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Honest information and democracy

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Dear Diane,

The disturbing comments in your final paragraph deserve a wide audience. It is always hard to know when we are being alarmists, and when we are understating a dangerous trend. Maybe schools were once less worrisome because they simply played a much smaller role in our lives and life itself was a teacher of common sense. But all roads lead to Rome, so while it may appear that I'm switching subjects, Diane, it leads to the same place.

I read the story a few weeks ago about Carol and Joe Reich's struggle to retain control over the public school they generously created for poor Brooklyn children some ten years ago. I read it with anguish—for them, for us, for the kids of that school. The tragedy is that we have too often forgotten that the distinction between public and private enterprises is that the former belong to "us", not "me." Our good intentions sometimes lead us astray. If the law allows, we can forget what we can and cannot literally "own." But is that less true for foundations? The Mayor? Why pick on just the Reichs?

The Reichs' work coincides with a period in American history when we are having a hard time denying the wealthy and powerful anything, including their right to own our public schools. We've too long given a free pass to rich people who use their wealth to impose their agenda for public education on schools for other people's children. In the latter camp, alas, go some well-intentioned leaders of foundations, like Gates, and various business and corporate conglomerates who control private largesse.

Plus a Mayor with enough private and public muscle to set an agenda without consulting those most affected by it, and then, and this is crucial, to control the data that judges his work.

I'm told, time and time again, that some things are just foolish to rant and rave against. It's just the way "things are." The reason one of our CPE "habits of mind" was called "what if?", was that we wanted young people to realize that other possibilities always existed, and still exist—whether in math, science, or in the history of the past or future. Nothing "had to be." I even tried to forbid the phrase "I had to" from our in-school language. Even with a gun to your head, I chided, there are choices. In some ways science fiction always appealed to me because it reminded me how differently the future might play out if…. Nothing in the future is "writ in stone" until it comes to pass. In the meantime we need to act "as if" our voices counted.

(As I noted to some reader recently, it's why I thought "Walden Two" by B.F. Skinner, was a dystopia—a world in which everything "had to be." Imagine my surprise to discover that it was a utopia to many others. A lesson in perspective—another useful habit of mind.)

I try to be realistic about my "what ifs", and I try to think "strategically". So, if I had to choose just one modest reform on behalf of democracy, what might it be?

Talking about the history of anti-smoking policies in the New York Review of Books (subscription or fee required), the author Helen Epstein notes the damaging effect of public distrust of statistics. In fact, however, what is even more dangerous is our love/hate relationship with statistics. The more ignorant we are the more we both bow down to and resent numbers. I've been arguing for years that instead of advanced algebra and calculus we ought to have a statistics-driven math program. Algebra may be "good for the mind", but statistics—the manipulation of data—is essential for making sense of the world. Still even that depends on the quality of the data one works with. The World Bank, I heard on NPR, is apparently having the same trouble trying to make sense of the data coming out of China as we're having with NYC.

Democracy depends on being informed. Being informed depends on having relatively honest information. As they used to say in the data-processing field: "GIGO"—garbage in, garbage out. For starters then, my modest wish would be to see if we can create a consensus around a set of proposals to de-garbage the information we get about public schooling in, let's say, NYC?

How does that appeal to you as a modest summer task?

Deb

2 Comments

While I appreciate your efforts to advocate for meaningful and reliable data, among other things, I'm disappointed by your representation of Walden Two.

In my opinion, one of the most meaningful things that Skinner's works demonstrate is the amazing potential we all possess - especially our children. "What if" our children were all educated in the most efficient manner possible (by efficient I mean effective and expedient)? I see so many "what ifs" in that book that it makes my head spin (and gives my heart hope).
Thanks for your time.
Patty Polster
St. Louis, MO

Same here. I found the book both refreshing and mind boggling. To control the situation in which children are given stimulus and thus using the principles of behavior analysis to shape responses is simply stupendous. One thing I did reason out: the people that participate must have been screened very carefully. It is not for everyone (like Direct Instruction). But when people buy in, learn it well, and apply it correctly - watch out!

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