Standards Yes, Standardization No

Deborah Meier

After thirty years of work as a so-called school-reformer,
I'm finding myself at odds with a lot what's now called reform.
The inner-city schools I've led have been much touted for their
extra-ordinary success with ordinary children. We learned some
lessons from these schools. We learned, above all, that even "our
way" wouldn't work if imposed unwillingly on others. If being
well-educated means learning to exercise good judgment in a variety
of disciplines and situations, then there's no short-cut around
the need for young people to be in the company of grown-ups who
are doing the same. We won't get high standards from kids if both
parents and teachers are not trusted and respected to make important
decisions. That's what we thought we had demonstrated loud and
clear.

This is not a time to give up on the historic American idea
that The People can be trusted--in the long run. Trust leads to
trustworthiness and the reverse is equally true. Local control
of schooling, and respect for practicing teachers are two ideas
we should not abandon, and nothing suggests we need to. American
schools are not a disaster when it comes to achievement. That's
a myth, not substantiated by the data. Where we do look bad is
the gap between our top and bottom students. But then we also
look far worse than any other industrialized nation if we compare
income, health care or money spent per child between the top and
the bottom. These inequities are a national shame.
So what do we need?

(1) More contact between grown-ups and kids. Since education
is a lot about the company we keep, we need to get more grown-ups
into the act of keeping company with kids. That's the most efficient
form of education. We need smaller schools--a lot smaller so folks
know each other well. We need smaller classes. School-to-work
and community-service programs are another way to broaden the
contact between kids and grown-ups. In my lifetime we've gone
from 200,000 local school boards--a million and a half citizens
involved in running our schools--to less than 20,000, Meanwhile
the population has more than doubled. Too many adults don't know
our kids and their schools, and too many kids, especially adolescents,
don't know many grown-ups or their worlds. We're living dangerously
separate lives.

(2) An end to the mandatory testing frenzy. Let's stop pretending
we can make high stakes decisions (promotion, graduation, etc.)
based on a single test designed by distant experts. Local communities
should have the authority to give whatever tests they think will
help them.. When they want a second outside opinion they should
be the choosers, and good state-sponsored school review options
should be available. NAEP (National Assessment of Educational
Progress) should continue to provide comparative data that local
schools and the larger public might find useful on issues like
equity, distribution of resources, long-range or state trends.
Colleges and employers don't need public funds to test for their
particular and different selection needs.

(3) Choice within public education. We need sufficient public
choices so that few parents will feel the need to opt out--except
when they want things that our Constitution says they can't have
at public expense (e.g. an all-white school). Standards yes. Standardization
no. We should insist that schools exercise their right to define
differently what they think it means to be well-educated and the
best route for getting there. Plenty of public review, but far
less public mandating.

(4) Sufficient resources. We need sufficient resources so that
poor kids and rich kids start on a more nearly level playing field--before,
during and after schools hours. Do they go to school in buildings
with similar facilities? Do they have teachers who are equally
well-prepared and have the opportunity to continue to learn on
the job? Good staff development is one place where international
comparisons are embarrassing. Once again the gap between top and
bottom is a national embarrassment.

I'm for raising the prestige of educational experts, but not
by giving them the power to mandate what everyone must do. There
will be fewer fads and more sustained reform once we invest more
power in those whose first and foremost agenda is their collective
children, not the many other agendas of corporations, politicians
and academics worthy though they may be. There's sufficient well-financed
pressure from colleges, employers and national media to insure
that these powerful interests won't be forgotten. What's lacking
is a counter balance to such impersonal, and often self-interested
forces. If our definition of education includes teaching young
people to exercise good judgment then they must be surround by
grown-ups who are in the habit of exercising good judgment--who
rarely have to say "Who me? I'm just doing what I've been
told to do."

 

Deborah Meier is currently principal of The Mission Hill School,
a new Boston public school. She was the founder and principal
for 20 years of a network of Kindergarten through 12th grade public
schools in East Harlem; and author of The Power of Their Ideas
(Beacon Press). She was awarded a MacArthur "genius"
award in 1987 for her work in public education.
This essay was printed in the Rochester Democrat Chronicle, Sunday,
May 23, 1999.