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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 09/15/2010

Meier: Trust and skepticism in public schools

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is educator and author Deborah Meier, founding principal of Mission Hill School in Boston and a renowned education reformer. Her latest book, written with Brenda Engel & Beth Taylor) is "Playing for keeps: Life and learning on a public school playground." She also co-authors a blog called "Bridging Differences" with Diane Ravitch.

By Deborah Meier
You can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time,” was my mother’s answer to disappointing election result. Family lore also reminded me that even though all my classmates and neighbors were voting for Alf Landon (in 1936), and all the newspapers were anti-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR won handily. “Everyone” is often a skewed sample.

This rosy view was confirmed this morning by the news that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the media-darling and heroine of all the major foundations and hedge-funders, lost handily—by way of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat in Washington D.C.’s Democratic primary.

That’s a slim reed to buoy my hopes, but I’m always prepared to accept every glimmer. The proper proportions of trust and skepticism that democracy rests on is not an easy balance to maintain. The only institution that might foster it—our schools—have never lived up to, or even accepted, such a task. They are probably further from doing so these days than ever.

Of course, I have to be wary of whether I’m merely claiming that democracy is a failure whenever it doesn’t favor my ideas. But I think I’m arguing on sound grounds when I claim that when the majority of the members of the major party in opposition believes the president of their country is lying to them about where he was born and what his religion is, that’s serious stuff. It so unbalances the trust/skepticism balance that political dialogue is hard to carry on. Still, I ask myself, am I too tolerant of similar nonsense on my side of the political debate (e.g. that the 9/11 event was a plot by the American Right?)

Given that democracy rests on education, and the only institutions we have for “teaching” democratic habits of mind are our public schools, am I asking too much of them?

Can any institution of ordinary human beings be “fair” to all sides, and thus teach the habits of “fairness”? Is there a way to teach young people to look at controversy with high regard for facts—while also teaching them to be skeptical of the claim to speak on behalf of “truth”?

Can we teach the habit of assuming (pretending) to trust each other’s stated intentions enough to listen carefully and learn from each other if the only thing that counts is filling in the right box—either a,b,c, or d?

Probably yes and no. It will never work perfectly, and both Right and Left and in-between will try to get in the last word, or give their side an extra advantage. And teachers and local school boards and state legislatures will do so whenever we trust them to set educational policy. I take that for granted.

But I accept this because I also know that no good education can take place in our schools without doing our best to foster such trust and openness to hear unpopular views—or just the “other side”—whether it be about ancient history, the history of scientific ideas, works of literature, political science, and even math.

In math, for example, there’s a need for “proofs” before we can declare victory. Given that math is a humanly designed system, “proof” is a wee bit easier to arrive at than it is in science.

But if we don’t allow for mistakes, and provide time for those who have arrived at the “wrong” answer to defend their claims, we won’t be teaching math well.

At both Mission Hill and Central Park East Secondary School, (two successful urban public schools) we graduated our students only after they successfully defended their work before a committee that consisted of both friends and expert strangers. I hope we would have accepted an argument for or against our accepted ideas as vigorously as we challenged theirs.

But, then again, suppose local citizens don’t want schools that stress “independent” or “critical” thinking, or at least not until they are “old enough”? Should the majority rule, and the minority accept such schooling for their children until they can become a majority? It depends on the kind of disagreement.

I’m for choice. I believe that while there’s a strong preference for one’s neighborhood school, which operates on the basis of a local school board’s oversight , such schools cannot help but reflect some local biases. The Constitution--as interpreted by Supreme Court--forbids religious teaching and segregation, etc; and states have other laws that supercede locazl boards.

Yet for some the education of their children is not something on which they will compromise. There are risks in publicly subsidized choices that we will increase polarization. But my experience suggests the risk is even greater when we place children in the hands of adults we distrust; adults, in fact, that we distrust so much that we accept as a “compromise” a national “script”, with a standardized test to publicly rank teachers, students and schools on compliance.

We need a great conversation around what we actually—deep in our hearts—mean by being “well-educated”. Before we cast a vote at 18, what civic habits should we be able to demonstrate, and who decides if they are sufficient to sustaining democracy. It starts in kindergarten. When I insist that 5 year olds accept the fact that rocks are “non-living” (because I say so) am I helping or hurting democracy?

Does that rule out the role of schools in preparing one for the job market? Hardly, because we cannot sustain democracy if vast numbers of our citizens notice that , to quote Victor Hugo more than a century ago, the rich and poor have an equal right, “to sleep under the bridges” of Paris. Or even to vote. Money—earned or inherited-- is a form of power that often trumps our individual right to be heard. But schools that insist on the right to hear and be heard could develop habits and skills that can better overcome the financial inequities at the voting place.

Still schools are not the only intellectual influence on our young and using them well means trying to insure that they offer a more level playing field than they do now (e.g. we need to outspend for the poor to help match what the rich spend privately), and we need sources of public information that we can trust better than the ideologically skewed sources we too often count on today.

Here I am preaching “trust” and also pushing “skepticism”, when it comes to the so-called data that we now rest schooling decisions on—test scores, drop-out and graduation rates, attendance data, etc. That’s another story.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 15, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Deborah Meier, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  adrian fenty, deb meier, deborah meier, michelle rhee, school reform  
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We need a great conversation around what we actually—deep in our hearts—mean by being “well-educated”.

So many thoughtful points here, but I'd like to respond to the one above:

I think is a very serious issue because, among other things, there is something of a back-lash against things 'intellectual', and there has been for a long time; we have seen it in the inner city culture where it's 'not cool' to be a serious student, and we see it when people in the trades are not treated with respect and I think some of that has to do with the tea-party any of them care if Sarah Palin has a serious paucity of education when it comes to knowing history and how other societies function?

Another aspect of what do we mean by being
'well-educated' is HOW we as a society are being educated. Much of the education children are receiving is, sadly, from the media, and not a particularly conscientious media overall. I've thought for some time now that students need discussion built into the classroom on how to discern truths/untruths as presented on television, i.e. are there really as many horrific murders going on as represented by the many police/investigation shows? Do most teenagers feel they are ready for the
intense and often sexual relationships depicted on television? The use of sex in advertising to promote values, etc. etc. etc.

Personally, I was very fortunate in my education because my parents had a broad-based education through college, travel, living in other cultures and had open minds. While my brothers and I went to public schools, my parents supplemented our educations with music lessons, trips to museums, entertaining other people in our homes and traveling. We had very little television guiding our lives because we lived on military bases in Europe at a time when there was no American TV.

We all need our dreams, but the promotion of harmful fantasies that permeate American culture is a difficult thing to defend our children against.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 15, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Read this and weep US taxpayers, parents, and students. This is the voice of the far, far left progressive movement about to capture your schools.

Led by the likes of the Deborah Meiers of the educational establishment your children will soon be able to "graduate" by way of submitting a project, an essay, a report, a portfolio, a diorama, etc. No need for tests of any kind in the future. Of course no one will ever be able figure out who did these works and therefore the whole process will be a joke, but fear not; at least these kids will be able to feel good about themselves. That's the important thing in educating our students - isn't it? That everyone feels good? It's kind of like equating our schools to everyone (students) being on a TBall team, where no one keeps score, everyone is declared a winner, and in the end everyone gets a trophy. That's where US schools are headed under this kind of mindset.

It's no surprise then that Deborah abhors the likes of the Michelle Rhee's of the world. Rhee is far too objective and too pro-accountability for the likes of experts such as Ms Meier.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 15, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

"2010 DCPS
Test Scores DECLINE"

see news article, DCist website: => ========================

Look at the data, rather than the
24-7 mega-media hype manipulated,
funded & produced by the Hedge Fund boyz,
Kaplan Testing corporation,
Online learning corporations,
the edu-profiteers/financiers clique
& their incompetent spokesmodel rabid Rhee
(with her ludicrous lack of proven teaching or administrative experience, her lack of academic certification to be a superintendent, her lack of reasonable supervisory procedures, her lack of managerial skills, her lack of teambuilding to implement goals, her lack of community development to facilitate progress, her lack of professional tact, her lack of essential communication insight, and her abysmal lack of common sense.


Posted by: honestaction | September 21, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

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