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May 26, 2006

Meier and Ravitch show the way

Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch have an article in Education Week entitled "Bridging Differences." Meier is a hero for many progressive educators; her small schools in East Harlem are democratic communities that give significant voice to students and faculty in developing their own curricula. Ravitch, in addition to being an excellent historian of education, is a prominent proponent of a national core curriculum backed with exams.

The two distinguished women were supposed to debate No Child Left Behind, but instead they had a long and personal conversation that generated a tremendously insightful article, written in the first-person plural. Their human connection--their mutual sense of respect and trust--is tangible. They write movingly near the end of their article:

As the lunch ended, Diane said to Deborah, 'I would be glad to see my grandchildren attend a school that you led.' Our macro-level differences do not interfere with our mutual respect for each other's work. That itself is something we hope our schools can help teach young people.

They disagree about much and candidly explore their disagreements, which mostly concern matters of educational policy, such as whether to use NAEP scores for assessment. Their agreements about the political situation are striking. Specifically:

1. They agree that all well-intentioned reform ideas become bastardized because of the way public institutions are run today. "As we talked, we found ourselves deeply frustrated, even angry, as we realized that the so-called reforms of the day are too often a perverse distortion--one might say an 'evil twin'--of the different ideas that each of us has advocated." Small schools (which Meier advocates) become places "to park some difficult dissidents to quiet them while other schools are brought into compliance." Mandatory curricula (which Ravitch favors) are watered down and filled with foolish content.

2. They agree that part of the reason for bad governance is a lack of citizen-based, independent institutions in which matters of value can be debated and diverse people can find positive roles and build countervailing power:

Almost all the usual intervening mediators--parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations--have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style "reform." All the city's major universities, foundations, and business elites are joined together as cheerleaders, if not actual participants, offering no support or encouragement to watchdogs and dissidents. This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, "apolitical" scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

I read "apolitical" to mean: driven by experts, free of overt debate about values, technical and difficult to grasp, conducted in private, and closed to citizens. Ravitch wants a national debate about what is essential to learn, culminating in the design of public standards. That's a political process at a large scale (although she would leave lots of room for teachers to make other decisions). Meier wants a robust debate within each school about what is most important. That's also politics, but at a decentralized level. Neither one wants consultants, pyschometricians, and managers hired from corporations to make critical decisions without public debate and involvement.

3. They emphasize the civic mission of schools, partly because they believe we need a robust civil society to prevent the poor governance that we observe in today's large school systems. A precondition for civil society is democratic education:

During our animated conversation, we agreed that a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education--its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires--must be openly debated and continuously re-examined. Young people need to see themselves as novice members of a serious, intellectually purposeful community. We think that it would be healthy if students listened to and participated in such discussions, and came to understand the purposes for their schooling beyond the need to acquire more certificates.

4. They share an ideal of the teacher as a professional. She should be trusted to make important judgments about values and techniques based on her experience and her relationships with her own students, while being held accountable. They see all major current educational reforms as hostile to such professionalism.

5. They believe that a respectful dialogue among people with divergent views is both possible (as they demonstrate in the article) and essential to progress on education.

By criticizing "apolitical" reform efforts and modeling a mutually respectful dialogue about values, Ravitch and Meier exemplify a form of politics that we desperately need.

Posted by peterlevine at May 26, 2006 07:33 AM

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