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Values and rigor in high school reform

A conversation about high school reform between a founder of the small schools movement and the head of one of Denver’s most successful charter networks waxed philosophical on Thursday.

Deborah Meier, a senior scholar at New York University’s Steinhardt School and the first educator to win the MacArthur genius award, and Bill Kurtz, founder of the Denver Schools of Science and Technology, discussed topics ranging from teacher responsibility to testing to rigor in instruction.

Here are highlights from the conversation, held at the RedLine urban art space and sponsored by A+ Denver and the Colorado Education Association.

On democracy

Meier labeled democracy one of her two obsessions, the other being our “curiosity about everything.”

“I’m feeling much more nervous about the future of the idea of democracy. I think we have an extraordinarily lucky nation … How come school is such a poor imitation of what it means to live in a democracy?”

Meier argued that young people used to learn from their elders by interacting with them. A shoemaker’s apprentice learned from the shoemaker. Today’s youth are separated from adults.

“Kids need to grow up in the company of adults who are transparent, people of knowledge and wisdom.”

“We have created a society where 90 percent of our kids grow up in worlds separate from adults. They are in tight, strong peer communities because that is the only thing available to them. They don’t join society. They don’t watch their father shoemaker make shoes.”

For Kurtz, having choices is essential to a healthy democracy.

“We are committed to giving our children choice,” Kurtz said. “We think that is implicit in a democracy. We give them the kind of education that can give them lifelong choices. We want every child to have the opportunity to choose college if they so desire. Kids should be making that choice.”

On teachers

If teachers are the model picture of what it means to be adult, “what is that picture like?” Meier asked.

Meier said teachers work in a profession where they are routinely humiliated by students and others. She said schools must foster communities based on respect.

She also said she doesn’t believe teachers shoulder all the responsibility for a student’s stuccess. She said that takes away the student’s power to decide who he is – and even fail.

Kurtz said teachers have “some responsibility.”

“We share responsibility with our families – but we are the adults these kids come in contact with as much as anybody in their lives.”

On value-centered education

Kurtz agreed with Meier that respect is an important value. He said creating a “value-centered” approach is the first priority at DSST, followed by student performance. He also said he strives to instill a sense of the larger world in his students.

“Ultimately, I am part of a community. The interest of community will trump my own interests. We help our kids understand they are part of a larger community.”

Kurtz said he believes racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity is important in a learning environment – both among staff and students.

Students at DSST – and teachers – sign a core values commitment. In fact, the teachers sign it in front of the kids. DSST students are even graded on their adherence to key values. They can get a 1 or 2 – out of a possible 5 – for dishonesty, for example.

On measurements

Meier is not a fan of measurements or labels. She said not everyone looks at the same problem the same way.

“I have to be open enough to see there may be an explanation for somebody’s answer that’s different than I think it is.”

She cited an example of a lesson she once taught that involved teaching kids the difference between something living and non-living. She used a gerbil and a rock as examples. But a bright young man in class made a compelling argument that the rock was living. It was ancient, moved by glaciers, and constantly changing.

Meier didn’t talk about standardized testing specifically, but she made it clear that there are many human attributes that can’t be documented.

“I don’t know how to measure the stuff I value.”

Furthermore, Meier said data is too often used for political reasons and shame.

“We want kids and teachers to be expert at looking at a lot of information about a person and making judgment. I’m not for translating that into a number that compares people. I don’t have to make that trade-off just because kids are poor. At Central Park East School, there was no system of comparing them, whatsoever. We got them into colleges (without that). I think it was part of the power of that school. They were accustomed to making judgments about themselves.”

Kurtz, on the other hand, said measurement was essential to giving all children opportunity.

“You can shine lights on things … and give people who didn’t have the power, the ability to have power,” Kurtz said.

He also argued that it’s not an either/or situation – all testing and data or none at all.

“We have an opportunity to create culture. We use data within our values and sense of responsibility. We are a scientific society. We use data in all sorts of ways. Data in absence of values is tremendously problematic,” Kurtz said.

On collaboration

Meier said she grew up during World War II and thus was dismissive of the word “collaborator.” She was inclined toward “the resistance.”

“At school, kids are graded on collaboration,” she noted. “What I want is kids to make judgments about when to resist and when to collaborate, particularly kids who have been disadvantaged.”

On the word “rigor”

Kurtz argued schools could do a better job with rigor in all areas – arts, music, science.

To him, it means giving a person the “opportunity to think deeply about something, learn how to apply it in a different context, and add ideas” that go well beyond conventional wisdom.

Meier viewed the word – now popular among educators – in the context of “rigor mortis.” She said every one of the definitions she’d read was “despicable, harsh, cruel and unchanging.” She said she prefers words such as “robust” and “vigorous” to describe learning landscapes.

On teaching the growing Hispanic population

Meier said the “connection between class differences is getting worse in America.”

“Ideally, there should be mixtures of ethnicity. I think bilingual education is a great idea, and dual language.”

Kurtz said DSST is “very committed to serving that population.”

“Some of the most gratifying results are seeing Latino graduates thriving in college.”