School & District Management Opinion

4 Lessons Small School Communities Can Teach Us

By Deborah Meier — April 28, 2016 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I’ve been playing around in my head with all the ways in which we define democracy. It makes some sense to say that you and I have a semantic disagreement. But there’s something else in play.

We’ve focused on two different but related aspects of a democratic culture and society. Personal agency (which translates to collective agency as well) and a structure that—bottom line—enables one to throw the rascals out without resorting to violence.

A perfect structure is of no value in the absence of a culture that supports and cultivates agency on matters above and beyond one’s own immediate concerns. If people see themselves as powerless to influence the larger picture—for any of many reasons—then the structures are empty of real meaning, a charade that actually reinforces oligarchic or tyrannical power.

A people who see themselves as not only powerful in conducting their personal life but also the larger world around them will exercise their powers in all the many ways available and in the process creating the structures that make it easier to govern themselves.

I’m imagining two scales. One called A for Agency and one called FD for Formal Democracy. Each can be rated from 1 to 5. Is democracy better served if A is 5 and B is 3 or vice versa?

A healthy and strong democracy requires at least a 4 on both. Without structural routines we are all required to be fulltime politicians. A good structure makes it easier to expect the best of one’s fellow citizens but alert to potential risks. In a very small community in which relationships are personal and face-to-face, the structure counts less, although there are times when it still helps—maybe a 5 for Agency and 3 on FD? Formally laying out the rules of decisionmaking at CPESS and MH was helpful, although it didn’t protect CPESS from being taken over by a principal who wanted to make major changes. One change after another, each of which didn’t seem to threaten the whole, was possible precisely because the staff was overwhelmed with its own immediate tasks, and increasingly distrustful of each other as inexperienced teachers replaced veterans who moved on to start new schools.

It also hurt that the democratic structures were entirely dependent on the will of the community and in conflict with the rules of the system itself. There was nothing to fall back on but the official hierarchal system that gave principals undemocratic powers.

Lesson one: It’s hard to have local democracy within a formally undemocratic system.

Lesson two: Knowing each other over time increases trust.

Lesson three: Keeping decision-making power as close to those who must implement the decision as possible makes it easier to practice democracy.

It helped in Boston that Mission Hill was one of many Pilot schools that operated under a joint agreement by the Administration and the Union giving schools increased autonomies. In effect each school had its own contract that covered virtually everything but matters of wages and roughly speaking of hours too. Such sub-contracts required approval from the school’s own governing body, as well as union and management approval. As complications arose the “understandings” were revisable. There is no “model” Pilot, as each has developed formal and informal styles that provides its constituents with a greater sense of agency,

Lesson 4: It’s interesting to note that each developed a schedule that required teachers to spend more time with each other, time and space for families to play a role in the life of the school and increased the power of its students to make decisions about their own school life—often including representation on the school’s governing board.

But what’s most noticeable when visiting such schools is that that everyone “acts as if” they owned the school.


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