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Pineapples, Police, and Trust in Schools

Dear Diane,

When I got home from Ohio last week The New York Times called, as "pineapples" went viral. Of course, any time a group of people respond to the same cues we learn something. I even wonder about what the answers to the hare and the pineapple story could tell us! But one thing for sure, it wouldn't tell us anything about reading "achievement."

"They don't want us to have any judgment. Every message is that the department doesn't trust us," said by ... No, not by teachers, but by New York City police officers. New York Magazine had a fascinating story ("What's Eating the NYPD?") by reporter Chris Smith last week. Smith describes conversations with NYC's police that might have taken place in the teachers' lounge of most schools.

"I love being a teacher, but I hate being in the school system," say many teachers and principals I interview locally. Word for word—just replace teacher with cop. This is what Chris Smith heard, too. They are, under the current Kelly (Klein/Rhee/Duncan) regime, "so focused on data that nobody cares for each other." Caring is a risky luxury. But it's all called "reform."

One cop told Smith about how he arrested some kids playing football in the street (as he had done in his own youth). There are no quotas, but the policeman told Smith that this makes it even harder—"we never know" what will satisfy the bean counters. There's always a lot of blame, from the media, from citizens on the street, and now from their own bosses. The numbers are never enough to satisfy. And sometimes all available choices lead to a public dressing down, or a threat of dismissal. The obsession with running the department by numbers might, they acknowledge, have lowered crime (raised scores?). Putting hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens—including very young ones—in jail has "succeeded," too. But what has it done to the culture we live in? At what price?

Of course, the cop/teacher analogy doesn't work perfectly. I hope.

Note: The end of Communism in Russia (and probably fascism in Germany) saw a rise in street crime. Therefore ...? Medical practitioners say it's happening also in hospitals and even in private practice. And probably it's spreading everywhere. It's a version of "no excuses"—three strikes, you're out, etc. Ah yes, it may have a place in baseball, too.

There's a time and place for "show me the data"! "What's the 'evidence'?" is one of our five hallowed habits of mind at Mission Hill and Central Park East. But "evidence" comes in many forms, and the trade-offs involved are part of the data, too—if we pay equal attention to them. Maybe "At what price?" should be the 6th "habit of mind."

As I've said before, we're entering an era reminiscent of bad science fiction where everyone is wondering "Who's following me? Who's collecting the data on me? Is there no place to hide?"

If you start with right-wing fantasies, you blame this on "the state," "socialism," "foreigners," "people of color," and the absence of true religion. If you come to it from the left, you replace their enemies with others (including technology). I claim our list of enemies is more rational, but ...? It's not good for almost any of us; it's not a sane solution for what ails us.

The "stand your ground" law fits into this mood: a future where everyone carries a gun with permission to shoot anyone who appears threatening to them! It also leads, as you noted, to absurdities. The item "works" if the right kids get the right answers. End, period. Sense equals nonsense.

One good thing I've read about the Common Core curriculum is that it includes a study of the documents upon which our nation was founded and the justifications for them. It might even incline us to ask: What would the "Bill of Rights" look like in our schools?

Speaking of which: I had a great time in Athens, Ohio, last week. Best was spending time in the Federal-Hocking school "system." With leadership from both the top and the bottom one can create miracles, at least for a time. The four schools—two elementary, a middle, and a high school—in this poor Appalachian
district have given me a lift that will last until I get back there again.

Next fall, I hope. The high school principal, George Wood (and now superintendent as well), has been there for 20 years and hopes to stay for 20 more. (I think he will be introducing you later this month or next in Ohio.) Most of the staff are experienced teachers who live close to their work. I met with groups of five to six teachers for 45 minutes each, spent time in classrooms, especially kindergarten, and 45 minutes over lunch with a group of juniors and seniors. The message from all was clear: We trust each other, and we like each other (and even when we don't, we're nice to each other), said students and adults. I also watched one girl present her required senior project: two Shaker-style dressers. It went along with her defense of her carpentry and aesthetic decisions and her demonstration of knowledge of materials, tools, the history of Shaker furniture, and more.

I also met with superintendents from a network of rural (Appalachian) districts. Before I spoke I heard some inspiring short speeches by the officers of the organization. They're already with us, Diane! I didn't in any way feel like an outsider. I felt more at home, in fact, than I would in a similar Northeastern gathering of superintendents. What accounts for it? Courage? Lack of big-time ambition? Close ties to their communities? Maybe you are right, Diane, and something is boiling up from below.

Deborah

P.S. Save Aug. 3-5 for Washington.

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