The Dangers Facing Us
I enjoyed (and agreed with) practically every word in your last letter. And I identified with your grief over Molly, too.
I sometimes think I'm exaggerating the dangers facing us—and then I read the Daily News about math scores and think I'm maybe not worrying enough! More on this below.
We may have some sharp disagreements, which we ought to pursue carefully this coming year, but at stake, at the moment, are two greater concerns. One, the continued existence of a public school system. Two, turning the public one that's left into a super-centralized enterprise run by a combination of unaccountable businessmen and distant political interests (ala Mister Barber's British experiment.) Both of these undermine the bottom-line tools for accountability—democracy and honest information.
I note with amusement that, much like education, every few years a new guru arrives with the new answer to how to guarantee business success. He gets fat consulting fees and is soon replaced by another. Yesterday's wonder turns into an ordinary mortal.
You and I are struggling to find democratic ways to bring ends and means together, to serve accountability and good schooling. It's tough. But imposing our pet ideas on over a million unwilling teachers, families, kids is not an answer. Nor is the smash/disappear-the-past strategy. Dictators—too harsh a word for NYC Chancellor Joel Klein?—have an impulse to destroy the old, "fall-back" institutions in hopes that in doing so we can't undo their reforms. That's why I found James Scott's "Seeing Like a State" such a great read, a reminder of what some of us have lived through in the 20th Century. I'm still traumatized by that history of good intentions. Have I over-learned that lesson?
The Klein proclamation in the Daily News is a caricature of the little dictator. An "era is over," he declares. We've gotten rid of the obstructionists—educators. "Accountability", he continues, "isn't optional." Tell that to your friends in high places, Joel, who seem content with their nonaccountability: bail-outs and golden parachutes. See The New York Times, Sept. 2—NY state's fastest growing industry riddled with fraud! Honest data is another victim of dictatorships as the Daily News, generally a friend to Klein, notes in a story on September 4th. "When test scores rise, politicians crow that schools are getting better, but a Daily News analysis of recent standardized math exams and a News experiment suggest another reason: The questions might be getting easier."
Klein acknowledges our discomfort. "Some educators and parents won't be happy, and that's the way it should be. … The truth hurts sometimes." But, too bad, because these tools will "help us manage the entire system more effectively." He truly is a believer. It send chills up and down my spine. It's exactly the mindset that I want schools to help future citizens overcome; because it's a way of thinking (like a State) that is a danger to the concept of democracy itself.
But, Klein and company, like Fred Hess, another pro-business reformer (see The American online July 17) have learned a different lesson from history. Hess urges reformers to "…smash the regulations and support the entrepreneurs who will shake things up." (It's '60s "new left" talk from the right.) Shaking things up over and over is a common thread. You are right, Diane, it does serve a purpose; it makes the objects being shaken feel less and less confident and more hapless. Fear interrupts "resistance."
The other day a friend complained about teachers and principals "resisting" her plans (which I happened to like). We all need to watch our language. Maybe, I queried, they disagreed with you? "Opposition" (even questioning) looks like resistance when given no choice. But, "eventually," as you say in your final sentence, parents and teachers will "find their collective voice and say loud and clear: "Enough'"
I take that same lesson to the school and classroom level. When kids can disagree they are less prone to take their opposition underground, and the same goes for teachers. It's the above-ground way of doing public business that is at the heart of democracy. If there's ever been a regime that hides its policymaking, and is accountable only to itself (including its own manipulated data)—it's the Klein regime. (Oops, I forgot the Bush one.) Enough!
Meanwhile, there are all those kids whose teachers and principals need to figure out how to negotiate the spaces that are left to them. My old mentor, Lillian Weber, reminded us—years ago—that there are those cracks in the sidewalk, where some things manage to grow. It's our job to find them and feed them, she told us. The kids in front of us can't wait. I pass the word on.
P.S. For the record, I am not "opposed to tests." More on this later.