Buyer Beware

February 24, 2012

Dear Diane,

Three days with the North Dakota Study Group restores my spirits every year. Some great speeches, small "works in progress" workshops, presentations by students, and just food and talk, talk, talk.

I read your blog this week while I was at the NDSG and passed it around. It's superb, and we should all tweet it to anyone we can think of—not just educators.

Not surprisingly, the folks at the NDSG claimed there was an ugly new mood of blaming the poor for their poverty and the unemployed for having done something wrong somewhere in the past. Probably due to bad public schools. (Plus those bad mothers.)

But there is also some renewed optimism that we might, just might, see a resurgence of energy for saving democracy. It's barely hanging in there. The advantages fall so heavily in favor of the 1 percent (or maybe the 1-5 percent) that it's hard to see how we can restore a healthy balance. In the absence of unions there is no counterweight—not in terms of money, but in terms of willing volunteers to man/woman opposition parties, causes, etc. Democracy rests on that.

Ditto re. civil liberties. And judicial decisions by our odd Supreme Court, more activist than it has been since ...? We have drones and contract workers fighting our wars now; and public libraries suffering from short hours and, in some cases, being closed for lack of money. Post Offices are next. And we're selling naming rights to our buildings, stadiums, and parks. What next?

We know that next is the acceptance of the fact that "public" schools don't belong to their "public." Maybe the money comes from the public, but not "ownership." I've been looking at the boards of some of the new charter chains and it just hits you between the eyes: They are composed of bankers, hedge-funders, corporate CEOs, and the heads of the foundations who also fund the reforms. I'm sitting here looking at the board of directors of Eve Moscowitz's Success Academy in Brooklyn. I believe I can say, with confidence, that none send their own kids to city public schools or live near the new school. They are chairs of investment firms of one sort or another!

An old business slogan—buyer beware—has become the mantra of the business community toward ... school teachers. Over and over we hear that children and teachers have opposing interests. We know that without enduring relationships between adults and children we cannot and won't have schools to which we would willingly send our kids. Even babysitters have to be trusted before we leave our children in their care, and no script for the evening is a safety net if we don't. What we know for sure is that babysitters are not interchangeable parts, nor are teachers or schools.

But we have set up a so-called "competitive" system based on test scores that control teachers' jobs and students' grades. We've accepted distrust as the norm, and then turned "control" over to those who have virtually NO STAKE in the outcome or whose only stake is the money they can skim off the top—for board honoraria, real estate deals, a say in contracts to builders, cleaners, publishers, et al.

And I note that The New York Times the other day called upon the charter folks to close more schools, just as they are closing non-charters. To be fair. Does anyone on the editorial board of the Times send their kids to schools which are opened and closed on a regular basis, with kids constantly moving from school to school, teacher to teacher. The evidence on this is unequivocal: School mobility is tough on kids.

Imagine the anxiety level of parents and students who discover, via the New York Times next week, that their teacher is on the low end of the new published ratings for last year's student test scores. Who gets the highly rated ones? Probably the very folks who get them now because on the whole it's the experienced senior teachers whose kids score better. (See a recent study reported on by Mike Klonsky's SmallTalk blog this week.)

A lady just called me on the phone to ask for a donation for Democracy in America. I laughed and added, "That's a great idea!" Indeed, as my favorite button says: "Well, at least the war on education is doing well."

So I am afraid.

I think the mayor of New York City, and Eli Broad, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), and the board of directors of Success Academy are perfectly happy about a future in which most teachers come and go every five or so years. Temps. Easier to manage and harder to organize. A few will rise to leadership positions after a few years of teaching—after getting MBAs?—and the rest of the leaders will come from other fields like law, business, and the military.

I'm not so worried about what this will do to math scores, Diane. I no longer have a reason to trust the data-collectors. What worries me is what it does to the mission of K-12 schooling. Building and sustaining a democratic culture and vision is mysterious, and as far as I can tell, sometimes it seems to happen just by good luck. It may not be antithetical to getting good test scores, but it's not the same thing. We're not born democrats. It's even possibly an "unnatural" human invention. So where is it—if not in schools—that we imagine the habits of intellect to sustain democracy might develop, not to mention the habits of heart and the social experience that make it seem do-able, as well as sensible? This includes experiencing what trust feels and looks like—and why it's so important to democracy. Meanwhile: Beware what they are selling us.

Deb

P.S. How did my family get possession of the Diego Rivera centerpiece mural? It's a good story, and I'll pass it on next week, along with an account of my visit to the Lab School where President Obama and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent their kids, and—I believe—where Arne Duncan himself went. 

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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...