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Thoughts From Detroit About Schools

Deborah Meier writes again today to Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst.

Dear Robert,

I had you, and your last letter to me,  in mind as I arrived in Detroit last Thursday for the annual meeting of the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG).  What would Robert think?

The NDSG has been meeting since 1972 when Vito Perrone (then head of the North Dakota School of Education) brought some dozen educators together to discuss a problem that was presented to him by parents of the relatively new Head Start movement.  Vito and his colleagues were under pressure to assess Head Start by test scores, in part to find the one best model.  They were resisting.  His hope was that we could be useful to them, by supporting their contention that test scores were missing the point and that there might be some alternative more reliable assessment system.  My "mentor" from New York's City College,  Lillian Weber,  suggested my name to have a working early-childhood teacher present. 

We met again the next year and every single year after—although only one more time in North Dakota. We tried to keep our numbers under 100—so continuous face-to-face discourse would occur.  We've gone through many transformations, internal struggles, but we just couldn't give it up. 

"It's all talk," some complained.  "What about DOING SOMETHING?"  But we mostly resisted since we were all too busy "doing" at our particular locations around the country.  We needed a place to try out ideas and get reactions to our "doings."  We needed allies to critique our work safely.

A year ago we accepted an invitation to come to Detroit to join largely African-American educators, trade unionists, and community activists to think through our shared work.  It's been fascinating to spend a few days these past two years in this bombed-out shell of a city.

Who destroyed it, Robert?  Teachers?  Unions?  I'm being facetious, of course, although I'm sure some will argue that it was all the fault of auto workers and their union, plus poor schools. 

It seems obvious to me that it was first and foremost the fault of some quite well-educated, high test-scorers in the management of the auto industry and in high places in Washington D.C.

But I think you and I would have had shared reactions of sorrow and anger at the sight of all those once-powerful auto factories—now empty shells—lying in ruins over acres and acres of wasted land.  And we'd probably both be impressed at the efforts of black Americans to restore some sense of community and hope to Detroit's young, to not give up.  We visited some of the institutions, including schools, involved in this effort and we talked and talked about the state of our work, theirs and ours, confronted with these enormous challenges.

The general assumption among the Detroiters we met was that the "emergency managers" who have taken over all the functions of government in Detroit (and other smaller, nearly-all-black Michigan cities) would be delighted if they would just pick up and leave as they gradually "gentrify."  (We visited the Art Museum—and the magnificent Diego Rivera murals of the early 1930s located there—which may soon all be sold off to help pay Detroit's creditors.)

And I thought, yes, Robert, if we can't create schools that, in your words, kids "want to attend every day, schools they are proud to associate with, and where they feel valued," then, as you argue, "something is missing."  Those are words I can join you in saying—over and over.   When have schools ever been that for low-income and black or brown Americans, I ask myself?  Even middle- and upper-class white kids have probably mostly been eager to go to school because that's where their friends were.  And perhaps that's what, in the end, drives poor black kids to do it, too, even though it's generally a place of disrespect and failure, except for the five minutes between classes, the lunchroom, recess, and maybe sports.

In part, of course, this has been the fault of teachers.  They, too, are citizens of America and carry with them the longstanding prejudices that we haven't easily ever shaken off.  We whites of European descent have hundreds of years of disrespect for the poor and for people of darker skins embedded in our literature, culture, language, and everyday experience.   Standardized testing has even been a means, a tool, for justifying racism and class prejudice.  

But the equally sad fact is that many Americans with white skin are now feeling fatalistic about their future, and their children's future.  They were victims of the auto makers' collapse.  Joblessness and low pay and competition over the "scraps" that are left intensify in this climate.  We are all racing for the scarcer and scarcer opportunities "at the top."  It's the wrong race.

We do need a counter-narrative, as you suggest. "We are not fully investing," to quote you again, "in their communities and their country."  But the source of this disinvestment is not our schools as you suggest.  That was the sentence in your last blog post that "got" me.  I find that conclusion frightening and wrong.  We will not get far if we cling to the five hours of school—even the most engaging—to remake America's economy and democratic structure. They go together, and they are being hollowed out, together. 

Our schools are a symptom of something that affects all our institutions. It neither starts at school nor can end there.  But it's one of the many places we must look to re-invest in heart, soul, and money.   

The "no excuses" schools have not "engaged" the young even during the five or six hours of schooling a day or six-day school week.  But I'll admit, even the best schools I know have failed to achieve such a daunting ambition.  But it's the right ambition, and test scores as the driving force cannot and will not get us there.

"Pretty good" schools, Robert, are perhaps precisely "good enough"—only for those who already stand a shot at the diminishing pool of decent-paying jobs. Too often, these depend as much if not more on one's social networks and inherited assets as they do on schooling.

Schools are one place to make the fight.  And it happens to be what you and I have devoted our smarts and our sweat to—what it would take to make schools engaging, motivating, inspiring places for all kids ... even if it can't be done universally tomorrow.  That's what you and I need to keep focused on.  While I hope there are others—including the graduates of our schools—who tackle other arenas of struggle for a fuller democracy and a fuller and more prosperous economy for ordinary citizens.  I intend to join in, but alas we've also made truly good schooling a more than full-time job!

Tone and culture—to use your wise words—can't be captured in test scores, nor achieved through sanctions and threats.  What shall we try instead?

Deb

P.S.  I wonder, Robert, whether there is one overriding difference that might persuade you or me to shift our view on what I call "corporate" reform?  For example, if you were persuaded that test scores as we know them are truly NOT now or ever measuring intellectual prowess, would that matter?

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