A year ago Congress overwhelmingly approved George W. Bush’s education agenda, imposing new testing and school accountability mandates that are among the most sweeping federal interventions in the nation’s classrooms in recent history. On top of the states’ existing blizzard of testing and accountability measures, Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” required states to impose yet another layer of annual testing of all schoolchildren from the third through the eighth grade, in both reading and math, in order to qualify for federal assistance to schools serving low-income students. Schools that fail to meet annual growth targets for test scores are embroidered with a Scarlet A, branding them a failing school. Parents of children “trapped in failing schools,” as the Bush team has described it, are invited to transfer their children to supposedly better schools–in other words, the ones with better test scores.
The entire scheme is erected upon a pie-in-the-sky proposition: that turning public education into a pseudo-marketplace in which schools compete on the basis of test scores for their “customers,” i.e., parents and their children, will not only improve educational quality across the board but also wipe out the thorny achievement gaps between races and classes.
The only catch to this seemingly elegant, market-driven solution to education reform is that there’s virtually no evidence that it works. Indeed, after nearly two decades of such “reforms” at the state level following the 1983 diatribe against America’s schools known as A Nation at Risk, the evidence is overwhelming that the Bush approach is, at best, counterproductive to the aims of education and, at worst, a cynical ploy to privatize the nation’s public schools.
Whether the explanation is unabashed greed or merely certain habits of mind in a capitalistic society governed by the professional classes, American policy-makers, while tone deaf to the unfolding educational fiasco they are wreaking, have been mesmerized by regulatory models and corporate-inspired quick fixes that presume school improvement is limited only by the degree to which you can bribe people or punish people on the basis of their performance on standardized tests.
In postmillennium America, the very idea of teaching and schooling as a human-centered, humanistic endeavor is being expunged from our collective lexicon. Under the corporate model of education, schools are businesses and kids are “products,” who are trained to serve the labor needs of American industry. At an alarming rate, the teaching force is being de-skilled, as teachers are transformed from professional practitioners to mere cogs of state and federal education agencies, regulatory bodies that define good teaching as mindless, repetitive drills aimed at raising test scores.
In short, the nation is in the throes of de-humanizing its schools, a de-evolutionary process that no doubt was the inspiration for Deborah Meier’s new book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization. As the co-principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston and founder of Central Park East School in East Harlem, Meier has long been an advocate for the notion that a democratic society is sustainable only to the extent that it nurtures democratic ideals from the ground up, starting with children. In her previous book, The Power of Their Ideas, an account of her experiences in East Harlem, Meier made the case for the small public school as perhaps the last, best place for nurturing democratic notions among the young.
In her new book, Meier builds on those earlier themes and does so in reaction to a dangerous time indeed for public education and democratic principles. As the title of her book suggests, Meier argues that the dominant paradigm for public schools, with its excessive reliance on standardized curriculums and externally imposed standardized testing to measure, sort and rank schools and children, is powered by a cynical distrust of public education. We don’t trust schools so we bureaucratize, standardize, regulate and test them without end, so that we may trust them. All folly and self-defeating, Meier suggests, because all those dehumanizing tools of the modern accountability movement inevitably lead only to more distrust and more public cynicism.
“The dominant American attitude toward schooling these days, embodied in all these changes, is a fundamentally new level of distrust,” Meier writes. “We don’t trust teachers’ judgment, so we constrain their choices. Nor do we trust principals, parents, or local school boards. We don’t trust the public school system as a whole, so we allow those furthest removed from the schoolhouse to dictate policy that fundamentally changes the daily interactions that take place within schools. Nor do we trust in the extraordinary human penchant for learning itself.”
Hence, Meier organizes her book around the notion of trust. She believes that small schools are the model for restoring trust throughout the education system, and that we would do well to replicate their successes on a far larger scale than the relatively rare and isolated examples of small-school experiments across the country. In part one of her book Meier discusses trust between parents and schools, trust among teachers and trust between schoolchildren and their teachers, and how all these facets of trust are complicated by issues of class and race. In part two she takes on the testing and standards movement and how the trend works against building trustworthy schools. In part three Meier discusses her experiences attempting to duplicate her small-school successes on a broader scale.
There is much to appreciate in Meier’s book, sprinkled as it is with insights that draw upon her many years of experience as a teacher and educational innovator. “Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much that they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something dumb,” Meier tells us. In other words, young students must have the freedom to risk making mistakes. The novice’s trust in his or her teachers to permit their mistakes, Meier believes, is essential for sustaining children’s natural desire for learning. Indeed, the wrong answer to a problem could well be the right one in terms of a child’s stage of development. That is, wrong answers may well reflect the stage of learning that children must go through to eventually put the pieces together for making the right answer, much as a scientist tests a hypothesis against the data, revising a theory as it is either supported or refuted by the evidence.
Even something so basic as the design of a school’s physical space can enhance trust among teachers, staff and students and parents. To outsiders of a particular school, its space for learning might well appear to be disorganized, messy and chaotic. But isn’t learning itself often disorganized, messy and chaotic? “The Mission Hill school, like many of the other small schools I know, was deliberately designed to make it hard for the adult culture and the youth culture to hang apart for long,” Meier writes. “The grown-up behind-the-scenes life of the school is made visible and touchable. Kids come in and out to use the copier, the phones, and just to say hello and see what’s up. We don’t have to lecture them about this place belonging to all of us–it does.”
Despite Meier’s sometimes whimsical descriptions of those ideal cases when trust happens, she would be the first to admit to the fragility of it all, especially when race and class come into play. She is especially insightful discussing the challenges they present for the equal distribution of power in even small schools ostensibly devoted to egalitarian principles.
Meier is transparently honest in revealing her private perspectives as a white woman and authority figure growing up in relatively privileged circumstances. Among the privileges of whiteness, she reveals, is that parents like her seem to feel entitled to demand more from schools than many black or Hispanic parents would ever feel comfortable doing. She notes, for example, that special education funds in Massachusetts increasingly have been diverted in recent years to middle-class parents who “have learned to turn what was once thought of as a stigma into an advantage.” She continues,
The privileges that power carries with it are hard to unravel. As an actively involved parent myself, I realized how much more likely my children were to get special treatment in such matters, for example, as teacher assignments. We were simply more in the know. Parental “involvement,” in so many ways critical to good education, can, in other words, potentially increase existing inequities.
But for all of Meier’s many important insights, I was hoping for much more from this book. In attempting to dissect the various elements of trust in the workings of small schools, Meier’s important contribution here is to recognize the centrality of trust in any successful school or, for that matter, school system. But the notion of trust itself is sufficiently abstract that even as keen an observer of schools as Meier is challenged to make the idea come alive for her readers. Books about education have the tendency to lapse into bland generalities and platitudes, and unfortunately Meier occasionally fails to avoid these pitfalls of the genre. To be sure, she provides us with the occasional anecdote and example. But her promising idea to explore trust in schools would have been better served by concentrating on a handful of students, parents and teachers, showing us with a single, powerful narrative why trust is the lifeblood of effective schools and how it can be made to thrive or die.
After the preliminaries, in which Meier tells us in her first few chapters why trust is important for schools and how it’s being endangered, I was primed for more, much more. I wanted to hear directly from people besides Meier. After all, she was a privileged observer in a setting that would seem to be naturally seething with drama. I didn’t want to just hear about the angry parents, or about the children studying ancient Egypt, or about the teachers negotiating among each other for the best ways to talk about race. I wanted Meier, the school principal, to step aside, and allow her story to unfold, to let us into a world of one small school. I wanted to hear teachers, parents and children talk, and watch them act, making the “experiments in trust,” as Meier refers to them, all the more compelling and concrete.
As it stands, Meier has given us an occasionally engaging but always gentle rumination upon her theme. Some 100 pages into the book, we at last encounter what is undoubtedly its heart. When Meier finally does address the calamity of standardized schools and the damage that the test-driven accountability movement has inflicted, we find some of the book’s most trenchant and provocative writing.
She notes, for example, the Alice in Wonderland nature of the so-called standards movement, in which the notion of “proficient” has come to mean whatever politicians want it to mean. Politically motivated lawmakers and educational officials are either clueless or just plain lying when they promise, for example, that virtually all students shall, at some future date, read at grade level. Educational leaders and politicians often make such promises to the unsuspecting public and the gullible press even on what are known as “norm-referenced” reading tests. By their very definition and design as tools to rank students’ performance against one another, just half of students can ever read above grade level on such tests. On this point, Meier observes, “Oklahoma now has a law specifying that 90 percent of its students in third grade should be on grade level on a currently normed test by 2007. If the superintendent is lucky, that is sufficiently far in the future so that he or she will have moved on to another job somewhere else by then.”
Among the accountability movement’s most fortuitous turns since A Nation at Risk in 1983 has been the confluence of liberal and conservative thinking about the imperative of high-stakes testing to forge both educational justice and academic quality. Both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush I, for instance, were vocal advocates of a national testing plan as the means to raise student achievement. And it was a stroke of marketing genius when Bush II, inspired by the phony “Texas Miracle” of his home state, essentially co-opted the left by playing the equity card: However punishing high-stakes testing might be in the short run to blacks and Hispanics, they’ll be better served down the road as they are further motivated to perform up to “world-class standards.” “No Excuses!” became the slogan of the new consensus, and many on the left bought it, disregarding the powerful underlying causes of educational inequality like family poverty and vast disparities in parental wealth and education.
Meier bravely bucks this groupthink, taking note of these trends with a palpable dismay. “I find myself oddly unnerved by this new consensus,” she confides.
It seems obvious that poverty, as well as racism and subtler class injuries, are partly to blame for differences in educational outcomes, even outcomes I accept as important, not merely test scores. Surely the fact that some schools are less well funded matters. Surely, as a parent, I used my advantages to give my kids advantages. The new official consensus that you shouldn’t blame society, inequality, money, racism, or poverty…seems wrongheaded, but in a new way. True enough, excuses encourage laziness and fatalism on the part of students, which undermine their needed efforts to succeed. But is excuses the right word for such facts of life?
However, even when writing about testing and standards–what should be the book’s most powerful passages–Meier’s presentation is a bit uneven, giving the book a sort of tossed-off quality. For example, in discussing the usefulness of the SAT college entrance exam, Meier makes what is perhaps the book’s most provocative statement in one chapter: “During the years I worked with high school students, I was frustrated over and over by the fact that otherwise less competent white students regularly did better on the SAT than top African American kids at the school. Our school’s performance-based portfolios turned out to be far better predictors of college success than the SAT, although no doubt they too had their biases.” At another point, she also notes that white students scoring 1200 on their SATs “weren’t even in the same league intellectually as the African Americans who got 1000.”
Combined, those are two of the most startling observations in the book. Clearly, Meier is on to something important here, approaching a far too little discussed aspect of the proverbial “achievement gap.” Perhaps the gap, as measured by standardized tests, really isn’t as important as many have assumed it to be when African-Americans with modest SATs knock the academic socks off white students despite whites’ superior test scores. Unfortunately, her powerful insight is left hanging, absent the rich detail and concrete examples that might have allowed Meier actually to change hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, the accountability machine marches on, virtually unabated. If in doubt, just follow the money. Borrowing from the corporate bag of tricks, we watch as Joel Klein, the former Bertelsmann CEO and now chancellor of New York City’s schools, promises to give hefty bonuses to superintendents of up to $40,000 a year largely on the basis of standardized test performance. At the other end of the country, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a giant supermarket chain, says it, too, will hand out “cash awards” to schools in Idaho based on test results. Some eighteen states now impose high school “exit” tests, withholding diplomas even from those unlucky students who earn A’s and B’s in their actual classroom work.
And to what end? Have achievement gaps narrowed? Evidence so far suggests not. For instance, the black-white gap in reading test scores for 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds actually narrowed throughout the 1970s and until the mid-1980s, a time when the nation’s schools, according to A Nation at Risk, were deemed to be on the brink of calamity. And yet, from about 1988 to the present, a period marked by rapid growth of testing and new rules for holding schools accountable, those achievement gaps have again started to rise. Has achievement overall improved? As it happens, savvy school bosses operating in high-stakes environments have installed intensive test-preparation programs narrowly focused on drilling for specific exams, thereby pumping up test scores in a matter of weeks or months. But we find those steroid-induced gains don’t transfer into real and lasting learning, because the improvements on the targeted test typically cannot be detected in other tests of achievement. In a recent study of eighteen states with high-stakes testing programs, David Berliner and Audrey Amrein of Arizona State University concluded, “Analyses of these data reveal that if the intended goal of high-stakes testing policy is to increase student learning, then that policy is not working.”
For public education as a humanistic enterprise to survive this onslaught, writers, researchers and progressive educators will have to work the trenches and bring to the policy debates their painstaking documentation of the toll that a test-obsessed nation has wrought upon itself and its progeny. That literature must include hard data as well as compelling narratives, and it’s people like Meier who must lead the way. In her book, In Schools We Trust, Meier has sketched a rough but useful outline for that project. But I’m afraid the heavy lifting remains ahead of us.