The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 8, 1999


Guest Commentary

Whither Civility?

It was a curious coincidence that on the day last spring that the Mosquito ran its first article on the issue of civility in our schools, it was reported on the front page of the Boston Globe that Brown University had taken the decision to add courses on values to its curriculum. What does it say about our society when it is considered front-page news for one of our major universities to announce that it has chosen to reinstate values as a subject worthy of academic scrutiny? I can't help but think that there is some connection between the public pronouncement of Brown University and the discussion of civility that broke out recently on the pages of the Mosquito.

It is further curious to note since that spate of letters and editorials in the Mosquito, that we have seen the New York Times run a blistering op-ed skewering the incivility of our Hollywood media moguls; another race-based killing spree perpetrated by a college student from an upper class suburb of Chicago; and Time magazine run a cover story on the impacts of American sports mania on kids and the damage it may be doing to our social fabric. All are manifestations of anxiety in our society related to the sense of insecurity, victimization and anxiety that haunts our streets and schools.

Something serious would seem to be going on here. I, for one, feel that we are living in an historical moment in which there is a monumental social and cultural transition underway driven by globalization, the unbridled pace of markets and the explosion of communications technology. It is not clear where this revolution is taking us. What is clear is that we as parents and children are having a rough time hanging on.

Coming back to America from ten years in Third World countries where life is slower and simpler, I have been stunned by the pace of our lives, the sellout of mass media to the religion of unbridled consumerism, the pervasive violence that is piped into our homes through all sorts of seemingly innocuous means and the crisis of values that has so divided us over the last two decades. Parenting in the United States, in contrast to elsewhere, feels like living constantly on the defensive, operating a full-court press around the clock. One is left feeling that there are few safe places, few sanctuaries for the ceremonies of youth and few real heroes. Maybe it was this complicated for our parents, but I don't think so.

I applaud the school committee and the Mosquito for dedicating time and space to this important issue. It seems to me that if Carlisle can be a pacesetter in the areas of math and language, perhaps, it can pioneer a dialogue on values and curriculum at the elementary and middle school level and make headline news itself. To do this would require looking beyond simple solutions and addressing some more profound questions.

It would require asking how values are currently represented in our curriculum. Are they treated explicitly or implicitly? We offer courses on reproduction in the middle school, for example, but what do we say about love and intimacy? We preach diversity as a core educational value, but how do we value diversity in practical terms in classrooms? How do we validate it? How do we deal with the rampant homophobia that characterizes the male discourse in our schools beginning at a shockingly young age? How do we counter the cynical attitudes toward authority, respect and tolerance that is the stock and trade of our media and that has become the mainstream cool youth discourse?

How do we teach the discipline of ethics and good judgment? Parents obviously bear the lion's share of responsibility in this area, but if our community could arrive at a consensus that the teaching of ethics was a value-neutral way to approach the issue of helping students become leaders, critical thinkers and good citizens, might this not be a step forward? And finally, should we perhaps examine what Brown is doing with its value-based curriculum and see if there is something there worth emulating? Now wouldn't that be a great topic for next year's forum?

The school committee and the school superintendent must show leadership on this issue if it is to amount to anything more than an opportunity for community gossip. Judging from the number and quality of letters to this paper last spring, it would seem that there is a reservoir of support for bolder and more innovative action on the part of the committee and the superintendent. I hope the school committee will keep the conversation on civility alive and give encouragement to our educators to be bold and forward-looking in this important area. You've got this voter's support.

Ray Offenheiser is a Carlisle resident and President of Oxfam America.

Testing Schools

A recent survey conducted by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government revealed a wide gap in perceptions of school quality. An overwhelming majority (71 percent) of parents rate their children's school favorably, while a similarly high percentage (77 percent) believe there are serious problems in the nation's schools as a whole. We all perceive our schools to be, like the children in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, above average.

The gap likely arises in part from media coverage of school violence and declining test scores; compared to the crisis depicted in the media, our own problems don't look so bad. We also hold an understandable desire to affirm the effectiveness of our children's education.

Our wish to believe in the strength of our schools, while understandable, can dampen our willingness to carry a critical evaluation of performance as far as it should go. For example, a recent front page headline in The Boston Globe hailed a trend of improving SAT scores in Massachusetts schools, evidenced by an increase of three points last year. The article included, without comment, a chart showing that Massachusetts' scores are almost exactly at the national average, and that Massachusetts falls 50 to 100 points below such states as North Dakota, New Mexico and Mississippi (among more rural states) and Ohio, Illinois and Michigan (among more industrial states). I expect many Massachusetts parents would expect their state to compare more favorably to other states, and would have appreciated a more probing presentation of the data.

A similar dynamic appears to surround the introduction of standardized tests to measure teacher competence and student learning. Massachusetts' recent moves toward teacher testing and the MCAS have met strong resistance, despite overwhelming support among parents for the use of standardized tests to measure performance. The same NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy survey mentioned above showed support ranging from 86 percent (for tests to ensure students meet national standards) to 89 percent (for tests to identify areas where teachers need improvement) and 95 percent (for tests to identify areas where students need help).

To be sure, such tests must be valid, and the availability of testing data poses a risk that performance evaluation (of both teachers and students) will place undue reliance on test scores, at the expense of a more nuanced analysis. But such concerns do not explain or justify the level of resistance among Massachusetts educators to the recent increased emphasis on standardized tests for teachers and students.

We are fortunate in Carlisle to have a particularly strong school. But even the best schools have room for improvement. As parents and citizens, we have a right and a responsibility to make our schools the best they can be. Objective measurement of performance provides data essential to the critical examination of school effectiveness, identifying both strengths and areas in need of improvement. Our teachers and administrators should welcome the use of standardized tests to assist in their continuing efforts to measure and improve the quality of our schools.


1999 The Carlisle Mosquito