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When 'Pretty Good' Schools Aren't Enough

Deborah Meier writes once again to CitizenshipFirst's Robert Pondiscio.

Dear Robert,

Right on! "Dream school" is a poor phrase. I take it back!

Except in this sense. Life always has and will have constraints. That's why I'm comfortable with the word "compromise." But it shouldn't stop us from dreaming. From the moment we're born we are stuck with having to compromise, and so it is ever after. So my dream school—or what I meant by it—accepts the existence of constraints, but pushes toward something I wish for even if I cannot yet fully imagine what it would look like.

There are practices one engages in because in reality some children are much poorer and some much richer, which would be unnecessary were we all roughly equal in resources.

Because my schools generally served a population that was largely black and later black and Hispanic, it was clear that some things that might have been done in my own childhood would not serve the same purpose in my here-and-now. There were also more dire trade-offs, given more limited resources than I wished for, but fewer than many might imagine. But I push because I have a sort of "wish list," a "dream" that I am seeking beyond what is presently natural, normal, or even possible on a grand scale.

Your list is a good starting place, but No. 2—that all children be taught to read using phonics—startled me because it belongs in a different list altogether. And even  No. 3, that computational skill be mastered before higher mathematics, worries me a little, because there are forms of abstraction that human beings who are not good at "basic math" grasp easily. Mathematicians will tell you that computation and mathematics are separate fields, separate skills. So, I always try to create settings in which we take a tip-toe step into what comes next. The experiences have to be good enough to even capture my interest.

So, I'd add  to my list: All the children have opportunities within the classroom to engage in interesting activities that pique their curiosity, that amuse and provoke—the adults, too.

Studies show that some children learn best via very systematic phonics, some with a dab of it, and some with no conscious phonetic instruction. I worry when one form of instruction is forced upon all children. I want schools that are knowledgeable enough about language acquisition to flexibly fit the child to the "method" rather than vice versa.

Then I'd add, "All children are in schools that their parents feel comfortable in themselves."

I sent my three children to "pretty good" schools, by which I meant that they'd have no more than one bad teacher and one extraordinarily wonderful one from kindergarten through 5th grade. (Not all families might agree on who is which.) I almost succeeded. Was it a wise decision to stick with public schooling?  It had its plusses and minuses, I'm sure. I think Lightfoot used the phrase "good enough"—which is pretty much what we decided.

But I believe the cards are so stacked against children in poverty and children of color that "pretty good" or "good enough for my own kids" will not cut it for them. I listen to what too many "smart," "decent" people say about the mothers and fathers of poor children to imagine how harmful such schools can be. Of course, it works for a few, and that's better than none. The more the better.

But there is a paradigm shift that's needed before we can educate anywhere near all children halfway decently. It will take some changes in our society to reverse the in-your-face economic inequality, racism, and segregation that we live with today.

We must also focus our work on eliminating the inequalities and racism that permeates our society (and which would by itself go far to changing the nature of schooling for many, many children). Until then, we do our best.

Alas, I do not see as much difference as you seem to between the "hopeless" and the "good enough" for the least advantaged. But I do see the possibility that some schools, albeit too few, can become places where most of the students are able to move ahead to interesting and useful lives—in the here and now. Accepting the limitations is hard, but we have to keep pushing the envelope until we accomplish both: a fairer society and better schools.

Re. PISA data! I've read very scholarly works that prove different things regarding their test scores. Sometimes they're divided by who attend schools that are 90 percent white vs. 90 percent black, etc. They come to different conclusions. However, since I don't want what Singapore and Hong Kong want, their schools don't make me jealous. I do want what the Finns want, probably. But the differences in poverty there and here are simply incomparable.

And, finally, I put almost no value in what such test scores tell me, as long as the rich and poor live in largely separated cultures. For many of my students the world I lived in was as foreign as the world of pop music was to me. No matter how much I heard, my ears were deaf to its nuances and none of it stuck. When a class full of 16-year-olds told me that "All in the Family" was an obviously racist TV show, I struggled to prove them wrong. "It's meant as a satire against racism," I insisted. I was utterly unable to change anyone's mind. They tried—out of respect for me—but were convinced I was simply naïve.

In 1941, a study was done that proved that Columbia University students failed—badly—a basic civics test. This was at a time when only a small percentage of 18-year-olds went to college, much less Columbia. But no crisis was declared.  

There's a crisis declared, however, every time the economy falls on its face, or a competitor outdoes us in anything (like going to the moon). Our job as teachers is to keep our eye on the kids, not the economy or even the "competition"—both of which are providing more and more low-paid jobs. They deserve a good education regardless.

We are trying to do something never done before, under circumstances not of our choice, and we will fumble forward if we stop spending billions on vendors of unnecessary educational merchandise, unnecessary tests and test prep, and unnecessary technology, and instead attend to what's happening between children, teachers, and families—which requires spending on space, the number of adults available to children, and the time the adults (including families) have for working together. That's my "good enough," "pretty good" school. And even then, don't look for miracles, but let's follow our students' trajectory over time and see—with the students' help—what we can do better or differently.

Deb

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