By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on January 08, 2010
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George Bush brought the nation together in a shared sense of grief and patriotism. Yet over time the meaning of patriotism appeared to devolve into one of unfettered support for the policies of an ideologically driven administration that insisted it knew the right answers. Those who criticized political or military decisions were providing aid and comfort to the enemy; those who questioned claims about weapons of mass destruction were unpatriotic; those who highlighted inconsistencies in administration arguments or the sordid histories of some Iraqi ex-patriots were deemed anti-American.
It appears that this aggressive approach to quell dissent led to far less questioning on the part of politicians and reporters, even some from our most esteemed newspapers. And though we surely do not all share a common perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little doubt that people around the world have borne substantial human and material costs from major errors in U.S. policy following 9/11 that may have been avoided with a more unfettered debate and the type of hard questions most likely to lead to good decision-making.
Although the consequences of any problems in the Amherst schools surely pale in comparison to the human and financial costs to the U.S. of more than 4,000 killed, 10 times that many seriously wounded, and over $1 trillion spent on the two conflicts, we find unfortunate similarities in the attitude toward dissent and criticism from many in our schools who adhere to strong beliefs, often grounded in ideology, about education. Those who question the merits of an unprecedented required ninth-grade science curriculum, our unique approach to differentiated instruction, or the lack of challenge in particular subjects and grades are branded elitist; those who question the grouping of children into elementary schools on the basis of language spoken at home or ethnicity are called racist; those who question the merits of the trimester system, the desirability of reform mathematics in the elementary school, or the intellectual content of the middle school curriculum are deemed anti-teacher. This hostility to dissent seems entirely out of place in an academic community in which critical thinking should be particularly valued.
Rigorous questioning and criticism of current school policies, practices and curricula is uncomfortable for both the questioned and the questioner, and this discomfort is surely magnified in a small community in which teachers, administrators and elected School Committee members are often neighbors, colleagues, our children's coaches and friends. And the desire to come together in support of our schools and other public institutions - particularly during very difficult economic times - provides a powerful force against rocking the boat.
Yet it seems inexplicable to us that evidence on the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site showing we spend far more than the state average and surrounding districts can be dismissed so easily as merely a reporting anomaly. It seems inexplicable to us that there has been so little investigation of our decision-making processes, particularly given the uniqueness of many of our programs and the poor performance of many of our students most at risk. It seems inexplicable to us that the $1.5 million our regional schools pay each year to vocational and charter schools for students living in Amherst who chose not to attend our schools has not prompted an investigation. It seems inexplicable to us that so few questions have been raised about the recent School Committee practice of not reviewing detailed, line item budgets.
As uncomfortable as it is to raise these tough questions about our school system, we strongly believe that a lack of public scrutiny by parents, community members and particularly elected officials and reporters has real and lasting consequences for our children and our community. We feel this failure to ask probing, uncomfortable questions about the unique ways we do education in Amherst damages the quality of our schools and strength of our public institutions.
Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.