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Educating a Democracy
Standards and the future of public education.

Deborah Meier

In the past two years, the number of students expelled from elementary and secondary schools in Chicago has nearly doubled. Expelled kids get sent to something called "safe schools," run by for-profit organizations. When a reporter asked Chicago officials why the number of spaces in the for-profit academies was far smaller than the number of expelled students, the reporter was reassured. Not to worry. They don’t all show up. Meanwhile, the city is writing new categories and new zero-tolerance policies to push reform along. Chicago is the home of get-tough reform, and all these changes have been made in the name of upgrading "standards." The results? Test scores over the past three years have risen, we are told, by 3.4 percent in Chicago. That’s a few more right answers on a standardized test, maybe.

Back in my home state, Massachusetts, the town of Lynnfield announced that it was time to end METCO, a program that for twenty years brought minority children into nearly all-white, middle-class, suburban communities. The Board members explained to the press that the program wasn’t helping the Lynnfield schools raise their "standards"–that is, their scores on the new tough state tests. Sometimes equity and excellence just don’t mix well. So sorry.1

The stories of Chicago and Lynnfield capture a dark side of the "standards-based reform" movement in American education: the politically popular movement to devise national or state-mandated standards for what all kids should know, and high-stakes tests and sanctions to make sure they all know it. The stories show how the appeal to standards can mask and make way for other agendas: punishing kids, privatizing public education, giving up on equity.

I know how advocates of the movement to standardize standards will respond: "Good reform ideas can always be misused. Our proposals are designed to help kids, save public education, and ensure equity."

I disagree. 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.

The standardization movement is not based on a simple mistake. It rests on deep assumptions about the goals of education and the proper exercise of authority in the making of decisions– assumptions we ought to reject in favor of a different vision of a healthy democratic society. Drawing on my experience in schools in New York City and Boston, I show that this alternative vision isn’t utopian, even if it might be messy–as democracy is always messy.

Standards-Based Reform

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.

Massachusetts, for instance, has recently devised tests in English, mathematics, history, and science (to be followed by other subjects over time) covering the state’s mandated frameworks. The tests are given in grades four, eight, and ten. Beginning in 2003, students will need to pass the grade-ten tests to get a Massachusetts high school diploma; moreover, the tests are intended to serve as the sole criteria for rating schools, for admission to public colleges, and for as many other rewards and sanctions as busy state officials can devise.

The Massachusetts tests are not typical, but then each state has its own variant. The Massachusetts tests are unusually long (fifteen to twenty hours), and cover a startling amount of material. For fourth graders the history and social studies portions allow the test makers to ask questions about anything that happened between prehistoric times and 500 AD in "the world," and in the United States until 1865. While world history expands in the upper grades, you can get a high school diploma without ever studying US history after 1865. The science and math portions are equally an inch deep and a mile wide. And the selections and questions on the reading tests were initially designed with full knowledge (and intent) that, if scores do not immediately improve, eighty percent of all fourth graders would fail–even though Massachusetts fourth graders rank near the top in most national reading assessments.

But the specifics of the tests are not the central issue. Even if they were replaced by saner instruments, they would still embody a fundamentally misguided approach to school reform. To see just how they are misguided, we need first to ask about their rationale. Why are these tests being imposed?

Why Standards?

Six basic assumptions underlie the current state and national standard setting and testing programs now off the ground in 49 of 50 states (all but Iowa):

1. Goals:It is possible and desirable to agree on a single definition of what constitutes a well-educated 18-year-old and demand that every school be held to the same definition. We have, it is argued, gotten by without such an agreement at a great cost–witness the decline of public education–in comparison to other nations with tight national systems.
2. Authority: The task of defining "well-educated" is best left to experts–educators, political officials, leaders from industry and the major academic disciplines–operating within a system of political checks and balances. That each state’s definition at the present time varies so widely suggests the eventual need for a single national standard.
3. Assessment: With a single definition in place, it will be possible to measure and compare individuals and schools across communities–local, state, national, international. To this end, curricular norms for specific ages and grades should be translated into objective tests that provide a system of uniform scores for all public, and if possible private, schools and districts. Such scores should permit public comparisons between and among students, schools, districts, and states at any point in time.
4. Enforcement: Sanctions, too, need to be standardized, thus removed from local self-interested parties–including parents, teachers, and local boards. Only a more centralized and distant system can resist the pressures from people closest to the child–the very people who have become accustomed to low standards.
5. Equity: Expert-designed standards, imposed through tests, are the best way to achieve educational equity. While a uniform national system would work best if all students had relatively equal resources, equity requires introducing such a system as rapidly as possible regardless of disparities. It is especially important for schools with scarcer resources to focus their work, concentrating on the essentials. Standardization with remotely controlled sanctions thus offers the best chance precisely for underfunded communities and schools, and for less well-educated and less powerful families.
6. Effective Learning: Clear-cut expectations, accompanied by automatic rewards and punishments, will produce greater effort, and effort–whether induced by the desire for rewards, fear of punishment, or shame–is the key to learning. When teachers as well as students know what constitutes failure, and also know the consequences of failure, a rational system of rewards and punishments becomes an effective tool. Automatic penalties work for schooling much as they do for crime and punishment: consistency and certainty are the keys. For that reason compassion requires us to stand firm, even in the face of pain and failure in the early years.

A Crisis?

The current standards-based reform movement took off in 1983 in response to the widely held view that America was at extreme economic risk, largely because of bad schools. The battle cry–called out first in A Nation At Risk–launched an attack on dumb teachers, uncaring mothers, social promotion, and general academic permissiveness. Teachers and a new group labeled "educationists" were declared the main enemy, thus undermining their credibility, and setting the stage for cutting them and their concerns out of the cure. According to critics, American education needed to be reimagined, made more rigorous, and, above all, brought under the control of experts who–unlike educators and parents–understood the new demands of our economy and culture. The cure might curtail the work of some star teachers and star schools, and it might lead, as the education chief of Massachusetts recently noted, to a lot of crying fourth graders. But the gravity of the long-range risks to the nation demanded strong medicine.

Two claims were thus made: that our once-great public system was no longer performing well, and that its weaknesses were undermining America’s economy.

Most critics have long agreed that the data in support of the claim about school decline are at best weak (see Richard Rothstein’s 1998 book, The Way We Were?). As a result, the debate shifted–although the average media story hardly noticed–to an acknowledgement that even if there wasn’t a decline in school achievement, the demands of the new international economy required reinventing our schools anyway. Whether the crisis was real or imagined, change was required. But efforts to induce changes in teaching and learning met with widespread resistance from many different quarters–from citizens, parents, teachers, and local officials. Some schools changed dramatically, and some changed bits and pieces, but the timetable was far too slow for the reformers. The constituents who originally coalesced around A Nation at Risk began to argue that the fault lay either in the nature of public schooling itself or in the excesses of local empowerment. The cure would have to combine more competition from the private or semi-private sector and more rigorous control by external experts who understood the demands of our economy and had the clout to impose change. This latter viewpoint has dominated the standards-based reform movement.

Unfortunately, a sense of reality has been lost in these shifting terms of debate. Now, fifteen years after analysts discovered the great crisis of American education, the American economy is soaring, the productivity of our workforce is probably tops in the world, and our system of advanced education is the envy of the world. In elementary school literacy (where critics claim that sentimental pedagogues have for decades failed to teach children how to read), the United States still ranks second or third, topped only by one or another of the Scandinavian countries. While we rank lower in math and science tests, we continue to lead the world in technology and inventiveness. If the earlier argument was right and economic prowess requires good schooling, then teachers in America ought to be congratulated, and someone should be embarrassed by the false alarm. Instead, 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.

The Real Crisis

The coalition of experts which produced A Nation at Risk were wrong when they announced the failure of American public education and its critical role in our economic decline. Constructive debate about reform should begin by acknowledging this misjudgment. But it should then also acknowledge the even bigger crisis that schools have played a major part in deepening, if not actually creating, and could play a big part in curing. This crisis requires quite a different set of responses, often in direct conflict with standardization.

An understanding of this other crisis begins by noting that we have the lowest voter turnout by far of any modern industrial country; we are exceptional for the absence of responsible care for our most vulnerable citizens (we spend less on child welfare–baby care, medical care, family leave–than almost every competitor); we don’t come close to our competitors in income equity; and our high rate of (and investment in) incarceration places us in a class by ourselves. All of these, of course, effect some citizens far more than others: and the heaviest burdens fall on the poor, the young, and people of color.

These social and political indicators are suggestive of a crisis in human relationships. 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.

In my youth there were over 200,000 School Boards. Today there are fewer than 20,000, and the average school, which in my youth had only a few hundred students, now holds thousands. 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. Site-based school councils are increasingly the "in" thing, just as the scope of their responsibility narrows.

Public schools, after a romance with local power–beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the early ’90s–are increasingly organized as interchangeable units of a larger state organism, each expected to conform to the intelligence of some central agency or expert authority. The locus of authority in young people’s lives has shifted away from the adults kids know well and who know the kids well–at a cost. Home schooling or private schooling seem more and more the natural next step for those with the means to do so and the desire to remain in authority.

Our school troubles are not primarily due to too-easy coursework or too much tolerance for violence. The big trouble lies instead in the company our children keep–or, more precisely, don’t keep. They no longer keep company with us–the grown-ups they are about to become. And the adults they do encounter seem less and less worthy of their respect. What kid, after all, wants to be seen emulating people he’s been told are too dumb to exercise power, and are simply implementing the commands of the real experts?

Alternative Assumptions

Just as the conventional policy assumptions emerge naturally from a falsely diagnosed crisis, so does the crisis I have sketched suggest an alternative set of assumptions.

1. Goals: 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. As John Stuart Mill said, "It is not the mind of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm is done to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy."

2. Authority: In fundamental questions of education, experts should be subservient to citizens. Experts and laymen alike have an essential role in shaping both ends and means, the what and the how. While it is wise to involve experts from both business and the academy, they provide only one set of opinions, and are themselves rarely of a single mind. Moreover, it is educationally important for young people to be in the company of adults–teachers, family members, and other adults in their own communities–powerful enough to decide important things. They need to witness the exercise of judgment, the weighing of means and ends by people they can imagine becoming; and they need to see how responsible adults handle disagreement. If we think the adults in children’s lives are, in Jefferson’s words, "not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

3. Assessment: 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. These are old testing truisms, backed even by the testing industry, which has never claimed the level of omniscience many standards advocates assume of it. The state should only require that forms of assessment be public, constitutionally sound, and subject to a variety of "second opinions" by experts representing other interested parties. Where states feel obliged to set norms–for example, in granting state diplomas or access to state universities–these should be flexible, allowing schools maximum autonomy to demonstrate the ways they have reached such norms through other forms of assessment.

4. Enforcement: Sanctions should remain in the hands of the local community, to be determined by people who know the particulars of each child and each situation. The power of both business and the academy are already substantial; their access to the means of persuasion (television, the press, etc.) and their power to determine access to jobs and higher education already impinge on the freedom of local communities. Children, their families, and their communities should not be required to make decisions about their own students and their own work based on such external measures. It is sufficient that they are obliged to take them into account in their deliberations about their children’s future options.

5. Equity: 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.

6. Effective Learning: Improved learning is best achieved by improving teaching and learning relationships, by enlisting the energies of both teachers and learners. The kinds of learning required of citizens cannot be accomplished by standardized and centrally imposed systems of learning, even if we desired it for other reasons. Human learning, to be efficient, effective, and long-lasting, requires the engagement of learners on their own behalf, and rests on the relationships that develop between schools and their communities, between teachers and their students, and between the individual learner and what is to be learned.

No "scientific" argument can conclusively determine whether this set of assumptions or the set sketched earlier is true. Although some research suggests that human learning is less efficient when motivated by rewards and punishments, and that fear is a poor motivator, I doubt that further research will settle the issue. But because of the crisis of human relationships, I urge that we consider the contrary claims more seriously than we have. We may even find that in the absence of strong human relationships rigorous intellectual training in the most fundamental academic subjects can’t flourish. In a world shaped by centralized media, restoring a greater balance of power between local communities and central authorities, between institutions subject to democratic control and those beyond their control, may be vastly more important than educational reformers bent on increased centralization acknowledge.

An Alternative Model

Suppose, then, that we think about school reform in light of these alternative assumptions. What practical model of schools and learning do they support? In brief, our hope lies in schools that are more personal, compelling, and attractive than the internet or TV, where youngsters can keep company with interesting and powerful adults, who are in turn in alliance with the students’ families and local institutions. We need to surround kids with adults who know and care for our children, who have opinions and are accustomed to expressing them publicly, and who know how to reach reasonable collective decisions in the face of disagreement. That means increasing local decision-making, and simultaneously decreasing the size and bureaucratic complexity of schools. Correspondingly, the worst thing we can do is to turn teachers and schools into the vehicles for implementing externally- imposed standards.

Is such an alternative practical? Are the assumptions behind it mere sentiment?

At the Mission Hill in Boston, one of ten new Boston public schools initiated by the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union, we designed a school to support such alternative practices. The families that came to Mission Hill were chosen by lottery and represent a cross-section of Boston’s population. We intentionally kept the school small–less than 200 students ages five to thirteen–so that the adults could meet regularly, take responsibility for each others’ work, and argue over how best to get things right. Parents join the staff not only for formal governance meetings, but for monthly informal suppers, conversations, good times. Our oldest kids–the eighth graders–will graduate only when they can show us all that they meet our graduation standards, which are the result of lots of parent, staff, and community dialogue over several years.

All our students study–once when they are little, once when they are older–a school-wide interdisciplinary curriculum. Last fall they all became experts on Boston and Mission Hill, learning its history (and their own), geography, architecture, distinct neighborhoods, and figures of importance. Last winter they all recreated ancient Egypt at 67 Allegheny Street. This coming winter they will recreate ancient China. Each spring they dig into a science-focused curriculum theme. The common curriculum allowed us, for example, to afford professional and amateur Egyptologists who joined us from time to time as lively witnesses to a life-long passion. We have a big central corridor which serves as our public mall, where kids paint murals, mix together to read, and talk across ages. High school students, who share the building with us, read with little ones, take them on trips, and generally model what it can mean to be a more responsible and well-educated person.

We invented our own standards–not out of whole cloth but with an eye to what the world out there expects and what we deem valuable and important. And we assessed them through the work the kids do and the commentary of others about that work. Our standards are intended to deepen and broaden young people’s habits of mind, their craftsmanship, and their work habits. Other schools may select quite a different way of describing and exhibiting their standards. But they too need to consciously construct their standards in ways that give schooling purpose and coherence, and then commit themselves to achieving them. And the kids need to understand the standards and their rationale. They must see school as not just a place to get a certificate, but a place that lives by the same standards it sets for them. Thus the Mission Hill school not only sets standards but has considerable freedom and flexibility with regard to how it spends its public funds and organizes its time to attain them. All ten pilot schools offer examples of different ways this might play out, ways that could be replicated in all Boston schools.

Standards of assessment are not once-for-all issues. We reexamine our school constantly to see that it remains a place that engages all of us in tough but interesting learning tasks, nourishes and encourages the development of reasonable and judicious trust, and nurtures a passion for making sense of things and the skills needed to do so. We expect disagreements–sometimes painful ones. We know that even well-intentioned, reasonable people cross swords over deeply held beliefs. But we know, too, that these differences can be sources of valuable education when the school itself can negotiate the needed compromises.

What is impressive at Mission Hill, in the other Pilot schools, at the Central Park East Schools in New York’s East Harlem (where I worked for 25 years), and the thousands of other small schools like them, is that over time the kids buy in. These schools receive the same per capita public funding as other schools, are subject to city and state testing, and must obey the same basic health, safety, and civil rights regulations. But because these schools are small, the families and faculties are together by choice, and all concerned can exercise substantial power over staffing, scheduling, curriculum, and assessment, the schools’ cultural norms and expectations are very different than most other public schools.

The evidence suggests that most youngsters have a sufficiently deep hunger for the relationships these schools offer them–among kids and between adults and kids–that they choose it over the alternative cultures on the Net, tube, and street. Over ninety percent of Central Park East’s very typical students stuck it out, graduated, and went on to college. And most persevered through higher education. Did they ever rebel, get mad at us, reassert their contrary values and adolescent preferences? Of course. Did we fail with some? Yes. But it turns out that the hunger for grown-up connections is strong enough to make a difference, if we give it a chance. Studies conducted on the other similar schools launched in New York between 1975 and 1995 showed the same pattern of success.

Standards, yes. Absolutely. But as Ted Sizer, who put the idea of standards on the map in the early 1980s, also told us then: we need standards held by real people who matter in the lives of our young. School, family, and community must forge their own, in dialogue with and in response to the larger world of which they are a part. There will always be tensions, but if the decisive, authoritative voice always comes from anonymous outsiders, then kids cannot learn what it takes to develop their own voice.

I know this "can be" because I’ve been there. The flowering of so many new public schools of choice over the past two decades proves that under widely different circumstances, very different kinds of leadership and different auspices, a powerful alternative to externally-imposed standards is available.

But I also know the powerful reasons why it "can’t be"–because I’ve witnessed first-hand the resistance to allowing others to follow suit, much less encouraging or mandating them to do so. The resistance comes not simply from bad bureaucrats or fearful unions (the usual bogeymen), but legislators and mayors and voters, from citizens who think that anything public must be all things to all constituents (characterless and mediocre by definition), and from various elites who see teachers and private citizens as too dumb to engage in making important decisions. That’s a heady list of resisters.

But small self-governing schools of choice–operating with considerable flexibility and freedom–also resonate with large numbers of people, including many of those who are gathering around charter schools, and even some supporters of privatization and home schooling. They too come from a wide political spectrum and could be mobilized.

Accountability

And yet doubts about accountability will linger. In a world of smaller, more autonomous schools not responsible to centralized standards, how will we know who is doing a good job and who isn’t? How can we prevent schools from claiming they’re doing just fine (and being believed), when it may not be true? Are we simply forced to trust them, with no independent evidence?

What lies behind these worries? For those who accept the conventional assumptions, anything but top-down standardization seems pointless. But for those whose concern is more practical there are some straightforward answers to the issue of accountability that do not require standardization.

To begin with, I am not advocating the elimination of all systems for taking account of how schools and students are doing. In any case, that is hardly a danger. Americans invented the modern, standardized, norm-referenced test. Our students have been taking more tests, more often, than any nation on the face of the earth, and schools and districts have been going public with test scores starting almost from the moment children enter school. By third or fourth grade (long before any of our international competitors bother to test children) we have test data for virtually all schools–by race, class, and gender. We know exactly how many kids did better or worse in each and every subcategory. We have test data for almost every grade thereafter in reading and math, and to some degree in all other subjects. This has been the case for nearly half a century. Large numbers of our eighteen-year-olds now take standardized college entry tests (SATs and ACTs). In addition, the national government now offers us its own tests–the NAEP–which are given to an uncontaminated sample of students from across the United States and now reported by grade and state. And all of the above is very public.

In addition, public schools have been required to produce statements attesting to their financial integrity–how they spend their money–at least as rigorously as any business enterprise. They are held accountable for regularly reporting who works for them and what their salaries are. In most systems there are tightly prescribed rules and regulations; schools are obliged to fill out innumerable forms regarding almost every aspect of their work–how many kids are receiving special education, how many incidents of violence, how many suspensions, how many graduates, what grades students have received, how many hours and minutes they study each and every subject, and the credentials of their faculties. This information, and much more, is public. And the hiring and firing of superintendents has become a very common phenomenon.

In a nation in which textbooks are the primary vehicle for distributing school knowledge, a few major textbook publishers, based on a few major state textbook laws, dominate the field, offering most teachers, schools, and students very standardized accounts of what is to be learned, and when and how to deliver this knowledge. Moreover, most textbooks have always come armed with their own end-of-chapter tests, increasingly designed to look like the real thing; indeed, test makers also are the publishers of many of the major standardized tests.

In short, we have been awash in accountability and standardization for a very long time. What we are missing is precisely the qualities that the last big wave of reform was intended to respond to: teachers, kids, and families who don’t know each other or each other’s work and don’t take responsibility for it. We are missing communities built around their own articulated and public standards and ready to show them off to others.

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. In addition such schools undergo school-wide external assessments which take into account the quality of their curriculum, instruction, staff development, and culture as well as the impact of the school on student’s future success (in college, work, etc.).

Are the approaches designed by Central Park East or Mission Hill the best way? That’s probably the wrong question. We never intended to suggest that everyone should follow our system. It would be nice if it were easier for others to adopt our approach, but it would be even better if it were easier–in fact required–that others adopt alternatives to it, including the use of standardized tests if they so choose. My argument is for more local control, not for one true way.

I opt for more local control not because I think the larger society has no common interests at stake in how we educate all children, nor because local people are smarter or intrinsically more honorable. Of course not. The interests of wider publics are important in my way of thinking. I know that pressure exists at Mission Hill not to accept or push out students who are difficult to educate, who will make us look worse on any test, or whose families are a nuisance. It’s a good thing that others are watching us to prevent such exclusion.

But in 1999, the United States is hardly in danger of too much localized power in education. (The only local powers we seem to be interested in expanding are those that allow us to re-segregate our schools by race or gender.) What is missing is balance–some power in the hands of those whose agenda is first and foremost the feelings of particular kids, their particular families, their perceived local values and needs. Without such balance my knowledge that holding David over in third grade will not produce the desired effects is useless knowledge. Neither is my knowledge of different ways to reach him through literature or history. This absence of local power is bad for David’s education and bad for democracy. A back-seat driver may know more than the actual driver, but there are limits to what can be accomplished from the rear seat.

In short, the argument is not about the need for standards or accountability, but about what kind serves us best. I believe standardization will make it harder to hold people accountable and harder to develop sound and useful standards. 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.

Education and Democracy

If we are to make use of what we knew in Dewey’s day (and know even better today) about how the human species best learns, we will have to start by throwing away the dystopia of the ant colony, the smoothly functioning (and quietly humming) factory where everything goes according to plan, and replace it with a messy, often rambunctious, community, with its multiple demands and complicated trade-offs. The new schools that might better serve democracy and the economy will have to be capable of constantly remaking themselves and still provide for sufficient stability, routine, ritual, and shared ethos. Impossible? Of course. So such schools will veer too far one way or the other at different times in their history, will learn from each other, shift focus, and find a new balance. There will always be a party of order and a party of messiness.

But if schools are not all required to follow all the same fads, maybe they will learn something from their separate experiments. And that will help to nurture the two indispensable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others, indeed genuine empathy for them, and a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement, indeed enjoyment of them.

A vibrant and nurturing community, with clear and regular guideposts–its own set of understandings, and a commitment to each other that feels something rather like love and affection–can sustain such rapid change without losing its humanity. Such a community must relish its disagreements, its oddballs, its misfits. Not quite families, but closer to our definition of family than factory, such schools will make high demands on their members, have a sustaining and relentless sense of purpose and coherence, but be ready also to always (at least sometimes) even reconsider their own core beliefs. We will come home exhausted, but not burned out.

Everything that moves us toward these qualities will be good for the ideal of democracy. A democracy in which less than half its members see themselves as "making enough difference" to bother to vote in any election is surely endangered–far more endangered, at risk, than our economy. It’s for the loss of belief in the capacity to influence the world, not our economic ups and downs, that we educators should accept some responsibility. What I have learned from thirty years in small powerful schools is that it is here above all that schools can make a difference, that they can alter the odds.

We can’t beat the statistical advantage on the next round of tests that being advantaged has over being disadvantaged; we can, however, substantially affect the gap between rich and poor where it will count, in the long haul of life. Even there it’s hard to see how schools by themselves can eliminate the gap, but we can stop enlarging it. The factory-like schools we invented a century ago to handle the masses were bound to enlarge the gap. But trained mindlessness at least fit the world of work so many young people were destined for. We seem now to be reinventing a 21st century version of the factory-like school–for the mindworkers of tomorrow.

It is a matter of choice–such a future does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. We have the resources, the knowledge, and plenty of living examples of the many different kinds of schools that might serve our needs better. All we need is a little more patient confidence in the good sense of "the people"–in short, a little more commitment to democracy.

To read responses to Meier from Bob Chase, Abigail Thernstrom, Gary Nash and others, click here


1 Eventually, Lynnfield backed off and decided to keep METCO but impose more stringent standards on METCO students than others–a decision that prompted METCO to cut off its relationship with Lynnfield.

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review



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