Saturday, March 20, 2010

Debate: Will standards save public education?

I recently read Deborah Meier's Will Standards Save Public Education?  The book is a "New Democracy Forum" debate produced by the fantastic Boston Review (

It includes contributions by Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, Ted Sizer, Gary Nash, Linda Nathan, Abigail Thernstrom, Richard Murnane, William Ayers, and Bob Chase (former NEA President). The book was published in 2000, but it is more relevant than ever because of the Obama administration's push for national standards, the recent release of the Common Core standards in reading and math that are likely to serve as the basis of these standards, and the ongoing debate about the future of No Child Left Behind, a piece of standards-and-accountability legislation that has transformed the educational landscape in ways positive and negative, expected and unexpected.

Here are excerpts from a few of the essays to give you a sense of the debate:

From Jonathan Kozol, "Foreword":

Education writing, as John Holt observed when he and I were teaching high school English in the summer at the Urban School in Boston more than thirty years ago, is frequently a way of speaking indirectly of our own biographies and longings and unveiling our own souls. In speaking of "the aims of education" for a city or a nation, even for a neighborhood, we draw to some degree on who we are, and what we like (or don't like) in ourselves, and what we wish we might have been.

So when I listen to debates on education - whether about standards, pedagogic styles, or objectives, or "assessments," or whatever else - I listen first to voices. Before I pay attention to ideas, I want to gain some sense of character and value - lived experience - within the person who is telling us what he or she believes is best for children.

I do think...that there's such a thing as "bad" and "good" and "better" when it comes to books for children or to any other facet of our cultural endowment. ...So the question, for me, isn't if we ought to have some "standards" in our children's education. It is, rather, how and where they are determined, and by whom, and how we treat or penalize (or threaten, or abuse) the child or the teacher who won't swallow them.
Many of the teachers that I know in the South Bronx could teach in universities but choose to teach in elementary schools because they love the personalities of children and they also have a moral vision of a good society and want to do their part in bringing incremental bits of justice to an unjust city and an unjust world. They come with all the treasures they have gleaned from their own education. They want to share these treasures with the children, but they also want to find the treasures that exist already in those children, and they know they cannot do this if they're forced to march the kids in lockstep to the next "objective," or, God help us, the next "benchmark," so that they'll be ready - and God help us, please, a little more - to pass the next examination.

They worry about scripted journeys where there is no room for whimsical discoveries and unexpected learnings. They worry about outcomes that are stated in advance. ...These are teachers who have standards; but their standards may resemble those of Thomas Merton, or Thoreau, or Toni Morrison, more than of a market analyst or business CEO. The best teachers of little kids I know are poets in their personalities: they love the unpredictable. ...If we force them to be little more than the obedient floor managers for industry, they won't remain in public schools. The price will be too high. The poetry will have been turned into prose: the worst kind too, the prose of experts who know every single thing there is to know except their own destructiveness.

In this way, we'll lose the teachers who come to the world of childhood with ministries of love and, in their place, we'll get technicians of proficiency.

So the question, again, is not if we "need" standards in our schools but with what sensibilities we navigate between the two extremes of regimented learning with destructive overtones, on one hand, and pedagogic aimlessness and fatuous romanticism on the other. Somewhere between the world of Dickens's Gradgrind and John Silber and the world of pedagogic anarchy, there is a place of sanity where education is intense and substantive, and realistically competitive in a competitive society, but still respectful of the infinite variety of valued learnings and the limitless varieties of wisdom in the hearts of those who come to us as students.

From Deborah Meier, "Educating a Democracy":

Even in the hands of sincere allies of children, equity, and public education, the current push for far greater standardization than we’ve ever previously attempted is fundamentally misguided. It will not help to develop young minds, contribute to a robust democratic life, or aid the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. By shifting the locus of authority to outside bodies, it undermines the capacity of schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that schools in a democracy should be fostering in kids–responsibility for one’s own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences. Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment. It thus decreases the chances that young people will grow up in the midst of adults who are making hard decisions and exercising mature judgment in the face of disagreements. And it squeezes out those schools and educators that seek to show alternate possibilities, to explore other paths.
Standards-based reform systems vary enormously in their details. But they are generally organized around a set of four interconnected mechanisms: first, an official document (sometimes called a framework) designed by experts in various fields that describes what kids should know and be able to do at given grade levels in different subjects; second, classroom curricula–commercial textbooks and scripted programs–that are expected to convey that agreed-upon knowledge; third, a set of assessment tools (tests) to measure whether children have achieved the goals specified in the framework; and fourth, a scheme of rewards and penalties directed at schools and school systems, but ultimately at individual kids, who fail to meet the standards as measured by the tests. Cut-off points are set at various politically feasible points–in some states they are pegged so that nearly 90 percent of the students fail whereas others fail less than 10 percent. School administrators (and possibly teachers) are fired if schools fail to reach particular goals after a given period of time, and kids are held back in grade, sent to summer school, and finally refused diplomas if they don’t meet the cut-off scores.
The idea that schools are a disaster, and that fixing them fast is vital to our economy, has become something of a truism. It remains the excuse for all reform efforts, and for carrying them out on the scale and pace proposed.

Educators from the Progressive tradition are often accused of "experimenting" on kids. But never in the history of the nation have Progressives proposed an experiment so drastic, vast, and potentially serious in its real-life impact on millions of young people. If the consequences are other than those its supporters hope for, the harm to the nation’s educational system and the youngsters involved–maybe even to our economy–will be large and hard to undo.

Virtually all discussions–right or left–about what’s wrong in our otherwise successful society acknowledge the absence of a sense of responsibility for one’s community and of decency in personal relationships. An important cause of this subtler crisis, I submit, is that the closer our youth come to adulthood the less they belong to communities that include responsible adults, and the more stuck they are in peer-only subcultures. We’ve created two parallel cultures, and it’s no wonder the ones on the grown-up side are feeling angry at the way the ones on the other side live and act: apparently foot-loose and fancy-free but in truth often lost, confused, and knit-together for temporary self-protection. The consequences are critical for all our youngsters, but obviously more severe–often disastrous–for those less identified with the larger culture of success.

Many changes in our society aided and abetted the shifts that have produced this alienation. But one important change has been in the nature of schooling. Our schools have grown too distant, too big, too standardized, too uniform, too divorced from their communities, too alienating of young from old and old from young. Few youngsters and few teachers have an opportunity to know each other by more than name (if that); and schools are organized so as to make "knowing each other" nearly impossible. In such settings it’s hard to teach young people how to be responsible to others, or to concern themselves with their community. At best they develop loyalties to the members of their immediate circle of friends (and perhaps their own nuclear family). Even when they take on teen jobs their fellow workers and their customers are likely to be peers. Apprenticeship as a way to learn to be an adult is disappearing. The public and its schools, the "real" world and the schoolhouse, young people and adults have become disconnected, and until they are reconnected no list of particular bits of knowledge will be of much use.
As I write, Miami and Los Angeles are in the process of building the two largest high schools ever. The largest districts and the largest and most anonymous schools are again those that serve our least advantaged children.
Because of the disconnection between the public and its schools, the power to protect or support them now lies increasingly in the hands of public or private bodies that have no immediate stake in the daily life of the students. CEOs, federal and state legislators, university experts, presidential think tanks make more and more of the daily decisions about schools. For example, the details of the school day and year are determined by state legislators–often down to minutes per day for each subject taught, and whether to promote Johnny from third to fourth grade. The school’s budget depends on it.
In a democracy, there are multiple, legitimate definitions of "a good education" and "well-educated," and it is desirable to acknowledge that plurality. Openly differing viewpoints constitute a healthy tension in a democratic, pluralistic society. Even where a mainstream view exists, alternate views that challenge the consensus are critical to the society’s health. Young people need to be exposed to competing views, and to adults debating choices about what’s most important.
Standardized tests are too simple and simple-minded for high stakes assessment of children and schools. Important decisions regarding kids and teachers should always be based on multiple sources of evidence that seem appropriate and credible to those most concerned.
A more fair distribution of resources is the principal means for achieving educational equity. The primary national responsibility is to narrow the resource gap between the most and least advantaged, both between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and during the other five-sixths of their waking lives, when rich and poor students are also learning–but very different things. To this end publicly accessible comparisons of educational achievement should always include information regarding the relative resources that the families of students, schools, and communities bring to the schooling enterprise.
The schools I have worked in and support have shown how much more powerful accountability becomes when one takes this latter path. The work produced by Central Park East students, for example, is collected regularly in portfolios; it is examined (and in the case of high school students, judged) by tough internal and external reviewers, in a process that closely resembles a doctoral dissertation oral exam. The standards by which a student is judged are easily accessible to families, clear to kids, and capable of being judged by other parties.
The intellectual demands of the 21st century, as well as the demands of democratic life, are best met by preserving plural definitions of a good education, local decision-making, and respect for ordinary human judgments.

From Abigail Thernstrom, "No Excuses":

Deborah Meier suggests the definition of "well-educated" is up for grabs, that there is no consensus on what an 18-year-old should know. Does she really want to argue about the worth of learning geometry or the importance of understanding why we fought a Civil War? And how about a nine-year-old? Would she label the insistence that kids read abhorrent "standardization"? Should the state remain unconcerned when a child does badly on a third-grade assessment? No one is talking about punishment; the point is to provide help. And to do so before the child begins to slip further and further behind, becomes discouraged, and tunes out.
In setting academic standards, should we trust everyone involved in every school, including the children themselves? Unencumbered by the road map that the state provides, will they magically all decide to drive in a good educational direction?
Meier sees standards as a threat to individuality. But the highly educated are the most radical individuals of all in American society–just cast an eye over the Harvard faculty. The educational system in France could hardly be more centralized, but the French don’t look like lemmings to me. Knowledge is liberating, not confining. And you can’t embark on an intellectual adventure–say, exploring the still unanswered questions about World War II–unless you have a solid grounding in European history, the immediate German context, and the chronology of the conflict. Yes, learning requires digesting, even memorizing, some basic knowledge. But that knowledge, once acquired, becomes the spring board from which the imaginative individual takes off.
How do our new academic standards stop the creation of smaller, more nurturing schools that are tied to the local neighborhood? And how do they threaten the fabric of American democratic life? ...Thriving democracies require educated citizens.

From Bob Chase, "Making a Difference":

Public school is–or should be–the place where hope becomes capacity. A student with a high school diploma should be able to go directly into the world of work, and participate fully in his or her job and community. And the high school graduate who goes on to college, as a majority now do, should be capable of doing college-level work without any remedial education. These two goals should be the foundation of any effort to formulate new standards.

Our schools should be making it possible for students to exceed the income and educational limitations of their class and family. That has always been one of the highest and noblest ambitions of public education in our democracy. And that’s certainly what public education did for me. Now the great challenge is for the schools to make a real difference in every child’s life.

From Gary Nash, "Expert Opinion":

Meier believes in local control and local empowerment. So do I–to a degree. But the United States also has a long history of vicious and retrograde local school boards. Meier’s position awkwardly places her in company with many figures on the religious right who aim to control local school boards in order to banish evolution in science classrooms, scrap critical thinking, circumscribe world history, and re-institute prayer in the schools. Local control cuts both ways–for progressive or retrograde education.

From Linda Nathan, "Habits of Mind":

I am not interested in schools that take the most important decisions about learning out of the hands of those closest to the learners–the teachers. When the state gets in the business of giving schools endless laundry lists that must be taught, we lose our ability to teach well.

From Richard J. Murnane, "The Case for Standards":

Contrary to Deborah Meier’s view, I believe that standards-based educational reforms have significant promise for improving the quality of American public education. Moreover, I believe that they are critical to reducing educational inequalities that have left many American families with insufficient earnings to support their children.

I want to make clear that I have enormous respect for Meier as an educator. Central Park East, which she started, is a remarkable school. I also agree with many of Meier’s criticisms of current versions of standards-based reforms. Yet I see America’s children better served by making standards-based reforms work than by scrapping the concept.

The disappointing results of traditional school finance reforms led states to design initiatives in standards-based educational reforms, the goal of which was to focus on students’ achievement rather than on simply providing money to local communities for education.
Meier believes that the problems with current versions of standards-based reforms are so severe that the concept should be scrapped. I reach a different conclusion because I see that the enormous inequality in American education has been largely a legacy of local control. Significant increases in state education funding implemented through grants that left local control unhampered have reduced this inequality only modestly. I also see a number of states–including Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas–learning as they gain experience with standards-based reforms. For example, over the past decade Kentucky has reworked student learning goals and the methods used to assess students’ skills. It has also moderated the consequences associated with low test scores and improved its professional development strategies. The net effect has been significant increases in student achievement.
Given the dire consequences of educational inequalities, the failure of traditional school financing reforms to reduce these inequalities, and the cautious progress of standards-based reforms in some states, I believe that persevering with standards-based reforms makes sense. I propose two complementary tests that standards-based reforms should pass. The first is that the accountability system make it impossible for schools to continue to provide low-quality instruction to children from low-income families and minority groups. The second is that the accountability system not prevent distinguished educators such as Meier from creating and sustaining schools that provide a remarkably good education.

From William Ayers, "The Standards Fraud":

The goals of school reform are simple to state but excruciatingly difficult to enact: to provide every child with an experience that will nourish and challenge development, extend capacity, encourage growth, and offer the tools and dispositions necessary for full participation in the human community. Hannah Arendt once argued, "Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable ... and where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world." That’s a lot–much of it dynamic and ever-changing, much of it intricately interdependent. Yet it is what we seek, the ideal of education in a democracy. Today, there is no more insistent or more attractive distraction from that ideal than the "standards movement" that Deborah Meier takes on in her essay.
The "standards movement" is flailing at shadows. All schools in Illinois, for example, follow the same guidelines–these standards apply to successful schools as well as collapsing ones. These written, stated standards have been in place for decades. And yet Illinois in effect has created two parallel systems–one privileged, adequate, successful, and largely white, the other disadvantaged in countless ways, disabled, starving, failing, and African-American. Some schools succeed brilliantly while others stumble and fall.
The American school crisis is neither natural nor uniform, but particular and selective–it is a crisis of the poor, of the cities, of Latino and African-American communities. All the structures of privilege and oppression apparent in the larger society are mirrored in our schools. Chicago public school students, for example, are overwhelmingly children of color and children of the poor. More than half of the poorest children in Illinois (and over two-thirds of the bilingual children) attend Chicago schools. And yet Chicago schools must struggle to educate children with considerably fewer human and material resources than neighboring districts. For example, Chicago has 52 licensed physics teachers in the whole city, and a physics lab in only one high school. What standard does that represent?

In the last two years, 50,000 kids attended summer school in Chicago in the name of standards. Tens of thousands were held back a grade. It is impossible to argue that they should have been passed along routinely–that has been the cynical response for years. But failing that huge group without seriously addressing the ways school has failed them–that is, without changing the structures and cultures of those schools–is to punish those kids for the mistakes and errors of all of us. Further, the vaunted standard turns out to be nothing more than a single standardized test–a relatively simple minded gate designed so that half of those who take it must not succeed.

The purpose of education in a democracy is to break down barriers, to overcome obstacles, to open doors, minds, and possibilities. Education is empowering and enabling; it points to strength, to critical capacity, to thoughtfulness and expanding capabilities. It aims at something deeper and richer than simply imbibing and accepting existing codes and conventions, acceding to whatever is before us. The larger goal of education is to assist people in seeing the world through their own eyes, interpreting and analyzing through their own experiences and thinking, feeling themselves capable of representing, manifesting, or even, if they choose, transforming all that is before them. Education, then, is linked to freedom, to the ability to see and also to alter, to understand and also to reinvent, to know and also to change to world as we find it. Can we imagine this at the core of all schools, even poor city schools?

If city school systems are to be retooled, streamlined, and made workable, and city schools are to become palaces of learning for all children (and why shouldn’t they be?), then we must fight for a comprehensive program of change. Educational resources must be distributed fairly. Justice–the notion that all children deserve a decent life, and that those in the greatest need deserve the greatest support–must be our guide. There is no single solution to the obstacles we face. But a good start is to ask what each of us wants for our own children. What are our standards? I want a teacher in the classroom who is thoughtful and caring–not a mindless clerk or de-skilled bureaucrat–a person of substance, depth, and compassion. I want my child to be seen, understood, challenged, and nourished. I want to be able to participate in the community, to have some voice and choice in the questions the school faces.

From Theodore Sizer, "A Sense of Place":

Virtually all American parents want their children "schooled"–that is, to be given the tools and attitudes necessary to flourish into adulthood. Beyond the obvious matters of literacy, numeracy, and fundamental understandings of civics, thoughtful and decent people can disagree, especially about the secondary school curriculum. For example, some will insist that each of their children master calculus. Others will not, arguing that calculus is important for only a small minority of adults. Some will want their children immersed early in controversial texts, ones which (these parents believe) may help ready them for shocks that reality will deal them in but a few years. Other parents may want to protect their children as long as possible from any sort of shock. Still others will seek some middle ground. Some parents will want their children exposed to the ideas of Charles Darwin and to the evidence of the validity of his ideas. Others will not. The list is almost endless. Given that these matters are only partly of science and as much of the heart, single answers to such questions are never universally acceptable. As a result, every parent–whatever my income and educational level–wants a substantial say about these issues. The ideas to which my child is exposed are important. My right to control many, if not all of these ideas, deserves to be a fundamental American freedom.

Arrogation of this right by central governments is an abridgment of freedom. The myriad, detailed and mandated state "curriculum frameworks," of whatever scholarly brilliance, are attacks on intellectual freedom. "High stakes" tests arising from these curricula compound the felony. Yes, the community has the right to impose some common values, ones that make our freedom a practical reality. And, yes, the community must expect civility and a readiness to compromise when compromise is essential. That said, it is the apparent readiness of contemporary government to reach beyond this that signals government’s failure to respect and trust its own people. Without such trust, there can be no democracy.

As Meier tells us, freedom is messy. The disagreements over important ideas cause tensions; but such tensions, and the willingness to confront and work through them, lie at the heart of democracy. Meier goes even further: the students’ observation of how adults come to collective understanding in the face of those disagreements is itself a powerful and worthy lesson.

Simply, the detailed contours of culture–and, willy nilly, schools are crucibles of culture–are too important to be given to central authorities unilaterally to define and then to impose. Yes, there must be compromises between what I want and what the community wants. However, I personally want to be a party to the definition of those compromises. Yes, there is the matter of empirical evidence: I cannot simply walk away from such evidence when it suits my prejudices. However, I expect that government will never assume that it always knows best.

I know that we all cannot agree all the time. Save at the obvious margins, why should we? Variety is no sin. For my children I would like a choice among schools that play out the necessary compromises between the values of the state and those to which I am thoughtfully committed. From among these I can elect a school which reflects my deepest and fairest sense of the culture in which I wish my child to grow up.

This sort of parental authority and choice is well established for wealthy American families. By choosing to live in a culturally congenial district or selecting a private school, they can buy whatever education seems best to them. If such choices make sense for rich folks–and rich folks will fight hard to protect their right to choose their children’s schools–why not make them available to everybody? Intellectual freedom doesn’t stop at the door of a bank. Intellectual freedom is what characterizes a confident, mature democracy. Intellectual freedom reflects the trust of government in the ultimate wisdom of its people.

Deborah Meier is unusual in that she has designed and led both elementary and secondary public schools. Each is a "place," and each fiercely protects its own boundaries. All are schools of choice. All are small, self-conscious communities. All expect to be alliances of teachers, children, parents and their relevant neighborhoods. All are places where the necessarily endless confrontation of important ideas about which people may disagree proceeds in a respectful way; they are places where relationships are as important as abstractions. All have sophisticated notions of what intellectual excellence is and therefore how it might be represented. All aim ultimately at "enduring and worthy habits of mind," at what sort of thinking adults these young people may become, at how they think and act when no one is looking. To the limit of their school systems’ regulation, all connect their students with the world beyond them. All are intensely demanding, of everyone involved.
Perhaps, with all good intentions, we Americans infantilize our older teenagers by holding them to the same sorts of routines and standards as those younger. The policy hammerlock on the definitions of the substance of a high school education deplored by Meier needs to be broken. But perhaps also we need a fundamental redefinition of the obligations a growing adolescent must accept for himself and for the community of which he is a part, and then of what structures will help him reach of those obligations. Most adolescents are eager to take responsibility. They deserve our imaginative effort to give them the opportunity to express it in constructive ways, ones that help them build principled and informed minds.

Simply, it may be not enough only to refine what is best for high schools. It may be better to redefine what is best for the learning of our older children.

Such a prospect is miles away from the school world implied by the proceedings at the recent education "summit." The assumptions there were familiar, predictable and represented devices used with limited success for fifty years. Something bolder, more democratic and more reflective of the realities of growing up in a modern, information-rich society is badly needed. Deborah Meier has started us down that important road.

From Deborah Meier, "Deborah Meier Responds":

I recently came across a speech by Joseph Priestley given on the dedication of New College, in London, in 1794:

"Whatever be the qualifications of your tutors, your improvement must chiefly depend on yourselves. They cannot think or labour for you, they can only put you in the best way of thinking and labouring for yourselves. If therefore you get knowledge you must acquire it by your own industry. You must form all conclusions and all maxims for yourselves, from premises and data collected and considered by yourself. And it is the great object of this institution to remove every bias the mind may be under, and to give the greatest scope for true freedom of thinking and equity."

If becoming an educated person depends, as Priestley says, upon one’s own industry, how best can we engage the industry of youngsters and their communities, in their own behalf? This question lies at the heart of democratic society–even more than in Priestley’s time. Priestley could dismiss the laggards as unfit for a good education. We cannot.

But what should we do? Should we rely on efficiency, prescription, and compliance as a means for meeting Priestley’s challenge?

I believe that we have hard evidence that the best reform strategy involves reinventing schools on the model of the small, locally grounded schools I know best. The last thing we need is more of the centralization and standardization that has always dominated schools (and classrooms) serving the poor. That has been part of the problem.
(Abigail Thernstrom believes) that the tests–even some of the sillier ones Massachusetts has adopted–measure the only important qualities of a well-educated person, and that they must be imposed at all costs. That my New York students’ subsequent life histories are not indicated by their SAT scores, which were never much affected by the school’s work–despite Kaplan-sponsored test coaching–doesn’t puzzle her. She’s stuck on measuring merit by one, and only one, criteria even when the evidence tells her otherwise. As though the purpose of schools were test scores based on schooling, not life scores based on living.
What if indicators that are far more significantly correlated to later college and life success for low-income and African-American youngsters are no longer counted, and reforms guided by them die out? For example, while going to a small school correlates with later success in school, it does not substantially raise test scores. Other indicators turn out to be more attainable and equally powerful: perseverance, high attendance, strong relationships with adults outside the family, and participation in extra-curricular and service-learning experiences. Smallness also correlates with school safety and a greater sense of personal efficacy. How sad if we lose track of these in our relentless pursuit of test scores.
Ted Sizer, above all people, helped me to see the value of not agreeing on a single definition of a good school. In fact, close as our views so often are, we didn’t design the same secondary school when we had the chance. And our graduating standards are not duplicates of each other. We probably didn’t choose to send our kids to the same schools, and we did not ourselves attend schools with the same "standards"–"save at the obvious margins." Figuring out those "obvious margins" is a heady task, and one we ought to be engaged in–instead of developing ever longer laundry lists of what every eight-, ten-, fourteen- and eighteen-year-old should know and be tested on–or off with her head.
I agree with Sizer that "990 minutes of delivered instruction" is just a drop in the bucket. What has always amazed me is how powerful that drop can be–if we use our hearts and minds. But, as Priestley would have noted, you can’t force hearts and minds. They must labor on their own behalves. My concern about standardization and high-stakes testing stems precisely from my conviction that what makes some schools overcome the limitations of time is the power of the relationships that are developed inside them: among members of the faculty, between young people and adults, and finally among young people. Only a very powerful faculty can build those enduring and rigorous relationships with the young; only a faculty that also accepts responsibility for developing its own standards will be tough enough to police its own kids and its own colleagues. Schools that do less cannot offer enough to overcome the odds facing too many youngsters.

You can purchase a copy of Will Standards Save Public Education? here.