from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Democracy and Education - thoughts by Deb Meier 

crossposted from dailykos

The motives of the drivers behind NCLB—which fixes in law our misplaced obsessions—vary, but between them they have helped create a climate that removes democracy from our schoolhouses. Folks like us who advocate a different kind of childhood are on occasion labeled elitist, failing to confront the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged that requires that we throw overboard the frills of childhood along with the frills of local democracy.

For me the primary purpose of our public schools should be to prepare our students to be creative, active participants in our democratic way of life. I know of no one today who addresses this more directly than does Deborah Meier, who is the author of the paragraph with which this diary begins.

For those who don’t know her work, Deborah Meier is one of the most important people in the education field. She founded Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, which demonstrated that one could teach children from economically poor backgrounds in an human and progressive fashion and still have them succeed. She later founded a progressive charter school in Boston named after Francis Parker, one of the giants of the progressive education movement. Both of these are members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which is founded upon the principles of Theodore Sizer.

Now she is, along with George Wood and others, one of the Conveners of The Forum for Education and Democracy. It was at a May 20 town meeting of the forum that Meier gave the remarks on which this diary is based.

It is almost criminal for me to attempt to extract from these remarks, but in the interest of keeping this diary short enough to allow me to offer a few remarks of my own, I will engage in that less than perfect behavior.

After beginning with a reference to how Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities (about the best of times and the worst of times) and worrying that we have too much of the latter, Meier offers us the following:
That’s in part my innate long-term optimism speaking, but also an optimism born out by forty years of experiences in schools in which I am daily reminded of the amazing capacity for learning and for empathy deep within every child – every infant - part of our very humanity. It’s these two amazing human qualities which I hope to “conserve”—and better yet enrich, extend, and toughen—so that they can withstand the complex times ahead of us.

These are capacities that make the idea of democracy—which often seem a fragile if not utopian dream—seem feasible.

Democracy may not be “natural” to our specie—it may even at times be counter-intuitive.

She illustrates this by referring to a study that after specific instruction in the Bill of Rights students willingness to grant rights to those with whom they disagreed rose - from 25% to 35%!

She recounts an example from her own experience, in which the lesson was greatly enriched, even as slowed down, because she listened to the insistence of a student who offered an idea that was outside the framework of the lesson. Darrell was 5 years old.

She addresses the implications of how we learn for our democratic future:
It’s because we are naturally capable of being both extraordinary learners and capable of imagining ourselves in the shoes of others that it’s possible – but not inevitable - that democracy can still win.

But imagine an educational system devoted to nurturing democracy? Yet it’s hardly even a third place contestant in most reform packages—See Ed Week--Not one of the 6 goals for 21st century schooling even mentioned democracy! As a result the continued potentials for even a pale version are threatened. Democracy is threatened more by its seeming irrelevance than by any enemy planning to wrest it away from us. Cynical gerrymandering has made even voting seem pointless in the vast majority of the districts that elect our Congress, Uncertain of the differences between millions and billions—we witness the impact of each equally mutely. We withdraw—further and further. Meanwhile the decisions we know a lot about are made further and further from where our voice can have an influence. It’s no wonder that when I ask audiences how many know Roberts Rules of Order, few raise their hands and others afterwards ask me what in the world I was talking about.

Meier goes on to note the loss of leisure in America, and the implications that has for our society at large:
We barely have time to leisurely contemplate our own children, much less their schooling. Compassion for our fellow citizens is the first victim of such stress. The second is authentic learning.

One unfortunate result in our recent efforts at school reform has been an increase in dropouts. This parallels the increase in stress for most in American society, caused in part by the scrambling the vast majority have to undertake in the hope of staying economically even. And as Meier notes
The motives of the drivers behind NCLB—which fixes in law our misplaced obsessions—vary, but between them they have helped create a climate that removes democracy from our schoolhouses. Folks like us who advocate a different kind of childhood are on occasion labeled elitist, failing to confront the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged that requires that we throw overboard the frills of childhood along with the frills of local democracy.

“The” poor need, our critics argue, something different—something more akin to a boot camp with a boot camp approach to intellectual skill and authority. And to this end, they say, we must cut out our romantic love affair with local democracy.

Here I cannot but be reminded of one of the most famous lines to come from the Vietnam conflict. Commonly quoted as “In order to save the village we had to destroy it” the actual statement by an major after the destruction of the village of Ben Tre in 1968 was “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” Somehow I have seen the same happening to schools supposed to preparing our economically poorer students to be participating members in our society. We drive them out to increase test scores, we turn them off to learning, and we take away from teachers the flexibility needed help them succeed in learning. There is no time to listen to the 5 year old Darrell's inform us that the categories we are using to classify things might be insufficient.

Let me return to Meier’s words for a moment:
The current focus on narrowly defined “academics”—starting more or less at birth is, I would argue, a frill. Likewise the current test-oriented approach to defining “academic” deprives the least powerful of precisely what academia at its best offers: the ability to use one’s mind agilely, freely and with the utmost self-discipline.

That cannot happen in settings in which everything that young people (and incidentally their teachers) have a natural curiosity about that appeals to their enthusiasms for challenge and risk-taking is labeled a frill where uncertainty doesn’t fit the multiple-choice format.

It cannot happen if children’s thirst for independence is called fluff. If their hands-on delight with real craftsmanship and real entrepreneurship are no-no's! Too time-consuming, Untestable!

Those of us working on the plan for education that is the basis of the education session at Ykos2007 struggle with many things, one of which is how we can provide adequate information to parents, taxpayers and legislatures who provide the means for our public schools without reducing the school experience to that which is easily measured, ‘testable.”

I strongly believe in the value of play, not merely for small children. Far too many of our children have lost the opportunity for learning how to play well with others. Even our games are highly structured by adults, and children lose the opportunity to work out how to play under appropriate but not overly directive adult supervision. As a result many as adults do not know how to take charge of situations that may dissuade them and yet would be amenable to organized efforts from the ground up. As progressives this should scare us. One could argue that our schools are increasingly preparing generations of future adults whose orientation will not include the willingness to challenge those who may be abusing authority. Democracy does not work without active citizens.

And that even presumes that our young people will stay in school and complete their educations. Absent play, students get turned off. Meier notes that even the American Enterprise Institute argues for the value of play, and then she says
The ending of recess, the ignoring of arts and crafts, of shop and music— are signs of peril—Peril to human intellect, and grandiose as this will sound: threats to democracy which rests on both intellectual skepticism and empathy—the two underpinnings as well. of play. Yes that’s what play is all about!

America’s traditional skepticism about academia was not wholly unwarranted. Who can be sold on the barren version offered our young. Not me-–or you. Dropping out is the predictable end product of years of boredom, disengagement and failure. It accounts for the drop in graduation data for the first time in our history.

There is so much in this set of remarks. Let me offer one more extended extract to give you a sense of why Meier is a hero to so many educators:
If our purpose is to prepare a generation of citizens equipped to respond skillfully to difficult and complex and, above all, novel situations-it won’t do. Focusing on test scores is the wrong prescription. It cannot and does not respond to what either academia, democracy, or in fact, a healthy economy requires of its members. Even if tests were far better than they were—and in fact they are appallingly limited at even measuring important skills or knowledge—and likely to get worse in our rush to multiply more and more of them--such a focus betray their best potential.

If learning to weigh decisions and consider trade-offs, to take into account not only one’s immediate interests but long term ones, and not only one’s own community but the nation and even the planet, if taking initiative and risks, of working well with others, if speaking clearly, if meeting deadlines and accepting responsibility count—and on and on; than we need an alternative because none of the above don’t count a whit on the tests our kids are now subjected to.

America’s prominence in science and technology was built upon America’s perennial respect for imagination and the practical arts. To preserve it we have to tamp our enthusiasm for text-based-learning as the only source of achievement or competence. It doesn’t work. No wonder my contractor in upstate NY complains that he hires graduates who passed the math test but don’t know how to use a ruler.

As a teacher I have to wrestle with conflicting mandates. One is imposed from above, and that is how my kids do on external examinations which I do not prepare, and often whose results are not returned to me in a fashion that enables me to improve my instruction. These range from county benchmarks in preparation for state high school exit exams to Advanced Placement exams for my brightest 10th graders seeking to burnish their transcripts and gain college credit. Each of these restricts my flexibility in exploring the individual interests of my students and using these as the levers to move the world: a skilled teacher should be able to start with the specific interest of the child and use that as the method to connect the child with the domain of instruction, and to show its connections to other domains as well. I am more fortunate than many teachers in that my principal gives me almost total flexibility to instruct my students as I see fit so long as the test scores stay up.

One reason I have been so active in trying to help people understand the issues and impact of educational policy is that most teachers do not have my flexibility, and even for me I must accept a Faustian bargain in order to have any chance of truly reaching my students.

I am going to end with one more quote from Meier. It is not from the very end of her piece, but it concisely expresses much of what I believe should be essential in how we design and run our schools. I offer it for your consideration, even as I again urge you to go and read her entire set of remarks.

The best schools keep their eye on the prize—the kids—not just whether they are pleasing higher civil authorities. They see the job of adults as one of nurturing intelligence and empathy, openness to the world, while cherishing their children’s uniqueness. They stay close to families, and see teachers and parents as allies not adversaries. Schools for democracy are quintessentially always an act of collaboration with families and communities ----expression of the grassroots vitality and ingenuity that has always made our nation great.
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