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Living in a Moment of Tension in School Reform

Dear Diane,

My current skepticism about all data, plus my own experience in Shanghai, makes me suspicious of the Shanghai test-score data. I'm also always suspicious about 100 percent of any population doing anything! It's a figure that innately arouses my suspicions. Furthermore, I discovered that Shanghai public schools were neither free nor universally available to all. "Immigrants" (from the countryside) are expected to leave their children back home in what everyone agrees are very inadequate local schools. I was told that those who bring their kids with them often then apply to cheap private schools. Were they included in the sample?

I'm also convinced by Yong Zhao of Michigan State University that the extreme conformity of Chinese education is what they too worry about—although they seem unwilling to abandon the standardized-testing focus. (I was there on the day when exams for secondary schools were taking place and saw thousands of cars in front of testing sites as parents waited anxiously to meet their youngsters after the exams.) I also don't know much about the kind of exams taken in such schools—do you?

The Chinese Communists face a dilemma, I suspect. How to produce sufficient numbers of very smart and ambitious kids for jobs that need them, while also not producing too many kids who don't "fit" job needs or deviant kids who think too independently and critically for a totalitarian regime.

We face a different, but not dissimilar dilemma. Our economy, like China's, also has no need for a nation of high SAT scorers. But our democracy does. How then are we to produce a nation of talented and smart adults who will together tackle the building of a democratic society that can provide decent incomes for all its members? We have failed utterly to do so. Charles Blow's report on a UNICEF study

There is simply no doubt that our Founding Fathers would have been shocked to discover that decadent Europe was more egalitarian—with greater mobility and shared sacrifice—than the United States. But I belong to a generation that is equally shocked. It's hard to believe that the country famed for opportunity, for multiple chances, for level playing fields is the opposite. "Give me your poor, your huddled masses"? The non-debate about Estate Taxes is a reminder of how unequally wealth is now distributed—at birth.

I've also been exploring the school governance issue—which seems to intrigue so many readers. (Thanks, readers) The two might be related? I wrote a piece for the Forum for Education and Democracy on the topic and will try to publish it on my website in January. It was, and hopefully still is, intended to start a conversation. I found another article in Dissent Spring 2005—on the left's knee-jerk reaction to Federalism. It's written by David J. Barron of Harvard Law School. He argues, as I did last Thursday, for thinking "what a progressive federalism would look like." He notes that the Rehnquist and now Roberts Supreme Court manage to be both localists and nationalists, arguing for increased executive power on some issues and local rights on others. He argues that liberals need to take the same approach—but in reverse.

Professor Barron writes: "Progressive federalism would do more than free states from the limits imposed by Rehnquist Federalism. It would promote a different view of Congress' 14th Amendment power to 'enforce' basic constitutional rights and thereby protect the prerogative of national citizenship from threats posed by local prejudices. ...Progressive federalism would not, however, view congressional (or Executive) power as unlimited." He concludes, "Progressives for too long have been strikingly unimaginative when it comes to federalism. They speak only in a national key."

Maybe you and I could explore how this idea might play out in K-12 education. We live in a moment of tension between reforms that place increasing power to control curriculum and assessment (and more) in the national government while simultaneously promoting school reforms that encourage more autonomous publicly subsidized private companies as part of a network of marketplace choice. (That the two paths may feed on each other is worth considering.) What's clear though is that neither of these choices strengthens the public part of "public education," and neither, in my view, is good for the educated mind. And above all neither nourishes the ideal of a self-governing people. We need some fresh rethinking of the meaning of federalism as a tool for reigniting our enthusiasm for democracy.


P.S. Breaking News: The Sunday New York Times headline—"A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trade in Derivatives"—intrigues me. How come the business community is so supportive of increasing regulation in the educational system and against increased regulation of banking, while pretending that schools would be better if only they were more like "us" (bankers)? The story of Beverly Hall's downfall in Atlanta reminds me of how dangerous the test-score obsession is to even good people. I remember Beverly as a fine educator.

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