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How Do We Judge Success in a Democracy?

Dear Michael,

I just wrote and discarded a 3,000-plus-word response to your queries. But I'll post it later on my deborahmeier.com blog. There's just too much to say!

I essentially repeated my argument about why parents are not the problem; it's the conditions under which they have to raise their children, the obstacles they must overcome to cope with daily crises that are the problem—mostly related to poverty and racism.

I repeated my reasons for discarding as useless the data I get from the form of testing we have become addicted to. I've documented their fallibility in many an article in the past. There are too many possibilities for why kids get wrong, as well as right, answers—often having nothing to do with their mathematical or reading skills!

I'm arguing for another honored form of assessment that is based on carefully organized judgments about student work, work presented and defended in front of a panel of both internal and external experts. I'm arguing that this is the most direct and unbiased way to make such judgments and actually closer to what happens in real life. It's the way many colleges, especially those that don't rely on ACTs or SAT, handle admissions. They depend, as we do, on samples of student work in many forms, plus transcripts, interviews, and references to make their decisions. It's the way we confer PhDs and the way we hire people for most jobs.

I'm arguing, furthermore, that the most critical form of assessment is one that has been arrived at by each local school or community itself. As you suggest, there can be a default for those who don't want to or feel unable to "invent" their own or use someone else's invention. It's time to involve "ordinary" adults in considering what matters most to them—what skills an 18-year-old should possess before he can drive, vote, and sit on a jury to judge me.

One cannot judge the success of a school or student (or a president!) without prior agreement about what we mean by success. What makes it worthwhile to require young people full of energy and curiosity to spend 12-13 years in school? We don't have to all agree, and in fact will be a weaker society by insisting on one right answer. Intellectual and democratic life flourishes on diversity, much as biological life does. Different paths require different sacrifices, and the trade-offs that we are willing to make may not all be the same. I remind myself that democracy was invented as a means of accountability—for all its faults.

I look upon the approach that Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools initiated 30 years ago as more reliable and credible than standardized tests. The very criteria used by psychometricians—reliability et al—were easier to meet in the ways our schools laid them out than the "tests" we've grown too accustomed to.

There is a place for sampling the work of individual schools and young people in general through standardized NAEP-type tests (without high stakes). There's a place for setting standards on a state or even nationwide basis. If. If they are short and sweet, maybe a page long for each "discipline" describing what 12 years of schooling should enable one to demonstrate. (Meanwhile let's leave 4- to 7-year-olds alone. We are playing with fire when we start judging children's competence at ever younger ages.)

Yes! There are forms of state monitoring—e.g. on matters of equity, fiscal integrity, and health—without removing the primary constituents of a school from powerful decisionmaking roles. There is a long history of using such respectful approaches in the independent school sector that we can consider. There are many solutions for leaving the bulk of these issues in the hands of individual school communities, with judicious use of external review.

You and I need more time to argue about who should make exactly which decisions with regard to schooling because this is a question that rests at the heart of the viability of democracy. Only when we allow such authority to rest among those within the school will schools truly serve as vehicles for educating ourselves about democracy. So this may be another area of disagreement?

I believe that it is democracy that is endangered by myriad swiftly changing forces that we are contending with. To hold on to democracy requires a special kind of skeptical trust, a trust that democratic compromises also depend on. I'm neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but I'm sure we cannot afford to take short cuts.

Experiments of the sort I've described too briefly here will help us see up close the complex balancing act that any democratic system requires. They are built around a "default" proposition: that democracy works best when decisions are made by those closest to the action, except when ... . It's the second part of that sentence that we have insufficiently explored, so that the exceptions over time squeeze out voices and expertise on the ground. We may, as we move gradually forward, not only create better schools and stronger students, but also a stronger understanding of why democracy writ large is feasible but also not "naturally" self-correcting. To imagine that schools intended to treat all students as though they were members of the ruling class is hard, but putting it successfully into practice will take a lot of patience, and struggle. Tolerance for the fact that there are many solutions, each making somewhat different trade-offs, will not come to us easily.

The new reforms being pushed down upon us daily and at all levels by a very powerful elite will move us further away, not closer to restoring a healthy balance of power. To do schooling well for all children is perhaps harder than eliminating poverty. But the two can and must go on together while we also struggle over what success itself means.


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