January 2009 Archives

Dear Diane, My head and heart are in a muddle—politically. I enjoyed your letter, Diane, and realized our mutual support for teachers’ unions may have something to do with the degree of our rapprochement. It’s not a coincidence that it was the late AFT leader Al Shanker who suggested you come visit Central Park East Secondary School. I’ve just been rereading our prior exchanges in Dissent magazine. They were tough. Some of those differences still exist, but in a softer form. As I noted in my response to some of our readers, the idea that there would...


Dear Deborah, We got some good comments from readers who went to the trouble of reading the U.S. Department of Education document on how to turn around chronically low-performing schools. They, too, thought it bizarre that the government would publish a set of recommendations for which there was admittedly no evidence. A few astutely pointed out that the gist of the recommendations was “fire the principal” and “fire the teachers.” Now there may be very extreme cases where it is wise to fire the school leader and bring in someone with a fresh perspective. There may be even more ...


Dear Diane, Given how patently absurd all these old-fangled reforms are, even if we accept the premises they define for success, how do we explain the staying power of this newly defined “reform?” It doesn’t take a super-genius to recognize that the four recommendations you site, Diane, on their behalf are nonsense. It may even be a conspiracy, but it surely appeals to people neither you nor I can imagine joining such a cabal. What is the attraction? I always suggest everyone start off by reading, and then rereading "The Way Things Were?" by Richard Rothstein. It provides a ...


Dear Deborah, You are undoubtedly right that what we have been calling "reform" is not producing better educated young people, but I don't think we can move on and forget about what is happening now. We have to keep talking about why current schemes don't work because so many politicians and journalists are convinced that they will work if we just keep plugging for another five or 10 years. If a journalist finds one school that seems to be doing incredibly well, that is considered an existence proof, demonstrating that every school can do incredibly well. The fact that almost ...


Dear Diane, Fair enough. The “idea” might even be good (downplaying college education and going straight for occupational education at 18), but getting from here to there is a puzzle to me, too, even if it were the right idea. Under far more egalitarian circumstances I can see how we might re-organize so that we put most of our hopes in K-12, plus lots of opportunities (like Elderhostels for less elderly people) for a widely available general education at all ages—more “school-like” settings where novices and experts gather to satisfy their curiosity. But continually flogging the old horse isn’t...


Dear Deborah, I acknowledge that I have been influenced in my thinking by my frequent exchanges with you. A friend warned me the other day that I have been giving aid and comfort to the anti-testing crowd, which he said was a terrible thing. I think he got it wrong. I am not (nor have I ever been) “anti-testing,” but I am surely more alert to the misuses and abuses of testing. To the extent that I have been sensitized to these things by you, then I thank you. However, I am not prepared to follow you to the next ...


Dear Diane, Happy New Year! I spent last Saturday going through years of “stuff” I’ve collected—letters, essays, reports, notes, etc. that will be going to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Eighty percent of it is school stuff. Several colleagues came over to help put together boxes and sort. It was hard going because we kept calling out—“oh, listen to this!”. I recall how confident I felt in the late 70s and 80s that we could “prove” a point: all kids could grapple with important abstract ideas—and love it. We succeeded. We made a dent:...


Editor's Note: Bridging Differences resumes today. Dear Deborah, Happy New Year to you and to our readers. 2009 is shaping up to be an important year for American education. We will soon have a new Secretary of Education, a new voice in charge of the nation's bully pulpit. There will be much for us to discuss and debate as the policies of the new administration are rolled out. I have read a great deal about Arne Duncan in the press, but still don't have a clear idea about where he stands on important questions and how tied he is to ...


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