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Honoring judgment


Dear Diane,

Agreed. Most people's ideas—good and bad—are adapted by others in ways that would surprise the original author. Sometimes the "followers" have improved on the original, but it hurts when they have massacred it. Which is another way of agreeing with you that Dewey's ideas have not always led where he hoped they would. Ditto for Jean Piaget, from whom American educators borrowed the idea of cognitive "stages" and tried to figure out how to rush children onto the "next stage" faster. Sometimes the original idea is partially to blame—clearly containing the seeds of its own distortion. In John Dewey's case, given the times and context, much that survived would have dismayed him. Poor Karl Marx if he were able to see how Stalin twisted his words or imagine Christ's dismay over the legacy of much of Christianity. And so on.

On a rather smaller and humbler scale, the role I've played in both pushing and implementing the idea of school choice and small schools sometimes haunts me. Choice has been co-opted by those who want to privatize public education and as a means for resegregating by class, race, "talent" or "future vocations". Small schools, for some reformer, just means creating more manageable sub-divisions in order, I sometimes suspect, to make monitoring for compliance easier. It's far harder to be unnoticed—for good and bad—in a large school. But the story is not over, and both of these concepts may yet be turned around to represent reform practices we both like.

In today's culture, the closer our children get to adulthood the fewer adults they know well, and the less they experience the adult world first hand. We have largely abandoned the young to a peer and media culture that is built round only one value system: the profit motive. (I notice one of our respondents thinks this is precisely what's missing from public school—the profit motive.) I wanted small schools to reconnect strong adults with would-be strong kids. Only powerful schools in which adult life is robust and visible to the young can create the kind of democratic culture we need. The adults include the staff of the school, of course, and the families of the students, and others in the larger community—face to face, not solely through virtual realities.

Our schools are not great at valuing intellectually thoughtful adults, inclined to take their ideas seriously, eager to exchange ideas and know-how with others, and deeply dedicated to include the next generation in such activities. Dedication alone would never be enough, of course—because there is more to bridging cultures than the sheer desire to do so. But it's a starting point. Then we need to be open to the possibility that those we teach confront the information and ideas we want to pass on with a mindset of their own, experiences that lead them to translate our powerful ideas into their own powerful ideas. The kind of mutual respect between teacher and learner and the "x" that both are focused on is hard to come by under the best of circumstances. Most of the time, in the schools we have, the teacher's focus and the kids' are entirely disconnected.

Rereading the work of physicist and science educator David Hawkins on the "thee, thou and it" of schooling is well worth doing. The "it" is what you and I, Diane, often disagree about. I hope those disagreements can be precisely the stuff that faculties and school boards feel free—maybe required—to grapple with. I'm perhaps less optimistic than you are that they will resist the temptation to turn judgment over to others—objective instruments or remote curriculum experts. They are, for perfectly good reasons, more likely to stick with conventional practice than to use their freedom too adventurously.

Judgment is at the heart of intelligence, and must be honored at every point along the way. It's not a bad word. We both want kids to experience adults proud to make judgments—whether they are doctors, lawyers, athletes, artists, teachers, politicians, or citizens—within a community prepared to confront such judgments critically. One nice definition of being well-educated is having the disposition and tools to exercise, defend and revise our judgments about an incompletely known world.

There are, as you point out, serious trade-offs involved. "The people" are not to be romanticized. But by thinning the liveliness of democratic life—in school and out—to the most trivial of decisions, reserving the important stuff for experts, we make it hard to excite kids (or citizens) about joining such a culture. It becomes a "student government" charade.

Accountability is at the crux of democracy—maybe even another word for it. Voting is, of course, one such act of accountability. So is arguing, speaking out, and participating in a range of local decision-making bodies. If this isn't practiced in our schools, where do we imagine it will be learned?

The bills that are likely to come before Congress in the immediate future are, I agree Diane, likely to be scary. NCLB—all 1000-plus pages—wasn't read by anyone who voted for it last time, surely not in its entirety. Even "War and Peace" can't be read overnight, and Tolstoy was a livelier writer than the authors of NCLB. Probably the main thing the Feds can do well is provide the funds needed for schooling and teacher education to create a leveler playing field and information that we can more or less respect and trust. The fewer direct consequences there are—rewards or punishments—associated with such data collection the greater the likelihood that it will be honest. We need less of the Texas "miracle" and Enron-style data, and more of the "academic" type. Aha, you see, I finally found a positive use for that word!




I agree with much of what you write here, as usual...


I want to try to move away from the word "accountability" and towards "transparency" and "responsibility."

I want to use these 2 terms in place of accountability because I want to change the language we use from the techno-rational, corporate language that's been foisted upon us from business model reformers to a language that is more open, honest, and nurturing.

Accountability implies someone standing behind you with a clipboard making sure that you press enough widgets before the whistle blows.

Transparency means that anyone interested can see what it is you are doing, how you are doing it, and understand why it is being done without being an invasive or frightening presence in your life (or classroom).

Responsibility means all stakeholders are involved with and responsible for learning outcomes. For too long politicians have held teachers "accountable" for student performance (another word from corporate America) while refusing to take any responsibility for the issues that affect growth and development (two terms that differ greatly from performance)...such as the fact that 1 out of 5 children come to school hungry.

Am I just mincing words?

Not according to this guy.

Lakoff argues that changing our frames is essential to changing our world, something critical theorists and their educational disciples understood long before he wrote that easy to read, and important, book.

Our language shapes, and is shaped by reality, and the word "accountability" says a great deal about how we see and treat teachers.

They must be held "accountable" because they can't be trusted, right? We now have a testing complex that supposedly guarantees that those darned teachers are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

What I am suggesting is that we get rid of the middleman, the testing complex, and replace it with a system that requires politicians (and future homebuyers) to get out from behind their desks (or newspapers) and actually enter schools.

How will we "know" teachers are doing their jobs?

We could ask them. We could ask their peers. We could ask, gasp, their students. We could ask administrators. We could even ask members of the community.

Let's replace the 15-30 days a year schools now spend on testing and use them for presentation of lessons learned.

How would that look?

Let's ask the educators...

My second nitpicking detail is in your final paragraph. While I agree that the feds could and should help teachers and schools level the playing field, the feds might also do something about leveling the poverty gap, the healthcare gap, and the rate of incarceration for non-whites gap...

Simply pouring money into schools and better teachers will do some, but not enough, to address issues directly related to poverty.

Many thanks to both of you for making your conversation accessible...uhm...transparent...



This conversation provokes my thinking in so many ways. I must agree with another respondent that says that what you agree upon is perhaps the most important part of the discussion.

Something discussed on the periphery and aroused in me in this response by Philip is this idea of transparency rather than accountability. I hear you talking about the power and who is able to influence the process through sheer power. I suspect if the money flow toward education were transparent it would help us to move toward a democratic approach to solving some of our problems.

As it is, much of the "accountability" hoopla in education ends up being on the money making end of the spectrum. While I agree with Diane that one national test covering s a core base would be useful to look across the spectrum, I see testing today being used quite differently. I see states, schools, and districts spending money in leaps and bounds as part of this "accountability" movement. The people making money from this: test makers, textbook companies, technology firms that provide disaggregation of data, and so on, these folks all have a vested interest in keeping the transparency opaque. I suspect you both see this and dislike the waste of educational dollars and the stranglehold such budgetary directions have on the educational process. How do we bring it all into the light so the public and the educational community see where the money is being spent?

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