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Why We Can't Give Up on Our Public Schools (Q&A)

Public education needs our unequivocal support to improve

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In the 1970s, educator Deborah Meier began founding a string of small, democratically run public schools. Her goal was to restore decisionmaking in public education to teachers, principals, and their local communities to better serve students. Over the years, Meier played a key role in about a dozen new public schools in New York City and Boston, which worked to prepare students to live in a healthy democracy through progressive education. Many managed to retain their core values, even as accountability and assessment policies grew more stringent. Emily Gasoi was in the first cohort of founding teachers at one of those schools—Mission Hill School in Boston—during her early years of teaching in the 1990s.

The two educators have recently reunited to discuss their concerns that schools like Mission Hill are in danger of disappearing. In their new book These School Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, published this month by Beacon Press, Meier and Gasoi argue that the past few decades of education reform have left many students behind.

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In a style reminiscent of Meier’s edweek.org blog Bridging Differences, which just came to an end, the two share a back-and-forth dialogue. Meier has five generations of school transformation work under her belt and was the first teacher ever awarded a MacArthur Genius Fellowship; Gasoi co-founded Artful Education, a Washington-based nonprofit that works with arts groups and schools to improve creative learning, in 2015. Both stress the importance of supporting public education and also provide suggestions for the ways it must improve.

Commentary Associate Kate Stoltzfus spoke recently to Meier and Gasoi by phone about their work to create models of education rooted in the democratic values they want all students to learn, as well as what they envision for the future of America’s public schools.

This book tows the line between supporting public education and advocating change in traditional public schooling, which you believe perpetuates inequity for children. How can we enact this balance in both policy and practice?

Emily Gasoi: We support the public aspects of education without equivocation. That is, we think, absolutely essential in a democracy. That should be unquestioned. The fact that it is being questioned whether or not our system needs to be public is very troubling to us.

Deborah Meier: One of the dangers to democracy is the notion is that it’s a crisis. Solutions made to solve a crisis are rarely good solutions. They may be necessary, but I’m very leery about the climate that comes around when we call it a “crisis.” Democratic change can’t be sudden. Change comes through persuasion, and persuasion is a long-term task. That’s why people sometimes get very impatient with democracy. I put up with the fact that it's going to take a lot of patience and persistence. It’s going to take a lot of other movements to change some of the qualities of American life. You can’t have a very wholesome democracy when you have as much inequality as we have in America—inequality that provides some with an enormous amount of power and others with very little. We have to tackle other forms of inequity, not just school inequity.

The two of you first worked together at Mission Hill School in Boston in the 1990s, a small self-governed school founded by Deborah where Emily was a founding teacher. You say that these kinds of schools—which champion innovative democratic practices—are now in danger of disappearing. How can we, in effect, save them?

DM: We could lessen the fixation on standardized testing, which is a phony system to start with. They are not a good assessment of anything that is important intellectually, and yet they drive school curriculum. It drives progressive schools also. It’s hard to hold onto some of our innovative practices like multiage classrooms, like curriculum that goes across the grades—all of those kinds of innovative practices that we’ve found to be so successful are not successful in terms of test scores.

It’s just frustrating because I went to a private school for mostly rich children in New York. From the time I was there, it had for 50-60 years been producing the leaders of America and it was built around progressive educational ideas. People would say to me, when we started doing this work in the public sector, “You’re experimenting on those children.” And I thought, no, I’m doing something that has worked for wealthy people’s children forever.

EG: You’re forgetting that [Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which Meier attended as a child] was started to serve poor children as most of those models are—Montessori was started for working-class children, Waldorf schools were started for working-class children, and so were your schools. There has to be the will to want to make this shift so that it’s not thought of as innovative anymore. It’s not that we’re experimenting on poor kids. It’s really just good practice. I think we need to have the will to look at the models that have worked.

Deborah, while in the past you’ve pushed strongly for school choice as an early supporter of the charter school movement, you write that choice “writ large” and the charter- and voucher-led versions now pushed by the U.S. Department of Education fail to provide “all students the kind of education traditionally reserved for the privileged few.” How have both of your views on choice evolved over time, especially after working in less-traditional public schools?

DM: Choice has a lot of nice qualities to it, which is why we like schools that give children and teachers choices. But like anything else in a democracy, you have to balance it with “giving me choice prevents somebody else from having a choice.” The idea in the marketplace is that individuals making individual choices will produce the best results for the common good. I think there are a great many people—a substantial minority—who think that democracy is a poor system and that you simply should get rid of all regulations and rules and requirements and let everyone do what they think is best for themselves and that in the long run it will work out. I think we have a lot of reasons to know that doesn’t work. Even in the classroom, when I give children choices, I have limited the choices in some ways by what I have put in the room. They don’t have the choice of running out in the street.

EG: There is definitely a place for choice, and there’s something to be said for buying into a community—choosing a school because it has an interesting focus that speaks to you and your family or child. There are states that have done a better job than others at creating guidelines and regulations that have made choice less or more problematic. There was just an article in The New York Times magazine earlier this month about [U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy] DeVos’ home state of Michigan and how the lack of regulation has made communities that were already vulnerable and neglected more vulnerable and have not served those communities well. That’s part of the problem with choice today: that we are sort of going full-steam ahead with a policy [without] research that has borne out that it is a sound reform in terms of creating equity or better education for students.

You have both been in the education world for varying amounts of time and worked in a variety of school settings. As education reformers from different generations, how does your relationship with one another and your personal experience influence your work?

EG: I came of age in the 1980s, which now I see as the beginning of the shift where democracy has become conflated with market values, and there’s a right of the individual to get ahead at any cost. I think I grew up, therefore, having a pretty cynical view of the word “democracy.” When I met Deb at Mission Hill School, and she was so passionate about democracy and used the word a lot, I was able to actually live the daily practice of being in a democratic community and modeling that for students. My understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society has meaning now. It’s not something that has ever been explicitly taught in schools even though that’s supposedly our foundation.

DM: And I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s when democracy was very much a current battle. If you were an American, you believed in democracy, and if you were an American, you were passionate. In some ways, the Cold War was also posed as a question of democracy. In a strange way, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism that has given us the luxury of assuming that democracy didn’t need to be fought for. I think, in an odd way, having no enemy has made it hard for us to keep democracy alive.

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In the current education system, which revolves around high-stakes, top-down mandates driven by data, you write that teachers and practitioners have a hard time exercising their professional judgment in the classroom and school building. You both ask the question: How can we hope to educate for democracy if children and the adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? What would you say to teachers and school leaders currently in the classroom?

DM: If it’s such a wonderful idea, democracy, why don’t at least the adults who make up the school operate democratically? Why don’t we provide the time and space so students can witness it and over time can become more and more part of it as they grow older, so by the time they graduate at 18 and are full citizens with the right to vote, they’ve had a long apprenticeship in what it means to be a citizen. A lot of that could take place just by local agreement. I think we can have a lot of minor rebellions where teachers just say, “I want to be treated like an adult. This is my field, my expertise.” And parents are also experts on their children and their communities.

EG: There needs to be more of a push from teachers. There are two wonderful teacher groups that have started in [the District of Columbia] that I am very hopeful about. One is called Empower Ed, and its teachers are from very different settings across the city who are getting together to talk about how to create more democratic conditions in their respective schools. That’s what gives me hope. I think it has to be grassroots, and we have to push people who are actually making the decisions to want to make these bold moves toward education that really does reflect the kinds of values we say we hold.

Anything else you want to add?

DM: Some of the divide between the right and the left at the present time is very deep-rooted, but some of it is somewhat artificial. For example, I think the left is not pro-centralization for its own sake. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to have a voice and to learn to influence their world. That means you want to increase face-to-face relationships and local decisionmaking. Context matters. It depends on the particulars of the environment and the setting. That, I think, is a value that could be shared across what we call the right and left.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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