Out of the Fire into the Frying Pan

Here’s a message responding to the Obama waiver plan, as well as Senator Alexander (R) proposed bill on the same subject—NCLB. I always have an easier time critiquing them—but if I were (absurd) a senator (like Sanders), what might I propose? Ideas, welcome—proposals/ides at the edge of the possible

I am posting this guest column this month in response to the Obama plan. I think its important to read.


Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire

(by Alan Young)

Please read the FairTest response to the Obama-Duncan waiver deal, if you have not already.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire it appears. We have few recourses left — one being to influence legislators for a very different ESEA upon reauthorization. If we are not able to influence that in 2013, then I fear we may have fundamentally lost public education in the U.S. for the foreseeable future anyway. The waivers, as you can see, are NOT the answer and not much help. They are based on the same flawed premises of all the current market-based reform ideology. We are really at a place where we could lose democracy in this nation. No one should think that taking this “deal” (as many states, including Kentucky appear poised to do) is a fundamental improvement that helps us escape from the market-based stranglehold of the ends and means of public education. We are at a crossroads. We have to redouble our efforts regarding organizing to influence.

We have to quell the seemingly ubiquitous reach of the market-based reforms that are choking our efforts to create caring, democratic schools (which is what I thought I was coming to help grow in Louisville). We will have to use grassroots means, as well as using mainstream and alternative media at the local, state, national, and international levels, to help focus and sustain attention to the damage of corporate-led reform and the lack of positive democratic education, etc., and its effects on the education and future of our youth and nation. We have to show the power of good, caring and democratic education and authentic assessment can have for our youth. We have to have a powerful offense as well as a defense. I think we have an overwhelming amount of research on our side, but we are not getting the message out deeply, consistently, powerfully, and strategically amidst the slick, well-funded DRONE of market-based reform mantras, to make a dent against it. While we have been growing and improving our coordination among groups (like FairTest, Save Our Schools, National Council of Urban Education Associations, Forum for Education and Democracy, Rethinking Schools, Rouge Forum, Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, Parents United for Responsible Education, within unions and academia, etc.) we must do even better. Too much is at stake. We have to find a way to be a consistent presence in national and local media, mainstream and alternative.

I say all of this because I still think that we need to convene some type of a “national strategy session(s)” — not one aiming at publicity like the worthwhile SOS effort this summer (that may be one strategy that emerges), but to organize ourselves by creating a coordinated infrastructure to influence the public and policymakers and build a backbone for a movement. We need a planning meeting with many key players committed to a democratic vision for public education to organize ourselves to fashion a plan to influence and grow a national and international movement for public education based on democratic vs. market-based reform principles. WE ARE ALL WORKING HARD AND HAVE BEEN DOING GOOD WORK. But we must not only work harder, but smarter and together. We cannot do this separately, with us working mostly in isolation. We must find the means to convene to create a comprehensive, focused plan, with strategies (grassroots organizing, policy influence, academia, media campaign, coalition building, etc.), responsibilities, and a sustaining infrastructure to have a chance against the privatized and co-opted powers that be. Surely we can find a way to get this off the ground. And yes, I know, we will need to address the tough question of just how you fund an ongoing movement without changing its essence. But if we do not even convene a meeting to discuss the possibilities, find our commonalities and strengths, of how to move forward in a coordinated, strategic way, do we really think we have a chance against the domination of corporate-led reform? Yes, we need to continue to work hard and play to people’s strengths. But we also have to work smart by working better together . . . and soon.

Of course, there is no guarantee that all this will be enough or be successful. We are up against powerful forces who have been working to co-opt, privatize, and change public education fundamentally for years. But the market-based approach is based on “psychometric hocus pocus.” It is a “house of cards,” “a house built on sand,” and a “ruse” — so there IS a way for it to be challenged by speaking truth to power in a sustained, systemic, and strategic fashion. This a a democratic and human rights movement we are a part of. We just have to get better at actualizing it! And what choice do we have? We may not succeed, but it is clear to me that if we do not try to create a viable, sustained, coordinated, and growingly impactful counter-movement bubbling up all over this country, we are all but guaranteed that public education as the cornerstone for democracy is not long lived in the U.S. anyway.

The clock is ticking, folks. This is it. If not us, who? If not now, when?

Alan Young
(now in Louisville, KY)

On to the New Year

Dear Readers,

Mostly I stayed at home in December, and enjoyed family coming up to visit—all the grandkids (the youngest is almost 18!), kids (the youngest is 50!) and friends. But there were sad moments too. Harold Seletsky, husband of the late Alice Seletsky (who was a great CPE teacher for many many years) died over the holiday. The funeral was eye-opening as we heard from people who knew Harold in such different contexts. Their words reminded me that while he was always Harold’ish, he had an impact far greater than I realized among many people I never knew of. We matter in ways we often are unaware of.

I am getting ready for a few trips to New York City. One trip is to see Central Park East and talk with the current staff, 38 years after we first opened our doors. More on that when I return from there.

Meanwhile I am going through all the clippings I have cut out and piled on my desk—items that I wanted to write about, or at least to think more deeply about. But they keep piling up and it is hard to go back and sort them in some useful way. They are also all rather discouraging, and I am trying to remind myself that there is no telling… the future changes at unexpected times for unexpected reasons. A respectable poll notes that the American people overwhelmingly support higher taxes on the rich and no cutbacks on Social Security and Medicare. Yet, the same American people (more or less) voted overwhelmingly for candidates who hold the opposite view. Should this be good news or bad?

On my “favorite” topic—schooling—it is clear to me that the school public has had it with so-called accountability and teacher-bashing. But this same trend is also picking up steam. In part because my allies are largely invisible to the media and the supporters of the anti-union, anti-public schooling reform crowd is unbelievably visible in every form of media ever invented. And the two sides use the same titles/slogans for their organizations! Democracy figures heavily – especially by the monied crowd. And while their tactics seem obvious to me, they nevertheless have gotten away with being viewed as the upholders of equity and democracy. They are self-styled opponents of the “status quo” when it comes to public enterprises. And they have succeeded in getting the media to treat teachers, unions and other educators as reactionaries, defenders of unfairness, and as a dangerous and powerful self-interest group!!!

According to them, if it were not for our failing public schools there would be little or no achievement gap, and employment would rise alongside of better teachers, better teaching, less talk about security, seniority and the right to fairness; in short, less public interference in public schools.

This is hardly something new—the cry of our schools are failing has been heard before; almost line-by line, every few decades. But I believe this time there is a substantial chance that the bashing of public schooling and teachers will succeed in destroying public education in favor of a helter-skelter totally unaccountable privately-owned and publicly funded system of highly segregated schooling—segregated by race, ethnicity and social class. And I think it will, as usual, be a two-tier system of schooling. For the urban poor it will be designed strictly to fill the 2lst century form of menial labor.

The one thing it will not do is produce schools for the poor that are aimed at creating a feisty, democratically savvy citizenry—one prepared to rethink a society that accepts the highest level of inequality (and immobility!) of all modern nations. Obama’s dialogue with Joe the Plumber is seen as a terrible blunder, since he acknowledged that he thought one of government’s functions was to produce a fairer distribution of life’s goodies.

It is time folks like us started talking about democracy—one of whose fundamental foundational imperatives is a society in which all citizens live in some reasonable equity with all others. The gaps between the rich and poor in the USA today are far greater than their test scores, and daily getting worse. The chances for the 80% at the bottom half to be heard, to be organized, to play a public role decreases daily.

Can this be reversed?

I have just read a two short books by Isaac Asimov (!) on Roman history. It reminds me that there have been far more brutal wars of conquest, far greater genocides, and far greater inequities in the history just of Western Europe. But the rich have always been fearful of when the “others” catch on to what is happening—they seem very confident these days that they have made that impossible. I am hoping that the human drive for fairness will bubble up again. Hope is a virtue as long as one does not depend too much on it alone.

Here is to a few triumphs in 2011 for the “good guys”—that is, my side. And for continued joy and happiness to my family and friends—my fingers are crossed that they all have or get jobs, lovers, new friends and the energy and will “to keep doing what needs to be done.” Day by day.


P.S. It is an amusing thought to realize that the most powerful people in America are now philanthropists—those rich enough to give away a lot of money as long as they can control its uses. As the daughter of the leader one of NYC’s biggest philanthropies, I can imagine my father’s denunciation of their paternalistic practices of philanthropy. More on that later (since I found an amazing speech on just that subject that Joe Willen gave almost 50 years ago).

Keep Doing What Needs to Be Done


Dear readers,

I had a wonderful ten day trip to the west coast, and feel—cautiously—optimistic about “surviving” this dreadful period of history. Sort of. There were so many wonderful young educators and students at the annual Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum in San Francisco that we all left determined to keep the organization alive. Despite dismal sources of external funding. Instead we decided to raise the money person by person—from the ranks of friends and supporters within and around our work itself. We hope to raise $150,000 by spring—and half by the end of January.

So, first of all. Donate!!! https://secure.groundspring.org/dn/index.php?aid=32995

Any amount will do, but… We would like a bunch of $1,000 pluses amongst the many lesser sums. Our hope is to create a new kind of reform movement based on the reformers closest to the action (and their friends), rather than on grants from Foundations for projects. We hope the latter will continue to provide interesting work for us to engage in, but that we will not have to count on such foundation funding to keep a national presence going and the have our annual Fall Forum. We even hope to do the latter on a less lavish basis so that more of our teachers, parents and students can join us.

Put aside November 11-12, 2011, in Providence, RI. We’re going back to our roots for this event.

What has always been unique about the Coalition is that while it rests its work on ten common principles, its schools have tried to solve the problems principles pose in their own unique ways. There isn’t ONE model. Thus schools that also belong to Expeditionary Learning, High Tech Hi and The MET (for example) fit under our umbrella, but not always vice-versa. These other organizations are largely “service” organizations, with a particular model while CES, from the start, hoped to be useful to its member schools through its regional centers, and otherwise to represent the heart of Ted Sizer’s original work nationally.

We need, more than ever, to demonstrate through the work of these many networks and centers that the “ideas” behind our work represent an alternate paradigm to the “no excuses,” zero tolerance, test-driven, boot-camp style of education that has lately taken the fancy of many “reformers”—especially for poor students of color.

Furthermore, while we all support public education, CES has always included among its ranks many independent schools, and later charters, as well as locally based public education. We have never taken a stand on issues of school size—although CES recommended that the odds were on the side of being small enough to personalize relationships between key participants. Ditto regarding choice. Many of our schools are geographically zoned, non-choice schools and some are schools of choice. We include rural, suburban and urban schools. While we are over-weighted in terms of demographics toward low-income students of color, some of our schools are well-to-do suburban schools. As John Dewey reminded us, what the wealthiest and wises want for their children we should demand for all children. (Obama/Duncan: take note)

We treasure this range, and also respect the reasons why many reform efforts have focused on particular disadvantaged communities whose situation is much direr than schools “in general.” But Ted Sizer’s work also pointed to the emptiness and poverty of intellectual life within most solidly White middle class schools. He was seeking a revolution in schooling that extended to all. In fact, some Coalition schools are not even in the USA! But they all try to get to the heart of what he believed were essential intellectual habits needed for a democratic society. Go to our site for more. http://www.essentialschools.org/

While out west I also promoted Playing for Keeps. If you haven’t bought it, it’s an easy and cheap read, so do it right now. Just click here. http://store.tcpress.com/0807750956.shtml

And then finally I visited friends in Portland. I saw my very dear old colleague from Bank Street and work in East Harlem—Happie Byers. She says to tell everyone “not to worry about what you should do, just do what is right there in front of you needing to be done.” Neither her granddaughter, Jessie, nor I can quite get the words exactly right, but we agree that was the message—and we intend to pursue her advice.

I also saw Alan Dichter and Vivian Orlen and their two fast growing sons. Alan is full of optimism, as usual. He is not necessarily therefore to be believed. And Vivian has been the principal since September of a 1,600 student neighborhood high school—Grant High School. I spent a day there watching her work. I was envious. She is having fun and the staff and kids I met with seem intrigued and delighted!

So, I left for home on a high, and intend to try to stay up there for a little while each day. But it is not easy work. The news from New York City regarding the new Chancellor is so appalling that I have not yet gotten my hands around what it augurs. We are entering a time when The Oligarchy seems poised to take over everything. And be responsible for nothing.


Something New Under the Sun

Dear whoever,

Puzzlements. Why all this hooplah about reforms that are clearly not working? If “open education” was dismissed based on so-called science (I never did know what evidence they had), how can this new wave of reform be picking up more steam in the midst of a blitz of data proving it wrong-headed?

Assuming, as I have for some time, that the current “reform” mania around public education is the offspring of not one but at least four, five, et al currents, all alive and well in the political climate of the past few decades, can we actually stop it, or even slow it down by noting that it defies reality—and surely all sound research. Maybe not, but it is worth a try.

Yes, the facts are blithely ignored by quite intelligent and well-meaning people, but maybe a siege of facts will finally get heard. .

Examples of what is ignored:

1) If unions are the problem how come the states with no teachers unions have not shown any evidence of being even as innovative as places like NYC or Chicago or LA where teacher’s unions have been generally cast as the enemies. Maybe what has united many is just the chance to eliminate one of the strongest unions left in America. Having gotten rid of most unions serving the private sector and made organizing new unions nearly impossible, there is only one strong union base left: the public sector.

In the past half century, as Richard Rothstein of EPI has documented in Income Stagnation and Inequality, the percentage of workers who are members of unions is below that of any other democratic modern nation—and less than half of what it was at its peak. Given that most public sector unions are not allowed to strike and must pay heavy financial penalties if they do, their political influence is what they have long been focused on. If they are eliminated as a source of financial help to candidates and above all of organized manpower on behalf of candidates, then corporate money—freed from all constraints by recent court decisions—can truly run public life with virtually no organized opposition.

If we confront far more inequality than at any prior time in our history, and if we truly believed all that anti-communist propaganda about the virtues of a strong middle class, free trade-unionism and free-enterprise, we would be worried about throwing out the first two and resting it all on the third. The centralization of media power in the hands of a few people of international wealth and the internationalization of much of America’s private enterprise also undermines even the liberal pro-capitalist western propaganda of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Everybody but “the workers of the world” seem to have united.

It fits.

2) It also fits a climate of glorification of “individual responsibility,” while in fact, as David Brooks notes in the NY Times, real personal responsibility has been thoroughly trashed. Who paid ANY price for their intentional disregard of the public good in the Wall Street and Housing boom, et al? A lady was executed in South Carolina the other day for plotting the death of her husband. But the death of our economy and the enrichment of a small group of con artists has gone almost entirely unpunished—except the punishment inflicted on the victims.

I liked David Brooks’ column (Sept. 24th) on the “responsibility deficit”. I might even order the Philip Howard book he recommends. Where inequity does not make it a farce, I too want government to lay its hands off. My default position is always one of free choice. But when 2% of Americans hold so much power over 98%, “free,” choice is not free. Brook’s notes that teachers “have to obey a steady stream of mandates that govern everything from how they treat an unruly child to the way they teach.” Then we accuse them of failing to be held accountable!

I am even against involuntary schooling, in the abstract. But in the world we live in I know who will and who will not become educated better to their own self-interests. Maybe with more attention to the potential of “public” discourse we might even begin to honestly talk about what we mean by being held “accountable”—and to whom. Jamie Vollmer (in Schools Cannot Do It Alone), who comes at this from a businessman’s background making ice cream, notes: “We are witnessing a campaign to annihilate the emotional and intellectual ties that bind the American people to their public schools. And it is working.”

The arguments of the disparate forces that joined on behalf of the Duncan agenda—from the strict free-enterprisers to the civil rights activists– needs to be considered. One piece of good news. Among many of those attracted by the idea of “getting tough” on our schools on behalf of the underdogs—especially children of color—there is a shift that I can detect. What we are not seeking is going back to pre-NCLB/Nation at Risk practices, and our arguments need to be clear on this point.

Puzzlements are the beginnings of wisdom, as I begin to unravel this dilemma.


The More Tests Change……

I am still sorting those boxes full of old letters, records and newspaper clippings! It is hard not to keep stopping and examining the past more carefully. In an odd way it makes me feel better to realize that “I’ve heard that song before.” The education headlines are indeed the old familiar score (see below). Of course, it could also be discouraging. But it reinforces my determination to sustain the work based on the data that matters most: the actual life histories of the human beings schools reach. “You can’t take that away from me,” I remind myself. In the end we each have to make some judgments about what “counts” most to us.

Meanwhile, we keep “counting” in ways that defy quite ordinary common sense. Examples:

[Headline] City Cheats on Reading Test: “The mayor has turned the Chancellor’s smashing two-year increase in the citywide test into ‘the single most important achievement’ of his administration.” From the Village Voice. By Wayne Barrett.,

And furthermore,

“It was not surprising that the city’s scores had risen dramatically… the test the city uses is designed to do that… There is some concern that the children learn the art of passing tests, according to Ida Echavarria, director of testing” reports the NY Times.

Both the above from June 1981.

Just days before the 1981 scandal broke, even astute Albert Shanker’s column in the NY Times was blasting testing critics and praising NYC’s high scores, noting proudly that Washington D.C. students had made similarly big gains. Yes, it requires, he said, “special efforts to overcome” poverty, but “as the recent scores in NYC and D.C. show… the greatest gains were made by minorities and the poor in some of our very toughest neighborhood schools.” No further comment after the expose.

I arrived in NYC in 1967 and had been an unwitting supporter of testing as a parent, teacher and local school board member. I was even part of a cabal (led by Ann Cook and Herb Mack) to “expose” Chicago’s secret test scores a few years earlier. I was, like Diane Ravitch, a believer. It took experiences that involved both my own children and those I taught in central Harlem to wake me up. The kids and their scores did not match what I knew about them, and NYC’s wild fluctuations led me to became an amateur expert on standardized testing. (Go to deborahmeier.com for a list of my writings on standardized testing.)

For example, between 1974 and 1975 scores took an amazing turn: going from 33.8% reading on or above grade level to 43.3% in 1975. A year later the headline in the NY Times noted “A Slight Decline in Reading in New York Schools,” although the Times noted that the decline was from 1975 which had shown “surprisingly high achievement by pupils compared with earlier years.” What changed? The test publisher. So, the next year the Board of Education contracted with still another test publisher. Guess what? Next year: we all did better.

In 1979 the NY Times front page noted that “City Pupils Remain Behind in Reading.” But there was improvement. Although a different test was used that year so comparisons were hard to make, said reporter Ed Fiske.

In 1984 Gene Maeroff noted that more than 50% were now reading above grade! Victory? An improvement in less than 10 years from below 40% to over 50% reading on grade level. None of my high school teaching friends saw any sign of change in their students who had so miraculously scored better during their elementary years.

A year later Joyce Purnick reported “Reading Scores Fall in City for the First Time in 5 Years” The Chancellor said “that reading experts had told him the version of the test given this year was more difficult… but suggested that the teacher shortage may also have contribute to the dip in scores.” The Chancellor said “he would meet with a committee to determine… whether to use a different test entirely in the future.”

And so it has gone for the 43 years I have been a NYC school test watcher. I was hardly surprised then to read the headlines a few weeks ago that informed us that in fact the latest test scores that the Mayor touted during his reelection campaign were… inaccurate. In fact, the latest data shows that we are more or less back where we started when Bloomberg became Mayor 8 years ago. The only difference this time is that the dips usually coincide with the appointment of a new Chancellor and Mayor Klein is still with us. But in the old days NYC controlled its own tests!

Dizzy from trying to follow these ups and downs?

Remember, these publicized scores went along with a lot of “deep” editorial analysis, plus hours of precious time spent in every school and district carefully dissecting each up and down by class, grade, teacher and kid. Teachers and schools were inundated with sure-fire commercial test prep programs—for doing better next year. And if you are a school teacher now, this should sound familiar.

Given that the tests used were all produced by equally reputable test makers, who promised that their tests were “normed” with expensive and extensive pre-testing, guaranteeing a high degree of reliability and reported measurement error, and built to measure the exactly same thing—how is this bizarre history possible?

When the switch was made from “norm-referenced tests” to so-called “criterion-reference” tests, I jokingly noted that this was another word for “politically” normed tests—with benchmarks set to meet a particular political agenda. But, since I suspected the old tests were also influenced by politics, criterion-referenced seemed a step forward. However, they came with another decision—to report scores simply as a 1, 2 ,3 or 4. Period. The difference between a high 3 and a low 3 being indistinguishable, and thus a move from a 3 to 4 might indicate almost no change—except in headlines.

The climax of this story? Last fall, 2009—before the Mayoral election—we witnessed the claim that another rise had taken place in the 8-year upward curve of test scores under the Mayor’s reign. But—another report this summer has uncovered a new truth—actually test scores this year were back where they were before Bloomberg became Mayor 8 years ago.

I hope this explains why my expertise has convinced me not to believe data collected by any city or state or Federal DOE (domestic or international)—re attendance, drop-outs or so-called achievement. I know what goes on behind the scenes—at what hour one takes attendance matters, what constitutes a drop-out depends on how you record it. Like “achievement” they are equally subject to Campbell’s Law. The data declines in value the more high stakes attached to them.

I am not anti-data—but I want the real stuff. More on that next time.


What Price Control?

Dear friends,

Organizing life is almost more time-consuming than living it! I’m overwhelmed with pieces of paper that I can’t bare to throw out, but can’t bare to keep. So, I need to organize them! But as I do so, more and more appear.

My daughter-in-law, Tricia, discovered a huge file full of old letters to and from me going back to my teens. The Lily Archive at Indiana University wants them but first I have to see what makes sense for them to archive. I have spent hours at it and already discovered two letters that I immediately tore up, and a few I put aside in a “to be thrown out” pile. Then there are those that have sentimental value to me but do not belong in an archive dedicated to teaching. In those days before e-mail, and before telephoning seemed cheap enough to make long long-distance calls, many of the letters are long arguments for and against particular ideas.

I had forgotten about the Antioch co-op job in an Indianapolis Day Care Center. I did it because I wanted to visit with my Uncle Marty and my cousins Jeremy and Daniel who lived there. It was clear that I was not a very responsive assistant teacher and was impatient with restless children who refused to go to sleep at nap time (when I could then read), and whose parent’s came late (so I couldn’t leave early). It definitely inspired me not to take any education courses when I got to the U of Chicago which I was urged to do as a married woman who might need a fall-back job.

Yet in fact becoming an accidental teacher opened up the world to me in intriguing ways. It altered the way I saw and heard, and the way I understood politics, history and human behavior! There’s no subject that seemed “boring”. My democratic leanings from childhood were strengthened as it became more and more obvious that 12 plus years of schooling was such a poor preparation for democracy. The strong-willed, skepticism that is essential alongside of the habit of seeing and feeling the world from different perspectives (call it empathy?) is precisely what schooling dulls rather than nurtures, what is stronger at age 5 than 15.

I reread a short speech Susan Sontag gave to Vassar graduates in 2005 and realized how strongly I identified with her admonition: “Don’t allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to” and “Don’t be afraid.”

When I visit many “acclaimed schools” for poor children I’m struck by how hard the adults work at putting kids “in their place”, at public humiliation and condescension. The way the children’s families are too often talked about by school adults is unnerving. Yet school adults are also the object of a similar condescension. But the connection between the two is somehow lost.

Too many of our schools are organized around fear and thus the “solutions”/reforms are too. The details are similar to those that drive prisons. The unspoken motto from school to classroom design revolves around issues of control: what will happen if we don’t control them? In the same way I was struck by how easily teachers are intimidated by the authorities who rule their lives, how much principals fear “downtown”, and parents fear the teachers–and the teachers fear the parents! It isn’t universal, but it is widespread. The common answer: tough love and “no excuses”.

The old-fashioned eccentric teacher who locked herself and her kids in her “castle” has all but disappeared: along with the strong-willed teacher who could create an alternate environment.

What we have forgotten is that part of being a good citizen is being skillful at resisting authority, organizing “our side” on behalf of common interests. It is our faith in our superior numbers that may be called upon to trump the power of guns and money. Democracy is always a fragile ideal, probably never fully realizable. It requires strong feisty citizens with a sense of their “entitlement” and an awareness that democracy is an exercise in balanced power. Learning to exercise power is as important as learning to be cooperative, who knows there is another story worth hearing (excuses?), is prepared to compromise, see the world from many perspectives, and have a good sense of humor. Adults teach these conflicting traits to kids in part by example ideally. What may seem like petty requests to us may, for kids, be matters of honor and integrity. But not if we adults have grown accustomed to swallowing our honor.

I heard a rightwing Republican congressman (Steve King from Iowa) speaking on TV about the Second amendment. It is not, he said, about hunting or protecting ourselves individually. We need guns, he continued, so we can confront a tyrannous government. He happened to think we were on the brink of an Obama-dictatorship. He was right: in 1776 the rebels saw liberty as closely allied to our ability to challenge a dictator with an armed citizenry. He is wrong about those guns, but he is right that democracy is always endangered and has a tendency toward centralization of power in few and fewer hands that must be resisted. If not by guns, what is the alternative?

Resisting the centralization of schooling of who decides what my children are taught and where the school’s moral code is spelled out requires being “armed” by the powers that come with citizenship. We need new words that distinguish the kind of heated argument that democracy arouses if its decisions matter from winner/loser arguments that are only an exercise in exerting power over others. We depend upon such arguments, we depend such compromises, we depend upon resistance. Yet there is only one public institution where these habits of heart and mind might be developed: our schools. It is a shift in our picture of the tasks of schooling. To produce a community in which the young are learning from those older and wiser about democracy will take time to invent. Such schooling habits will not spring into being overnight. We will need to develop norms that make arguments, resistance, skepticism and solidarity and a good laugh at ourselves tolerable, even cherished. It does not happen just in a course of Civics, but in all the activities of the school staff meeting, parent meetings, math classes, phys ed classes, music, and even the playground.

After I finish sorting all those letters, maybe I will have time to figure this out. Maybe soon I will be ready to prescribe how democracy is best taught. But probably not.

More another time.


The Conversation

Dear friends,

A whirlwind month visiting friends and colleagues around the country—from Maine to Denver. However, as usual I end up seeing more people who agree with me than disagree with me on the fundamentals of school reform. I had a chance in D.C. to talk to a friend of a friend who support Michelle Rhee’s reforms. I was dying to get into it, but as a guest I felt constrained and we dropped it quickly. What a shame. Was I right or wrong?

If we are to engage citizens with issues relating to educating the next generation of citizens, we have to get over our reluctance to talk about controversial issues. Maybe that is one reason we are, as Al Ramirez notes in last week Ed Week commentary, so eager to hand over our education policy to the federal government. Maybe it is not just the money they are bribing states with, but also a chance to get off the hook by appearing helpless? I think that appeals at times to teachers also. “Why blame me? I followed the recipe and if it did not produce the results you wanted, I’m not at fault.”

Teachers are (alongside mothers) very prone to guilt for all the mistakes they made in the course of 6 hours, day after day. Hundreds of decisions each hour that may or may not have subtle or not so subtle ill-effects. I hated it when I made one of those “I should know better” mistakes on Friday at the end of the day. I had all weekend to stew about them, hoping I could undo it n Monday.

Maybe if the penalty was “just money,” I could feel less upset about it? Fred Meier once said that he preferred playing card games for money, otherwise it seemed like he was playing for his honor.

Does cheating on the results make one feel less guilty? Probably not, but it makes one’s honor a more private matter. Besides, I have discovered that people forget they fudged the data, and begin to boast about it as though it were real. Reporters, for example, boasted that the high school I was directing at the time, CPESS, had a 90% graduation rate before we graduated a single class. Did I correct them? It was so foolish that I let it pass…. Would I have tolerated such foolishness if the media had made public false bad results?

I have been following Tony Judt’s memoirs in The Nation avidly. His skepticism about democracy’s potential is refreshing. How can we argue about this more broadly than in the pages of The Nation? How about in school? How about a continuous curriculum that raises questions about democracy, that accepted Judt’s bald statement that “democracy has always been a problem.” One problem is that everyone now claims to be for it: Chinese, Burmese, South Africans, George Bush, Tea Party’ers as well as Obama and I. It is a “dangerously empty term” Judt argues. We “either re-educate” the public in some form of “public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism.” Dare we risk such a conversation in our schools?