“Americans Didn’t Always Yearn for Riches”

January 17, 2013

Dear readers

I’ve noticed that even amongst my allies on school reform that tracking by so-called ability (test scores of some sort nowadays) is now back in fashion, and charter schools are another way to make it happen. The arguments for the practice, now conducted by essentially separating kids by test scores as early as possible, has probably never been more popular. In some ways it was our victory over earlier forms of tracking that led to using test scores, which are unbelievably sensitive to race, gender. social class and ethnicity/ When I arrived in NYC with three elementary grade children in 1966 I immediately enrolled them at PS 9 (in Manhattan’s west side). They were placed, by the school, ) in the top class in grades one, three and five–although no one tested them or asked for their prior school records. We fought the tracking system, and we made progress. In fact for a time even IQ test scores were forbidden, and since K-3 children weren’t yet tested heterogeneity won–mostly.

How one feels about that victory depends, in part, about what we want our children to learn and not to learn in school. Maybe it’s why I’m sympathetic to religious home-schoolers who fear that schools are harmful to their deepest values.

There is no way that schools can avoid having values–nor would I wish them to. What we’re facing is a values-clash. Tracking supporters (who often wish their children’s classes were racially more diverse) however put their children’s academic acceleration above their concerns about the lack of diversity. It even seems hard for many to imagine another stance. (In fact, I think children in heterogeneous classes probably do as well even on tested academic subjects as tracked peers. See Jeannie Oakes’ Keeping Track on this.)

How our youth spend most of their pre-18 year old lives–and with whom–cannot fail to influence them. I think we can all agree on this. Students in all-black classes cannot fail to notice the all-white class–and come to some conclusions. And vice-versa. The loss is intellectual as well as social. Certain topics are too easy to discuss without awareness of how much more difficult it would be in the class across the hall.

“Before Greed: Americans Didn’t Always Yearn for Riches,” by Richard White in the latest issue of Boston Review tells a story worth hearing that connects to the above in interesting ways. He argues that the conflict between ‘having enough” and “having the right to as much as you can get” has with us a long time, although he points to an important shift over the last few hundred years, a shift that took place especially in the 19th century. The “egalitarians” at the beginning felt sure that laissez faire and small government would “yield a society of largely equal white men,” while their opponents argued that “the price of liberty and progress was inequality.” Yet both sides at first saw great wealth as a danger to the Republic. In particular, a danger to the “kinds of men…rewarded.” John Quincey Adams’ grandson, said, “Business success–money getting,,,comes from a rather low instinct.” Unfortunately, both sides were focused on the qualities or manhood which they both believed strictly belonged to white men. “The best and worst of the country then and now, often come in a single package” concludes the author.

Is this a law of nature? Probably not. It depends on what gets entangled with what. And we are at such a juncture again today, where our views about the danger of inequality is entangled with views about whiteness and being native born. And problem about gender and social class too.

It’s our job to disentangle them, which will not be easy. It places the value of keeping company with “others” at the top of my agenda. It means that learning empathy cannot be divorced from how we live our lives. For me, one test is imagining the most important things I’d like to overhear others say about my children. Would having a gift for “money-getting” be one of those I yearned to hear?

White’s argument is more nuanced and subtle than I’ve summed it up, but I think it poses an essential question which we all must face as we contemplate reforming American education.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch.

After three weeks of living with the overwhelming smell of dead raccoon, tonight I go to bed relieved! The critter got himself stuck in the uncrawlable space underneath the den and kitchen–after destroying our heating ducts. It required removing portions of the kitchen and den floor and….hoping he (or she) was somewhere that the pest control man could reach. This victory over a raccoon feels good, although no doubt the other raccoons are celebrating the amount of time and money it cost me to undermine the work of one hungry raccoon. .

So, now I can catch up on the new year we’ve entered. I have a pile of clippings and articles next to me that I want to respond to. I’m also in the process of saying temporary goodbye to Pedro Noguerra–as my partner on Bridging Differences–for a new format of revolving partners. Alfie Kohn and I will team up for a month or so, followed by someone else, et al. We’ll focus on our differences! It should be fun.

Did I tell everyone that Matthew Knoester’s new book–Democratic Practice in Education (about Mission Hill) is now out, available to buy. It’s full of interesting accounts of nearly 15 years of our history by a onetime teacher at the school.

 

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Deborah Meier on Education

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Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier is a senior scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School, and Board member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, FairTest, SOS and Dissent and The Nation magazines. She is currently Acting Chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools and SOS.  She spent 45 years working in K-12th...