Q&A: Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier, cofounder of the Forum for Education and Democracy, on how to leave behind No Child Left Behind.

Mother Jones: What impact do you think the Bush legacy will leave on education in the US?

Deborah Meier: I think it's the least of the harm he's done to us. No Child Left Behind has a much longer history than him. It's much more complicated. The trends he represents were there on a statewide level for a long time. It's hard to tell what the other side would have looked like. Some of the things we see are because it's a terrible law. Schools are good or bad because of testing. I think that is not going to produce anything we like. Some people thought that if you put pressure on kids, parents, and teachers and schools, the pressure alone would produce results. I think NCLB was bound to have bad outcomes. It appealed to people who think the quick fix for education is to threaten people. It's not a left-right division.

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MJ: The MO for NCLB implementation under Bush has largely become "data driven" education. How has that helped education?

DM: The only thing they want is better data. But data doesn't tell people someone is well educated. It's a vicious circle. There is some myth involved. Some of this attitude has a long history.

MJ: What education changes do you think we'll see after the 2008 presidential election?

DM: Things will be worse with McCain and better with Obama, but I don't know how much better. Because it's all bipartisan. If you define yourself as someone fixing education, there's nothing short-range you can do to fix education directly. It's labor intensive. You have to change the way people act. You have to convince people, and change people. Mindset changes are not happening from change in legislation. Like desegregation. We legally got rid of legal segregation, but schools are still segregated. You can demand people have better math understanding, but it depends how you interpret math understanding, and what you want it for, and if you think everybody can and should have that.

MJ: You don't sound like a big fan of federal education legislation.

DM: I'm not in favor. [Federal legislation] can do something about poverty and resources for schools. And the president can play a psychological role. When the president is a dummy, putting down smart people, it makes it harder for kids to know he is serious. I don't want pedagogy and curriculum decided on the federal level. Bush was a dumbing-down model about what it means to be an educated person. Another way the president can play a role in education is by modeling it, by not telling lies and not making up history. But directly, the federal government can do something about resources for more well-educated teachers, more leisure time for kids and families, and time for teachers to think. If we want to leap forward, we need to rethink what schools are like as institutions. If you walk into a school, do you taste and smell education? Is it a place that respects education, or is it a factory looking for higher test scores?

MJ: How is Bush tied to the legacy of education as it stands today?

DM: The state of education today is a long-term legacy starting with "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, which revolved around test scores, our problems with Japan, lower SAT scores, and the feeling that teachers were sabotaging America.

MJ: Of all the things the Bush administration leaves behind, what's the hardest one to fix?

DM: He has accelerated a system in which money is enormously powerful. It is beyond what we've ever seen before. We don't pay attention to corruption anymore. We are not shocked that people in court lied and have had enormous financial repercussions, like ENRON, for instance.

MJ: What's the easiest one to fix?

DM: We can stop making disastrous judicial appointments. It will take a long time to happen, but the appointments will stop skewing tax benefits to the rich. Maybe we can do something about the environment. It will take a long time to solve, and it's not easy to fix for anybody. If Obama is elected, we will get better appointments, reduce war spending, and improve the tax system. It will be more egalitarian. We will do some environmental-damage change, schooling improvements, the gap between rich and poor, and honesty. Maybe it's all my time spent in schools, but dishonesty is such a corrosive, widespread problem, and there are so many parts of society in which lying is taken for granted.

MJ: What would you say have been the president's most notable policy failures, foreign and domestic?

DM: Probably all foreign policy, and elevating a culture of greed. He demeans American culture. And torture. We all knew about torture.

MJ: Is the damage caused by any of these failures irreparable?

DM: It's the eroding of what we stand for. The symbol of our being, at best, as bad as our enemies, as people we always thought we were better than. I used to think America was special in so many ways.

MJ: Which problem created by the administration most urgently needs addressing?

DM: Annul all the things Bush did in areas of civil rights and torture, and undo all of those things that were not legislative, but presidential.

MJ: What lessons should the next president glean from the past eight years about leadership? What are the dos and don'ts?

DM: That depends on what they want to get out of it. Bush was successful, and he got reelected, even though he went against the wishes of the people. I hope they don't learn to fall back on lies. I hope they won't learn that.

MJ: What advice would you give the next president on how to go about undoing the deeds of the Bush administration?

DM: To McCain, I would say "Change your politics and be less arrogant." To Obama, I would say "Make terrific appointments." In education, they should make appointments for people who don't think like the state, but who think like educators.