School & District Management Opinion

It Breaks My Heart

By Deborah Meier — January 17, 2013 5 min read
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Dear Pedro,

I’m so glad that you mentioned the New York Performance Standards Consortium. It has been a pioneer for a different approach to standards and accountability for more than 25 years! One of the many “failed” successes in New York City’s and state’s history.

Founded under the “regime” of Superintendent Tom Sobol in the late 1980s, alas subsequent superintendents never followed up on the commitment to study the results of their work. But when the schools waivers were threatened by New York Commissioner of Education Richard Mills, he agreed to appoint a commission to study the results. That commission concluded that the alternate graduation system “worked”! So they left them alone. But the results never made headlines and had no impact on New York City or New York state practice. (And the first of these schools, a secondary school formed in 1984 as a follow up to the Central Park East elementary school network in East Harlem, was abandoned a half-dozen years after I moved to Boston. It didn’t “die"; it was killed.)

During the same period an even larger “experimental study” of approximately 100 New York K-12 public schools—following different then popular reform ideas—was derailed by “management.” It was intended, by the Annenberg Foundation and its four sponsors—ACORN, New Visions, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Manhattan Institute—to explore how to improve results if schools were free of most union, management, and state agreements.

All four sponsors had different hunches about the best ways of approaching accountability with outcomes in mind. It had a built-in research effort to be conducted by New York University and Teachers College, as well as guarantees regarding the population to be served, etc. What happened? A new chancellor turned it down on the eve of its inauguration. It was quietly buried, although they accepted the $50 million. My mouth waters when I think how much we might have learned had the project not been halted and another opportunity lost. Twenty lost years of real data on real kids.

Then there was the “Julia Richman” experiment undertaken by the Coalition of Essential Schools with support from a collection of major foundations in an effort to see whether they could model a reformed approach to educational practices and outcomes through utilizing existing large school buildings to create a community of small K-12 schools and services. It worked. Fortunately, we still have some of the research committed to this project, and the building remains a living example of continued success—although always threatened. I think you’ve visited there, Pedro.

Did the city, or any other city, use the lessons learned from Julia Richman when they began to explore breaking up other existing high schools? With a few exceptions, the answer is NO, NO, NO.

This may explain, Pedro, why some of us are offended when folks criticize the opponents of current reforms for not offering alternative solutions. We always had our eye on how to make it “spreadable,” which meant opening our schools to an unbelievable level of observation by outsiders, archiving as much of the material that might help document our work, including videos, tapings, actual student work, etc. Not to mention films galore, from shorts to Fred Wiseman’s 3 hour-40 minute “take.”

Nor were we alone in this country. There are many examples of individual schools, some of whom have since been disbanded despite their success, as well as projects such as the Pilot schools in Boston initiated by the Boston Teachers Union that still hobbles along. Each undertook similarly dramatic innovations before the latest round of De-Formers took over.

I keep pounding away at this issue because I agree with you: It’s not enough to criticize without offering alternatives. We found doing both jobs at once exhausting, but we took it on thinking (like you) that it would make a difference. And amidst all of our regular daily duties it turns out that many of the efforts we initiated in the 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s have survived, with minimal fiscal support and virtually no encouragement from the Big Boys, the many new education foundations, and certainly not the powerful people who have subsequently become obsessed with charters.

For example: We knew that closing even the high school in New York City with the worst record (not a neighborhood school) would be tricky. We hoped, if successful, it would make similar efforts easier.

So in the early 1990s we began the process of turning Julia Richman into a K-12 building with six different small schools, including one (the largest) designed by Julia Richman faculty members. Everyone should visit two or three of these small schools to confirm my claim that they are all good schools, serving a very typical population and working collaboratively to share the strengths of each. Yet, neither our own chancellor nor the chancellor from Chicago, etc., bothered to use our experience as a model.

I hope we’ll still be hearing from you occasionally from South Africa about what’s happening there. Keep an eye on the blog, too, Pedro. I’m about to start a new and, I think, exciting venture here—blogging with different partners for shorter periods of time. I think it will give the blog a fresh life. When you return from sabbatical, let’s also think of ways to renew these opportunities which were ignored just a few decades ago. It’s never too late. (P.S. We might also look at FairTest’s excellent “accountability” proposal. It is somewhat more modest than the consortium’s and has been similarly ignored.)

Yes, in fact, I pound away at this for another reason. A more personal one? It breaks my heart.


P.S. Educational Foundations, edited by Alan Canestrari and Bruce Marlowe has some great short essays on efforts by colleagues along the lines described above, including one I wrote in fall 1987 for the American Educator. And thanks, Pedro, for the blurb supporting Matthew Knoester’s new book, Democratic Education in Practice.

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