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Cool People You Should Know: Jonathan Zimmerman

It is a rare talent that can filter the mass of information around us, process it, and spit it back out to shed new light on things we thought we already understood. Among educational researchers, few share Jonathan Zimmerman's knack for cutting to the core of the issues of the day.

A historian who teaches at NYU, Zimmerman is the author of three books that examine cultural and political conflict in our schools throughout history. His first book, Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925, reviews conflicts over how children were taught about alcohol during the temperance movement and prohibition. His second book, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools investigates the role of advocacy groups in determining what should be taught in schools. His most recent book, Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century, was inspired by his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. It examines the experiences of - and lessons learned by - American teachers abroad.

You can catch Zimmerman's incisive takes on current events in his regular op-eds that appear in papers throughout the country. For example, in his op-ed, "How Special are Your Needs?", he reflects on the reaction to Palin's claim that children with special needs will have a friend and advocate in the White House if she is elected. Why is it, he asks, that we see children of special needs as deserving of public support, while we largely ignore the needs of children of poverty? What makes some kids, he wonders, more special than others?

And perhaps more relevant today is his recent TC Record commentary, "Sarah Palin and the Assault on Merit." As we await the debate, I'll leave you with this excerpt:
[Historically] The dispute lay in the measurement of ability, not in its significance. Nobody questioned whether skill matters, or whether society should recognize and reward it.

Nobody, that is, until this election cycle. In the smiling face of Sarah Palin, we see something fresh and truly remarkable in American history: the anti-merit candidate.

Some people have gamely tried to depict Palin as a kind of Jeffersonian natural aristocrat, a sharp diamond plucked out of the Alaskan rough. More commonly, though, they have embraced her for her lack of special talent, ability, or knowledge. There's nothing special about Sarah Palin, and that's precisely what is so new--and so special--about her.

And that brings us back to "elitism," which Palin's defenders inevitably invoke whenever anyone questions her qualifications. The very charge shows how far we have strayed from the meritocratic ideal. It ignores the difference between deserved and undeserved elitism, suggesting that any claim to high status is somehow suspect. And it makes a mockery of our entire government, implying that anyone among us is good enough to lead it.

In one of his best-known quips, the conservative icon William F. Buckley said he would rather be governed by the first 300 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard University. In the end, though, Buckley didn't want either group in charge. He rejected the faculty's left-liberal politics, of course, but he also recoiled at the notion of any average Joe at the helm.

He was, in short, an elitist. And so am I. In a time of economic turmoil at home and enormous peril overseas, we need extraordinary—not ordinary--leaders. Woe to America if we fall victim to the seduction of Sarah Palin, who tricks us into thinking that Everyman---or Everywoman---is good enough for us all.

I have mixed feelings about the comparison of our treatment of students with disabilities to the treatment of students with poverty. As a parent in a high poverty urban district, with a child who has "special needs," I am hard pressed to say which of my children has gotten the more appropriate treatment. Offhand, I would say that the child who walked in the door bright and smiling and beginning reading already before kindergarten was more welcomed. This, and all the hallmarks of middle classness (an educated mom who came to conferences and returned phone calls) kept the welcome mat out, until she reached high school and had some meaningful struggles that needed personalized attention. She wasn't "special" enough for an IEP and the options available for help were all predicated on a set of assumptions about what the population needed: "consequences," organizational assistance, more parental monitoring and tutoring (a Saturday program to help pass a set of tests that she had already passed).

In the end, it took a very small and excellent charter school (the exception, I would say), where she was able to get some individualized attention to her fears and feelings of inadequacy to push her over the hump to graduation.

My other child has almost always (since "identification") had a legal right to a specialized education. If specialized were synonymous with different or inadequate I would say that he has gotten it. I have sat through hours of IEP meetings trying to convince the district that the question of what this child needs (on the IEP form) should not be answered by what this child needs to do, or that throwing a percentage onto the end of a vague goal doesn't make it measureable. but, in the end, all of this plan writing is supposed to enable us to agree on a set of services to achieve a set of goals. The problem is, regardless of the amount of time and legal support that goes into the wrangling, the services are already preset by the district. They will always come out with a teacher, a resource room, x minutes (whatever the district does for all kids) of OT or PT and (beginning at age 14 or 16), y minutes of a transition counselor.

There will be no transition back to a regular classroom, with supports. In fact as time goes on, this becomes less, rather than more, likely--as the unstated goal of what goes on in the resource room is not to provide help in catching up, but a place to stay behind without getting in anyone's way. The district stopped putting in "extra time to complete assignments" as an accommodation when I started asking where the "extra time" was going to come from--since the day and year stayed the same length.

So--I would say that despite legislation on both fronts, IDEA and Title I--we face some real reluctance to live up to the intent of the laws. The only difference is that a kid like Trig can land in Sarah Palin's family as easily as a family down my block.

Eduwonkette, how could you disappoint me so? I follow your blog with glee because of your thoughtful analysis of issues and principled insistence on evidence. How could you praise such an absurd commentary? For the record, I don't think that Palin would make a good vice-president, and I intend to vote for Obama. But I would never make the preposterous suggestion that her backers claim that Palin has no special ability, talent, or merit. Palin supporters portray her as an effective reformer with a special insight into the problems and needs of working class Americans. I may not agree with this, but it is not irrational. No one is urging us to vote for Palin because she is without talent, ability, or knowledge. Such people do not exist outside of Jonathan Zimmerman's fevered imagination. Eduwonkette, where is your insistence on evidence to back up political claims?

Thank you Margo/Mom and Judy. Thank you from the bottom of my special needs, failing school in restructuring, 83% urban poverty heart.

"Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary; great minds with the ordinary."
~Blaise Pascal

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Recent Comments

  • FeFe: Thank you Margo/Mom and Judy. Thank you from the bottom read more
  • Judy: Eduwonkette, how could you disappoint me so? I follow your read more
  • Margo/Mom: I have mixed feelings about the comparison of our treatment read more




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