in direct conflict with the environment best suited to learning. It also substantially undercuts the desire of the young to grow up (and be powerful), and their respect for their teachers.

This column is an exploration of a subject of increasing interest to me. Comment below or send me an email.


December 2009

Legacy of Ted Sizer

November 2009

Dear Friends,

My friend and mentor, Ted Sizer, died last week. If you have not read his books or heard him speak or sat down with him—or best of all taken a course with him (sometimes also with Nancy AND Ted)—you cannot begin to imagine how big a hole he leaves behind.

“Good schools focus on habits, on what sorts of intellectual activities will and should inform their graduates’ lives. Not being clear about these habits leads to mindlessness, to institutions that drift along doing what they do simply because they have always done it that way. Such places are full of silly compromises, of practices that boggle commonsense analysis. And they dispirit the Horace Smiths, who know that the purpose of education is not in keeping school but in pushing out into the world young citizens who are soaked in habits of thoughtfulness and reflectiveness, joy, and commitment.”—From Ted’s classic Horace’s School.

I began to work with Ted in 1984 when I read an essay based on his forthcoming book—Horace’s Compromise. I was beginning to think about whether we might develop a secondary school that could serve the children who graduated from Central Park East I, II and River East (the three small public sister schools in East Harlem that I had helped found), plus other East Harlem youngsters. Ted was someone with prestige who might be useful, as he seemed to think about high schools the way I thought about kindergartens.

I imagined I was pulling a clever magic trick—he was the rabbit I could pull out of my hat to confront the skeptics. I set him up to provide “cover” for our proposed new secondary school. (I had not yet been named a MacArthur Fellow, written a book, or even passed a test to be a principal in New York City.) But it turned out the magic was for real. Ted Sizer was a source of wisdom not just “connections” and status. We needed him for far more important reasons than his ability to get an audience with the Superintendent, the Chancellor, and the Foundations.

For the 25 years, he worked with all of us on the nitty-gritty as well as the Big Ideas. He saw how they were connected. His nine common principals (now 10) were amazingly down to earth, from the importance of knowing one’s students well; to it is more important to teach less in order to teach more deeply. Good schooling requires a “tone of decency and respect.” He included the unthinkable—teachers need to be in charge of the decisions that most affect them and their students. And that school resources need to be in the classrooms—not in the central offices. He used the word “standards” to remind us to keep purpose in mind, to hold the flag high and always flying. The vehicle for such standards had to be embodied in how and what we taught and then in the manner in which we tested/demonstrated/showed off our student’s mastery.

His work resonated all over the country. We thought we were setting a ball rolling that would in so many different ways change the face of American schooling.

A decade later we were “old hat,” “too slow,” and “not standardized enough.” What we were doing could not be replicated by mandate. Even during that first decade, it was harder to convince school people in the inner city versus the suburbs and independent schools to listen to our ideas. By the mid-90s the Reform game was decidedly against us, and pretty ferociously so. Mandates were flying about to diminish the role of teachers, parents, and students. It was easier to define “rigor” (a word I always hated) as simply “harder.” The new Reformers derided the notion that there were different ways to reach different children. Reform became synonymous with frequent standardized testing—hence NCLB. (90% of teachers in a recent poll said testing has become a major obstacle or a minor obstacle to good teaching.)

By the middle of the next decade teacher bashing and, of course, teacher union bashing, had become so much taken for granted that our schools were blamed for everything from the Iraqi war to the financial crisis.

In fact, NAEP scores—the only nation-wide standardized test we have in the country—shows very little change between 2002, when the new paradigm had pretty much swept the nation on a state by state plus NCLB basis, and today.

The newest fad is mayoral control, as though the corruption, cronyism, and patronage that led us to abandon it earlier were no longer dangers. The poster boy for this is New York’s mayor Bloomberg. (Then comes Chicago under Arne Duncan.) Bloomberg, the richest Mayor we have ever known, has managed to garner staggering control over not only all decisions made about schools, but also control of the data accessible to us about how it has been spent and what it has achieved. (Fortunately Chicago still has an independent agency to track the data—and they say: it did not work. But it hardly makes headlines.) Meanwhile NYC’s mayor can hand out contracts without external review, and can count on all three major newspapers to cover his work favorably. Every nonprofit in NYC is in some ways beholden to him personally as well as politically—so few dare to talk out. Despite his own claims of improvement in test scores, NAEP test data shows NYC in about the same place it was when he arrived. Ditto for Chicago.

We will come to our senses. Someday. But it will be harder without Ted Sizer. And without another loss we have taken—the loss of Gerald Bracey. Gerald kept us up-to-date on what the data did and did not show. His snarky, detailed, informative way showed us what we did and did not know was happening behind our backs (our ignorance of statistics). Goodbye to two indefatigable truth tellers: A sometimes argument provoker and a gentle giant of great wisdom about matters big and small.

So, the rest of us must work twice as hard. Can we?

Yes, we can.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

Food for Thought: Differing Perspectives

October 2009

Dear Friends,

When I started teaching I discovered that almost everything I read or viewed was useful and/or usable in my life as a school person. I read everything with double-sight. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago reading the New York Review of Books. There were literally five articles about—education, well sort of! Granted not everyone will see them as such—including their authors.

First and perhaps best is Gary Wills powerful short piece entitled Entangled Giant, about Obama’s current dilemma. He focuses on issues of respect for the law and the Constitution. After succinctly describing how difficult if not unwilling the administration is to relinquish unconstitutional presidential powers, he reminds us that “some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution,” as well as what Cheney called the “quaint old Geneva rules”. But so too is it true that the Constitution did not intend for the Federal government to run our local schools. The Federal government’s intervention on behalf of straight-forward discrimination on the basis of race (based on the Constitution) is not an excuse for the Feds to dictate (in effect) the curriculum, how teachers are paid, what pedagogy is legitimate or even how schools are evaluated. “It may be too late to return to its ideals,” says Wills, but, “One doesn’t fight in the hope of winning.” Or at least not only with victory in mind. But what he also reminds me is how uninterested “the people” are in issues of means, although that’s what a constitutional republic is all about. Is that a task for K-12 schooling?

A few pages later, William Easterly’s “The Anatomy of Success” `reviews two books on free trade and protectionism. He explains why good researchers often get it wrong. I was struck by the following sentence: “In view of this acknowledged ignorance” (he quotes Arnold Harberger, Joseph Stiglitz and Nobel laureate Robert Solow), “how can there still be so many writers who claim to know how to promote growth?” Humans, he suggests, “are suckers for finding patterns where none really exist.” Especially one’s they like. Economists, he argues, “count no fewer than 145 separate factors that have been found to be associated with growth.” He argues that at least two reasons account for the arrogance with which writers on the subject proceed —plain ignorance or abuse of statistics and what one of the authors calls “confirmation bias.” Seeing what you hope to see. Mea culpa; along with all the other weighty authorities who proclaim to know how to turn around 5,000 low achieving high schools (et al)—bad statistics and an inclination to look and find what one favors. Yes, I try to be careful, but…. (Much as I did in reading this Saturday Review of Literature).

Jeremy Waldron does for ethics something like Easterly does for world trade. While praising Kwame Appiah’s new book on Ethics, and even his conclusion, Waldron suggests that it is an example of inferring too much from the research on people’s ethical choices regarding the merits of spontaneous versus reflected moral acts. He suggests that we too adopt two rules in research (and in life) when posing dilemmas to test subjects: One: “Always insist on more than one description of a difficult situation before deciding what to do.” (“That oughta be a law”) Two: Use multiple formats for deciding on what and why people do x vs y, and do not invent situations that pose stripped bare, de-contextualized situations. Does it sound familiar?

On another plain entirely, I found much about schooling in Julian Bell’s “Why Art?” In particular, I underlined a lot in his discourse on two very different accounts of art by the two authors reviewed—focused contemplation and narrative story. One author raises the possibility that human art arose as a means to avoid boredom! It reminded me of what is lost when we eliminate art from our schools. We get boredom. (Of course, students may well do more art to keep awake in boring classes than they ever do in overly academic art classes.)

And finally, there is Justin Hammer review of “Fordlandia” by Greg Grandin. Grandin tells the story of Henry Ford’s experiments in creating utopian factories and factory towns. Grandlin points to Ford’s extraordinarily diverse biases: a suffragette who didn’t pay women equal wages, a believer in the League of Nations and world government but a hater of Jews for their “internationalism,” etc, etc. I try keeping this in mind as we fight over school (or health) reform.


p.s. Suggestions: go to now for more on stories and why educate; and Nicholas Meier’s piece on play.

© 2009 Deborah Meier

Education Reform: More of the Same

September 2009

Dear Friends,

Oddly enough, the ugly debate we are having over health care is a lot better than the complete non-debate we’re having over Duncan’s “race to the top” plans to ram down more testing, higher stakes, pay-by-score, etc plans! They are so at odds with the campaign oratory that Obama offered on education in which he derided the focus on bubble-in tests.

But before I go on, let me urge readers to go to the Bridging Differences Ed Week Blog and read Diane Ravitch’s blog from September 9th and mine from September 10th. Diane’s stuff on testing is brilliantly well-said and her documentation top notch. She has also written a number of good articles on he same subject—including one published in the NY Daily News. It will be interesting to read her forthcoming book. She and I might finally find grounds for bridging differences, but I am hard put of late to disagree with her printed words.

What most astounds me is the pile-up of evidence against the new so-called “consensus” –from the most impeccable of sources. But, at the same time we see more and more school systems and states capitulating to the new demands: lift the charter cap, fire all the teachers in low performing schools (and then bemoan how no one wants to teach there), hire less and less qualified teachers for short term “service,” start tests earlier and more often, pay teachers based on student scores, etc, etc. (I’m in the midst of compiling the evidence for/against these reforms.)

As success-by-the-numbers failed us in the economy, we’ve willy-nilly moved on to try it out in our schools. It appears that the new school “reformers” are every bit as good at gaming the system. But like any Ponzi scheme, it is hard for failed banks to hide out forever. Failed schools, alas, are another matter. For the kids whose schooling has most failed them, there appears to be no end in sight. Patience is a virtue—even in school reform—if the direction is right. But we’re escalating the very practices that have failed the poorest and least advantaged for the last 150 years.

The same joy fills my heart at the increasing number of articles in the popular media, as well as in the academic world, are pointing out the importance of play. Imagination—not just play—has even made a comeback. Meanwhile NYC plans to introduce tests for 4 and 5 year olds. Once again. They withdrew it last time under an onslaught of criticism, although pushing ahead in using it as a method for selecting out the chosen few for “gifted” programs. The latter, as I recall, are classes that still allow for some imagination and play. The rest are required to spend kindergarten “catching up” on their “basic skills.”

More in a few weeks, but meanwhile keep up with my thoughts weekly via Ed Week.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

Interview With John Merrow

(Originally published on “Taking Notes: Thoughts on Education from John Merrow” July 14, 2009)

John Merrow: Just about everyone seems to favor national or common standards: The Obama Administration, nearly every state, lots of prominent superintendents, and many others. Are you feeling like a lone wolf, a voice crying in the wilderness? Why are you so strongly opposed?

Deborah Meier: When I came back to NYC in 1966, I was told that “no one sends their children to public school,” even though more than a million children were attending public schools. “No one,” like “everyone” in your initial question, is in the eye of the beholder. But I am sure “everyone” on the inside of this debate thinks the debate has been resolved. Even they will be surprised down the line as the “details” get worked out. But above all, they are wrong about “everyone” just as my friends were about “no one.”

JM: Touché. But you didn’t answer the question.

DM: My opposition probably reflects the views of the founders of our Constitution and the vast majority of Americans up to….yesterday (so to speak). The current DOE/Duncan agenda—Mayoral control, and teachers paid by test score results were never even mentioned in Obama’s political campaign. (And recent studies indicate that mayoral control has produced almost no statistical changes in its two most prominent trials—NYC and Chicago, and as yet there is no shred of evidence regarding paying teachers by test scores.) What is interesting is how in such a short time we went from practically no one agreeing with such reforms—much less assuming it was an imminent plan!—to its being official policy. So too with a national curriculum and national testing, although it is already in the works! The process itself chills me. The “behind the scenes” nature of the decision-making by interlocking circles of “influential” interests on matters affecting the minds of our children appalls me.

JM: Tell me more.

DM: I think it is dangerous to the fabric of democracy. The nation has had a relatively long history with this fragile and possibly counter-intuitive idea, and its meaning is again in danger of being ‘shallowed out.’ I am in favor of reinvigorating the democratic underpinnings of our nation—which include the ideal of local control, respect and trust for ordinary citizens, and on and on—rather than seeking to “race to the top” by cutting schools off from their roots—their community. If any institution needed to remain close to those who are most affected, it is our public schools, because of their subtle influence the mindset of future citizens. Yet we act as if this were not true.

JM: I didn’t realize you were so upset.

DM: You’re probably right: I am! For starters, it undermines my own work in public education over the past 45 years. I am further dismayed, but not surprised, that the people who are to be entrusted with implementing this have already been named, and include largely the very test-makers and test-defenders that will be enriched by this work—Achieve, SAT and ACT. There is no talk about the local conversations that would need to go into such a novel task, nor the kinds of expertise that such work must involve—expertise close to the ground—not to mention the actual subject matter experts who might inform the test makers. They are all now outsiders, at best “looking on.” “Don’t call us, we’ll call you if needed.”

JM: How would you go about it, if you were in charge?

DM: What we needed first was a conversation about the purposes of our enormous dedication and investment in public education. If the purpose is not merely to keep kids out of the labor market, or to sort them into their future roles, then what is it? Apparently we claim to have reached a consensus: the aim of public schooling is to produce students, be first in standardized tests on the unproven theory that this will allow us to economically better compete economically. (First it was the now defunct USSR, then Japan, then…Singapore and Finland!) We have made what can be measured cheaply (and thus is easily ranked) the definition of being “well-educated.” We have defined “achievement” and even “performance” to scores on paper-and-pencil tasks, largely of the multiple choice variety, without any evidence that this is wise policy, or will produce either a stronger economy or a stronger democracy. (Or even stronger college performance!)

We’ve linked test results to economic health without asking ourselves whether the collapse of the American economy—above all its capacity to build, make and invent—was due to the low test scores of the average working American or because of decisions made by a small high-scoring elite? Is a test-driven education the most likely path for producing an inventive and feisty citizenry—the kind that has been the envy of the world for generations?

I like small hometown banks, and so I also like schools small enough to fail as they learn on the job. I want a federal government that insures that we spend the same amount of our public resources for all children, and that provides parents, kids, communities and teachers with high quality uncorrupted information about the relationship between means and ends. And that tackles the family poverty that handicaps too many kids. Democracy is “unnatural” and fragile precisely because at a whiff of trouble we imagine that the problem lies with “the people” and the solution therefore lies in finding a knight in white/black armor—or a quick fix gimmick. We need to decide if democracy is a luxury or a fundamental basic skill.

Wow. That’s more than you wanted to know.

JM: The Charter Movement is also picking up steam. Is this a good thing? What is the downside?

DM: Like a national curriculum enforced by a national test, charter schools have had a very short history. They were sold, and I bought into them, as a public means of trying out innovative ideas. Central Park East and Central Park East Secondary School (and approximately 80-100 like them in NYC) and the Pilot schools in Boston were precursors to charters. I thought of them as exciting labs—‘mom and pop’ stores—with a willingness to take risks. But instead I have noticed that few charters are using their freedom to differ much from existing practice—except for paying teachers less and requiring longer hours. Not surprising, since most charters are “run” by people without educational experience or expertise, much less “dreams,” they have spawned their own large bureaucracies, with their own top-down operations—with even less regard for parents and teachers than existing traditional urban school systems. They are adventures in “entrepreneurship” devoid of expertise (and unions). We have lost belief in real expertise, and invested it in the magical thinking of a generation of financial and legal Ivy League gurus.

The incontrovertibly nonpartisan (or pro-charter) study done at Stanford demonstrates that only 17% of charter school students in the 16 studied states performed better than their matched control group, 37% did worse, and the remainder about the same. If this were a drug being tested, it wouldn’t pass muster. It might certainly suggest that we not multiply their numbers until we understand the existing data better—or sought alternate forms of data.

JM: On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good? What is its greatest contribution? Worst effect?

DM: The greatest contribution of NCLB was to make everyone talk as though their primary concern was the schooling of poor and minority kids, rather than writing them off as genetically inferior. The greatest damage is that it has turned back the clock on what were burgeoning efforts to rethink schooling was picking up steam in the late 80s and early 90s. Secondly, in ignoring the role of other societal forces upon our poor and minority students we pulled the rug out from under efforts to build a more equitable economic structure (economic inequalities have grown rapidly during the NCLB years so that they are now larger than they’ve been since 1928).

We have never been so test-score conscious in our history—starting with 4 and 5 year olds—and we’ve never shown less trust in those closest to our children and more for those furthest. There may still be room for serious thinking about what it means to be well educated in precisely those upper-income communities and schools where it is least desperately needed. In fact if we looked at the schools our leaders actually send their own kids to rather than listening to what they propose for other people’s children we would be on the fast track to serious reform.

I went to my 60th high school reunion last week. It has been for more than a hundred years, and is today, a pioneer in progressive education—for the rich. The old or new NCLB will not do them much harm. But unlike today’s reformers, I still believe that Fieldston/Ethical Culture schools would have been good for every child whose families wanted to send them there. CPE and CPESS, like Mission Hill, were successful “experiments” in doing just that in the public sphere. The graduates of CPE/CPESS are gathering July 17th to reminisce, celebrate and be heard. You are invited to join them.

JM: I can’t tell whether you are still optimistic. Are you?

DM: Most days I am! Teaching has reinforced my belief in human possibility. I have rarely met a 5 year old whose intellectual capacity did not astound me. We need schools that challenge this curiosity for all our children and for the adults who keep company with them. There is a natural thirst for fairness, as well as for wonderment, curiosity and even empathy that suggests that we will keep trying to become a better world. Losing now and then is not the end of the journey. (But, on occasion, I want it RIGHT NOW, while I’m still around—which may be a bit less likely.)

What’s Wrong with Our Schools?

April 2009

          Recently Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, in his article “How Bill Gates Would Repair Our Schools” (Monday, March 30, 2009) explains the answer is: replicate KIPP and more Charters. The trouble is simple, the article explains

Institutions stand in the way. School boards resist the expansion of charter schools. Teachers unions resist measuring and rewarding effectiveness. In fact, Gates said, evidence shows no connection between teaching quality and most of the measures used in contracts to determine pay. Seniority, holding a master’s degree or teacher’s certification, and even, below 10th grade, having deep knowledge of a subject — these all are mostly irrelevant.

The absence of a correlation between good teaching and the teacher’s own education, certification, or deep knowledge appears pretty astounding. Even Teach for America lays its claim to fame, for example, on the value of an Ivy League diploma.

What is intriguing is that neither Gates nor Hiatt stop to wonder if the absence of correlation might indict the tool for measuring the impact of teaching: standardized test scores.  

If I reported on studies showing something similar in the field of health—that seeing a credentialed doctor didn’t prove any more successful than consulting the man on the street—I would face somewhat more skepticism, I suspect. What kind of measuring rod could I be using, would be the first question. Ditto if I argued that you do not apparently need to know how to play an instrument well to teach it well, you might want to know how I defined “well,” and how I measured it.  

But lo and behold, by some measure that passes the sniff test for Gates and company, teachers don’t have to be well-educated people to pass “it” on to kids. He may be right: if tests are “it.” Then what is needed, apparently, are trained drill sergeants that explicitly teach testing skills. When I started teaching this was something that the test companies explicitly called cheating! (Sort of akin to my artificially raising the temperature on the thermometer as a child when I wanted to stay home from school.)

Psychometrics—as a discipline—was built around a different paradigm: prepping, they argued, literally invalidated the results. (On LSATs, Lani Guinier pointed out that there is reverse correlation between high scores and lawyer’s performance of public service. Which do we value more?)

In the new aggressive drive for higher scores—by any means–have we lost something more important? 

Imagine a concern over the driving skills of Americans which focused on the low scores on the standardized bubble-in portion of driving tests. We might conclude that current driving instruction— with it’s focus on the road test—was having no impact on test scores. Shock and surprise. We might then decide that we were wasting money on driving instruction. How about intensive prepping for the test and less driving of the car? Lo and behold neither class size, driving experience or expensive simulations seemed to matter when it came to the paper-and-pencil driving test. Maybe those who preferred to take the old-fashioned driving road test could go to expensive private schools for it. In the name of equity though the cheaper bubble-in test would do as well.  

It wouldn’t take long before some smart sociologist noted that we were ignoring the critical measure: road accidents. In fact, road accidents and driving test scores were having a decreasing correlation. (And alas rich people couldn’t escape being victims of bad drivers too.)  

Unfortunately there is no real life definitions of being “well-educated.” In education we have literally mistaken the test for the real-world measure, and then cut off opportunities for those who didn’t perform well on the test. There is no road experience to fall back on. In fact real experiences with the subject under study is less and less fashionable.  

If we judged musicians on the basis of paper-and-pencil simulations, we wouldn’t need musicians to train future musicians either. That would make school music programs easier. Think how much we could save if we didn’t even need instruments to play on, and could teach music testing skills in a large lecture hall, or via distance learning programs.  

Is there an alternative? Yes. Of course. But it would take teaching intellectual, social and moral habits with the same seriousness as we teach soccer, tennis or the piano—when we want excellence. No other field of endeavor except K-12 education has such absurd ratios of “supervisors/teachers” to pupils, has such little respect for “hands-on” expertise, or cares so little about the side effect of its instruction. We haven’t even stopped “doing” reform for a few hours to ask what the purpose of schooling is, above and beyond incarcerating youth for 12 years and then sorting them out at the end. 

Shame on you, Mr. Gates.  

Shame on you Mr. Hiatt for assuming that Bill Gates is an expert on education.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

Bankers and Learners

          March 2009

Dear readers,

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services committee and a long-standing critic of executive largesse, said the bonuses tallied by a recent Associated Press review amount to a bribe “to get them to do the jobs for which they are well paid in the first place. “Most of us sign on to do jobs and we do them best we can,” said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. “We’re told that some of the most highly paid people in executive positions are different. They need extra money to be motivated!”

Yes! The above-mentioned AP study of bonuses in the banking industry has solved another mystery for me: Why the Big Boys on Wall Street and in Finance think bonuses are the way to go.

Employers wring their hands and bemoan the lack of “work ethic:” meanwhile they urge us to systematically undermine it, starting with little kids. When you give a reward for something that otherwise someone would do anyway, you actually undermine the motivation to do it. And we call it school reform. (Instilling a love of good work is now labeled “traditionalist”” and/or “romantic.” So be it. I guess I’m a traditionalist then.)

After a while the bonuses become more important than the good work—even indistinguishable from each other. That’s Campbell’s Law. The higher the stakes or the bigger the bonus, the greater the focus is on the “indicator”—and manipulating indicators becomes the real purpose of the task.

Now, in schools, we have a whole system built around trying to find a simple “objective” indicator for offering such high stakes rewards—tests—and then we heap more and more stakes onto this fragile reed. It replaces the reality we are trying to measure. And it breaks. The reed—rewards for test scores—has collapsed under the weight of all the phony assumptions and purposes that we’ve piled upon it. Our solution: pile on more.

This move to undermine a love of doing a good job, or for learning, for it’s own sake is starting earlier and earlier. We’re about to launch an effort to undermine childhood starting at birth, if we get a chance. Yes, things can get worse. We’re at a crossroads about what happens even before our children enter into our “reformed” schools.

We need to reverse gears. Starting off by providing early childhood programs – fulltime for working mothers, and part-time for others—that incorporates the best of what a strong and wealthy family offers its youngsters: Good health care, sufficient leisure for families to connect with their own children, lots of unhurried trust and freedom. Children need space for continuing the natural search for explanations, laws, rules, ideas—leading to more and more knowledge which in turn leads to more and more curiosity for more explanations, the mastery of a larger part of the world. At the same time, kids need to keep company with adults engaged in real life work: cooking, cleaning up after themselves, playing music, singing, sawing, hammering, making and creating. They need adults who are living examples of what they too might become. They need to be in the company of older children and younger ones, so they can measure themselves against a wide range of possibilities. They need the affection of both their parents and the caretakers who are substituting for parents. Unconditional affection is not a synonym for unconditional freedom. In fact, love requires limits, of course.

Given the right circumstances, all this might be possible. But it’s not cheap. “Traditionally” we “paid” one fulltime adult to do this for only a few children. Only in schools do we imagine one can both supervise and instruct several dozen children at once!

Given the wrong setting, we undermine precisely the qualities of heart and mind that schools claim are needed—later on. Teachers long for kids in school who don’t need continuing and constant rewards, who are motivated, easily enthused, good playmates and coworkers. After we’ve eliminated these traits, it is hard to get them back.

Perhaps schools cannot help but be “judgmental.” As Vivian Paley reminds us, the severest judgments are those of one’s age-peers, the pecking order that too often prepares children for life’s pecking order, and over which adults so often appear powerless to interfere. Mutual respect is the obvious quality one finds in the best of early childhood programs—a quality that flows from adult curiosity and affection—a delight and interest in each child’s different accomplishments. Perhaps even, at times, their lack of anxious concern over such accomplishments—their “of course, I knew you could/would.”

Can we en masse create what the most favored family can offer it’s young? Well, perhaps not, but we can come a lot closer if we don’t design early childhood around prepping children for being hedge fund managers working for annual bonuses.

The joy of playfulness is what we can pass along. Telling children stories can be either play and instruction: entered into by adults who love the sound of words and the plots of children’s stories, or told by adults who are seeking to “teach”—expand vocabulary, improve test scores, extend attention spans, and other “measurable outcomes.”

Play will probably (I hope?) happen no matter what. But in today’s climate will it be driven inwards in potentially less healthy ways. Will it become divorced from the possibilities it offers when we can shine light on it, become partners in it (when invited), and add to it? Watch the great early childhood teacher as she brings in new materials—books, fabric, tools, etc—that she thinks will enhance the play; give it new ways to move forward. Just the “right word,” just the right piece of equipment, that can be ignored because it doesn’t match or grabbed on to because it matches like a glove. Or sometimes lays dormant for a while—no new glove is needed—but still it lies there teasing the child’s mind, until it finds an unexpected fit.

Only boring work needs “rewards”—“bonuses”—stars—even commendation. And there is nothing more inefficient for learning than boring work. It literally has no business in places designed for achievement—much less early childhood. One thing stands out from a visit I made to an Israeli kibbutz thirty years ago. Knowing that everyone would at some time hold every job, they had spent a lot of time making sure every job was interesting. For efficiency’s sake.

Children are “wired” to be interested unless we interfere with that wiring. That’s what all those “prizes” do—they leave unconnected wires all over the place. Finally, like with those misguided bankers, they corrupt what began as a promising activity, injuring all the parties to it: the bankers and those dependent upon them, our children and the society that needs them.

Play is a must—and the luckiest of adults carry with them the wisdom and satisfaction of play all their lives. And they live happily ever after.


© 2009 Deborah Meier