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A New School Year Begins


Editor's note: After a month-long break, Bridging Differences returns today with this entry by Deborah Meier.

Dear Diane,

Summer's over. For 70 years I've approached this time of year with school in mind. With unrealistically high expectations and joy. And a knot in the pit of my stomach.

I wish I could at least be grateful that I'm not dealing with the difficult decisions that so many of my colleagues face in the current climate of so-called "reform." But it turns out to be more discomforting to live it vicariously. In the excitement of seeing old friends and new each fall it's harder to stay mad at "the system."

Education is on the agenda in Congress too this month, and so we'll be hearing painful double-talk from both local and national politicians. My first look at the draft summary was a stunner. It seemed to propose more complex rules and mandates and be fully in keeping with the basic mindset of the original. Let's talk about that very soon.

My summer was "interrupted" by reading Sam Dillon's New York Times account (subscription or fee required) of one Sir Michael Barber's outrageous claims about British schooling. Barber came to the US to tell NYC principals that English education is the way to go: just get on board New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's bandwagon, he urged. Unsurprisingly, Brit Richard Pring's response to him wasn't published in the NY Times, although he currently heads England's major review of all age 14-19 education.

Thirty-five years ago I made a trek to England to observe changes that were taking place in their "infant schools" (equivalent to kindergarten through about 3rd grade). The English had simultaneously just gotten rid of the 11-Plus exams that separated the wheat from the chaff at age 11 and instituted American-style secondary schools. Many prominent educators and journalists—like Joseph Featherstone in The New Republic—wrote about the intellectual seriousness of these new trends, their focus on kids who had preciously been ignored and, above all, the amount of competent writing that they saw kids engage in. Based on spending over six weeks in a few such schools we opened Central Park East elementary in East Harlem. So I have a special fondness for that period in British education.

But times change, and the British have outdone us in launching a "reform by test" movement. Unfortunately they didn't take your or my advice (which might not have been the same?)—in either country as they confronted problems with both promising earlier developments.

Richard Pring has told us that 10 years after Barber's reforms were fully installed the kids are no better prepared—academically or socially. UNICEF reports that children in England are "at the bottom of the league of rich countries in terms of happiness and feelings of well-being" and that they have highest rate of youthful criminality in Europe. I know some will scoff at the notion that we should care about children's "happiness" or "well-being" and will say that becoming a criminal is one's own choice. But I don't, and I suspect you don't either.

What's equally true is that England doesn't stack up well on international measurements in reading and math. The new "toughness" hasn't had much effect on college preparedness, employability, or international test score comparisons, says Pring.

Ohio principal George Wood, a friend of mine, decided a few years ago to call the Ohio Department of Education to ask for the results of studies done on the impact of Ohio's then-10-year-old test-based reforms. "What", he asked, "do studies of college and employer satisfaction tell us about how these reforms are working?" The lady asked him to call back while she looked for the answer. She came back to report that there had been no such studies conducted. It seems we're too busy tracking every little testing blip to wonder whether we're measuring what matters. Whether it's working to produce stronger citizens and better politics? In Ohio?

The good news that Pring brings us is that after a long and expensive detour, the British are now back to asking: "What counts as an educated 19-year-old in this day and age?". I wish we'd begin to talk about that over here, too.

I still remember the 1970s when New York City grades 2-6 test scores zoomed up remarkably. Oddly, no one seemed to wonder why these trends never seemed to make an impact on grades 7-12. No corresponding glee appeared amongst high school teachers; no one was saying, "well, at last, you're sending us better-prepared kids."

Instead, we turned to Business. I think I'm right that half of all businesses fail every year; those that don't include a great many that engage in practices that horrify us (like cooking the books). As an investor I've never received a business report that made what was going on transparent to me. Failing CEOs aren't treated like failing principals—but just open their golden parachutes. So why have we grown accustomed to turning to them for answers?

It would hurt less if it wasn't that I'm still sure that schools can make a big positive difference. There are a vast number of ways that they can do so, but they all start with acknowledging the connection between means and ends.

It leads me, for example, to ask whether kids are being schooled in the company of adults with the intellectual and moral standards for making judgments on matters of importance. If not, forget it. (My grandmother had virtually no formal education, but I never doubted her capacity for intellectual and moral judgment. It did me good to keep company with her.) Our now six-month-long discourse is based, I think, on this commonality. Maybe also on the fact that neither you nor I has enough power to impose our differences on each other! Nor, possibly, neither of us has such a desire.

I'm not looking for a single great "decider." I know from history where that leads us.



I couldn't agree more with your comments concerning our penchant for looking to "the business world" for answers to our problems in public education... I remember in my rookie year of teaching, hearing then President of the then Standard Oil of Ohio, tell a group of teachers to be leary of taking advice from the so-called leaders of the business world... his contention was that they had not found solutions to their own problems and were ill-equipped to advise others.

I remember from my education classes this one nugget of wisdom: "The pendulum always swings back". It always seems like education is great at jumping on the next thing only to "swing" back to the thing it used to do.

With the huge push for high-stakes testing, I'm wondering when the pendulum will swing again.


Just a stay-at-home-mom former teacher who's gone back to graduate school to find her brains again. :-)

I can't speak for the education in England (known to us as "that penninsula to the south of Scotland") but of education is Scotland is practically perferct in every way and hardly ever has a low moment. (Well,hardly ever)

But speaking of English schools I personally would never look to them for role models for American schools.

Standards and discipline must be at their lowest ebb since the 1944 reforms extending universal secondary educaiton for all.

I recently interviewed a group of exchange students from Britain and they were very nice young people. But they did not know what the Magna Carta was, what the Reform Bill was, or much about British (or English) history except that they had to feel guility for some imperialist past. They knew all about pop culture but very little about the heritage, literature and history of the Englsih-speaking peoples.

Few had studied with Muslims or Jews because THOSE people study in state-supported faith schools (that is to say state subsidized relgious schools similiar to Ireland and Canada).

England has a very checkered career of inequality and ineptness in public education.

If we study their example it should be to avoid their mistakes.

By the way I was thinking, once again, of our commonalities ("Deb and me" sic).
You wrote: "Our now six-month-long discourse is based, I think, on this commonality. Maybe also on the fact that neither you nor I has enough power to impose our differences on each other! Nor, possibly, neither of us has such a desire." We should all seek common ground and we must all expect to have honest differences of opinion but we should never hope to coerce others to our views we can only invite others to consider them and at the very least tolerate our very existence and grant, however grudgingly that uniformity and sameness even in excellence is not always a good thing.

As a teacher I respect the education example of the military and of business but I would be the last person in the world to turn to THEM to choose the curriculm of our schools. Yes, there are some areas in which they are strong (moral education, discipline, team work, and practical vocation education) but if they were in charge the entire heart of humane (liberal arts) studies would be entirely gutted. But so much be postulated as Gilbert Highet was fond to say and 'poetry is better than pinball." I teach literature, language and history and I use poetry in all of my classes. Of course, when I do this even I make some appeal to the practical use of analyzing poetry: to gain points on the high school exit exam or CBEST (respectively the CAHSEE and the basic skills tests for teachers). But I pass over this rapidly and it is clear that I do not teach poetry chiefly for practical purposes but for the joy, consolation and wisdom poetry -and her sweet young sister song- can bring. Poetry is among the oldest literary forms and is still one of the most powerful because it appeals simultaneously to the heart and the head by expressing emotions rythmically and directly. History tells about groups of people but literature and poetry tell us about individuals and their fears, their joys, their laughter and their suffering. To show diagrams of slave ships is one thing. To describe from first hand accounts the horrors of the Middle Passage is another. But to recite from memory and with heart-felt emotion Burn's Slave's Lament or an anonymous fragment of a mournful Negro Spiritual is something completely else. It is to teach that slavery is not just working hard and not getting paid but an inhumane, greedy and monstrously cruel oppressive economic system and totally evil way of life that poisoned and deformed everything it came in contact with. We contrast it with factory labor, with indentured servitude and illegal bracero labor. We agree in the end that illegal bracero labor under today's circumstances is mercifully not as cruel a system of exploitation as slavery.

But we also agree that white bond slaves (indentured servants) WERE MUCH BETTER OFF than today's undocumented aliens because they had clearly defined rights and contracts, unlike illegal laborers and braceros. As horrible as it may seem our documentless people may have more income with the orphans, nameless and stateless people
of the the Nazi Reich or the Soviet Gulag than the lowest White indentured servant of the colonial age.
Like you Deborah I believe schools and teachers CAN make a differnce. If I didn't believe that I would have quit teaching 20 years ago. I also believe that if one approaches education as merely an end to a job or training that education quickly becomes meaningless and superficial. Poetry, great literature, great oratory, the exposees of great reformers, the great debates are NEVER MEANINGLESS and dull if they are presented to the students in a meaningful way. To me ,personally, one of the greatest problems in American education is confusion over ends. There is far too much emphasis on how much money being a high school graduate or college graduate will make you. Indeed, this is a very weak argument coming from a threadbare educator with three year old shoes and a second hand compact car. If education is so great then why are you a teacher? Why not a court translator, a master spy or great businessman or best-selling author?
And of course there is no single road to paradise or Rome (whatever metaphor you like). There is room for diverse paths and diverse dreams though I think we must make room for teaching civic virtue and the importance of having common grounds and teaching a deep reverential gratitude to the young for the accomlishments of our civilization and our Great Republic (as Churchill rightly characterized it).

I very much like and was impressed by this quote by you:
"It leads me, for example, to ask whether kids are being schooled in the company of adults with the intellectual and moral standards for making judgments on matters of importance. If not, forget it."

I could not agree with you more. We must teach and give the example of ethical and moral standards (what I call an education in values and virtues) and we must exemplify the intellectual virtues as well. But I am no Aristotle I do not deny it nor am I a cold-hearted stoic Roman for I was taught of the Romans and Greeks not by a cold philosopher but by a loving Scottish grandfather who taught me that a man was a man for all that and he could not be measured by the colour of his skin, or by his speech, or by his clothes or by the gold crowns in his pocket, but only by his heart and many a rich heart was to be found under poor coats. He taught to always remember we were not descended from the First Families of the Isles but from among the last. I believe all education of youth must begin with caring teachers, forgiving teachers and if you will loving teachers. It is very important for a teacher to love and know his or her subject area but unless one teaches and disciplines with kindness and a forgiving heart one can teach only cruelty and revenge not the high values of civilization. Haim Ginott taught us "Love can only be taught lovingly and compassion compassionately." There are times when the lessons must be put aside and when a teacher's pride must be put aside to communicate directly to the spirt, dignity and character of the student. I would say, if it not too archaic that there are times when reason itself is of no use and either is punishment. One must simply appeal to that person's honor and integrity. The Spanish say 'hasta los pobres tienen su honra' which means even the poor and humble have their moral dignity; their honor. English-speakers today may speak of principles but to Spanish-speakers -for example- "honra o honor" that is to say honor are still very common and very meaningful words and words that come easily to the tongue.

So we have more in common despite our differnces. We valued the moral education and common sense from our humble elders. None of my grandparents ever got past the sixth grade and my wise grandfather was sent to sea at age eight and never again darken the door of any school (but he did visit many libraries and museums and places like Saint Sophia in Constantinople which was a Mosque when he visited it in 1919; he did not take off his shoes nor his kilt nor his glengarry, nor his sgian dubh, nor his bayonet nor his pistol for the occasion). Observations more than books and experiences rather than persons were his teachers. And a few old salts, a few old Sikhs and a few old Colour Sergeants. He had few books for his education but his education was quite literally a life and death struggle on the high seas and in the trenches where he fought as a soldier on three continents. But humble and imperfect scholar though he was he always carried a small Bible with a lucky silver half crown in it, his love of music and a book of poetry with him in his kit or in his heart.

It was not the practical arts which gave him courage, consolation and the will to endure and survive but the pieces poetry and prayer he knew and loved by heart and whose value he knew in his deepest soul and mind. Liberal arts SEEM like an education above practical or utilitarian concerns and with no practical connection to the world but in the final analysis is is such things as poetry that give meaning to our lives and to help us and guide us in situations of almost unbearable and unspeakable pain and loss. I think it is interesting to note as well that I came to love poetry and literature OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL; school did everything it could to make me hate reading and hate literature. It always surprises my students when I tell them I dreaded school and I dreaded homework (especially math homework)and usually I suffered in silence and kept my head down so as not to suffer too much from my classmates (from whom I had to physically defend myself at times) and from my teachers (with whom I often vehemently disagreed). They say, REALLY, and I say, yes, "schools at their worst CAN BE MURDER MACHINES of the SOUL AND OF THE HEART" so it takes courage to struggle and carry on but this is something WE MUST DO. I also tell them that schools at their best can be transformative places but in any case in today's credential society they have become an absolute necessity so they must be endured even when it seems pointless. I paraphrase (from memory) F. W. Robertson who said, wisely, that formal instruction ended in the classroom but true education ended only with life itself. Ultimately the responsiblity to educate ourselves and our children lies as much in ourselves as it does in our teachers and schools. THough I am a strong advocate of common schools and public schools I am also a strong advocate for home-schooling -even for those students formally matriculated in schools and the need for private and family religious and moral instruction. A good deal of my life and energy as an educator has been spent as a father tutor, a coach and as a catechist.

Few of us, in any case, I include myself, can entirely self-educate ourselves. Take away the dictionaries, take away the libraries, take away the textbooks and take away the teachers and yes you can educate yourself but it is like climbing the Rockies alone mapless, shoeless and naked without a compass or a hat or even a canteen. It can be done but it is extremely difficult so much so that only one out of a thousand perhaps ten thousand will have a chance for success without proper training and guidance.

Even the worst map,the flimsiest gear and the clumsiest guide is better than none.

And often of course, if one is lucky the guide will be good and help you on your way without too much harm.

I always tell my students that the real test is the test of life. I think an essential part of education is the student himself or herself. They must be willing. "Where there is not a wee will there will never be a big one either but where their be will there will be gree" (that is to say prizes or achievement). As I am wont to say in the American idiom: "you sweat you get; you snooze you lose." But we teachers must encourage them and invite them to continue in their studies for some greater purpose than getting a high-paying job or getting a high grade.

Yes, I was very pleased to hear you say

"My grandmother had virtually no formal education, but I never doubted her capacity for intellectual and moral judgment. It did me good to keep company with her."

I feel exactly the same way about my education with my Auld Pop, his comrades, his kith, my elder cousins and kinswomen. They taught me for one thing, that I was not made up of sugar or salt for I should always remember the people I came from. They, and my parents, were my first and best teachers and I do not regret for one moment that they all taught me to distrust teachers, distrust schools, distrust information and above all to distrust bureacracies and government institutions. Official truths are no subsitute for wisdom. Too many scholars, scientists, business people and especially lawyers and administrators bend and twist information and the truth until it is beyond all recognition. "For woe to him that puts all his trust in any mortal sprung from dust and woe to him who puts his trust in justice of men for the justice of the unjust is often twisted."

Real knowledge is wisdom and it is the marriage of clear thinking, experience, study and more study followed by reflection and lastly deep feeling combined with respect for the learning and experiences of those who came before (tradition). If we cut ourselves off from our traditions and our heritage and our hearts and human feeling from compassion we will never have real understanding. And a people lacking in understanding will come to ruin despite their high walls, their ships, their fleets of planes, their wealth and their long-range guns their doctors,their drugs, their capped teeth and their plastic surgery.

In my view -and in this I differ bitterly from Dewey- we must respect tradition and keep alive a sense of community and care for our fellows even in this difficult, Godforsaken and often hostile world.

For the present I say no more but the MacInneses, Scullys and Ravitches and Darcys and Waggoners of this world know very well what I would say to them without fear. I remember the people I came from and how they came to be and how they survived against the odds and I have pride of that name and splendid ancient heritage yet and know the lesson within which tells me the ground whereon they trod and the rivers they crossed and all this whispers to me daily what they knew.


Apoogies, Ricardo. I jst got around to reazding your eloquent words. Thank you. I agree with so much of what ytou say.

I'm puzzled by your assumption that Dewey was anti-traditional. That ssumption, in fct, drove him to write a lot about the false duality often being set up between progressive and traditional. I think, myself, that he was struggling to restore some critical traditions in the history of passing o wisdom and knowledge and skill to the young which so-called traditional schooling had lost sight of.

But it's more an art than science, and requires a commuhity of mutual respect so that critical feedback is always part of the equation of schooling--not just in our response to children's work, but our own. That is, in a way, what democracy is in part all about. It's a different sense of the word "accountability"-putting our stuf out there for public review.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response.


I admire your writing so much. It's eloquent and thoughtprovoking and hard to learn for me for this is a plain Chinese girl who don't konw how to writing good, high-level english articles like yours'.

I have now word to say that great information about education

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