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Parting Thoughts

Editor's Note: Bridging Differences begins its annual summer break after Deborah Meier's upcoming post on Thursday. The blog will return in September.

Dear Deborah,

This is my last blog until the fall. Time to take a break and recharge our batteries or whatever it is that keeps us going.

I have two parting thoughts before I head for the beach and the garden. First, I want to recommend a fascinating book. It is Michael Edwards' Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World. Edwards led the Ford Foundation's program on governance and civil society. His book analyzes efforts by philanthro-capitalists to impose business principles and market thinking on institutions of civil society, where they are inappropriate.

The philanthro-capitalists, he writes, develop metrics for everything; it's a means of control. They love competition, and they love measurement. They don't understand that the values and qualities of civil society are different and are not measurable. Civil society relies on participation; it changes the world by activism and social commitment. It teaches tolerance, love, solidarity, sharing and cooperation. Its goal is not the achievement of certain metrics, but social transformation. Edwards points to the great social movements of our lifetime—the civil rights movement, the women's movement—as examples of civil society at work, transforming society in ways that are fundamental. These were bottom-up movements, not movements that were controlled from the top by a master planner armed with data.

It is a good read, and a short one. My copy is littered with underlining and brackets and exclamation marks in the margins. (A new website tracks the activities of philanthro-capitalists: www.dferwatch.wordpress.com. This is worth reading and following.)


I highly recommend the book I am reading right now: Stephen L. Koss's China, Heart and Soul: Four Years of Living, Learning, Teaching, and Becoming Half-Chinese in Suzhou, China. A math teacher and public school parent, Steve Koss is a regular contributor to the New York City Parent Blog (one of the best in the nation). He writes insightful, incisive, hard-hitting posts about the latest distortion of test scores and other depredations of the New York city and state education bureaucracy. I bought the book on Amazon.com as a matter of loyalty to someone I admire (and have not yet met), but once I started reading, I found it hard to put down. It is funny, engrossing, informative, and delightful. Koss is a wonderful writer.

Other books that I plan to read: Barbara Torre Veltri's Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher, Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans, and Martha Minow's In Brown's Wake. And I look forward to re-reading favorite poems.

My last thought before we say adieu. Critics say that I do not offer an alternative vision, merely complaints. This is not the place to sketch out a full-fledged vision, nor do I think it is my role to provide one. I am a historian, not a visionary. When a train is headed for the edge of a cliff, Job One is to stop it. If I could succeed in getting the powerful in D.C. and in the foundation world to rethink their commitment to high-stakes testing, closing schools, and firing teachers; if I could persuade them that poverty does impair school achievement and that schools alone can't close the many gaps that are rooted in income inequality; if I could get them to seek positive ways to help schools and strengthen the teaching profession, I would be happy indeed. Just to stop the beatings would be a great outcome. Then together, we can hammer out a better set of strategies to improve education. We don't need a guru or a mastermind to shape our destiny. At present, federal education policy is like a great beast trampling a garden that should be lovingly weeded and tended. If we can get the beast to stop the trampling, then we can all work toward wiser policies.

So here is a snapshot of one alternative vision. Grant you this is not an answer to every question, but it is a good beginning to a different approach. In April, I visited Dallas at the invitation of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. When I got to Dallas, I learned about the work of the Institute, and I was impressed. It offers summer programs for teachers and principals where they study and discuss important classic and modern writings. I met with a dozen teachers who had gone through its program, and they talked with animation about their excitement as adult learners. One teacher introduced her English-language learners to Shakespeare and discovered that they became as excited as she was by reading Julius Caesar. Others reflected on what it meant to them to experience once again the joy of learning.

When I lectured in Dallas at the Booker T. Washington High School, I was preceded by Dr. Louise Cowan, the brilliant literary scholar who founded the Institute in 1980. Dr. Cowan spoke about re-reading Moby Dick, and she had the audience enthralled with her depiction of Captain Ahab as the first modern terrorist, determined to sacrifice everyone's life, including his own, in pursuit of vengeance. By the time she was done, this grand woman of 90-plus years had inspired many of her listeners to re-read that wonderful classic novel with new eyes and an open mind.

I left Dallas not only with an appreciation for the Institute, but as a newly appointed fellow of this organization (no remuneration, no privileges, just the pleasure of being associated with an admirable group).

So, here is my alternate vision: Respect teachers as adults and professionals. Give them the time and opportunity to refresh their intellectual energy. Provide opportunities for professional development that promote their intellectual, spiritual, and professional renewal. Take concrete steps to strengthen the profession. Avoid policies and programs that imply quick fixes to serious problems.

A modest vision, to be sure. But unlike current federal policy, it is constructive, and it respects the men and women who staff our nation's classrooms.

Diane

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