Poor Children Need a Hand Up, Not Hospice

Michael J. Petrilli continues his conversation with Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah,

Your last post was amazing—one of the most coherent, cogent articulations of a reform alternative that I’ve ever read.

I was particularly moved by this passage:

We need quiet places and noisy places, places full of books and computers and others full of paint and clay. We need adults with the freedom to make spontaneous decisions—shifting the conversation in response to one of those “wonderful moments” and deviating from any designed curriculum. Teachers need the time to mull over what they have learned from student work (written as well as observed) and collegial time to expand their repertoires. We need feedback from trusted and competent colleagues. We need time for families and teachers to engage in serious conversations. We need settings where it seems reasonable that kids might see the school’s adults as powerful and interesting people who are having a good time.

It reminded me why I loved your books when I was studying at the University of Michigan’s education school 20 years ago—and why you and your ideas are so beloved today. This is a joyous, lovely, and loving vision—one that educators and parents alike embrace.

But (you knew the “but” was coming!) … does it “work”?

I almost feel bad asking the question. Here you are, painting a beautiful picture of the kind of school community any teacher would want to join and in which any parent would want to enroll their children. Yet I can’t get past the utilitarian question: Does it work?

The reason I can’t get past it is that the stakes are so high, particularly for children living in poverty. As I wrote last week, the disadvantages such children face are tremendous, deep-seated, and overwhelming. Some sort of “transformational” intervention is needed if they are to overcome the strong forces that conspire to keep them poor into adulthood. Schools might not be the only candidates (others include mentors, religion, the military, and positive work experiences), but I would surely put them high on the list. And they are one of the few over which “we” (the public) have some purchase.

So, does it work? Does your vision of schooling work to help poor children gain the skills and knowledge and confidence and connections that will allow them to climb the ladder into the middle class? Does it help them do better than they otherwise would have, if they had gone to a “regular” (boring!) school?

Last week you wrote:

We need schools that define success in broader ways than test scores or college completion. I want ways that “allow” me to feel pride and pleasure about a former student who didn’t shine at either. It took all our staffs’ combined ingenuity (and patience) to get her a well-earned high school diploma—in five-and-a-half, not four years. She got a full-time stable job working in a nursery school and soon hopes to get an AA degree. She tells me proudly that she is also taking care of the grandmother who took care of her during a very tough childhood. She also volunteers once a week at a local center for the aged. I’m impressed and tell her so.

I agree—that’s success. And I’ve already agreed with you that test scores are imperfect measures for an enterprise as complicated as schooling.

But I can’t go as far as some—say, Diane Ravitch and Richard Rothstein—who argue that any measure, when linked with consequences, becomes hopelessly perverted. We’re talking about public schools, after all—and the public has a right to demand certain results from its investment. And we’re talking about children, who deserve not to be written off before they even turn 18. If not higher test scores and college completion rates, then what?

I’m quite willing to entertain other metrics. And, as I argued two weeks ago, states should entertain them, too—and allow schools to opt out of the whole testing-and-accountability caboodle if they can suggest better measurements. Yes, in the modern era, in most states, that would mean letting schools opt out of the common core.

So Deborah, let’s get specific. If you were seeking an “accountability waiver” for Mission Hill, or similar schools, what would you be willing to promise in terms of student outcomes? Higher graduation rates? Lower teenage pregnancy rates? Lower incarceration rates? Higher voting rates? Higher college matriculation and completion rates (including at the AA level)? Lower unemployment rates? Higher wages?

You name it, I’ll probably go for it. But the answer can’t be to ignore student outcomes. Otherwise, we’ve turned your beautiful educational vision—complete with books and computers, paint and clay—into a form of childhood hospice—a respite from life’s daily struggles, but also a surrender to the inevitable events to come.

Surely we can do better.

-Mike Petrilli

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli has been debating Deborah Meier for the last month.

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