Thursday, April 30, 2015

Subverting Big Money's Attacks on Public Education

Debbie Meier
Sixty years ago, I was active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) as well as the democratic socialist movement, and I subbed in Chicago public K-8 schools two days a week. Spending those days in the schools raised some doubts in my mind about both the civil rights and socialist agenda. It was clear that the average urban student was being trained to be “dumb,” thoughtless (in the literal sense) and accepting of what couldn’t be changed. Could we achieve the kind of democracy we dreamed of with such a “dumbed-down” public?
Teaching kindergarten restored my faith. Working in a mostly all-black school was the most exciting experience of my life—intellectually, socially, and emotionally. The kids did have fine vocabularies, were constantly making sense of the world, had profound questions, and were quick learners when engaged. They weren’t “dumb,” but they had good reason to follow their parents’ advice to be obedient and keep quiet in school. With the impetus of the civil rights movement and movements for school change, though, it seemed as if schools could encourage that liveliness of heart and mind and tenacious imagination that I witnessed during the next decade. 

Teaching became my lifelong occupation, and along the way I found parents and teachers who became colleagues in subverting the boredom that we inflicted on active young children for six hours a day. At the same time, I became an expert on the design of standardized tests and discovered that these tests were amazingly sensitive to what differentiated the “culture” and language of those on the margins of society from those in the center. Somehow, those on the margins always gave the “wrong” answers. It turned out, though, that the “wrong” answers were often right if your context was different, and for a while, it seemed as if the inherent unfairness of standardized tests could be rectified.
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