The Underlying Issues
Your description of CPESS and other Coalition schools sounds like a memory from a distant past. Education is now in the grips of a very different mindset, one that seeks to turn schools into businesses or to use business as a model for success in education. Test scores have become the coin of the realm, simply because they provide an objective measurement. The problem is not testing kids, but using the scores to make judgments about students, teachers, principals, and schools. I have never been opposed to testing, but I think it is bizarre to assume—as most newspapers and pundits and policymakers now seem to do—that the tests are robust enough to make these consequential judgments about people and institutions.
I remember when I visited your school. I was impressed by the seriousness of the atmosphere and the dedication of the staff. However, I know how often people said, "If only we could clone Debby Meier." They meant that as a compliment to you, but also as an implicit acknowledgement that what you did could not easily be replicated. If it were easy to replicate, it would have spread across the nation. But it didn't. It remained a rare and fragile flower, not a hearty plant that could be transplanted or could—as gardeners say—naturalize or spread on its own.
We come back to our fundamental difference about the value of a common curriculum and of testing. I continue to think there is great value in knowing that children will encounter a common curriculum in history, science, and other subjects, even if they move from one school to another in the same district, or move to another city or state. No point rehearsing all the reasons, but at bottom I believe that we already have (weak) national standards, embedded in the textbooks and tests, and that we already have international standards in mathematics and science, where our students do poorly.
Yet I think this discussion, which you think is intertwined, is not entirely germane to the issues I raised about grading schools based on state test scores. We agree that the way this is done in New York City is harmful to schools and reveals nothing that will enable schools to improve. Indeed, if schools were to turn themselves into testing mills, doing nothing whatsoever other than test prep, they would be considered exemplary.
The issue that I raise is two-fold: One, how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics? and, Two, how can we—that is, the American public—begin to talk again about schools that prepare students not only to take tests but to be engaged and thoughtful citizens, to participate in and enjoy the arts, and to have the interest and capacity to read a book that was not assigned by a teacher?