All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


25 January 2014

Chronicling the Meier-Pondiscio Debates

I want to warn you, gentle readers, this post is VERY, VERY long.  I'm more or less summarizing several months of blogging that took place on another site.

Robert Pondiscio, executive director of CitizenshipFirst (a group devoted to "reminding... Americans that the founding purpose of education was to prepare our nation’s young people for self-government")  has been engaging in a lengthy, somewhat in-depth back-and forth with Deborah Meier over on her "Bridging Differences" blog at Education Week.  (Subscription required)  What I'm going to do here is first give a recap of their discussion for those of you who don't have subscriber access.  I think that this debate is at once illuminating, maddening, and important.  After I've set out what was said, then I'm going to offer some brief thoughts on their debates.


It started with what I thought was a fairly innoccuous post by Mr. Pondiscio, who once worked in journalism, then decided to become a 5th Grade teacher, and now pushes for civic education reform.  His position was basically that people are a little too set in their ideological positions in the ed reform world, and that even if we can't always agree about structural reform issues, at the very least we should be having conversations about instructional reform issues.   Along the way, he mentioned that he was in favor of "a knowledge-rich core curriculum; safe and orderly schools staffed by competent and committed adults; schools where educating for citizenship is as important as for college and career."  (Emphasis mine, because this is what's going to start the ball rolling.)  But while he wasn't going to abandon his commitment to these things, he wasn't interested in zealotry.


Deborah responded somewhat obliquely -- though I'm not sure there was a way to directly respond to Robert's generalized musings.  She began by professing a commitment to the role of education in preparing students for active participation in a free democracy.  Then she said this: "So it is on the basis of democracy, for example, that I find the common core risky—regardless of one's conservative or liberal views. Even if it was not enforced by testing, and even if it were not written in a way that actually impinges on "pedagogy," and even if I wrote it myself, I believe it distorts some essential intellectual premises upon which democracy rests. " Her objection to "common core", then, is a fairly standard objection to centralization, or to academic dogma. "Before 'what' comes 'why'," in teaching for Meier. And the why -- democratic participation -- suggests that a monlithic curriculum is at odds with the mission of schools.


Having seemingly had his entire opening piece reduced to an off-handed mention of a "core curriculum", Pondiscio reluctantly engaged. The key quote here is this: "A good education must prepare us for our public role as citizens, but also for wise exercise of individual freedom and personal responsibility. In short, education for democracy also means education for liberty." And liberty, for Pondiscio, includes a certain degree of selfishness. Schools aren't just about public participation: they are also "engines of upward mobility, individual agency, and self-fulfillment." (Whatever that last thing means.) Pondiscio invoked E.D. Hirsch (whom he affectionately calls "Don) to make the case that it is a content-rich curriculum -- the actual learning of important things -- that gives students the maximal chance for success, and for membership in the "ruling class." It's here that we can see the first deep ideological fissure opening up between Meier and Pondiscio: she believes that "ruling class" should have a universal extension, while Pondiscio seems resigned to a ruling class shaped by egalitarian ideals: meritocracy and open access. Pondiscio closed by noting that "the education [he] was trained to give to [his] students left them less than prepared for self-sufficiency and upward mobility."


The game is now afoot. And having isolated a slogan upon which they both can agree -- EDUCATION FOR DEMOCRACY AND LIBERTY -- she starts trying to figure out what those words mean, starting with Democracy. Now I confess I don't really understand what her point is for the first half of her post. She meanders a lot, but then things crystallize and I think it comes down to the sentiment that Democracy is hard, that it's not perfect, and that "we can't stop acknowledging the influence of class, wealth, the color of our skin, being privileged, and being well-educated." Democracy, it seems for Meier, is intimately tied up with equality of many sorts: equality of respect, equality of political standing, and even perhaps equality of economic power. The public schools, she thinks, provide us with a stepping stone to a hoped-for "better society" in which we are all free and equal. Education is "not for the sake of the so-called free-market economy -- which has helped make us less equal" but for the sake of equality of power (something intimately tied up with money). Deborah closed pessimistically -- warning that even if schools were able to direct themselves to this sort of task, the deck seems stacked against them. There may be too many obstacles facing some schools without some sort of structural reform. To that end, "We need to end a world in which very rich children spend 12-plus years in schools that spend $30,000 to $40,000 per student and where teachers have class sizes of 12, while other children attend schools that spend $8,000-$15,000 and teachers have loads of 160-170 different students per week."


In his response, Pondiscio attempts to refocus this debate about social equality and structural egalitarian reform into a debate specifically about curricular detail:
The tough, essential, and unavoidable question is what, if anything, we expect all children to learn. What are the basic, non-negotiable things? Is there a baseline of common knowledge that a free people must command in order to prize, preserve, and protect the freedom and liberty we both agree are essential?
 What follows feels a little well-rehearsed, as one might expect from the head of a group called "CitizenshipFirst". Educating for Democracy requires educating for citizenship. And as it happens, the U.S. has a citizenship exam that one-third native-born citizens allegedly cannot pass. Educating for liberty, though, "is a trickier question." It seems to have something to do with an introduction to language. Here Pondiscio seems to have in mind something like the discursive theories of education presented by R.S. Peters -- a proper education is one that gives the student the ability to participate in conversations of value, to interact within the cultural soup of his or her society. (That language is all my take on Peters, not anything Pondiscio says directly.) Having put the emphasis on language, Pondiscio notes that "factual knowledge is the wellspring of language proficiency." Pondiscio envisions a "shared knowledge" of art, music, literature, science, and history that provides the milieu in which free and democratic interactions can take place. He then challenges Meier to "specifcy any body of knowledge that all children must know."


Meier's response is at first, frankly a bit sneering: she poo-poohs the idea of basing any sort of educational reform on something as fragmented and silly as the U.S. Citizenship test, which she casts as a half-random collection of facts like, "Who wrote the national anthem." She makes a very interesting point that "only kings of yore believed they had unrestricted freedom", and that democracy not just about ensuring liberty, but about limiting it responsibly. But she's not really responding to Pondiscio's challenge (which seems fine to me because it's her blog and he doesn't get to unilaterally set the terms of debate). She does engage with his educational theorizing though, agreeing that "most of the dialogue about power is conducted in a language unfamiliar to many citizens." She then suggests that it's not just that the poor should be initiated into the discourse of the powerful, but that maybe everyone should take the time to build linguistic bridges. (I note that the title of her blog is, after all, "Bridging Differences.") She takes it as given that we all live inside our own linguistic worlds (which I think is correct), and she' invokes (again, impilcitly) the sort of educational theory that holds that different knowledge structures aren't deficient, and uses that implicitly as a platform for endorsing a sort of relativism. The takeaway line?
A diversity of knowledge claims is essential for democracy and liberty, as well as for the arts, sciences, technology, etc. When one "best practice" rules, it undermines liberty, democracy, and progress, in general. We need collaborators and resisters, collegiality and ornery individualists.
In short, she believes in decentralization not just of curriculum, but of culture as well. At least that's the impression she's left me with.


Pondiscio opens his next post by noting that she didn't answer his question. His next big move is when he takes on her fundamental premise from the last post:
You asked, "Do we really have to teach a common core to promote thinking, or do we mean 'thinking like us?'" The answer, whether we like it or not, is empirically and emphatically, "Yes." And if by "thinking like us" you mean "thinking like Americans" (all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity), the answer is clearly and unambiguously "Yes" again.
So now we've got a clear disagreement. Pondiscio thinks that there is something that should be "thinking like an American." Meier, it seems, believes that one is an American and that being one entitles one to the freedom to think in whatever way comes naturally. What started as a question of policy seems to have morphed into a barely sublimated clash of world-views. It's exciting stuff.

He then reiterates his earlier claim that "cognitive skills... are knowledge-based." They are not disembodied faculties, but ways of engaging with the world. (Again, I'm rephrasing.) Like a good politician, Pondiscio then repeats his call for some sort of solid body of factual knowledge to ground the cultural/epistemological structure that he believes we should share. He closes by asking Meier if she understands why he is saying that the ends he seeks -- social justice and equality -- require a grounded and shared culture.


The title of Meier's next post is "A Standard Curriculum Won't Erase Gaps". Her actual post, though, has more to do with her earlier arguments dealing with the structural inequality of schools. She thinks that local control -- the ability of parents to interact with, influence, and participate in the project of education -- is what will promote democracy. She doesn't want an impersonal, detached bureaucracy. "In the end," she writes, "I simply want for all children what the wealthiest count on for theirs."

What we have, she says, is a "dual" system: "one tightly organized and structured to prevent trouble" (for poor kids) and "the other open and inviting, expecting the best" (for rich kids). She then offers "four steps" for "using our schools to defend and deepen our democratic ideals." I want to warn readers: it's not really four steps. It's a whole bunch of ideas, some of which are steps and some of which aren't, all smashed together under the numbers 1-4. Actually, she makes two other points that she labels 5 and 6. Maybe the "steps" that she's talking about are in part psychological "steps" that people need to take? I don't know. I'm not going to try to break them down. Instead I'm going to pick out the three big themes that she takes up:
THEME 1: Ideological commitments to pluralism and "messy" democracy. We've covered these above.

THEME 2: Pedagogical suggestions. There are two, really. First, children need adult interaction and behavior modeling. Second, we need to get rid of tests because they are essentially engines of differentiation and social sorting, and that sorting inherently takes place within one particular socio-linguistic framework or another. That means the test inherently privilege one perspective over another, and that's unacceptable in Meier's democracy.

THEME 3: Structural Issues in Education. First, we get an answer to the question Pondiscio's been asking:
I know of no specific information—much less pages and pages of information— that would help democracy OR the economy flourish. To demand that all 4-year-olds can count to 100, 5-year-olds to 1,000, and by age 6 be able to point to Mesopotamia on a world globe surely wouldn't appear on my list of "musts." It all "depends." And there are far better ways to insure that the "it depends" isn't an excuse for racism.
Then we get an interesting statement: "Democracy won't survive if we depend on schools alone." Meier's not interesting, it seems, in fixing schools. She wants to restructure society. If I can take some liberties in summation: A Standard Curriculum Won't Erase Gaps. Erasing Gaps will erase gaps.

She closes by -- uncharitably, I think --  taking another dig at the "Star Spangled Banner" question.

 Pondiscio responds by attempting to claim the mantle of the "Real Progressive." His heavily rhetorical post boils down to this: he's working tirelessly to see that students from all backgrounds have a real chance at social mobility, at economic success. And he's more or less sick of "limousine liberals" dumping on America as a hopeless, greed-infested, inherently immoral hotbed of structural inequality. Then he suggests that Deb might be in that camp. There's really not much more to it than that.


Meier's response is another long, meandering set of ruminations, loosely organized around a few themes. The themes are by now familiar: inherent structural inequality, pluralistic democracy, etc. She claims to be a "Dewey-an" on "means and ends" (which is odd, because she seems to be absolutely rejecting the more fundamental theories of education upon which Dewey erected his normative work) I take it that by this she means she thinks that there's support for her vision of extremely decentralized democratically-organized education in Dewey's work (which there arguably is).

The most interesting thing she says, though, gets to what seems to me to be the heart of the matter: what are we trying to do with this institution called school?

The crux is that, what we won't know, even after a lifetime of learning, is far more than what we will, no matter how hard we try. Not to mention at 18. A lot of what we won't know or understand is important stuff, but so is what we will know. (Including the stuff the poor know that the "common core" curriculum doesn't dignify as real knowledge.)

The task from K-12 is building a thirst for knowledge, pleasure in speaking up, and curiosity, curiosity, curiosity—persistently pursued. We need habits of the mind that carry over to the many hours we are not in school and the years and years that follow. "Take your hand off my throat so I can breathe" is precisely what the best teachers are crying out for.

I can heartily sympathize with this. School isn't just about learning the stuff in school: it's about becoming a certain kind of person. But if we want schools that are going to provide this sort of thing, we're going to be waiting a long time, Meier says.  (I have made alterations (in bold) to this quote to make it more intelligible.)
If we wanted to tackle even these school-based inequities we'd need schools that were organized very differently: Schools where we're not only told there should be "homework," but we count the hours involved in reading and responding to it; or schools where everyone agrees we need more parent "engagement" and so we make time and space for this engagement to occur; or schools that don't just parrot the slogan—each child should be taught to his or her individual strengths and  but acknowledge that we have to tackle class size and a teacher's high school pupil loads of 150-plus students a day to live up to it.

Following a break for New Year's, Deborah took up the pen once again. This time, she seemed to be more interested in advancing the dialectic. Her focus was explicitly on the questions raised over the course of the discussion: "What kind of compromise is possible that meets each of our minimum requirements—and promotes democracy and liberty? What would a public system that puts "citizenship first," but supports many ways to get there, look like? What's the "key" to our differences, and how does it play out?"

She advances a theory that democracy presumes -- or perhaps "requires" might be a better word -- a certain level of "equality of condition, power, skill, and knowledge" to operate. In other words, it requires the very sort of thing it's supposed to help promote. And she once again expresses pessimism that we're in a position to engage in real democracy with the structural inequalities in our society as bad as they are.

Then she shifts gears slightly, moving into a discussion of power-structures and decisionmaking in schools. (Some critical-theory types might call this a discussion of "praxis".) She gives some examples of decentralization that took place on a small scale in New York, and indicated that "small networks" of autonomous schools may hold the key to restructuring education. She then attempts to shift the conversation to this topic -- to deep structural questions about educational authority rather than questions about curriculum.


After confessing that he "will always be more interested in what goes on inside schools than in governance issues and structural reform", Pondiscio responds by more or less saying that he agrees with Meier on the structural issues, but that absent some sort of solid content that is to be taught by these small networks of schools, all you get is "new and different flavors of bad." He acknowledges that neither he nor Meier "would be completely comfortable" with the other's pedagogical and curricular choices, and that this isn't necessarily a problem. Pondiscio seems to be following Meier's lead and moving the question to the structural, away from the curricular. He's less interested in power and democracy, though, than he is in organization and structure:
How do we create the conditions that allow both of us to pursue these different approaches, which clearly have similar ends -- engaged citizens prepared for a lifetime of active citizenship? What kind of system accommodates both our approaches, and many others?

Those aren't questions that Deborah's going to answer, though. Her next post deals more directly with some of the multicultural-education-theory stuff that's been lurking in the background of her last few posts. Specifically, she takes up the notion that teachers need to abandon their view of non-dominant cultures as deficient or inferior. She offers anecdotes of teachers who correct language, thinking that they are helping the student, when in fact they are just getting the students to clam up and withdraw.

To address social inequity, it seems, schools must reach across the cultural gap and work with communities and parents on their own terms. This, Meier seems to be hinting, is something that can only take place on a smaller, individualized level. Schools require the liberty to deal with their constituents on that smaller, individualized level.

Implicit in this is a rebuke of Pondiscio's overall point: if you adopt a single cultural framework as the "right" framework in which to initiate students, you will be unable to communicate with the families and communities in the intensely interpersonal way needed for true education.

I confess, I'm making Meier's post sound more focused than it actually is -- but I take it that's the real point.

In Pondiscio's response, he seems just about ready to throw up his hands and walk away. Yes, decentralization of schools is good. Yes there is a "hidden curriculum" that enforces the values of a dominant culture, and often to the detriment of those not born to it. But what do those schools teach? He offers an example -- really, it's a challenge to Meier to come up with something of her own -- of useful content that he's been working with in Harlem: a curriculum designed specifically to give students the practical tools to engage in civic life: information about voting, about political power and process, and experience with advocacy. He wants to show the students the levers of power in society, and teach them how to pull them. (It's all very Lisa Delpit in a way -- though she approaches things on a more overtly linguistic plane.)


Meier's response is extensive -- and it amounts to summarizing the entire foundational ethos behind CPESS -- Central Park East Secondary School, which she helped found and direct (which you can read about here). The long and short of it is that specific content doesn't matter -- the information the students learn can be from history textbooks or pulled from the morning's headlines. What mattered for CPESS was an ethos of inquiry and skepticism, and empirical habits of mind: asking questions such as What's the evidence? Is there a pattern? Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

What Meier really wants, though, is for schools to have the liberty to pursue different approaches, and for the schools to have access to each other, learn from each other, and even criticize each other (in a non-authoritarian way, I take it).


And that brings us to the most recent post by Pondiscio: If Not College, Then What? The title is somewhat misleading. He's not asking it rhetorically, but sincerely. This is by far the least tightly-written of his posts, and it almost feels more like Meier's writing. Maybe they're rubbing off on each other.

He sees school's mission as preparing students for life -- for an independent life, a rich and fruitful life no matter how it's lived or accomplished. Sometimes this means college, but sometimes it means other things as well. Meier and Pondiscio seem to be in rough agreement that "college for all" is a mistake as an educational philosophy. But if not college.... well, he wants to know what those other things are: apprenticeships? Workprep?

He closes by noting that children imitate the adults in their lives, and wondering what sorts of values the adults at CPESS were modeling. But honestly, at this point it seems like the conversation is over and they are talking completely past each other, perhaps at best trying to score rhetorical points.


So that's the dialectic, such as it is. I've got a few thoughts to offer in summation.

Pondiscio wants a goal -- an "outcome" to put it in modern jargon. He wants to be able to look at a school and see if it's meeting the goal. His goal, it seems, can be very abstractly defined, and open to all manner of accomplishing it. But he's still got the Peters vision of school as an initiation into social and cultural life going in the back of his head.   The goal is the ability to act freely and forcefully within society, to be a democratic "free agent", as it were.

Meier is far more interested in process.  She seems to take for granted that the goals of democracy (and a soft strain of Marxism, I'm sensing) is going to be reached if schools can achieve good process.  Of course, good process for Meier includes economic and social parity, or something close to it, as a pre-requisite.

But the goal that they are talking about is a different goal.  Pondiscio takes it for granted that power is power, and that there is a language of power in our country that you can either learn or not.  Meier wants to decentralize not just education, but power.  She wants to "empower", if I can use that word, all of the various social discourses that make up our country.

These positions each have their problems.  Meier's position borders on incoherency, because the intensely multicultural perspective is nonetheless a specific and particularized perspective.  You don't get to raise a child "without a perspective", open to every idea under the sun.  Claudia Mills made this point in her attack on Joel Feinberg's famous "open futures" argument: to raise a child in a thousand faiths is to raise them with no faith whatsoever.  And that is, nonetheless, a concrete choice that closes off opportunities.

Pondiscio's position is more philosophically stable, I think, but treacherously so.  Meier is right to think that there are deep problems with the idea of centralizing what is to be taught, which socio-linguistic framework we're going to use in building curriculum.

It's a double-bind: in order to accomplish the goals of education, you need to have a culture into which to initiate your students.  But the students already have  a culture, or the beginnings of one, and if it's at odds with what's being taught, there will be trouble and difficulty.  In a fairly homogenous monoculture, education is a simplistic, even trivial exercise.  Set up your schools and go to town.

But we're not in a monoculture.  We're educating for a huge, diverse society.

And I take it that that means we have to teach to the things that we all have in common.  And THAT  means that our curriculum is going to be very, very, very, very thin.  At a national level, it's probably going to be thin enough that the primary education a child will receive will take place outside of school.

And that means that inequalities will be magnified, as the dominant class leverages their position to reinforce their children's status, and the poorer children are left to adapt themselves to the position into which they are born.

So we turn to education to fix these inequalities.  But what do we teach?  Well.... we're educating for a huge diverse society...

I think Pondiscio, perhaps inadvertently, made the best point when he asked "Who's the real Progressive?"  Because what we see unfolding in this long, rambling debate is a clash of two models of Progressivism.

In the end, it comes down to this: Pondiscio, whether he admits it or not, wants cultural cohesion.  He recognizes that the powerful are not going to give up their power just because, and that they will persist because of that power.  So he thinks the way to go is to expand the socio-linguistic framework of the dominant class to everyone equally.  It's very old-school Progressive.  We're going to make Progress together -- onward to the Promised Land.

Meier thinks that this is dangerous, and I also get the sense that she thinks that this is sort of like cultural genocide (although to be fair she NEVER says that).  But to do things her way seems to be to just hope that, maybe some day, the powerful will decide to be nice and share.  It's very Hippy-Progressive: have a Coke and a smile. Though one has to give her insane props for what she and hers were able to do with CPESS.  But there's no question that CPESS is a craftsman's custom work of art, and what Pondiscio thinks we need for solving our more systemic inequalities is a template for die-cast molding.

He's right to think that we probably can't rely on individual craft in this sort of thing, not if we want a global solution.  But maybe Meier's right that a global solution isn't a solution at all -- just another problem.  But she's also pretty explicitly rejecting Dewey's notion that one of the jobs of a school is to pick away the stuff in a culture that's not important, and to isolate what is.  That's exactly what Pondiscio seems to want to do.

So who's the REAL Progressive?  I don't know.

But I'd love to sit these two down with Paolo Freire and then ask that question.


Rachel Levy said...

Hi Michael! I have been reading BD and know the work of both authors pretty well. I really enjoyed hearing your take and had some of the same reactions when I read.

Michael E. Lopez said...

Heya Rachel! Long time no chat. I stop by your blog all the time, but I've been too lazy to comment. :(

Sometimes I wonder if back and forths like that really accomplish anything.

It's not like there's going to be a compromise, because a compromise is something you do when you're actually doing something and not just talking about it.

And it's unlikely that anyone's going to change their minds.

But maybe clarity about what the areas of disagreement are is enough.

Rachel Levy said...

I've been too lazy to blog much, so we're even. Although honestly, I haven't been blogging as much in part because of what you say--I'm not sure how much it accomplishes if not accompanied by action. I feel like I have much more of an actual impact being active in education matters locally than I do just talking about national and theoretical education matters. And yes, local face-to-face interactions and democracy involve compromising.

I also felt in the series that there has been too much gesturing, like gesturing at "liberty" and gesturing at "democracy" without much in the way of concrete definitions.