February 2009

Dear readers,

I’m working on an idea that troubles me, so any one who can help me out is much welcome.

How can we promote the idea of democracy while simultaneously defining politics as a negative term?

Here’s what I mean. If you listen, and not too carefully, you’ll recognize that most of the time we use the term, we are complaining about “politics.” For example, we want to get “politics” out of schools. I can understand that, but actually we want to get politics also out of politics. Partisanship is generally viewed as negative, obstructionist—and the good elected official is sometimes seen as someone who doesn’t “play” or “work” at politics. (Note, as an aside, how “playing politics” sounds even worse than working, as though “play” too were a naughty word.)

I was reading an essay by Jill Lepore in the January 26th issue of The New Yorker about the media—but particularly about the always endangered press. She tells the story about America’s irreverent newspapers starting with the early 1700s. “Our rulers,” unlike kings and queens, “do not rule over us for as long as they live and, when they die, their heirs do not inherit their titles” (although it’s hard to be sure of this of late). It may not seem obvious, but this led me back to where I started above.

The history of newspapers Lepore reminds us was a struggle between the hard to defeat ideas of tyranny and the new-fangled idea of liberty. From their start however, independent newspapers were charged by Tories (vs Whigs) as sources of dirt (gossip), invective (attacks on responsible leaders), and often capricious and unfair “propaganda.” But she argues, “taken together” the fight against a controlled media added up to a “long and revolutionary argument against tyranny, against arbitrary authority—against, that is, the rule of men above law.”

In 1776 there were more newspapers per person—by far—than there are today, and those left are disappearing. Can blogging and the like replace them? Or is blogging a form of media in which it is too easy to only hear the voices with whom we agree? Does that mean that we have grown lazy in our struggle against tyranny.

It puts, I think, a larger burden upon schools to act as an alternative to both the diminishing shared media—and to the official party-line line of those in power. Offering students a range of views—and invective—that they may not experience as they pick and choose which blogs to plug into. And, it takes students “educated” to view politics as the underpinning of democracy, to be taken seriously and critiqued with all the care that academics use to critique ideas in their own fields. It requires us to elevate arguments into educational tools for informed dispute.

Politics is our mutual field—newspapers and schools alike—and that it has gotten a bad name is dangerous to us all. It’s critical to serious academics, and its legitimacy as one of the new 2lst century skills of utmost importance must re reasserted, fought for. As are the arts, crafts and knowledge upon which democratic politics rests.

I’d like, first and foremost, everything we do in school to pass this test —whatever else it is also good for, it must be good for democracy adn politics. In peeling away the meaning of both terms, we must enrich their common core.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

Secretary of Education

          January 2009

Dear readers,

I kept reminding myself before the election that Obama’s victory—if we were so lucky—was not the end, but just the beginning of our work. But, actually, some part of me was expecting otherwise. I’m getting a wee bit tired of swimming against the stream.

The choice of Arne Duncan came not as a surprise, but a disappointment. I watched the “campaign” as it pitted “reformers” against “the status quo” placing Klein/Rhee/Vallas/Duncan in the former category and folks like Linda Darling-Hammond (Christenson, Walters and, I guess, me) in the latter. At first I didn’t think they could get away with such a starkly biased classification system. But said often enough it probably set the stage for the choice of Duncan—who’s probably the best of the infamous four.

Maybe the story really reflects the way Obama sees the world of education, maybe because he feels comfortable with Chicagoans, maybe because he feels he has to “rule from the center-right” as some argue. Maybe, maybe.

But the mindset that has now been reified as “Reform” is what scares me. It borrows the worst from the market-place world of business. We have much to learn about how to make schools work better on a large scale, but one thing we ought to have learned from the events post-Enron is that the current business-model of accountability is dangerous. And it’s dangerous because it’s built on glorifying greed, and has few penalties for distortion and corruption of data. Instead of tending to the shop, the “business” class now tends to “the data.” At heart it’s a modified Ponzi scheme that’s always promising, but can’t deliver, the real goods. “Goods” are, in fact, now part of the “old economy.”

The data quoted by Obama in announcing Duncan’s appointment is entirely without merit. He didn’t raise scores—except by changing the method of testing and scoring! That’s a fact. On the only reliable measure, even assuming “better” test scores are what we’re seeking, it’s been flat, flat, flat. NAEP scores (the one national test we can use to see real change over time) have remained stable since Duncan took over from Vallas –who had already rescued Chicago. How many knights on a white horse claiming victory can save the same city? (Remember Ron Paige and the Houston miracle?)

Ditto for graduation rates, even if we trust that the Chicago style retention policy hasn’t “disappeared” thousands of youngsters before they even get to high school. (Graduation rates rest on the 9th grade headcount.) And – I have to check this – less than 5% of those graduates who go to college apparently don’t complete a 4-year education. They are, as Mike Rose reminded us, totally “unprepared” for college work—or the work of democracy or decent jobs in the economy. They’ve been prepared instead for taking dumbed-down tests, unless they’re lucky enough to be rich and to go to schools like Chicago’s Lab School or Sitwell Friends in D.C.

There’s a possibility that some of the new small schools are better for kids. I tend to think so regardless of their test scores. And there are more selective schools that have wooed back some of the middle class—but not in ways that benefit the rest I fear.

It’s hard to blame Duncan—and in many ways I don’t. He’s not an educator and he’s just going along with conventional wisdom and the political thrust of the Mayor’s who now control our urban schools. I hear nice things about him “as a person.”

Maybe in a new position, under different forms of pressure he’ll start taking a closer look at what really must be done. Maybe he’ll hire some interesting educators to think through some of these dilemmas. But, these “maybes” probably also depend on the kind of pressure and response he gets not just from educators, but from everyone else who cares—parents, for example, just smart citizens, and employers who know that what they’re looking for won’t be “produced” this way. As for democrats…12 plus years of the kind of compliance thinking that tests reward are a poor prescription for the shaky future of democracy.


© 2009 Deborah Meier