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Trust and Schools

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Dear Diane,

John Dewey spent his life warning us about false dichotomies. One of our readers, I notice, warned fellow readers of our column not to slip into the same trap. I thought of that after watching the Obama/McCain debate: some observers thought Obama was mistaken to remind voters that McCain was often right. I liked that.

In face of the Obama/McCain debate, I’ve lost track of ours, Diane!

The fun part of our formulaic debate last week in D.C. (at the Fordham Institute) was how hard it was sometimes to tell the “ayes” from the “nays.” But thank goodness I was on your team. If you have your opening three minutes, maybe Education Week can pass it on to our readers. (Editor's note: Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch debated Jon Schnur and Gov. Roy Romer about the role of the federal government in education.)

I think that where we differ—on national curriculum and assessments—you are not quite in Gov. Romer’s court either. Tell me more about where you and he agree/disagree.

Back to Paul Tough's new book. I was reading the blurbs on the back and decided that some of the authors hadn’t read the book. One says “Canada is a man...who knows what it takes to ensure that every child…” etc. In fact, it was a book about a task Canada undertook and at which he failed. His definition of success (the state’s test scores. Period.) and his skewed timetable both doomed his efforts in my view. But there’s much to be learned from failure—as scientists will tell us.

I was happy to read Tough’s response to my column (see comments). My point was that Canada didn’t stick with that first group, the “guinea pigs” as kids in our first class at CPESS reminded us. “Science experiments,” as Stephen Dubner calls the school in his blurb, take on special responsibilities when experimenting on live people. If he had allowed himself a broader vision of the task (than test scores) and stuck with it longer he might perhaps have been surprised by success. (Read Brian S.’s comments about KIPP’s work in D.C. in response to a recent letter of Diane’s.)

The constant I find in educational “experiments” that succeed, even if they are otherwise very different, is that the people closest to the kids are those making the decisions and that they never give up, especially on their relationships with the kids. (Thanks to Tough for describing Canada’s subsequent efforts for that first class.) It’s why first-borns, who by all odds should be our least successful, are often our most—we often have the strongest ties with them. It’s that fact that gave me the courage to keep starting new schools and “promising” success. Schools are living organisms—like families—that need our constant attention. We have to be good kid-watchers, as well as helping them be good adult-watchers. We have to be constantly in the process of learning—being tough on ourselves as we are on the kids. But also compassionate and forgiving—of ourselves and them.

The saddest part of the story for me was that when Canada announced the closure of the 8th grade (based strictly on their test scores), he had nothing to say to stunned parents and students who asked him how they might help keep it open. That could have been a teaching/learning moment, the beginning of an experiment in community building.

The dispute between Canada and his tough-minded third principal is a magnificent example of dichotomous thinking. I like Canada’s comments better than Pindar’s, but they both miss the point.

Canada to kids and families: “It was basically my fault.” “It wasn’t the kids’ fault…I’m not blaming students for the failure to get good scores…That’s our job and responsibility. That’s what we got paid for.”

Pindar on Canada: “Yes, we failed them. But. …the way it came across was like we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. The truth...is we’ve got great teachers, we’ve got great staff, and if we had willing participants, we would have great students.”

To trust schools, they must be trustworthy. Everything we do must be weighed with that in mind. The standard test of trust: “have I kept my promises to you?” is only Step One. But it’s critical. We demand trust because we implicitly know that it’s the only way we can do our best work. (It pained me sometimes that parents' trust in us so often rested on the fact that they didn’t see any other choice.) As schools go about earning trust, other people’s timetables often get in the way—state officials in some cases, Canada’s board in another. But the kids’ timetables are first. (Vanity can help or hurt, depending on what we’re vain about.)

Which gets me to Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s "Trust in Schools." Bryk and Schneider focus on what they call “relational trust,” between professionals, and argue that it impacts on curriculum, pedagogy, and governance in ways we often ignore. It’s a scholarly and extensively footnoted book based on very down-to-earth case histories. More next week. (Incidentally, it just so happens that "In Schools We Trust" was the title of a book I wrote years ago about my last school, Mission Hill.)

Trust and accountability are closely linked, which ties in with current electoral debates. How do we establish acceptable levels of trust in American government and business, without which neither political nor economic life can prosper? Distrust of politics and business is warranted; so the means of restoring sufficient trust may have lessons for schools, and vice versa. As I hear the stories about corruption (from Cindy McCain's abuse of trust in a foundation she ran to corruption in almost every branch of federal and corporate government), I’m amazed at our resigned acceptance, as well as Obama’s passionate cool. I read into it the kind of “reformer’s” attitude we may need toward schools, however. We need to be passionate and impatient while developing living possibilities that don’t dichotomize us into false camps. (Am I stretching a point too far?)

Deborah

P.S. Diane, try "Democracy" by Charles Tilly (Columbia)—on connections between democratization and trust. Quite a different path to some similar ideas on the subject.

P.S. 2: I re-read "The Great Expectations School" by Dan Brown, who gave us both a signed copy at our debate last week. Thanks, Dan. It's a great must-read. Yes, indeed Dan, why can't all kids go to a school like the ones where the very rich send their children?


6 Comments

To the last (PS2) question: because not all teachers are created with the same gifts and not all schools can be above average.

Which is the rub. Seems like some of us are trying our best to figure out how to make education work in the real world with real people and real economics,...and then there's the crowd which believes we should aim only toward the seemingly perfect.

Tilly's death early this year is one of the great losses to social history writing. I only met him a few times, but no one has anything but the nicest things to say about him, and his writing was one of the best models that social science historians could ask for. This year is the tenth anniversary of Durable Inequality, a short book that has so much wisdom condensed in it.

Deb,

You wrote:

Schools are living organisms—like families—that need our constant attention. We have to be good kid-watchers, as well as helping them be good adult-watchers. We have to be constantly in the process of learning—being tough on ourselves as we are on the kids. But also compassionate and forgiving—of ourselves and them.

I wish I had wrote that. But with “cut and pace,” I still probably will.

The debate hasn’t gone well for people who believe that education should be run like a business. But we haven’t debated the more important question of whether tactics used by business for passing their political agendas are appropriate for helping school children. Business interests don’t worry too much if they are playing fast and loose with the truth because their opponents can afford their own lawyers and lobbyists and a good-enough truth is supposed to come out of political combat. Neither do they worry too much about the losing interests or their workers. If the Market doesn’t straighten things out, presumably communities can seek redress through other means from “Pork” to collective bargaining to a social safety net.

In education, though, we should follow the rule, “First, Do No Harm.” But when Klein endorses NCLB because he claims it gives him more political leverage, does he consider whether the law damages students in most districts which don’t have nearly the money of NYC? Assume Rhee could do a greater good for D.C. students by breaking the union. Does she consider the harm she would be doing across the nation over the next generations if her anti-union tactics are successfully replicated?

My big complaint is more mundane. Read Newsweek, the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, and other middlebrow publications and you hear that there is a consensus on instruction-driven reforms, curriculum alignment, frequent assessment, etc. that have been proven to be best practices. Of course, there is no such thing. But NCLB supporters have used their formidable political skills to convince the reporters who have an intelligent layperson’s knowledge of education, that research and actual experience have produced that consensus. In politics, their characterization of the evidence is within the normal range of mis-statements. The consultants who peddle those theories (or should I say hypotheses?) are engaging in a normal amount of deception in comparison to selling used cars. But if we were have an educational discussion of the best way of helping kids, I would call their spin a lie.

I also loved the stress your place on body language. Reading people is how I earn my paycheck. The following works for me, but I would never impose my approaches on others. You got me thinking of what a limitation it would be if our jobs primarily involved words, spoken and written. In my 45 minute classes, five times a day, I get into a two-way verbal exchange with less than half of my students per class. Hopefully, I’ve exchanges pleasantries with most of the rest. But only during the very best days do I get into a two-way instructional conversation with more than 75 students. Even then, that would be a two-way exchange with another student every three minutes, all day long. If you are taking time to listen, how could you speed up that process?

I have two-way interactions with maybe 100 teens that involve chest bumps, shoulder bumps, elbows to the ribs, poking, wrestling, etc, and that’s not counting handshakes and hugs, and basketball. (I play an old man’s game, but the kids call that fouling.)


Then, I make literally thousands of decisions a day based on my reading of body language. I make repeated eye contact with all of my thirty something students per class. And most of my communication in return is nonverbal. Even if I stopped telling all my stupid jokes, we wouldn’t be close to having the time to rely on word-driven instructional communication.

Back in the day we drew the distinction between “teaching the subject,” and “teaching the student.” We used to assume that our primary job was teaching the whole human being, but the accountability movement has turned that assumption on its head.

I’m awfully verbal, as my students will attest, and our time on task exceeds 95%, but still instructional dialogue is only a small part of my job. That’s a surprise only if you question the beliefs that schools are living organisms like families.

John,

You wrote, " Assume Rhee could do a greater good for D.C. students by breaking the union. Does she consider the harm she would be doing across the nation over the next generations if her anti-union tactics are successfully replicated?"

I don't view it as breaking the union but as removing people from the teaching ranks who are not doing their students any good. In addition, the next generation of students will be better off if the undesirables are removed from the teaching ranks.

Harm? How about the good? To me, getting rid of inefficient teachers is one of the missing components of successful education reform in this country. And who protects these duds? The union, of course. For too long this has been the practice. A problem teacher is retained, with the aid of the union, at the expense of their students' education.

I am NOT against giving these individuals their due process protections or a chance at remediating their practice but in education, kids should be the bottom line, kids should come first, not teachers.

If a teacher is not getting the job done and is unwilling to take steps to correct their deficiencies they should be encouraged to find a new career.

In addition, why would known liberal publications such as the New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all favor standards-based reform and student/teacher accountability, all the while blaming teacher unions for many of the problems in our public schools today?

Deborah,

Having finished Tough's book, I ask to what degree we should try to control or determine children's lives. On page 92, Canada says to parents at Baby College:

"We're going to do what we can do for your child, and you are going to have to do for your child what you have been taught. If you do that, I will guarantee we can get your child into college. We won't just get them in college; we will see that they graduate from college."

Is it even ethical to make a promise like that? Is it ethical to make a promise less than that? There's a dilemma.

Canada would argue that these children don't have choices; you need "escape velocity" to get them out of their destructive environments. You must insist they go to college, or they may end up dead on the streets. There is something to that argument.

Then you have the middle school's first principal, Terri Grey, who believes instead that a school should gradually mold students into learners--less insistence and cramming, more encouragement and exposure.

I would say both Canada and Grey are somewhat wrong. You cannot promise to make a child turn out in a certain way or take a certain path. Nor can you "mold students into learners" unless there is something that they need to learn. There should be urgency, but without coercion.

I liked something about the elementary school principal Dennis McKesey. He had the idea of giving the third-grade test to the second graders for practice. He thought the frustration would be fruitful: the students would rise to the challenge and learn from it. It appears he was right.

I would not emphasize test prep to the degree he did, but I agree that children respond well to challenge and need it. I am starting to think that our NYS tests are difficult precisely because they are so easy. Test prep stalls the students at a certain level when they could be moving far beyond it.

And that has to do with trust. I also finished your book In Schools We Trust. I understand better now how you see trust, and agree with you that trust involves handling and facing things that go wrong. But I wonder if trust in schools is as much about the social relationships as you seem to suggest. Does it not also have to do with curriculum?

To trust a school, I need to know what it teaches--what the subjects are, which books the students read, and the role of the arts at the school. Your book emphasizes the social aspect of school. Why? I recognize the importance of all those relationships--but an excellent book can do a lot to bring a school together, and quiet is essential as well.

Diana Senechal

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