A New School Year Begins
Editor's note: After a month-long break, Bridging Differences returns today with this entry by Deborah Meier.
Summer's over. For 70 years I've approached this time of year with school in mind. With unrealistically high expectations and joy. And a knot in the pit of my stomach.
I wish I could at least be grateful that I'm not dealing with the difficult decisions that so many of my colleagues face in the current climate of so-called "reform." But it turns out to be more discomforting to live it vicariously. In the excitement of seeing old friends and new each fall it's harder to stay mad at "the system."
Education is on the agenda in Congress too this month, and so we'll be hearing painful double-talk from both local and national politicians. My first look at the draft summary was a stunner. It seemed to propose more complex rules and mandates and be fully in keeping with the basic mindset of the original. Let's talk about that very soon.
My summer was "interrupted" by reading Sam Dillon's New York Times account (subscription or fee required) of one Sir Michael Barber's outrageous claims about British schooling. Barber came to the US to tell NYC principals that English education is the way to go: just get on board New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's bandwagon, he urged. Unsurprisingly, Brit Richard Pring's response to him wasn't published in the NY Times, although he currently heads England's major review of all age 14-19 education.
Thirty-five years ago I made a trek to England to observe changes that were taking place in their "infant schools" (equivalent to kindergarten through about 3rd grade). The English had simultaneously just gotten rid of the 11-Plus exams that separated the wheat from the chaff at age 11 and instituted American-style secondary schools. Many prominent educators and journalists—like Joseph Featherstone in The New Republic—wrote about the intellectual seriousness of these new trends, their focus on kids who had preciously been ignored and, above all, the amount of competent writing that they saw kids engage in. Based on spending over six weeks in a few such schools we opened Central Park East elementary in East Harlem. So I have a special fondness for that period in British education.
But times change, and the British have outdone us in launching a "reform by test" movement. Unfortunately they didn't take your or my advice (which might not have been the same?)—in either country as they confronted problems with both promising earlier developments.
Richard Pring has told us that 10 years after Barber's reforms were fully installed the kids are no better prepared—academically or socially. UNICEF reports that children in England are "at the bottom of the league of rich countries in terms of happiness and feelings of well-being" and that they have highest rate of youthful criminality in Europe. I know some will scoff at the notion that we should care about children's "happiness" or "well-being" and will say that becoming a criminal is one's own choice. But I don't, and I suspect you don't either.
What's equally true is that England doesn't stack up well on international measurements in reading and math. The new "toughness" hasn't had much effect on college preparedness, employability, or international test score comparisons, says Pring.
Ohio principal George Wood, a friend of mine, decided a few years ago to call the Ohio Department of Education to ask for the results of studies done on the impact of Ohio's then-10-year-old test-based reforms. "What", he asked, "do studies of college and employer satisfaction tell us about how these reforms are working?" The lady asked him to call back while she looked for the answer. She came back to report that there had been no such studies conducted. It seems we're too busy tracking every little testing blip to wonder whether we're measuring what matters. Whether it's working to produce stronger citizens and better politics? In Ohio?
The good news that Pring brings us is that after a long and expensive detour, the British are now back to asking: "What counts as an educated 19-year-old in this day and age?". I wish we'd begin to talk about that over here, too.
I still remember the 1970s when New York City grades 2-6 test scores zoomed up remarkably. Oddly, no one seemed to wonder why these trends never seemed to make an impact on grades 7-12. No corresponding glee appeared amongst high school teachers; no one was saying, "well, at last, you're sending us better-prepared kids."
Instead, we turned to Business. I think I'm right that half of all businesses fail every year; those that don't include a great many that engage in practices that horrify us (like cooking the books). As an investor I've never received a business report that made what was going on transparent to me. Failing CEOs aren't treated like failing principals—but just open their golden parachutes. So why have we grown accustomed to turning to them for answers?
It would hurt less if it wasn't that I'm still sure that schools can make a big positive difference. There are a vast number of ways that they can do so, but they all start with acknowledging the connection between means and ends.
It leads me, for example, to ask whether kids are being schooled in the company of adults with the intellectual and moral standards for making judgments on matters of importance. If not, forget it. (My grandmother had virtually no formal education, but I never doubted her capacity for intellectual and moral judgment. It did me good to keep company with her.) Our now six-month-long discourse is based, I think, on this commonality. Maybe also on the fact that neither you nor I has enough power to impose our differences on each other! Nor, possibly, neither of us has such a desire.
I'm not looking for a single great "decider." I know from history where that leads us.