In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization

In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization

by Deborah Meier

Paperback(New Edition)



We are in an era of radical distrust of public education. Increasingly, we turn to standardized tests and standardized curricula-now adopted by all fifty states-as our national surrogates for trust.

Legendary school founder and reformer Deborah Meier believes fiercely that schools have to win our faith by showing they can do their job. But she argues just as fiercely that standardized testing is precisely the wrong way to that end. The tests themselves, she argues, cannot give the results they claim. And in the meantime, they undermine the kind of education we actually want.

In this multilayered exploration of trust and schools, Meier critiques the ideology of testing and puts forward a different vision, forged in the success stories of small public schools she and her colleagues have created in Boston and New York. These nationally acclaimed schools are built, famously, around trusting teachers-and students and parents-to use their own judgment.

Meier traces the enormous educational value of trust; the crucial and complicated trust between parents and teachers; how teachers need to become better judges of each others' work; how race and class complicate trust at all levels; and how we can begin to 'scale up' from the kinds of successes she has created.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807031513
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 08/16/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

MacArthur Award-winning educator Deborah Meier is author of The Power of Their Ideas and Will Standards Save Public Education?. She lives in Hillsdale, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt

In Schools We Trust

Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization

By Deborah Meier


Copyright © 2002 Deborah Meier.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8070-3142-9

Five years ago, when I wrote about small schools in East Harlem and what they had to teach the nation's schools, I couldn't have imagined the landscape of education we find ourselves in today. That standardized testing would make a spectacular comeback seemed extremely unlikely. That the majority of states would decide who should be promoted or who should graduate from high school or how much to pay teachers and principals on the basis of standardized test scores seemed far-fetched. That even a conservative federal administration, committed in principle to local control, would mandate annual high-stakes tests for every local schoolhouse in the nation seemed politically impossible. And yet all this has come to pass, and more.

I certainly couldn't have predicted how quickly the lives of schools and kids would be affected by these changes. Schools are increasingly organized around testing, with grave consequences from kindergarten through high school. Children are pressed into earlier and earlier formal literacy activities in order to improve test scores. Learning about the world has been translated, even for four-year-olds, into formats conducive to evaluation by standardized tests. One major city has even outlawed recess in the service of increased desk time. Kids are monitored from morning to nightfall byincreasingly undervalued and constrained adults, in highly bureaucratic and powerless institutional settings—and told to keep their noses to the grindstone.

The dominant American attitude toward schooling these days, embodied in all these changes, is a fundamentally new level of distrust. 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. I believe that this far-reaching distrust has its roots in facts about our lives that go well beyond schooling. There are, after all, good reasons for buyers to beware the goods being sold them, including those that come from their local schools. But whatever the origins, social distrust plays itself out in education in the form of draconian attempts to "restore accountability" through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.

The tragedy of this approach is that it undermines what I think is the best way to make schools trustworthy and raise standards. Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure. Even more tragically, standardization and bureaucratization undermine the possibilities for the kind of education we all claim is sorely lacking. Some of the good news I celebrated five years ago remains good, for sure. Both small schools and public school choice, for example, have increasingly more powerful support in various places. But the larger vision of education those reforms serve is threatened.

This book is about the possibility of a different way to organize our children's schooling. Like some of the proponents of tests and standardization, I too am obsessed by the issue of accountability and adult responsibility for our children. Like them, I believe that the traditional public schools have failed to serve too many people's intellectual needs, including a substantial minority whose children have been dramatically abandoned to unworkable schools. But I believe that the solution lies in the opposite direction. Schools are asked to achieve an extraordinary and revolutionary goal—to provide all children with the kind of schooling once offered only to a small elite—but they are being forced to continue working within factory-style models of schooling and accountability that not only work against that goal but, as I argue, make it impossible. The issue of trust needs to be tackled head-on if we are to embrace this expansive vision of education, by enhancing—not diminishing—the authority and judgment of those who know our children best. We need to examine the varied meanings of trust and carefully rebuild, one by one, schools that are trustworthy. For children, there is no shortcut to becoming thoughtful, responsible, and intellectually accomplished adults. What it takes is keeping company with adults who exercise these qualities in the presence of adults-to-be. As Mike Rose notes in his indispensable book Lives on the Boundary, "To have a prayer of success, we'll need many conceptual blessings," above all a "revised store of images ... that celebrate the plural, messy human reality" of educational excellence. I hope to give the reader, from my experience in schools, images of trustful multiage settings very different from those we now hold in our heads.

The message of this book, then, is not "just trust us." The title, with its echoes of "in God we trust," is a provocation, not an invocation. Our schools must never be beyond question, argument, debate. First, our schools don't deserve such trust; second, I don't think it would be healthy for us to invest such trust in any secular institution, and surely not in any democratic institution. I invoke the religious parallel as a challenge: What kind of trust can and should we have in our schools? What kind of trust should we practice within their walls? The trust I have in mind is not based on blind faith. It is a hard-won, democratic trust in each other, tempered by healthy, active skepticism and a demand that trust be continually earned—what school people these days call the demand for accountability. Trust is thus a goal and a tool. If there is faith involved in the kind of trust I have in mind, it is faith in the extraordinary drive and capacity of all children to learn and in the ability of ordinary adults to be powerful, active citizens in a democracy. This trust demands that we cope even when trust is occasionally betrayed, as it inevitably will be, if we want schools that enable kids to cope with modern and democratic life, and if we want this for not some but all kids. The schools whose stories this book tells are all public schools built around trusted adults. They are merely a small sample of the thousands of such schools in this nation, whose stories we too often ignore. These are communities that are warily, often quarrel-somely determined to stick with each other for the sake of the kids. Within these communities, teachers are encouraged to talk to each other, debate things of importance, and use their judgment on a daily basis. Parents meet with teachers frequently and press for their own viewpoint. Sometimes they make trouble. Kids learn the art of democratic conversation—and the art of passing judgment—by watching and talking to teachers whom the larger community shows respect for and who in turn show respect for their communities. Principals are partners with their faculties and have the respect of their communities. Everywhere you look, in such schools, people are keeping company across lines of age and expertise. Innumerable casual as well as formal interactions take place between generations. And there are plenty of checks and balances to support appropriately skeptical families, citizens, and taxpayers. But the bottom line is, the school has sufficient authority to act on its collective knowledge of its children.

Of course, all this would be irrelevant if this kind of trust did not help schools teach what children need to know. But it does. The kind of trust I explore in this book, in all its varied shades and meanings, has enormous educative value. Children in the schools I have worked in, and in many others like them, thrive as learners—many more children do, in fact, than ever did in traditionally organized public schools.

I know that even the best of these adults in the best of these schools often feel on the defensive, half ready to give up acting like grown-ups and just do as they are told, pull back into their shells, or quit. And that is not merely a result of the society's attitudes toward schools. The reality of life in many of our school communities—mirroring, as they do, the life of the larger society—is that it's difficult, fraught with the potential for disappointment, conflict, and frustration. Organizing schools around collective decision making among teachers, having teachers be responsible for each other's work, inviting parents into the life of the school, balancing the authority of professional and lay leadership, dealing with often sharp differences—all these are enormous challenges that never go away. What staves off discouragement, when so often working against the grain, is the pleasure we get from the company we keep—colleagues, kids, families. It's hard to hang out with kids all day without wanting to surround them with a loving and beloved community.

That's the topic of this book: the complicated nature of trust as it pertains to schooling. This topic requires exploring the varied meanings of the word itself and reminding ourselves of its proper contradictions and limitations. There are appropriate and inappropriate levels and forms of trust for any situation.

It's not that I take to trust naturally or easily; neither do I find myself comfortable appealing to it. Quite the contrary. I knew from the day I began my encounters with public education that there had to be a way to make schools "trustworthy enough" for me to remain both a public school parent and a public school teacher. I also knew that trust couldn't mean abandoning my skeptical mind-set. If I trust myself, which is the most important starting place, it might require being distrustful on many occasions. When a mechanic I barely know is annoyed at me because I don't trust his judgment, I sympathize with him, but I get a second opinion anyway. When friends worry over whether they can trust a politician on the basis of how that politician comes across on television, I remember my mother's words—"they've a track record, that's where you look to see if you trust them." If this made good sense a half century ago, it's far more pertinent in today's world of virtual realities.

I hope to show in Part One what schools built on the premise of trust—with all its warts—might be like and why trust is intimately connected to cognition—both social learning and academic learning, as well as the fundamental and daily challenges involved in building trusting and trustworthy communities.

In Part Two of this book, I hope to demonstrate that the alternative —trust through testing—can't work. The misplaced worship of the quasi science of testing, I will argue, threatens to undermine the very accountability it was designed to serve and to increase, not decrease, the growing quality-of-life gaps that bedevil so many of our children in school and outside of school. Standardized testing and the systems built around it are the latest obstacles facing us, and they threaten to engulf the energies of teachers in a fruitless and counterproductive attempt to beat the test rather than take on the unfulfilled task of educating all children well.

Finally, I tackle the ornery public policy implications for "scaling up" the kind of work that rests on fallible human judgment—and the messy in-betweens required to make schools trustworthy enough. This book is also an urgent plea for seeking solutions compatible with the survival and nourishment—some might even argue restoration—of democratic public life.

I'm unabashedly hoping to convince you that it's possible to raise our kids another way. The way I suggest would even be cost-effective, and the necessary trade-offs would be quite tolerable. That this approach happens to be good for most kids, while critical for the most vulnerable, also makes it a good political sell. Such small and rooted school communities are not escapes from the larger world but the best possible training for coping successfully with such a world. And when we succeed in building such communities, not only do our children become more skillful but also we have helped them imagine what a world writ large that shared such trustful values could be like. Learning in the Company of Adults

One afternoon I find myself approaching a group of young teenagers hanging out in our hallways. They aren't hanging out surreptitiously. They are not always within earshot, but they frequently make it known that they are nearby, where we adults are also hanging out—fixing our rooms, meeting together informally, arguing about some important matter or other. They give me the distinct impression that they want both to have their own world and to be sure it is connected to ours.

Still I am obliged to remind them (and myself), "School was over an hour ago. You can't hang out in the school like this; it's not safe." I mean safe for me, of course. I am worried about liability issues. Some years earlier an amused but genuinely curious adolescent boy had even put the irony into words for me: "Do you mean it would be safer for us to be out on the street?" So as usual I let it go with a warning that neither they nor I take seriously.

Two things move me about the memory of these events, and countless others like them: the genuine, heartfelt desire of young people to be in the company of adults who are doing adult work, and the way our institutions and adult lives are structured more and more to keep us at a distance. As I think back on more than thirty years in schools, I believe that the contradiction between these two facts is the central educational dilemma of our times. In those boys' desire to hang out with and around adults lies the secret, the key to transforming our schools—and the key to the best avenues to learning.

A television interviewer talking to a group of high school dropouts some years ago asked them whether they knew any grown-ups who were college graduates. They all said no. Not true, I thought—since, after all, they had known a dozen or more teachers over the years, all of whom had attended college. But I was wrong. As I began to pay closer attention I realized that of course they had not known any of their teachers. We adults were invisible to them. In commenting to a friend about how disrespected I felt when some teenagers poured in the subway car playing loud music, using what appeared to me inappropriate public language, and dressed to shock, I was reminded that, alas, my assumption that they were doing this "to annoy" might be wishful thinking—maybe they didn't really register our presence at all.

It's a striking fact that kids don't keep a lot of company these days with the kind of adults—in or out of school—whom they might grow up to be (or whom we might wish them to grow up to be); in fact, they don't keep genuine company with many adults at all beyond their immediate family. Our children don't work alongside adults in ways that, for good or bad, were once the norm for most young people in training to become adults. Even when they take jobs, it's usually in the company of teenagers—at a Gap or McDonald's.

Is this phenomenon truly new? Yes. And does it have an impact on the trust necessary for good schooling? Yes again.

A century ago, even less, children made the transition to adulthood early, steeped in the company of adults. Surely by fifteen or sixteen, when a majority of youngsters today are still a half dozen years or more away from entering the adult world, most were already in the thick of adult lives: having children, earning a living. They spent their time in the midst of multiage settings from birth on—small communities, farms, workplaces where they knew grown-ups intimately and knew a lot about how they went about their work, negotiating their way through life. Being young in the olden days wasn't idyllic, not by a long shot. It's useful to say this to oneself over and over. The early immersion in adulthood that characterized life a century ago was for many a source of enormous pain and hardship. Good people worked hard to help create a longer and more protected childhood. But for good or ill, until quite recently, most of the learning of how to be an adult took place formally or informally in the company of grown-ups—by working alongside them, picking up the language and customs of grown-upness through both instruction and immersion, much as they had learned to talk and walk.


Excerpted from In Schools We Trust by Deborah Meier. Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Meier. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Part 1Trust and the Culture of Schools
1.Learning in the Company of Adults9
2.Experiments in Trust: The Mission Hill School and Others25
3.Parents and Schools41
4.Teachers Trusting Teachers58
5.Trusting Each Other's Agendas and Intentions: The Dynamics of Race and Class78
Part 2Testing and Trust
6.Why Tests Don't Test What We Think They Do95
7.Standardization versus Standards119
8.The Achievement Gap137
Part 3A Broader Vision
9.Scaling Up: Stacking the Odds in Favor of the Best155
10.Democracy and Public Education175
Suggested Readings183

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