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On Foreign Relations & Precious Gems

Dear Diane,

I'm going to borrow an idea from Mike Klonsky's Small Talk blog. I've too much I'm bursting to say! Like ...

Note that the four dissenters on the Council on Foreign Relations' task force are never quoted in the news reports. Their dissent needs to be read. But what struck me, aside from the make-up of the committee, was the sponsor. Would they publish a task force report on Russian/U.S. relations written by people who had no background experience or expertise on the subject? Someone like me—although I suspect I know as much about that subject as their experts do on American public schooling. (I follow it.) But why is it that they think education belongs on their plate? I suppose that it's seen as one of our weapons for defeating our foreign enemies.

Besides, as Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, points out: "Everything the report recommends is already being done ... It's Joel Klein beating the same old drums in a different forum.'" Klein's reported rejoinder: "But it's not happening at the level we're needing ... we need to do it in a much more accelerated way." That sounds like a prescription for dismissing the democratic process—which is deliberative and thoughtful—conducted at the level appropriate to changing the way young people are raised—close to home. Or at least no further away than the Constitution permits. That's bad enough. After all, nearly all of the states adopted the several hundreds of pages of the new Common Core curriculum. How many do you believe read ANY of it?

Teach For America is becoming more open about its agenda. "TFA's new partnership with largest for-profit charter network" is the headline of Valerie Strauss's March 19 blog item in The Washington Post. It's not even a not-for-profit with a good track record for integrity or test scores. (Imagine Schools.) That and their recent work in Seattle—replacing experienced teachers—makes them ... We used to call it scabbing. But what about undermining? Is that a kinder word?

Dick Cavett's latest blog is titled "Schooling Santorum." Santorum is a scary guy, but let's not make his support for home schooling the issue. In terms of the effect of early schooling on young children's "social skills," Cavett needs to read Vivian Paley's You Can't Say You Can't Play. It's a powerful reminder of what's going on "behind our backs." I speak as one who loved teaching those years. But Paley's book convinced me that I might think twice about sending my kids to school even at 5, much less 4. It rang very true and was confirmed by my granddaughter's account of the social hierarchy in her very nice school in Columbia County.

Denver: If you go out that-a-way, visit the Jefferson County Open School. Begun in 1970, it's a precious gem. The "passages" the students take to prepare for "college or career" (read life) are amazing and should be standard practice. The use of mixed-age teaching and learning re-inspires me. The spirit on the staff: Ditto. I saw something similar, if not as solid yet, at the Denver Center for International Studies, which also has a "passages" project. But I also witnessed again (and again) a course on "world history," which literally (using "inquiry" approaches and "critical thinking") studies in one year the entire world since human history began until today. I'd love to see the Common Core on that traditional core course.

I also loved my visit to a new Denver school called Odyssey that is using portfolios of student work as the foundation of their assessments, has multi-age classes, and lots of art. And finally I visited a new high-tech school where I wasn't able to visit any classes (testing day), but spoke with kids. Three out of four of the group I met with liked the silent hallways and Friday Pay Check (based on points). The fourth, naturally, was the kid who sometimes wasn't so good at getting a big pay check. The others felt they were safer with the tight structuring and instant "feedback." These are conversations I'd love to have at more schools.

"Mass Localism for Improving America's Education" by Yong Zhao in the Kappa Delta Pi Record starts with a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932: "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try to invent social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

Of course, segregation was the result of an "experiment" that was chosen by many states. But can't we cure one evil that came with states' rights without assuming we can cure all wrongs that way? Especially since (in fact) a good Supreme Court decision on segregation only very partially succeeded in creating integrated schools. At least, until recently, individual towns and schools could be labs. There are some amazing ones scattered about. Now we accept pronouncements from on high, without any real-life experimental evidence, that dictate an awful lot. Down to if and when your child gets promoted.

Zhao argues that a national system is already half-implemented. Without opposition, its proponents will soon "have succeeded in ruining ... to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill ... the traditional American education system (which) is the worst form of education except all the others that have been tried." Including Asia's. Zhao is more enthusiastic than I am. But he reminds us, from his Chinese experience, that we will soon realize the need to reinvent what has been lost, unless we carefully construct better ideas. Or as Jeff Nichols reminds his friend on nyceducationnews: "Steve, you probably also wouldn't have believed in 1995 that inside of 15 years we'd have a black president, and a majority of Americans supporting same-sex marriage." Yes, things can get worse. Or better.

Zhao offers a glimpse of "the total disaster that could result from one authoritarian body—no matter how wise that body may seem to be." (Like one put together by the foreign policy experts.)

Finally, if you want to see what else it could look like—the alternative that Zhao proposes—write me. There are places still to visit (although for how long I don't know) like Julia Richman in New York City that houses five different, amazing schools. Like the schools I mention in Denver. Like Mission Hill in Boston—although for a short time Mission Hill will be unvisitable while the school moves next fall from a building built by the Catholic Church in 1926 to one built in the 1970s. The architectural differences remind us that life does not always move in a progressive direction.

Deborah

P.S. Good advice from Renee Dinnerstein: "Check out my new post, Snails on a Ski Lift! A Playground for the Snails, on my blog Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play: www.investigatingchoicetime.com."

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