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Democracy Rests on Disagreements


Dear Deb,

I agree with you about the uncertainty involved in medicine. The closer any of us gets to a very serious medical problem, the likelier we are to encounter medical uncertainty. Many years ago, I lost a two-year-old child to leukemia. At that time, in the mid-1960s, the doctors tried a range of drugs, knowing that in the end, it was a lost cause. I kept hoping for a miracle that never happened. That was when I discovered that there is a limit to what doctors know. The good news is that medical research keeps pushing the limit farther and farther out. So, today, most children who have the same disease that killed my little boy in six months are likely to survive and live a normal life. That is incredible progress!

About ten years ago, when I suffered a near-fatal pulmonary embolism, I compared medical research to education research in an article for Education Week called “What if Research Really Mattered.” When I was flat on my back in the intensive care unit of my neighborhood hospital, I was incredibly impressed that everyone knew what to do. There were standard tests and standard procedures, and all the doctors, interns, and residents knew exactly what to do. They saved my life, and to them it was no big deal. It was standard operating procedure.

In education, we have no standard operating procedure. You probably think that is a good thing. I am not so sure. However, I suspect that we both would recoil at the standard operating procedures advocated and imposed by the business leaders who are now calling the tune in so many school districts.

I certainly agree with you about the importance of discussion and debate. I passionately advocate for minority views, not least because I am usually the one in the minority and don’t want to be censored or ruled out of order! Like you, I agree that democracy rests on disagreements. Life is not a standardized test. It was Robert Hutchins (did you know him, Deb?) who said that one must always listen to the other person because he (or she) might turn out to be right.

It seems to me that the more you know about history, the more you become aware of dilemmas and uncertainties. One of the terrible things about the history textbooks is that they make it seem that leaders made decisions with full knowledge of how things would turn out. No, they didn’t know. They made educated—and sometimes uneducated—guesses.

In watching the Ken Burns documentary about World War II, I once again have been reminded of bad decisions by the leaders, of information withheld from the public, of chaos and error on the battlefield. It made me think of Tolstoy’s observation in "War and Peace" about how different the battle looks to the general and the soldiers. The general sees order; the soldiers see confusion and smoke.

One could easily become nihilistic. But I would not do that, Deb, nor would you. There are these millions of children. They need to learn lots of things to prepare them for life, for citizenship, for work. The grown-ups have to teach them. One can’t just wave the whole matter away and say let everyone do his or her own thing. There is too much at stake. We agree on that.


Deborah Meier will write about her recent visit to Russia in her post later this week.


Many if not most of the countries whose students outscore the US on international comparisons have content specific national standards (some very specific). It is apparent that the existence of the standards has a positive effect in that what is expected is explicit and energy tends to be focused by all the stakeholders on the standards. The negative impacts of allowing
states to determine levels of proficiency and creating their own measurement is readily apparent. Why not adopt world class content specific math and science standards that have been developed and refined by one or more of the world's best (Singapore, Finland) or at least let parents know what these specific standards entail?


Every year I told my class that adults were in charge of the world. They were the experienced and educated ones and knew better. In most situations around the world children benefit from this and are protected by these adult decisions. This is also true in school. Adults decide what children should be exposed to and learn during the school day/year. Students are encouraged to have academic interests and pursue them but as for a formal K-12 plan, that's to be decided by informed, educated and experienced adults (yes, teachers should have say in this discussion) after coming to consensus.

The prior pell-mell approach is what caught the attention of the business community and state legislatures and caused the nationwide furor, initiated by disbelief. Thank goodness for ed-reform and the existing standards based approach.

A line from one of Michael Fullan's books says, "Until now nothing has worked."
Your hospital analogy that might support standardization seems flawed this way: the standardized procedures that save lives are standard only for the current moment. Research and experimentation and trial and error continually alter procedures so that very soon a new "standard" replaces an old "standard." The flexibility and diversity of state educational approaches generates experimentation. It challenges the status quo.
The danger of national standardization is that it will ossify procedures into a catechism to test the faithful and drive out the infidels.
The national community seems unwilling to invest in basic research and development that leads to improved procedures which better procedures will soon push aside. Standardization won't "save" education; the urgent determination to constantly improve will.

The hospital analogy is an interesting one. You say that they followed a 'standard operating procedure.' I'm sure that's how it looked because of how quickly, seamlessly, and beautifully everything worked. However, I'm also sure there were a lot of critical decisions that were made about which tests to give, which medications to try, and how quickly or for how long to do each thing. Each medical case is as unique as each child in our schools. Teachers have to have the knowledge, ability, and power to make decisions to create an educational experience that is appropriate for each child's needs.


I loved your analogy between medicine and education. As you recall, medicine too at one point was in a dismal, poorly regarded state (prior to the founding of Johns Hopkins and the very controversial decision to add science into medical education.)

As you have so clearly documented we have made big shifts in educational direction in the past (Committee of Ten etc). What do you think would be necessary to shift directions (ie national standards, external tests etc...)? Is it leadership from the colleges, states, federal government or grassroots or all of the above?

Your thoughts of possible positive paths forward would be greatly appreciated.

Erin Johnson

For 1500+ years the Humoral Theory of Disease emphasized the individuality and uniqueness of the patient. The role of physician was to diagnose these unique attributes and prescribe a treatment to bring the humors back into balance (bleedings, purgatives, laxatives, etc.) The result was that the medical knowledge available to treat George Washington on the day of his death (he was bled several times) was not substantially different from that available to Julius Cesar.

It was not until science was invented and began to focus on what we have in common, organ systems that function substantially alike in health and disease, that real progress was made.

I think that educators often focus too much on the supposed uniqueness of the individual and not enough on what we share in common. Presumably, kids in Hong Kong are just as unique as they are here. Is their superior performance best explained by supposing that Chinese teachers have superior abilities to diagnose and teach to the individual needs of each of the students in their huge classes--or that they benefit from a clearly defined and concise set of curriculum standards for which they are held accountable?

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