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The Underlying Issues


Dear Deb,

Your description of CPESS and other Coalition schools sounds like a memory from a distant past. Education is now in the grips of a very different mindset, one that seeks to turn schools into businesses or to use business as a model for success in education. Test scores have become the coin of the realm, simply because they provide an objective measurement. The problem is not testing kids, but using the scores to make judgments about students, teachers, principals, and schools. I have never been opposed to testing, but I think it is bizarre to assume—as most newspapers and pundits and policymakers now seem to do—that the tests are robust enough to make these consequential judgments about people and institutions.

I remember when I visited your school. I was impressed by the seriousness of the atmosphere and the dedication of the staff. However, I know how often people said, "If only we could clone Debby Meier." They meant that as a compliment to you, but also as an implicit acknowledgement that what you did could not easily be replicated. If it were easy to replicate, it would have spread across the nation. But it didn't. It remained a rare and fragile flower, not a hearty plant that could be transplanted or could—as gardeners say—naturalize or spread on its own.

We come back to our fundamental difference about the value of a common curriculum and of testing. I continue to think there is great value in knowing that children will encounter a common curriculum in history, science, and other subjects, even if they move from one school to another in the same district, or move to another city or state. No point rehearsing all the reasons, but at bottom I believe that we already have (weak) national standards, embedded in the textbooks and tests, and that we already have international standards in mathematics and science, where our students do poorly.

Yet I think this discussion, which you think is intertwined, is not entirely germane to the issues I raised about grading schools based on state test scores. We agree that the way this is done in New York City is harmful to schools and reveals nothing that will enable schools to improve. Indeed, if schools were to turn themselves into testing mills, doing nothing whatsoever other than test prep, they would be considered exemplary.

The issue that I raise is two-fold: One, how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics? and, Two, how can we—that is, the American public—begin to talk again about schools that prepare students not only to take tests but to be engaged and thoughtful citizens, to participate in and enjoy the arts, and to have the interest and capacity to read a book that was not assigned by a teacher?



The answers to your two questions are clear. Answer 1. The education establishment gave up both their moral authority and initiative by focusing solely on how to keep control of the educational process as if education were a manufacturing business, the near refusal to consider a longer school day or year, the complete lack of understanding or interest in how to use the internet as a "force multiplier" as well as ignoring what has worked effectively around the world. Answer 2. Engage parents on their own terms in their own lives and quit asking stressed dual income family's to give up their work time at risk of job loss to engage educators both on behalf of their own children and about education issues. Saturdays, and later evenings are seldom if ever when educators require parents to attend school related activities. Many parents feel cut off from engagement with the educational system because they are and that is the apparent intention of educators otherwise the process would be set up to meet the needs of the parents not the educators.

"Two, how can we—that is, the American public—begin to talk again about schools that prepare students not only to take tests but to be engaged and thoughtful citizens, to participate in and enjoy the arts, and to have the interest and capacity to read a book that was not assigned by a teacher?"

Questions like this are the very reason why we fail to educate the lower half of our population. So long as we define education from such an absurdly elitist viewpoint, making education a moral issue rather than a functional one, we'll continue to fail.

Our country will do very nicely if almost everyone in the country can read. Reading books, with or without compulsion, is wholly inconsequential. Leisure reading is nothing more than a form of entertainment, functionally identical to watching TV or listening to music.

People who begin with the premise that reading a book is important will often, when challenged, say that leisure reading is correlated with many other important successes. So let me pre-empt that response by saying that there's zero evidence of causation and in any event, don't conflate the activity with the desired result.

The country will also do just fine if the usual suspects are the only ones who "participate and enjoy" the arts. We don't need any more amateur violin players, thanks so much. We don't need more kids having "dance recital" on their college applications. It won't do a thing for our populace. In fact, after high school, there's almost no support for amateur athletics or music.

And somehow, our country has toddled along for over 200 years without saddling public education with the responsibility to produce "engaged and thoughtful citizens", whatever that is.

So long as the elite pretend that everyone is just a good teacher away from a love of reading, classical music, and good wine, we will continue along the same path. We will educate our best students so well in high school that college, for most of them, will be boring and easy. We will educate the middle lump about as well as we ever have--except we've devalued the high school diploma for this group, so they are forced to go to college, which is why our best students are bored. And we will continue to fail miserably at educating our least able students, who take much longer to learn things and who will in all likelihood never enjoy reading, never want to think or consider political issues beyond their own self-interest, and would very much like to restrict their education to activities that will allow them to get a good job and support a family.

Unfortunately, it appears that everyone who works in the educational policy arena are convinced that the way to success lies in forcing everyone in the country to adopt their ideology about the value of the education they want to provide.

Re: "...[W]hat you did could not easily be replicated. If it were easy to replicate, it would have spread across the nation. But it didn't. It remained a rare and fragile flower, not a hearty plant that could be transplanted or could—as gardeners say—naturalize or spread on its own."

The failure of the Coalition of Essential Schools (and schools such as CPESS) was not an issue of "too difficult to replicate."

CES failed in its efforts to become a modern progressive movement because it was run over by technical-rational juggernauts such as Madeline Hunter, the Effective Schools movement, and many similar successor "fads of the year" that 1) are simple (although most often faulty) in idea, 2) can easily be understood and implemented, thus creating a whole army of experts and consultants, and 3) align well with the corporate/business world educators try so hard to emulate.

In addition, Mr. Stalcup is correct. We are only getting what we deserve. The education profession abdicated its moral authority several decades ago and now must follow where it once led.

As a teacher of students in the bottom 10%, let me whole heartedly disagree with Cal. His accusation of elitism needs to be turned back on himself. He seeks to deny the power of literature to my students that people in the upper crust will certainly get. Literature is not just entertainment. Literature tells the stories of what it means to be human. It tells the history of countries and of civilizations, as well as the history of human thought. It nurtures empathy and curiosity and intelligence.
Human beings have known the importance of literature from the beginning of time, hence the storytellers of primitive tribes, the continuing interest in Shakespeare's plays that were written hundreds of years ago, the fact that Jesus spoke in stories to tell his disciples his lessons.
And, of course, education is a moral issue. The United States of America is a great country not because we are a capitalist powerhouse, but because we are founded on the moral issues of what it means to be human, and why we are entitled to inalienable rights. Literature expounds on all the aspects of human nature, forcing students to grapple with huge life-changing issues.
My students are entitled to a great education. They should not be relegated to classes that teach them what nouns and verbs are so they can write adequate memos for their more entitled bosses. They shouldn't be forced to read banal stories created to make sure they can read instruction manuals. They should be viewed as American citizens, entitled to the same rich education as all other citizens.


One: the education establishment lost control of our schools through their own NON-management. Prior to the intrusion into the schoolhouse by the business community and state legislatures our schools had NO PLAN IN PLACE - ANYWHERE as to what was to be taught or when. A Septembet 2005 NYTimes editorial stated our schools were being run by "default" by publishing companies and the pell-mell efforts of so many local school boards becuase the educational establishment lacked the wherewithal to formlly promulgate any form of curriculum. SAD, VERY SAD!!

TWO: Read piece in Tuesday's Boston Globe (1/15/08) on what the Brookline Public schools are proposing for what they'd like to see their students exposed to, in addition to passing the state MCAS tests. It appears to be a step toward the education of the "whole child," as opposed to simply the development of their cognitive abilities. It could prove to be a reasonable model for other systems nationwide to work from, if so inclined.

The answer is simple: all those corporations, conservative foundations and billionaires called the bill due on all the money they'd been paying to the politicians and the politicians handed the schools over to them.

Kenneth Kastle, no teacher that I know of is trying to emulate the business world, we are being plowed under by administrators who lack the back bone to stand up in say their districts and schools will not be run by people 2ooo miles away in Washington, D.C. or their puppetmasters.

How did it happen? The "professionals" stopped taking education seriously, if they ever did. We saw, and continue to see, whipsawing from new program to new program, with no accountability for results. Kids graduating who can't count change at the CVS. College graduates who can't put together a sentence, let alone a proposal or brief.

Why the tests? Maybe it forces "teaching to the test"--but at least there is the teaching of SOMETHING.

We in the "real" world need the education system to transmit our culture and civilization to the next generation, and to prepare a workforce for today's economy, not just the next group of Social Studies teachers.

What can we do to expand our educational system to fully include the arts or thoughtful participation in literature, etc.?

How about having the schools become full-time institutions?

The 19th Century model of 6 hours a day, 180 days a year is not enough time to teach what we need these kids to learn, plain and simple.

So there are two options-- either make hard choices and delete from the curriculum those things which are "extras"-- or add more time.

How about schools that are open, say, 47 weeks? 5 weeks vacation is more than double what most Americans get? How about a longer day, folding in "homework" into the school day so that families can spend time together?

It doesn't have to be 11 months of the same-old same-old. The year, the week, the day even, can be broken up much differently, the reliance on the teacher-lecturing-in-front-of-the-class model altered, or tossed.

We need a revolution in education, the last vestige of Industrial Revolution stolidity left in America.

Bottom line? If educators would do their job, we "outsiders" would have a lot less to say.


You assume a great deal (not least of which is my gender, which I never mentioned).

Where did I deny any student anything? The issue is how we define education--and successful education at that. You and Ms. Ravitch have absurdly elitist ideals that most people simply find irrelevant.

The rest of your post is long on drama, short on reality. Suffice it to say that I, too, teach low income kids. Mine have a very high rate of success in the metrics that count--that is, they themselves feel successful. When I'm done working with kids, their abilities come close to matching the national mean, which is something that is quite unusual in low income minority populations.

Most teachers who work with underprivileged kids rave about the favored few and complain about the rest, who are doomed to very little success at all because they don't share their teachers' moral mandate.

I'm just tired of hearing teachers like you rhapsodize about nonsense that most *wealthy* people think is a waste of time, when I think about the degree to which you are hurting kids who neither want nor need this nonsense, but have fewer options to find alternatives.

Why should anyone need to make generalizations about what low-income kids (or, for that matter, kids of any income) want? There are plenty of low-income kids who desire a liberal arts education, just as there are high-income kids who care about little more than prettying their resume.

Given the many possible meanings and purposes of education, should we not offer our students as many choices as possible? If that's elitist, then what isn't?

If certain teachers love teaching literature, then they should be the ones to teach it. Teachers who find it a waste of time should teach something else. Both could have a place in our schools. Moreover, there is great overlap between the beautiful and the practical. Carpentry has rhythm, and music has measure. We do not have to be so polarized.

Tony ... your 47 weeks is not a bad idea, but it will never happen because it would cost money ... teachers would each make about $25,000 a year more at their current rate of pay ... oh ... but you probably weren't talking about paying them for their time.
In my school district of over 65,000 students it costs about a million a day to pay the bills when school is open ... about 100 schools ... salaries, heating, custodial services, maintenance ...
And you know the schools already get way more money than they need ... just need to spend it better ... too much waste ... so those added days shouldn't cost any more.


It is tragic and telling that Deborah’s experiences have had no influence on educational practice.

While having a common curriculum and testing could be beneficial to our children, the bigger problem that we face is that our school system(s) is(are) not organized in a way to incorporate and learn from quality teaching.

We have no systems in place to improve teaching practice and to share the wealth of experiences from teachers such as Deborah. We have no institutional knowledge about what quality teaching encompasses and the process on how to improve. Our teachers are mostly on their own, stuck with vague recollections of their own school experiences or the random, distant theories that abound in the educational community. But as you can see, those random ideas (the latest being the "testing and accountability" idea about school improvement) can often do more harm than good.

While curricula matters, teaching matters infinitely more. Without a system in place to encourage teachers to improve their practice and collaborate with each other about the nitty, gritty details of classroom life, all external reforms will not affect learning.

Children learn from a specific teacher in a specific classroom. It is in the detailed, daily interactions between teacher and child that quality learning grows. The prime reason our children are not learning much is that our very caring, well intentioned teachers are not teaching very well (and it is not just the absence of content). It is not from lack of trying. Our teachers are dedicated and put enormous effort into teaching. They are not teaching well because we have no cultural expectations that teaching can be/should be improved nor any institutional way of learning from great teachers. And so each teacher is required to re-invent the wheel. And some are more inclined to do so than others.

Standards or new curricula will not change the fact that our teachers for the most part are not teaching well, and consequently our children are not learning much. Only a quality school system that encourages teachers to examine their own practice, gives them quality time to develop great lessons and facilitates teachers collaborating on what works (and what doesn’t) will change what our teachers are teaching and thus what our children are actually learning within a classroom. Standards and quality curricula could help in that process. But teaching trumps everything else.

Erin Johnson

Cal phrases the classic argument against book-lovers powerfully and persuasively—namely, the argument that love of learning is just one value among many, that any hierarchical ordering of human goods is elitist, privileging the preferences of the speaker. However, the view of education as practical preparation for life’s various labors is too easily appropriated by those who make money by employing responsible and hard-working adults whose lack of formal erudition thus guarantees a permanent underclass. And here’s some moralizing! Teachers of students whose socio-economic backgrounds presage this grim future have the social responsibility to expose their charges to different modes of living, to encourage questioning the world as it is, and to be frank with even young students about loftier ideas like justice and injustice (all while providing instruction in reading, writing, math, science, and so on). As a teacher at a school where every kid gets a free lunch (and breakfast), I’m not saying that this is easy. But this is the ideal.

The aim of a liberal education that book-lovers advocate is not, by an iniquitous process morally akin to cloning one’s pet poodle, a society of vegetarians who don’t watch television. Rather, the idea is to help kids become autonomous thinkers able to determine their own life-outcomes rather than have others determine it for them. This is possible for every child—if I didn’t believe this, I’d pass out Dick and Jane and sit at my desk playing Solitaire all day. What distinguishes literature from the sordid marriage of decodable texts and predictable comprehension questions is the former’s ability to spark deep discussion about the human situation that even reluctant readers want to take part in. My students are too young for Hamlet, but if I could, I’d teach it, because Hamlet’s one hell of a story. Murder, revenge, love, ghosts, the idea that life has no meaning—there’s a lot to talk about in that story. The most repugnant form of elitism comes in assuming that a great portion of the population doesn’t possess the faculty for an interesting conversation.

Geez, of all the things that people of all income level can appreciate and take advantage of: reading for pleasure AND learning. If my son is reading the news on his wii - I call that reading for pleasure. It's weird (he was the kid that wasn't supposed to learn to read) but obviously he likes it.

Everyone should learn to read for pleasure and for learning. Look at wikipedia - it is free (assuming you have internet connection or a library close by with free computer time).

As to the questions:
1. Why are corporatists getting involved in education? Because there was a vacuum to be filled. There seems to be a disconnect between ed perfessors, departments of ed/teachers standards & practices, school boards, and parents. Plus the schools are getting lousy results with high drop outs and a large number of poorly educated students. Oh and finger pointing: the teachers are bad! The parents don't help!

2. How can we talk again about schools that prepare students for tests and to be good, engaged citizens? The 64k question. I wish I knew the answer, not for money, but because we need to move on from taking pot shots at each other and horrible results from our schools. And, yes, the schools are there for equalizing. That means that the lower rung kids need to be brought up. So even though there are plenty of really smart kids that do well in the system, I measure by how many we have (to borrow a horrible phrase) "left behind."

As to replicating Dr. Meier: the problem is very different.

I think of it this way: each airplane flies in the skies due to well trained pilots, stewards, mechanics, etc. But they also fly well because of the many checklists and standardized procedures.

The education system lacks those. Someone needs to go into the CPESS and do a thorough research of the place which includes costs, area cost of living, SES stats, teacher education stats, parent & teacher belief stats, and a very detailed description of the curriculum. If it is not being replicated, it seems to me because it is not documented well enough.

Our country will do very nicely if almost everyone in the country can read. Reading books, with or without compulsion, is wholly inconsequential...

The country will also do just fine if the usual suspects are the only ones who "participate and enjoy" the arts. We don't need any more amateur violin players, thanks so much. We don't need more kids having "dance recital" on their college applications. It won't do a thing for our populace.

I've come to think that implicit in a lot of the "accountability" approach to school reform is the idea that public education is only about basic skills and a competent workforce -- and that the sort of education needed for thinking citizens and professional jobs can be left to private schools.

But I'm not sure I'd ever seen the limited goals for public education outlined quite so explicitly.

Somehow it seems fundamental to me that the type of education I want for my child -- and if push came to shove the kind of education I would pay many thousands of dollars a year to ensure that she got -- is the kind of education I would want to be available to any child.

[The issue that I raise is two-fold: One, how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics?]

When I read this question for the first time I thought it was aimed at a particular phenomenon that I find worrisome. The phenomenon is: Why is it that people from business, politics, law, Hollywood and so on are so easily captured by the progressive/constructivist ed cult? Names that come to mind are Gates, Bloomberg/Klein, mayor Daley and his myrmidons, Lucas...

I don't really know what the answer is other than to say that it requires a particular expertise (like having read a lot of articles and books by Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, for example) to resist the relentless siren songs from the cultists.

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