Deborah, This is not a reply to your email, RE: Blog Voices. I have still to reply to that one. And I will. But now I want to ask you about David Ruenzel and Richard Gibboney, both of whom I encounter now, for the first time. Are they friends of yours? Have you read their writings over the years. David is a teacher in San Francisco and writes mainly in Ed Week and Teacher Magazine. Richard is at the University of Pennsylvania and writes books (the Stone Trumpet that I’ve just ordered from Amazon) as well as articles. I ask because I just read an “old” article (11/1995) of David’s, “Is The Education Crisis A Fraud.” For David’s article puts a lot of my chaotic thoughts regarding schools, and in particular the place and importance, or lack of importance, of testing, into good order and thereby brings understanding. Do you remember the article? You are one of the major figures he writes about, and I think what he says about you is accurate and certainly highly respectful. (In fact, and this is unusual I believe in this business where so many education writers are bad mouthing one another, he treats all the major players with respect. He doesn’t put anyone down, and I like that.)
Anyway, to take you back a few years, actually 11 years, to 1995, here are some of the passages that hit home for me, and I think, probably for you also, if you did read it at the time. For me David’s article was another one of those “Eye Openers” (see my previous Blog) that I’m always encountering when I actively pursue an idea, in this instance two ideas, that public schools are going to hell in a handbasket, and that the schools are as good or better than they’ve ever been. David traces the history of this controversy, beginning with the revisionists, David Berliner and Gerald Bracey, who began writing in response to the conservative critics, Bennett, Finn, and Ravitch et al, and then picking up the liberal reformers, that’s you and Ted Sizer and others, and ending up with to me the most interesting voice of all, that of Richard Gibboney. Have you read any of his works? Anyway, here are the passages that I underlined on a first reading.
Bracey thinks that former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel (Ted) Bell was being disingenuous when he suggested in A Nation at Risk that we had to go back to the good old days, when teachers and students really buckled down to the serious business of learning. Says Bracey: "I’ve got news for you, Ted: We ain’t never been a nation of learners. If you want to know why, look at the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. It doesn’t say, ‘Give me your 1,300 SAT scores’; it says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,’ and that’s what we got.”
Don’t you like that, “Give me…. and that’s what we got.”?
Schools, Meier insists, must be about intellectual life. Therefore, she finds the whole better-worse debate, dependent as it is on data, somewhat of a distraction. In this, she is far from alone. Even those sympathetic to the revisionists’ case feel that by so emphasizing test scores, dropout rates, and the like, they are in danger of engaging in a paper chase. Statistics are a double-edged sword: People can use them to win an argument, but in so doing they often forget that what teachers and students actually experience in the classroom is much more important than a compilation of figures.
David Tyack makes a similar point, saying that a test score-driven debate can catastrophically narrow the meaning of education. "In a democracy, schools must help people understand and respect one another, enormous tasks that aren’t even on that agenda,” he says.
Something that is said often enough, repeated, but never heard, such as do unto others… love your neighbor…?
In the 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, the American high school is portrayed as a bland institution where student-customers are free to shop around for what best suits them. While an academic elite take rigorous courses, the vast majority, with the school’s tacit approval, choose from dozens of courses that demand little more than attendance. Because keeping everyone happy is the name of the game, teachers make "treaties” with students: Give us an easy time, and we’ll give you an easy time, too. As in Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise and Goodlad’s A Place Called School, the high school here comes across as a place where intellectual endeavor is best avoided, like the flu.
Gerald Bracey accuses these critics of having their heads in the clouds. "[They are] intellectuals who cannot understand how something so easy for them can be so difficult for others,” he says. "They’ll only be happy when everyone will be an intellectual. That’s a general problem we have among the professoriate–unreal expectations.”
Deborah, are you one of those with “unreal expectations”?
Of everyone I spoke to about the condition of schools, no one was more dismissive of the entire as-good-as-ever debate than Richard Gibboney, who over a long career of ever-increasing disillusionment has been a teacher, the Vermont Commissioner of Education, and Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Education. Now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Gibboney insisted that it makes no sense to talk of schools being better when they scorn the two things that really matter: the cultivation of intelligence and the cultivation of the democratic spirit.
"These two things aren’t even on the agenda,” Gibboney said. "In fact, it would take a brave man to walk into a high school faculty meeting and have the principal say, ‘Here’s so and so, and he’s going to talk to you about democracy and the cultivation of thinking.’ You’d get yawns and people falling asleep.”
Well, Deborah, what about that, “the two things that really matter: the cultivation of intelligence and the cultivation of the democratic spirit”? Am I wrong to think that these are your two things that really matter also? I might even say, although I’ll have to think about this a lot more, that these are the two things that really matter in our correspondence. That is, seeking the truth, and doing so in a civil, caring, tolerant and respective manner… that is, democratically?
And finally this comment, also by Richard Gibboney, which I’ll let stand on its own, because it is so well said.
“I accept the Deweyan assumption that a healthy individual of ordinary intelligence can be an intellectual–someone who enjoys ideas, knows how to use information, participates in civic life. This means reading, conversing, considering issues. This is what intellectuals do, and it’s not really that difficult. But people are so far from what’s important. They’re off in the land of the tertiary: test scores, the hot new idea, and so on. So it just doesn’t make sense to say that schools are better. I was thinking about this today: How can schools be better than the society of which they’re a part? They can’t, and we keep forgetting that. Sometimes I think school reformers should be going after mass TV, urban sprawl, and the big money that buys elections.”
So, what about that?