Education Opinion

Building a Democratic School Community Around Issues and Values

By Deborah Meier — February 26, 2015 7 min read
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Dear Joe,

Context, context, context...

I just got a letter from an ally I respect who is shocked that I am advisor to a charter school. Usually I can pass off such criticism easily. Shades of gray and all that. But, my friend, I’m beginning to think the so-called charter “movement” has to be stopped precisely so that it’s good parts can survive.

You are right to note that being public in the traditional sense does not protect us from corruption or elitism. Our regular public schools blatantly rank themselves via tracking mechanisms of many sorts. They’ve accepted the idea of ranking so that “the best and brightest” receive something different from other children. It’s an idea with a long history. It’s deeply embedded as well in the charter “movement”.

It’s particularly galling when we know that ranking is a pseudonym for ones place on the socio-economic ladder--and has to be. Can you imagine what would have happened if the early 20th-century inventers of standardized testing had declared that the “rich and powerful” were, objectively, no more likely to be the best and brightest than the poor and working classes? Who would have put faith in such a counter-intuitive concept? The pool of questions are pre-sorted based on the way real kids answer the questions in field tests, and the items selected predetermine the rank order. With exceptions. And so it has been ever since. When friends tell me that they want to close the “gap,” which is another word for rank order, I ask them who should replace those now in the bottom half? And the charter “movement” is testing’s biggest ally.

Alternatives are not easy. When I talked to parents, they, too, want to know two things: how’s my kid doing, and ... compared to whom? At the Olympics this kind of questioning makes perfect sense? However, it runs contrary to the purposes of public schooling.

Changing this mindset also requires changes in the sorting systems outside of K-12 (colleges, job markets, poverty, wages, racism, etc) and on how we define “smarts”. People (children) working alongside each other for common ends begin to build insights, slowly, of what government for, by and of the people could mean.

One question for us, Joe, is whether such a democratic school community is defined just by the relationships among its immediate constituents or whether it requires a role for citizens and taxpayers. Is it a societal promise to all children?

There’s a bottom line contradiction between handing over the reins of a school to those who are not members of its daily life, and who have a self-interest that may at times clash with the good of the school. That’s true for teachers too at times, but compared to what we know about the self-interests of the big charter owners, we would be naïve to assume that their devotion to the bottom line, once they get rid of the competition, won’t be greater than their devotion to democracy.

Joe Nathan Responds:

Thanks for your note, Deb. I want to respond to two issues. First is a question about the value of ranking. Second is your suggestion that the"the so-called charter “movement has to be stopped precisely so that it’s good parts can survive.”

First, lists that “rank” or compare schools can be misleading or marvelous. Let’s talk about misleading first. Ranking schools JUST on the basis of students’ test scores can be misleading. I think it’s far wiser, as I explained last week, to use a variety of measures. I think we’ve agreed that schools are not just “better or worse.” They can be different.

Our Center also has strongly resisted efforts to lump together all district and all charters, and to try to make assertions about which is better. As you know, schools differ in many ways. That includes, the students they serve, the learning/teaching philosophy they use, their curriculum, per pupil funding, etc.

Years ago someone suggested that comparing all district and all charter and trying to determine which is “better” is like trying to compare the gas mileage of rented and lease cars. It’s not a meaningful comparison.

But sometimes ranking can be marvelous. For example, the New York Performance Assessment Consortium has used some comparisons of schools to help justify the portfolio approach to graduation. See for example, it publishes comparisons of college acceptance rates and school dropout rates.

Please also consider the support East Harlem received because it moved from being the lowest performing of the 32 New York community districts, to the middle. Educators had new opportunities in New York and other communities because you and other East Harlem educators produced MANY benefits such as improved attendance, behavior, graduation, etc., by allowing educators, families and other to create new district options.

So I’m an opponent of some rankings, especially when just one measure is used. But I support ranking in some circumstances to help identify schools from which others can learn, whether charter or district.

Second, you suggest the “charter movement has to be stopped precisely so that good parts of it survive.” Would you say the same for teacher unions or district public schools?

I don’t believe unions or districts should be stopped. I think they should be examined carefully. Then I think they should be complimented or challenged, as appropriate. Sometimes we’ve had productive partnerships with district educators and unions.

Glad to see that you raising concerns about some traditional districts, and schools that use admissions tests, whether district or charter.

Yesterday I met with a national teachers’ union leader. When she was a local union president, we worked together often. She is a great ally/partner/colleague. I learned a lot from her. She’s also strongly supported the district/charter collaboration we’ve worked on together.

Deb, you and agree on the value of helping young people. For me, that means honoring great work and challenging corruption, low expectations and greed, whether in district or charters.

Deborah Meier responds:

Dear Joe,

Ranking and comparing are not the same thing--so we may agree! Ranking requires there to always be 10 percent at the bottom and top and every spot in between. No matter how fast the kids line-up at the end of recess, exactly the same number will be first and last.: one. Comparing involves noting differences. My pond is unusually clean, and a very good size for swimming laps and easy to get in and out of. Some ponds aren’t. But, as my daughter noted, there’s no evidence or point in saying it’s “the best"--although I do each time I plunge in.

Joe, the folks who are up in arms about the world-wide GERM movement (global educational reform movement) throughout the western world, are mostly those who’ve been attacking public education for its class bias for at least a hundred years. Our various Coalition grants were always proposed in language that differentiated them from the traditional public schools, for reasons you and I agree on. We also joined forces with most public school advocates on behalf of the kind of money spent on rich kids for educating poor ones--similar facilities, teacher pay, small class sizes, and reasonable hours: hours that take into account that the 8 a.m.-3 p.m. school day for 180 days a year is far from a good description of public school teacher’s professional time. We join with most to defend unions also, although we also struggle with reforming the ways in which unions relate to their members.

We think it mysterious that the major funding for charters (after taxpayer monies) is coming from folks who are for decreasing teacher pensions, think job security creates laziness and that small class sizes don’t matter, are for increasing the contact hours and days way beyond what private school teachers have, and are not happy with any unions even though the non-union states have the worst academic records, no matter how you compare them. Nor did the old District 4 or the Pilots in Boston excite these guys and gals.

We join forces temporarily with many folks who agree with us on this or that particular issue facing Congress or our local community--like Tea Partiers who oppose testing. But a “movement” is something else--it’s a long-term coalescing of people around a common set of issues and values. I think you and I belong in the same movement, but I know I don’t belong in a movement with Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Eve Moscowitz, the heads of Walmart, and on and on. We need tolerance and respect for differences--no coalition agrees 100 percent. There were serious differences in the 60s among civil rights leaders, but most planned jointly, compared notes, and supported each other when emergencies arose.

That’s what I’m looking for across public and charter school lines. I’m still hoping you and I can name the practices that lie at the heart of our work and see who that might include and who not.

Furthermore, we need to clone Vermont and Minnesota.

And hurrah for Chicagoans for not giving Rahm Emanuel his 50.1%.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.