Only democratic schools will save us

If we want a robust democracy, daily decisions in schools need be left to the people who know local needs best

Published September 17, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)


Excerpted from "These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools" by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

—James Baldwin, from "I Am Not Your Negro"

These days it is hard to be as optimistic about the future of public education generally, let alone the possibility of significantly scaling up democratic schooling, as I had at one time thought we might be ready to do. In the mid-1980s, for instance, a more heady time for progressive educators, my colleagues and I started the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) as an advocacy and support organization that would facilitate the expansion of our network of small, democratic schools across New York City. Later, in my proposal to scale up that work even further as part of the 1993 Annenberg Challenge, we wrote, “The goal . . . is to bring present city school reform efforts to scale, creating a critical mass of small, effective schools, committed to equity, that serve the full range of New York City’s children so that the principles on which such schools are based are no longer considered ‘alternative’ but rather ‘good practice’”

Today, while there are still schools that have held true to their early innovations, managing to dodge mandates that would undermine their ability to meet the actual needs of their constituents, we are far from making such schools the norm. Instead, many of the democratic school projects that I was involved in over the past half century are in various states of peril or have already faded from existence: with New York City’s District 4, once internationally recognized as a model of what was possible for a public school district to become, its garden of small, interesting schools has now all but dried up; two of the four Central Park East schools have closed and only one remains somewhat democratically governed; the original CPE 1—though it had a good thirty-year run—has been struggling for the past decade to hold on to its progressive practices and democratic spirit. What’s more, conservative analysts have panned the Annenberg Challenge as a failure for its diffuse funding plan; the Coalition of Essential Schools held its last conference and closed its offices in 2016; and the very institution of public education is under attack as never before.

Now, a grossly unqualified billionaire president has appointed equally inexperienced, self-interested “one-percent-ers” to essentially dissolve the very public institutions they are entrusted to lead. True to this mission, secretary of education Betsy DeVos’s 2018 education budget proposes to cut $10.6 billion from public education, eliminating twenty-two programs, including teacher training, after-school programming, and student-loan forgiveness programs (fittingly, she has appointed the CEO of a student loan company to head the student loan agency). In addition, the secretary’s budget would spend $1.4 billion to fund school choice, including a national voucher program. While the rhetoric claims this is intended to “empower” poor families, research on existing voucher programs shows that such claims are based on free market ideology rather than on honest interest in improving the odds for those of us outside of the top 1 percent.

Selling out our public schools in this manner effectively shreds the social contract upon which our democracy depends. As someone who has spent a lifetime struggling against the top-down and impersonal tendencies of our public bureaucracies, I am the first to acknowledge that there is much room for improvement! Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the guiding principles underlying our public institutions—imperfect though they may be—are based on the assumption that we all share interest in a common good. The guiding principles of the free market are profit and individual self-interest.

Some proponents of the charter and, now, voucher movements truly believe that private-sector values and practices will address educational inequities by cutting through public school bureaucracy to provide poor students with more and better choices; others simply see school privatization as an opportunity to cash in on public dollars. In reality, the closing of our public schools is part of a larger trend toward allowing some cities and towns to become dystopian shells, vulnerable to crumbling or collapsed infrastructure and increasingly toxic living environments for those who have been left behind. At the same time, other cities are becoming unaffordable even for the middle class. As such, schools and their communities are falling prey to what we argue has become an increasingly “uncivil” society—one in which the freedom for a tiny elite to endlessly increase their advantage and wealth has overtaken our concern for the commonweal.

Corporate reformers have used the notion of failure as a cudgel to justify dismantling our public schools and turning everything into a business proposition. Educators who enter the profession because they are passionate about helping children are now held hostage to bottom lines, higher test scores, greater efficiency, and so forth to prove that they are not contributing to school failure. In all too many instances, however, the failure of public schools to meet the needs of their poor and minority students should rightly be attributed to a lack of human and material resources that schools serving wealthy communities provide, a problem that DeVos’s proposed 2018 education budget would assuredly magnify.

In addition, much of what in the current climate is considered “failure” might more accurately be defined as an inevitable stage in a longer process of change. As anyone who works in schools (or in any field, I suspect) will attest, we learn from our mistakes and, yes, from our failures. We make important decisions based at least as much, if not more, on what we find doesn’t work as we do on what does. And what works well for one group or purpose today will inevitably “fail” at some point down the road as intentions, opinions, populations, and landscapes shift over time. In reality, there is rarely just one right or wrong answer or solution that will fully resolve the problems we face. And even when we do solve this or that issue with our schools, we know the problems are not fixed forever.

Responding wisely to flagging practices or systems requires those most knowledgeable and most impacted—those on the ground inside our schools—to take an “it depends” stance, to reflect on what has changed, what specifically has caused the breakdown, and then to use their collective judgment to decide how best to act. But it is not possible for practitioners to take such an open stance if they are forever on the defensive or if they are not given the time and space to get into the habit of reflecting on problems and how to work together to address them. For this to change, we need a paradigm shift away from paternalistic accountability and reform and toward seeing schools as unique communities animated by empowered constituents. As it is, external players have been setting what education scholar Anthony Bryk describes as “miracle” goals, disconnected from practitioner knowledge, scholarly research, and, most problematic, from reality. This has caused a “chasm” to open up between what practitioners are actually able to do and the constant declarations made by politicians and policymakers about the “miracles” that will be performed on their watch (e.g., that every child will have a proficient score on standardized tests by such and such a date, or that every child will successfully “race to the top” of some peak of ambiguous academic glory). As Bryk explains:

We have thrown a rapidly increasing number of new ideas at our education systems over the past decade but often without the practical know-how and the necessary expertise to make these ideas really work. We overpromise and then get frustrated about how difficult the work is and how much time it takes to move from what seems like a good idea to effective execution at scale. We become disillusioned about the reform, it fades into the background, and then we just move on to the next new idea. Rarely do we stop to reflect. . . . Our causal postmortems tend to blame the individuals most immediately involved but fail to see how the task and organizational complexity that characteristics of contemporary educational systems shapes much of the consequences that emerge.

In a more balanced vision of education reform, the role of external players—state and federal agencies, policymakers, and the like—should be one of support, providing resources, time, and space to work through the inevitable institutional inadequacies and shortcomings as they arise. And, of course, they should continue to create policies that protect vulnerable populations from discrimination and ensure equity and integration across school settings. Beyond that, the nitty-gritty of daily decisions should be left to the people who know their particular community and children best—families and educators. One of my heroes, Eugene Debs, once wrote, “I would not lead you to the promised land even if I could, for if I could lead there then others could lead you back again.” When I was a young teacher, these words both intrigued and confused. Through my work with colleagues creating democratic communities, I came to understand his words—and to complete his phrase with my own: “we must lead ourselves.”

For it is in working through the daily problems that educators faced with our students, families, and colleagues that we learned more about the dilemmas that a democracy inevitability runs into and how to get comfortable grappling with the system’s inevitable flaws and trade-offs. And it is also through such grappling that we are able to model democratic practices and values for students, which is why I have always argued that teachers’ formal and informal discussions should be held within students’ earshot whenever possible. It is precisely those experiences with democratic life that most children (and adults) have never seen or been a part of. We cannot continue to let our young reach voting age without such real-life experiences. It is far too costly.

Despite all, I still stand by my words written over twenty years ago in the conclusion of "The Power of Their Ideas": “No matter how bad things seem today or what bad news may come tomorrow, what makes me hopeful is our infinite capacity for inventing the future, imagining things otherwise.” Indeed, there are as many possible futures for our schools as we can imagine. But not all the choices we make are conducive to advancing a democratic vision rooted in a sense of shared citizenship. Our commitment to democracy is being tested now more than ever. We have to decide if we are willing to forgo the opportunity to win the proverbial lottery that will propel us into the lucky 1 percent (which is the version of the American Dream that our current system offers) or whether to act as if everyone’s kids were our own, as if our future prospects and those of our children brightened or dimmed in proportion to the prospects of others.

And so those of us who are invested in the idea of a commonweal—educators, families, scholars, activists—must continue to work to make our fragile democracy more robust, in our schools as on many other fronts. To think that we have failed at our quest for more equitable and democratic schools is to invalidate the work of those who work within the cracks, some as small as a single school, such as the Brooklyn New School, a public elementary that has developed its own performance assessments in place of standardized tests; a group of schools, such as those in the New York Performance Assessment Consortium going against the grain and thriving year after year, and many of the Boston Pilot Schools, including the Mission Hill School now entering its third decade; or as big as an entire state, such as New Hampshire, trailblazing an accountability system that dares to put the horse before the cart by allowing values and research to guide practices and not the reverse.

The last “golden age” of progressive education reform that we were part of in New York and Boston, during which a variety of experiments in trust began to take root, happened not by accident and not just because of a few good administrators. It was made possible by an all too brief sea change in the national political conversation. At various periods in our history, there has been a public commitment to wage war on poverty and strive for racial equality. While most of President Johnson’s Great Society programs ended much too soon and have been followed by decades of retreat, there’s a restlessness abroad in the land right now that just might, might augur another sea change. And maybe this time we will be wiser and stick with a generous view of our fellow beings for the duration of our journey toward fulfilling the lofty democratic promise held in our nation’s founding documents.

So, in our dreams for the future, public schools—regardless of how they are organized or the particular curriculum or pedagogy they adopt—will prioritize helping each successive generation, starting in early childhood, to internalize the idea that they are part of the “deciding class,” as entitled as anyone else to make a mark on the world. To do that, we must first believe that the future has not yet been decided. Learning even this is a central role of schooling for democracy. Democratic schools help the future stewards of our society to develop essential habits of mind: to cultivate a healthy, informed skepticism in combination with a capacity for empathy that helps them step into the shoes of others and for playfulness that allows them to imagine how things might be otherwise. Finally, schooling for democracy guides children to discover and develop their individual passions and strengths, while also enhancing their sense of belonging and responsibility to the greater society.

I still advocate for smallness, autonomy, family inclusion, and, in some cases, with care, choice. But these conditions cannot be separated from the critical humanist principles that perhaps my colleagues and I took for granted when we started our schools based on these ideas. Something that has been too often trampled by the charter- and now voucher-led versions of the small-autonomous- choice reform movement is the connection we made between education for democracy and providing all students with the kind of intellectually vibrant education that has traditionally been reserved for the privileged.

As James Baldwin’s quote suggests, we will have to face our historic and enduring demons — our entrenched legacy of classism and racism, among many other isms, as well as our national obsession with efficiency and quantification — if we hope to begin to truly wrestle with and perhaps even, someday, overcome those demons. Schools are, of course, just one of the important institutions that need to be rethought if “this land” is to ever truly belong to all of us. As such, it is our hope that this book has treated the promise of American public education in much the same way that Woody Guthrie’s anthem acknowledges what about our country is grand, what must still be faced so we can begin the process of reconciliation, and what is possible if we do.

By Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier, author of the acclaimed books "The Power of Their Ideas" and "In Schools We Trust," has spent more than five decades working in public education as a parent, school-board member, teacher, principal, writer, and advocate. Meier ranks among the most acclaimed leaders of the school reform movement in the United States. Among her numerous accomplishments, she helped found the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, under the leadership of Ted Sizer. In 1987, she received a MacArthur award for her work in public education.

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By with Emily Gasoi

Emily Gasoi has been an educator for more than two decades and was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. In 2012 she earned a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Gasoi currently lives in Washington, DC, where she adjuncts at Georgetown University and is cofounder of Artful Education, an organization focused on helping schools and arts organizations improve practices related to creative teaching and learning.

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