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The Truth Has Taken a Beating: Now What?

Dear Diane,

A Nation at Risk came out in 1983. Even though you and I disagree on whether it was a good or bad report, it's clear that the message of the new reforms grew out of elements of the consensus that produced it.

I had an argument with Al Shanker at the time about whether it was true that American schools had gotten worse. He agreed with me (and note Nicholas Lemann's recent piece in The New Yorker on this) that they were actually doing a better job, but given the state of the world, they needed to do a MUCH better job and only a sense of crisis would mobilize the public for the kind of changes needed. We needed to scare everyone—including our own teacher members, he said. It took 20-plus years of relentless scare tactics, but they've won that battle. The truth took a beating. Now what? (Now the truth makes us both anti-reformers!)

I'm sorry in more ways than I can count that Shanker didn't live to see what happened. Sometimes I just wish I had been able to say: "See, I told you so." But I think maybe he'd have gotten mad and helped us not to cave into it. Maybe. What do you think, Diane? You probably knew him better than I did.

Sometimes there's an over-abundance of reasons "why" change happens—an accidental confluence of forces. I think we are living through that. Today, numerous constituencies seem to be living off the false story of the "school crisis," including: (1) Those who always wanted privatization, tried for vouchers, and have now finessed the debate with charters. These are the true marketplace fundamentalists; (2) Individuals with special interests which this reform will serve—ways to make money off privatization, the federalizing, and mayoral control of big city schools; (3) Test-makers, who spend 1,000 times more money promoting tests than FairTest does trying to slow the hype. It's no surprise that FairTest has no money these days (contributions accepted); (4) The people who always hated unions and who see the situation of teachers as an opportunity to knock off one of the few remaining big unions in the country—and with it the resources (mostly personnel, but also money) that unions bring into politics on the liberal end of the scale, and; (5) The civil rights activists who 56 years after Brown haven't seen a lot of progress in their agenda. We have more segregation than ever. And the gap has grown between the races in all school-based measures—as well as real-life ones. There was an upward trend for the first 20 or so years after Brown, but it has (at best) held steady since then. Anything is better than more of the same. Then there's a sixth group—people who are maybe using education as a distraction, an alternate "enemy." In this scenario, unions are the explanation for the even-more-serious incompetence of our "ruling class" as protector of America's and the planet's interests. And, and ... probably many more scenarios which elude me.

Some, like me, bought into at least being neutral on charters, seeing them as better than vouchers and hopefully something akin to the New York City alternative network and the Boston pilot networks. I envisioned interesting, small, mom-and-pop schools. Instead, we're getting Wal-Marts. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I wonder what Ted Sizer would say these days. He lived to see things take off in the wrong direction, but he also saw glimmers of hope.

Perhaps, looking back on this long after I'm dead, folks like me will see some silver lining. Maybe it did create a surge of higher expectations. Maybe it brought to the forefront some new good ideas. Maybe it started a serious and exhilarating conversation—that will in a few years grow out of the ashes of the old and the foolishness of the new.

Maybe we'll finally stop expecting the kind of tests we're using to measure something that bears no resemblance to what they're after. Like trying to measure cancer with a thermometer. Maybe we'll notice that the "Waiting for 'Superman'" school was just one part of a larger effort to provide poor communities with better public services of all kinds.

Maybe we'll find truly useful work for our young people to engage in when they grow up, rather than turning everything into a competitive race where only the few gain decent employment, and a very, very, very few earn obscene amounts.

Maybe we'll finally decide that schools can teach all our people to be smart about their own self-interests and the self-interest of our nation and planet. We might even get interested in how such aspirations fit together with how kids spend the first 21 years of their "public" and private lives. I can dream, can't I?

What keeps you going these days, Diane? Maybe running from here to there has a certain advantage—a sense of momentum. Just as being in school every day never allowed me to feel "hopeless"—because there was plenty to do to move the school and each and every distinctive, idiosyncratic child ahead! I'm instead reading too much these days, and the visits to schools only occasionally buoy me up.

The oddest thing is that I meet—daily—reporters, newsmen, academics, and on and on who didn't even know there was a different story—a rebuttal to "Waiting for 'Superman'," Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, et al. It takes almost nothing for them to be amazed and agree that they've been fed a lot of ...

Maybe we need the perseverance of the Jehovah's Witnesses who occasionally drop by my house, happy to have delivered the message to one more potential convert.

Deb

P.S. Actually, (re. your Tuesday column on merit pay) what professions publicly rank-order workers? What private employers do so? Can someone help me out on this?

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