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Trust, Community, and Schools

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Dear Diane,

I'm not entirely ducking it—just partly. I'm also getting at it in a circuitous way!

Of course, at heart, I am struggling to understand the American "people." I know I am hopelessly out of the loop, although I keep circling around for common threads. The enthusiasm for Sarah Palin is a case in point.

How can I simultaneously want to keep more, not less, power in the hands of the same public that might elect a pair like McCain/Palin? And, they aren't by any means the worst we might do. I'll feel better about the public if they vote Obama/Biden, but after all it will actually only tell us about a marginal shift in the public's mind.

Democracy rests on a kind of skeptical trust that is both risky and hard to stick with. If I knew of a better way, I'd bet on it. But I'm stuck where Winston Churchill was when he declared that democracy was a terrible idea, except if one considered the alternatives.

I think I end up having a secret fondness for local corruption vs. centralized efficiency, in part because I have a sneaking suspicion that behind that centralized efficiency lies a much more powerful form of corruption.

I was stunned to read so much about the new heroine of education, Washington's new star Michelle Rhee. In explaining why paying teachers and students for results is, after all, the American way, she makes a scary point. Rather than seeing it as a complex trade-off, she appears to see it as an unambiguous good, even if it had no effect, on scores. I haven't got the quote in front of me, but maybe it was in Education Week? You and I argue that schools should conduct themselves in accordance with democratic values—whether or not doing so produces improved test scores. It's why I note, in admiration, that the Catholic Church wouldn't argue for dropping religion from their offering even if it raised scores. You and I worry, similarly, about the future of what we see as "the liberal arts" in an effort to raise scores. (Even if we differ somewhat on what it is about those "arts" that we value.) Rhee worries, too, in accordance with her highest values: that kids aren't sufficiently aware that school equals making more money and making money is what we're all about..

It goes back to our uncertainty over the purposes of publicly funded education.

One of our readers has sent us a longwinded, but interesting "comment" on the virtues of the teen cell/tech culture. Since my grandchildren are into all this, I read it with some interest, and hope. I'm not convinced, but I do intend to ask them more questions about it. As you can see, I'm looking for signs of hope almost anywhere. So, I urge readers to explore his argument and see where it gets us.

I think the issues of trust and community are very high on my list of priorities. The notion that these may be bedrock basics for democracy's possibility, hard to replace if not nurtured when we are young, and built into our accustomed ways of thinking, may be arguable. The ease with which we've replaced human judgment with "hard data" has both strengths and weaknesses, of course. Mothers for a long time have been unduly influenced by the latest expert opinion on child-rearing—as though these were strictly "scientific" matters. The evidence is hardly unimportant in the exercise of judgment, but it needs to be set within the context of ordinary experience and beliefs. I was always worried when parents or teachers would tell me that they thought a child was not a good or bad reader until the scores came in. Instead of using this as a chance to wonder why the two pieces of evidence didn't match, they shifted their stance in the face of "hard evidence." But I am equally disturbed when citizens dismiss "evidence" with mindless claims that they have a right to "their opinions." In short, replacing potentially biased direct evidence with potentially biased indirect evidence is a bad habit, just as the opposite is.

[Editor's note: Deborah Meier submitted the following revised paragraph after the blog entry was initially published.]

But I'm counting on conflicting dumbness (maybe another word for half-digested experiences) to keep new or now passe ideas alive. When the mayor of the largest city in the nation, famous for its intellectual elitism, promotes the idea that we can't teach 5-year-olds if we don't test them, it's hard not to despair. And, when he proposes to somehow combine scores on a paper-and-pencil group test in math with one in literacy to come up with a single number that can be used for teaching purposes, I tremble. When his education chancellor defends the need for a single number so we can compare kids across the city (state, nation, planet), I wonder at the quality of both of their educations. The worst thought is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein believe this nonsense; the best is…that it's a ploy. A way to wrest even greater mayoral control? Or is it part of a more general view amongst his crowd, one that sees virtually all public institutions that rest on a restless, often ignorant public, as inferior to ones controlled by people more like themselves? Former Chicago and Philadelphia miracle worker Paul Vallas says he loves working in a New Orleans where he has total power. We don’t need “privatization” if we can have public schools minus the nuisance of teachers’ unions and public input seems to be the new liberal reform slogan.

We live amidst a profound lack of respect for democracy and a profound weariness in the face of enormous conundrums that cannot quickly bring us comfortable answers. My naïve hope is that we can make schools themselves a place for examining the strength and value of democracy.

Deb

P.S. So much for my idea about shorter columns! You're doing better at it, Diane.

14 Comments

Deb,

But I am equally disturbed when citizens dismiss "evidence" with mindless claims that they have a right to "their opinions."

And all the evidence says that Obama has no legislation to his credit, and has no coherent view of national security.

That Joe Lieberman would move to the RNC to highlight this should at least give you pause. You might still vote for him for many other reasons, but you ought at least to admit that he just might be woefully unprepared to be commander in chief.

(And what is a community organizer? I know nearly every leader in these parts, and no one has that title? )

What exactly is McCain's experience re foreign policy or being commander in chief, homeland security or any red button issues. His stands on those hot button foreign policy issues are ones I disagree with, but experience? (Since he still sees going to war in Iraq as a good thing, and I don't--and the war has been far more costly than I ever dreamed on every front--not just incompetent but unwise--the idea that he might start a few more of these scares me! If that's what experience has taught him, than it's a reminder that experience alone does not teach wisdom. Even being tortured doesn't always teach us not to torture others.

And like all of us in our 70s, I'm particularly sensitive to his age, an surely Palin hasn't even got experience on a scale larger than Alaska--and that only for a few years. Plus I am not a Christian, so that's not a plus for me. Not a negative either until one suggest that their God is better than my God as a reason for policy. Neither McCain nor Pallin strike me as having the breadth of knowledge that Obama/Biden have.

On education there are differences that are far less sharp. But for all of us the question of educating for democracy remains illusive.

What intrigues me is how we can have such discourse-like we are having now-- in schools! If not schools, where ele would (not just could) kids learn how to have them? Where are they likely to experience the role of evidence in the art of persuasion? Our answer now is to pretend that we can avoid all controversial subjects, or water them down so that all their merits are lost for fear of biased schools....a reality. In response we leave kids to the mercy of their at least equally prejudiced families and neighbors--if they even talk politics there! It is a really tough dilemma for the education of a democratic people.

As you note, and took advantage of, I left open by my "vice versa" after-thought precisely the possibility of this dialogue. . That's the opening we need to leave for each other--at minimum--far more often. We also have to take advantage of them as you have

Deborah

Deborah,

You write often about trust, and I have wanted to ask you about it. Do you really think trust is possible? How would you define it? It seems that you associate it with a kind of organizational integrity, where a school and its members believe in what they are doing and can communicate honestly with parents and outsiders. That is a great thing. But even there, trust would be limited.

I would argue that trust exists provisionally, as a deliberate action, within certain structures.

Even at their best and kindest, people do not know what others mean and want. And even if they did know, they could not always provide it, or promise to do so indefinitely.

Trust is even more limited at work than in personal life. In some ways it is easier, by virtue of those very limitations. In a workplace, even a great workplace, we play certain roles--we are not at liberty to express the full range of our ideas or emotions, nor should we be. (Maybe you disagree with me here?) I find some of the greatest trust through the subject matter itself. When I teach an excellent poem, the lesson rides the poem, and the students respond. There is clarity and honesty, and the students are left with the poem itself.

Within the roles we play at school (and other workplaces), we meet our obligations and excel at some of them. That is a kind of trustworthiness. It exists thanks to its very limitations. Step outside them, and nothing is clear.

I constantly let myself down. I don't do as much as I want to do, or as well. I drop out of touch with people and forget to do things. I let important things go. I find myself in conundrums where I want to be polite and forthright, and can't do both at once. I hurt people's feelings from time to time. My views and feelings about politics and religion have changed over time. How could I pretend to be trustworthy? Within limits and structures, yes. In general, no. And why would I expect more of others than I myself can offer?

Even within a structure, I can ignore a student unwittingly, or fail to deliver the kind of instruction that the class needs most. I can make the mistake of following my instincts too much or too little (somewhat like the errors you mentioned). I can promise to call a parent and then forget. I can make a factual mistake. I can have a bad day. I can disappoint, sometimes badly. I let some students down when I left my former school.

I would argue that no one is trustworthy in everything, indefinitely. To have trust we must recognize that it is strongest when most specific. Maybe trust and obligation are closely related. Maybe in a sense they are the same.

Diana Senechal

Deb,

In case you missed it, Arne Duncan announced his version of Rhee's pay-for-grades yesterday, here in Chicago. The papers say that the plan was hatched by behavioral psychologists at Harvard (Duncan's alma mater).

How do you think a program like this affects student-teacher relationships?

Diana:

Try googling (should that be capitalized? We have accepted a new word into our vocaluary and I don't know the rules) Hoy, Woolfolk-Hoy, and Tschannen-Moran. They have done work with defining a construct for trust within the environment of school. I cannot recall exactly all of the thrust fo their research, except that they identified/created valid measures and have established that trust matters--and I cannot recall if they were looking at faculty/supervisor, or faculty/parents.

You might want to see Peter Levine's take on the role of value's in testing:

http://www.peterlevine.ws/mt/archives/2008/09/valuejudgments.html

Peter hits the middle road correctly. We need technical measurement but we shouldn't fool ourselves that it can be stripped of values. The best we can hope for is a democratic enough process that we get questions on tests that represent shared values.

David

Margo/Mom,

I did the googling you recommended, and found a document on the SLOS Trust Scale. It defines trust in schools as a combination of benevolence, reliability, competency, honesty, and openness. And then there's the instrument, which contains an array of "trust items."

Now, the authors make certain assumptions that I would question. They assert that "trust is good." Their "trust items" include openness about one's personal life: does the principal share personal information? Do the students speak freely about their lives outside of school? Do teachers speak openly about their personal lives? I would say this is a matter of preference, not a good or an evil. Some prefer to keep their personal lives separate from school. Others bring in family photos and tell all about their weekends every Monday. Everyone in the school should have the prerogative to choose. It should not reflect negatively on the school's trust level to have people with some reserve.

Anita Woolfolk-Hoy, one of the authors, has written a lot about collaboration, I see: "Collaborative learning: A memorable model"; "Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and effect on student achievement"; "Creating smarter schools through collaboration"; and more. I am suspicious of such heavy emphasis on collaboration. I am much more inclined toward collaboration than may appear; I love it when it has substance, and have done quite a bit of it. But it is not an unequivocal good, to echo what Deborah said about merit pay. The person who likes to think in quiet, and who likes a degree of privacy, may have something valuable to offer but is now on the fringes of many a workplace culture.

I like the idea of trust as benevolence, reliability, and competence--if we recognize our own imperfections in all of those. Honesty and openness are important when they directly affect the work or the integrity needed to perform it.

To me the SLOS Trust Scale is biased in favor of extremely social environments. I believe that is possible to have great schools that are not so overwhelmingly social. I recognize, though, that this is an unpopular view.

Diana Senechal

Deb,

I think the election of Obama/Biden would be more than a marginal shift. I’m closer to John Hope Franklin who argues that their campaign is the greatest single achievement in US history. After all, he witnessed the aftermath of the Tulsa Pogrom of 1921 where 400 Blacks were murdered, and now we’ll probably have a Black president.

Similarly, I agree with ½ of the cell phone post. On the other hand, we live in “The Big Sort.” The commenter was very astute in recognizing the wonderful developments that are occurring especially in low poverty schools. I doubt the commenter is aware, on the other hand, of the real life-threatening dangers that come from uncontrolled cell phones in schools with serious gang violence. On the other hand, cell phones could help with the solutions. In the short run, text-messaging could promote dropout recovery programs. I can see how communication, enhanced by technology, could help turn around dysfunctional schools. And ultimately, the new methods of communication could address our fundamental problem in education - the collapse of the family. I think/hope that the kids are using technology to reinvent the family.

On the other hand, my problem with the comment is that it embodies the same “self-satisfying” ethos that it condemned.. As with other examples of The Big Sort, the commenter’s worldview is so obviously true from his perspective that he does not respect the alternative views. In short, he is impatient with the “on the one hand, on the other hand” dynamic that pervades education. I’m at a loss to think of a human reality that doesn’t involve trade-offs.

I am not so worried if digital technology undercuts the ability to write long papers or pay attention to long lectures. But I am worried about the loss of the ability to watch sunsets, or listen to a symphony.

And I’m just as guilty. As I change the subject to Michelle Rhee, I could quote Keats (or was it Yeats?) but with my digitally-shortened memory I’ve lost the ability to do more than paraphrase, the worst lack all conviction, while the best are ... the most destructive. On the other hand, I have Diana Senechal to remind me, and I suspect that she shares my dread that we are losing too much of our consciousness of the Humanities and their insights into humanity.

I take Michelle Rhee at her word when she says that she wants holistic education for poor children. I just don’t think she is willing to listen to people who see the world differently. I don’t think she seriously considered the possibility/probability that she is making things worse for poor children. Again, she is the personification of The Big Sort. If numbers speak to Rhee and her followers, they just assume that their preferences will liberate everyone, if everyone precisely follows their lead. Hurricane Rhee wants to wipe out all of the “skeptical trust” and battles between “half-digested experience” so she can rebuild on a blank slate. Were she to win, would future generations of students in our overly-proud nation’s Capital have a chance to learn about hubris?

We on this blog always get back to trust and community. I think that many accountability hawks sincerely don’t understand why we do. Again, I’m more hopeful. I think that those self-defined “reformers” just take it for granted. Why? They graduated from excellent American schools and affluent communities where they did not have to worry about the lack of trust. It’s a tribute to post war America, and the New Deal and Fair Deal, that we have so many talented young professionals who were able to take for granted the “Four Freedoms,” including the freedom from fear. They just don’t realize the danger of imposing so much fear and loathing into our public schools.

I love contributing to community in the edusphere. On the other hand, this comment will probably be sent to the spam collector. I have to trust that editors will retrieve and post it. Part of the problem may be imperfect software at Ed Week, but on the other hand, my oft-broken fingers and my habit of double-clicking are probably a part of the problem. Its nice having those imperfections to complain about when you consider all of the reasons for hope.

On community organizing

I have to share that the worst thing I heard in Sarah Palin's acceptance speech was her quip defining her work as a small town mayor as sort of like community organizing, but with real responsibilites. I worked a lot of years as a community organizer. The pay was low, the work challenging but ever varied, and I loved it. But the key guiding principle to a good bit of what we did was defined as "holding government responsible." This meant holding various units of government accountable for not just providing a medicaid card, but also ensuring that there were accessible facilities that would see medicaid patients.

No Ed, I was not well known (outside my neighborhood) and I did not have a title (sort of point of pride in the agency where I worked). I slogged through bureaucracy to license a cooperative child care center, I went door-to-door in the winter, accompanied by college social work students and neighborhood residents, to survey the neighborhood on health care needs, I spent many summers at camp building community among young people. I addressed legislative bodies and organized grass roots efforts for others to do the same.

So, John, my accountability hawking comes from the same roots as my community and trust emphasis. By the way, Diana, whether sharing personal details is the most appropriate indicator of trust or not, I would suggest that the most important builder of trust is to "do what you say you are going to do." This to me is the root of accountability.

Now truly, when working with children at camp, the was a fair amount of collaboration and planning to determine the things that they would be held accountable for--within the context of mission/vision/philosophy of things that guided the agency--as well as needs of our community (someone had to take out the garbage and clean the toilets!). I see the possibility of this within NCLB--simply because of what it took to meld it to fit a federalist system in which the states, not Washington, bear the onus of responsibility for education. Each state has formulated a plan, standards, asessments, etc (for better or worse). Depending on the organization of education within the state, each district and school is then charged with formulating their own plan--and what they can be held accountable for.

I don't know at this point if the federal role is overly coercive (like the payment agreements that poor people have to sign to get their utilities turned back on--knowing that they cannot possibly live up to the agreement, but still need to keep from freezing in the winter). The real test, of course, will be if any states ultimately walk away from the Title I dollars.

But I, in no way, find accountability to be inconsistent with either trust or community. I would say that the opposite is true. Accountability is the bedrock on which trust and community are built.

I think Diana and I agree on "trust". I remember one of those "games" we were asked to play at a principal's meeting: to tell about a secret you've never shared before! I walked out. I guess I keep my distance too. But there is for any task a kind of appropriate trust required. For some tasks it's just that you can be relied on to drive on the right side of the road. In our case, at school, one thing we expected from each other was the presumption that we were all acting on the basis of good intentions.

John--I hope you are right, but I fear that we've turned a corner - during Republican rule - that will be hard to reverse, a path of distrusting those closest from the action. We'll see

Ed. Probably I've never been more puzzled by middle of the road supporters of the "other side" than I do this year. Lieberman's poor judgment is hardly the first he's shown, although I am embarassed by it--as I suspect it's out of concern for a cause I am equally concerned about.

And Mike--re pay for performance. We'll be blogging about this a LOT! If we want kids to learn to put a dollar sign on everything I suppose schooling is a "teachable moment"! that shouldn't be passed by. Actually, of course, it seems like a parody of my critique of the "business model's" pernicious effect on schooling in America!

David--"shared values" are precisely what tests should not depend on. But I do agree that tests of all sorts can help us understand many things; but because they have to contain bias--n the items or the scorer--they should be used as only one form of evidence for any important decision.

Best, deb

I believe my biggest concern is the comment from the mayor regarding testing 5 years olds. As a teacher in the state of Florida, I am told we "are not teaching to the test", but we "are teaching to the test", but not really...teaching them how to take a test is not the same thing. Okay...the fact is that our children are being taught, in many schools, that testing is the most important part of school. It may not be a flagrant annoucement, but is definitely the underlying tone in most schools. The year I worked on my National Board Certification, I had to get permission to use integrated curriculum, more hands on learning, and more dynamic means of teaching....wow, did I have fun being able to teach the way I really wanted to, in order to reach every child in my classroom! I can't believe that people in the education domain put so much emphasis on a test, or that they find that responsible or feasible. Will our children be tested this way in life? Of course not! Their tests will come through use of thought provoking questions and communication, the ability to collaborate with others, solve problems, and think their way through tough situations. There will be no bubbles. Who do I want for president? Someone who will look at NCLB and make it more student and teacher friendly...will look at the unrealistic picture of basing retention, teacher pay and job security on one day of testing. I have a 98% student passing rate for our third grade FCAT test, and I'm proud of my children for how they work...but surely there's a better way to see if they are progressing for a life-long learning process. I believe in accountability. I believe in using standardized tests to help diganose and acclerate children. I just hope, before it's too late and every teacher in the country gets burned out, that people will take a solid look at what is expected and how our accountability system is becoming mired in the mud of bureacracy. But that's my opinion....

Curious what the folks on this blog thought of Obama's articulated positions on charters and merit pay for teachers at the end of last week?

Sharon:

There are a couple of underlying assumptions that I want to challenge--whether they are coming from you, or someone who is making you do things in a particular way. One is that interdisciplinary curriculum, hands-on methodology and more dynamic means of teaching don't result in good test scores? Could it be that perhaps these things really do result in measureable learning, but only in the hands of folks who are capable of asking the right questions and applying the right strategies--and that for others they simply gloss over inadequacies in content in favor of choosing agreeable strategies? I don't have an answer--but I am always puzzled at how we have gotten to this point of turning everything on its head simply because we started to measure the outcomes.

The next question that I have relates to the measurement of outcomes. While I would love to believe that all of my adult life is measured by asking thoughtful questions, this is hardly the case. I have some licenses (driver's license, social work license) that rest on my ability to respond with some degree of accuracy to multiple choice questions--and my friends in other fields (law and medicine) are similarly measured. I am frequently judged as a parent by my childrens' facility in carrying completed papers back to school and placing them in the basket like they are supposed to, or their ability follow school rules, not to mention whether or not I sell overpriced candy and wrapping paper to my friends.

But, your question is an important one, and one that I wish I was hearing more answers to from the people who are annoyed by annual standardized tests as a basis for accountability. For what, or by what measures, ought schools be held accountable? And to whom ought they be accountable? Is there an implied acceptance of accountability with the acceptance of funds? Is there a level of accountability to parents, and ought parents have a role in defining the parameters (what is expected)? Is accountability for inputs sufficient, or should outputs be important, and if so, by what measures?

I do believe that we may have an opportunity, depending on the next President and Congress to chew on some of these questions, but I do think it is important to have an idea going in about what we think the answers are.

Margo, thank you for your comments. What you did is solidify, for me, the fact that this will continue to be a hotly debated topic. I truly believe that many of the feelings regarding testing boil down to what part of the country you're from, what your actual position is in relation to the topic (such as parent or teacher or both), and your beliefs on how people should be held accountable. There are plenty of professions where people need to think in order to perform, and bubbling responses is not an option. Our government leaders definitely need to be thinking, processing, and responding in a manner that is efficient and effective in fixing our economy. They have no multiple choice answers. As far as dynamic teaching, teaching is a passion for me, and my students do well because I believe in them and I strive to help them believe in themselves. As for answers, having been a parent first who could easily criticize the field, and then being a teacher where I'm now on the inside...I don't have set answers to be given...only ideas. I do know that I work more hours in a profession that continues to take pay cuts (while we're trying to prepare students for life and their future), while ball players continue to make millions (while playing a game). Like I said...I believe this will be hotly contested issue for many years to come, as our society becomes more and more complex. There is no easy answer. Thank you for your thoughts. As a person and teacher, I continue to grow each day. Life is an ever-changing , growing process...it's a thrill ride:-)!

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