Let the Dialogue Begin
Bridging Differences A Dialogue Between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch
May 24, 2006
By Deborah Meier & Diane Ravitch
In the course of the last 30 years, the two of us have been at odds on any number of issues – on our judgments about progressive education, on the relative importance of curriculum content (what students are taught) vs. habits of mind (how students come to know what they are taught), and most recently in our views of the risks involved in nationalizing aspects of education policy.
Meeting recently to prepare for a debate on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, however, we found ourselves agreeing about the mess that has been generated by local and state testing. Both of us agreed that the public needs far better information about both inputs and outcomes, without which the public is woefully uninformed and too easily manipulated. As we discussed what the next policy steps should be, Diane preferred a national response, and Deborah preferred a local one.
As we talked further, we were surprised to discover that we shared a similar reaction to many of the things that are happening in education today, especially in our nation’s urban school districts. Recent trends and events seem to be confirming our mutual fears and jeopardizing our common hopes about what schooling might accomplish for the nation’s children. We might, we agreed, be getting the worst of both our perspectives.
Unlike Deborah, Diane has long supported an explicit, prescribed curriculum, one that would consume about half the school day, on which national examinations would be based. Diane believes in the value of a common, knowledge-based curriculum, such as the Core Knowledge curriculum, that ensures that all children study history, literature, mathematics, science, art, music, and foreign language; such a curriculum, she thinks, would support rather than undermine teachers’ work. Deborah, while strongly agreeing on the need for a broad liberal arts curriculum, doubts that anyone can ensure what children will really understand and usefully make sense of, even through the best imposed curriculum, especially if it is designed by people who are far from the actual school communities and classrooms.
Yet both of us are appalled by the relentless “test prep” activities that have displaced good instruction in far too many urban classrooms, and that narrow the curriculum to nothing but math and reading. We are furthermore distressed by unwarranted claims from many cities and states about “historic gains” that are based on dumbed-down tests, even occasionally on downright dishonest scoring by purposeful exclusion of low-scoring students.What unites us above all is our conviction that low-income children who live in urban centers are getting the worst of both of our approaches.
Deborah is a pioneer of the small-schools movement. Diane, while not an opponent of that movement, has questioned whether such schools have the capacity to offer a reasonable curriculum, including advanced classes. Yet here, too, we both fear that a good idea has too often been subverted by the mass production of large numbers of small schools, without adequate planning or qualified leadership and with insufficient thought given to how they might promote class and racial integration, rather than contribute to further segregation.We found that we were both dismayed by efforts in New York City to micromanage what teachers in most K-8 schools do at every moment in the day.
While Deborah allies herself with many of the so-called constructivist ideas about teaching that are now in vogue in New York, she believes that the very idea of constructivism is mocked by the city’s too often lock-step and authoritarian approach to implementing such ideas. In our shared view, the city’s department of education has no curriculum at all, just a mandated and highly prescribed pedagogy in grades K-8, after which time the state Regents examinations – tests that have been dramatically simplified in recent years – serve as an implicit curriculum.We concur that teachers must be free to use their best professional judgment about how to teach, and we agree on the importance of a strong professional culture in which teachers are encouraged to question and re-examine pedagogical assumptions and practices.
Deborah would want teachers to continually re-examine curricular assumptions. Diane urges the adoption of a prescribed curriculum that includes at least the central academic disciplines and the arts. She believes that a policy of letting a thousand flowers bloom without tending is likely to produce hundreds of weeds and only a few rare flowers. Deborah agrees; good gardens need tending. She would leave most of the details to the local school community.
What unites us above all is our conviction that low-income children who live in urban centers are getting the worst of both of our approaches. New York City is a prominent example. No central, abiding definition of what constitutes a well-educated person unites or rationalizes the mandates that flow from central headquarters. The substance of education – history, science, social science, literature, art, music – never sufficiently honored in most of our schools, is being sacrificed to narrowly focused demands to produce higher test scores in reading and math.Principals and teachers, regardless of their experience, are ordered to comply with mandates about how to teach – down to the minute in many elementary schools – undermining not only their professionalism, but often their common sense.
A particular style of teaching has been elevated to a cult, for fear that teachers might err if given more leeway to make decisions and do what they think best. Fear is widespread among teachers, principals, and kids alike, none of whom have any strong countervailing institutions to count on for support.
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.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.
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.Deborah considers NAEP to be flawed in ways not dissimilar to most standardized tests, and she regards its cut scores and norms as equally politically determined and, at present, absurdly high. She notes that the view of the federal government as the guarantor of equity was the product of a particular time and place in our history, and sees no reason to assume that the federal government is likely to be better intentioned about education policy now, or in the future, than local communities are. She believes that certain conservatives favor national standards and testing because they are in power.
Diane points out, however, that most conservatives are adamantly opposed to any national standards, while President Clinton actively supported a national system of standards and testing. In any event, she reasons, the development of national standards and tests is a project for the next decade, and should be outside partisan interests or control. As for NAEP’s norms and cut scores, Diane contends that the assessment’s standards are entirely nonpolitical and benchmarked to international standards. Deborah thinks that Diane’s hopes for unbiased, apolitical benchmarking are well-intentioned but inaccurate as a description of all the current tests, including NAEP. Having abandoned the normal curve, she believes, we’re stuck with the fallibility of human judgment.