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A Standard Curriculum Won't Erase Gaps

Deborah Meier's conversation with Robert Pondiscio continues today.

Dear Robert,

Democracy is not easy or maybe even possible to mandate—as the story of many a so-called democracy should remind us.  So, too, for schools that prepare us for democracy.

Re. Ravitch and Meier. Diane's call for a "voluntary" national curriculum doesn't faze me. I disagree with her about state-mandated curriculums.  Diane and I however agree that making test scores the measure of achievement is a disaster. But most importantly, we agree that what's behind much of the current "crisis mongering" about public education is an effort to privatize.  How a mandated national curriculum or privatization promotes accountability or equality is a mystery to both Diane and myself.  That's what I'm trying to understand.

Maybe it boils down to this. I want my child's schooling to be the responsibility of someone I can talk to—eyeball to eyeball.  I want a lay board and faculty that I can try to persuade, and that is— in the end—accountable to a democratic process that rests with citizens I can, with my limited resources, influence.  There's a word for it in, of all places, Catholic teaching, called subsidiarity. 

We are stuck at times having to "trust" or at least comply with distant authorities.  Some are elected, but the electorate is so huge that ordinary citizens can feel unheard.  When it comes to raising our children, however, I'm for sticking close to home, while also acknowledging a general, somewhat more vague responsibility to the larger society's needs.  I even acknowledge that there are certain matters of law that must be statewide or nationwide in scope, such as laws pertaining to health and civil rights.  I also accept the fact that it is my precious child's education that lays the basis for protecting and defending the idea of government for, of, and by the people.    

In the end, I simply want for all children what the wealthiest count on for theirs.   A close-to-impossible task in a society as unequal as ours (and growing more so daily), but human beings have accomplished impossible challenges before.

It requires rethinking the role of schools which were primarily invented to serve the future needs of a nation's ruling class.  Occasionally an unusually gifted person could rise up into that ruling class—although membership was largely determined  at birth.  We haven't gone as far from this old-fashioned concept as we pretend we have.  The first day I subbed in a South side Chicago public school I realized we had a dual K-12 system of education. One tightly organized and structured to prevent trouble and the other open and inviting, expecting the best.  

The odds that children of different social classes and colors are educated side by side is rare  a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education.  The discrepancies in funding per child remain closely tied to the income of the families served, despite many court decisions. And test scores, which are by design peculiarly sensitive to one's socio-economic status (SES), are more and more ubiquitous both in their number and in the stakes involved.  Neither a more "standardized" curriculum nor privatized schools working on market-based principles seem a sensible solution to these and other historic inequalities.

To use schools to defend and deepen our democratic ideals would take a very different reform agenda. 

Step one.  We'd need to recognize that democracy is a counter-intuitive ideal. We aren't born with it.  The United States has, all considered, had a longer run at it than perhaps any other nation, despite its glaring flaws.  Ours began with a commitment that all "free, white, 2l-year-old  men with property should have an equal vote in decisions made by their government. We've dramatically changed the composition of the voting public, but not rethought how this should affect schooling of this newly enlarged "ruling class."

Step two.  If democracy is a far more complicated idea than we have acknowledged, we'll need all 12 years to adequately prepare the young to be a future ruling class.  Coming to terms with the kind of mutual respect for each other's stories, histories, loyalties, and opinions that democracy unreasonably rests on is not easily done, but "essential."  That we do not have a single history can be an asset, not a deficit.

It may require placing all the disciplines at the service of democratic literacy—even the arts. "I paint what I see," said Diego Rivera.  Is that reflected in our arts education?  Similarly with math.  We need to examine what constitutes the most important fields of sophisticated mathematics.  For example, do citizens need to understand the counterintuitive field of probability before tackling calculus, or the real-life difference between thousands, million, billions, and trillions before tackling "advanced" math? Ditto for science and literature.  The latter, for example, is a powerful tool for expanding our personal boundaries— for empathizing with those we might otherwise dismiss, not just a means for improving our literary taste or for close textual analysis.

But the most powerful tool at our disposal is the institution of school itself.  How the young see adults interact "teaches." What's most noticeable about the best schools is that there is a lot of interacting across different ages, formally and informally.  Providing sufficient adults (and sufficient space and time) so that adults can play a role in the lives of their students is an institutional decision.  It involves trade-offs.  But which ones?  Similarly, an institution that lowers the bars separating families and communities from "their" schools gains, but ... at a price.  The less the price, the better.  And best of all, a school which operates in a democratic fashion—that assumes that, at least, all adults have a significant voice in the work of the school—teaches democracy every minute of the day.  But also creates conflict. 

The less often young people hear adults say "don't blame me, I had nothing to do with it," the closer we'll come to describing a good school.  When students can observe how adults settle conflicts over important matters, how they compromise and occasionally must accept irritating trade-offs,  they are being "taught. " It's the way we teach most important things.  We don't teach cooking or driving or soccer  in a quiet, controlled classroom, but in the messy and often surprising world of the kitchen, the highway, and the playing field.   

Step three. Deciding who decides what, and how? Who are "our constituents," and how should we distribute authority amongst ourselves?  Is there one right solution?  Probably not. One of the Coalition of Essential Schools' 10 principles, however, spelled out the essential authority the school's faculty needed.  Mission Hill (a public Coalition school in Boston) developed an overall tripartite governing body as a means of balancing faculty power. 

Step four? We must lose our dependence on test scores to assess ourselves and others. We know enough about the history of testing—as a means of sorting (intentionally or not)—to do better.  Yes, those citizenship  test questions you refer to are not so different than the ones on the SAT.  Any instrument designed to "differentiate" must do so, and "common sense" dictates that the intuitive answers given by some are better than those intuitively arrived at by others. 

We ask of some children to engage in this doubly counterintuitive exercise and are surprised when their scores largely correlate with wealth and race. If they didn't, test-makers would have to re-norm their tests—with different items and different benchmarks!  That's a fact, Robert, not a conspiracy theory.  Getting rid of using test scores as a measure of success must be replaced by sounder ways to measure our work.

When we have to defend, on the basis of test scores, that all children deserve small class sizes so that their teachers can better teach them, we are in trouble. The Calhoun school—in exchange for $30,000-$50,000 in tuition—has about 12 students per class and its teachers teach only slightly over half the school day, generally with an assistant.  They also have far more freedom and autonomy than we're told is necessary in the public schools a few blocks north and south of them in New York City.  In those other schools it turns out that 30-32 students per class works "just as well," and seeing 150 and more students a day is not a handicap, despite the fact that the students they teach are likely to need more, not less, personalized attention.  

Of late, we have a new solution:  better technology—as though Calhoun lacks technology? In face of such hypocrisy, a standardized curriculum aligned with a national testing system will, I guarantee, lead to the same gaps between rich and poor that you and I agreed we must abolish.  There are hundreds of schools that have found better ways.

Therefore, I conclude (step five) with my answer to your question.  I know of no specific information—much less pages and pages of  information— that would help democracy OR the economy flourish.  To demand that all 4-year-olds can count to 100, 5-year-olds to 1,000, and by age 6 be able to point to Mesopotamia on a world globe surely wouldn't appear on my list of "musts."  It all "depends." And there are far better ways to insure that the "it depends" isn't an excuse for racism. Central Park East and Mission Hill (two schools I helped found) are a few, among many, that have pioneered accessible public forms of accountability that work for rich and poor, white and black, "gifted" or otherwise.

I do know—maybe this is point six?—that democracy won't survive if we depend on schools alone.  Nor on schools designed as though human beings were at best flawed robots. Improving the questions I ask my students and how thoughtfully I'm able to respond cannot be mandated.  The questions rest on some fundamental institutional trade-offs that need to be explored site by site.  If it takes classes of 12 students and two adults to educate Calhoun students, who have every out of school educational advantage possible, maybe it will also take 12 for students at P.S. 191?

I'm not, at age 80-plus, still a starry-eyed dreamer, but I am still an earth-bound one.  We need not know that Francis Scott Key (I just looked this up) wrote the words to "The Star Spangled Banner" to be an upstanding citizen.  There may be a correlation, but a good course in statistics will demonstrate that correlation and causation are not the same.  (Robert, who selected, and how, those 100 items on the citizenship test?)

Deborah

P.S. By the way,  all this explains why neither I nor the Coalition of Essential Schools ever had a mandated  list of "essentials"—although we believe that it is precisely the discussion of essentials that every school needs to engage in and organize around.

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