School & District Management Opinion

On Small School Networks & Democracy

By Deborah Meier — January 07, 2014 5 min read
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Bridging Differences returns today after a brief break. Once again, Deborah Meier writes to Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst and Democracy Prep Public Schools.

Dear Robert,

Happy New Year!

I’ve been trying to imagine a “system” that could work for the kind of liberty within the context of democracy that we both seek. What kind of compromise is possible that meets each of our minimum requirements—and promotes democracy and liberty? What would a public system that puts “citizenship first,” but supports many ways to get there, look like? What’s the “key” to our differences, and how does it play out?

We agreed on democracy and liberty as the primary public ends we treasure, although no doubt we hold other expectations of good schooling. Given the title of your institution (Democracy Prep), maybe we agree on this. But what would constitute evidence of a successful education on behalf of democracy and liberty is where there is disagreement. Sometimes quite deep disagreement.

It even includes our definitions of democracy and liberty. “Government of, for, and by the people” seems pretty straightforward. But who constitutes “the people”? At the time that our Constitution was signed and sealed most of our founding fathers favored exclusions. And we still, de facto and de jure, exclude many residents’ right to vote. Some we don’t even argue about—such as the rationale for some minimum age restriction for voting.

But what “of, for, and by” might mean remains elusive, hard to define. Certainly schools don’t explore this very thoroughly. Liberty is never an absolute, so where do we draw the lines?

The trouble is that there’s an unfinished project—to create conditions in which Abraham Lincoln’s slogan can be taken seriously. Democracy, as Winston Churchill noted a half-century ago in the midst of a war for democracy, is a flawed idea—except for the alternatives. It’s not possible to get it perfectly right, but we’re a long way from that “danger.”

Democracy presumes, I’d argue, something the founding fathers acknowledged by who they excluded from full citizenship. They recognized that democracy presumes some level of equality of condition, power, skill, and knowledge that it is, in turn, designed to promote! Property and freedom before the law are and were musts. Ergo: Our founders excluded women, slaves, and minors. They also excluded those without a “stake” in society. Ergo, the property-less. Having dropped those requisites we are still far from equal in the various powers we can exert on behalf of our beliefs. This in turn affects how we view the road forward.

Even a rough form of equality is not easy to imagine in today’s world. In the meantime, even in New York City with its gross inequalities we must find ways to create a more equitable system for governing our schools: “of, for, and by.”

It’s hard to think about this in the context of a “system” as huge as New York, Chicago, et al. But if we could start with the question of what a good school needs and then build a system based on that, it doesn’t seem as undoable. It’s worth trying to see how close you and I, with our major differences, can get in thinking this through, and where we part company.

Suppose we keep in mind Ted Sizer’s “Who decides what”? And then, “How do they decide?” Who and how. Maybe if we could break it down in this way it would be easier to tackle.

I’ve directly experienced three efforts to create a break-the-mold system built on reversing some of these “whos” and “hows,” each of which might offer us a starting point.

(1) Thirty years ago we proposed an experiment in New York City, encompassing about 50,000 students and 150 schools (the size of the average U.S. city’s pupil population) and representing the city’s overall student population in terms of race, class, language, disabilities, and school skills.

We had a promise of $50 million over five years from the Annenberg Foundation, and we had a rough partnership between four existing independent reform networks with very different political and educational biases and expertise. We described a five-year plan, giving the schools within our network extraordinary autonomy on most matters of significance (excluded were issues of civil rights and health/safety). New York state’s commissioner of education, the city board of education, and the UFT signed on. Unfortunately a brand new chancellor arrived and squashed the plan.

(2) But some aspects of the reform ideas were subsequently carried out by the New York State Consortium—a collection of some 30 secondary schools united around an alternative assessment plan that rested neither on credit hours nor standardized tests. They developed a form of assessment (authentic portfolio presentations) that combined a mutually agreed-upon framework of standards, rubrics, and external review, but left each school’s faculty considerable freedom to tailor-make their solution. The Regents approved it. The results over the past 20 years have been impressive, and the number of schools seeking to join the Consortium keeps growing.

(3) I spent the next 10 years in Boston, which was spearheading a plan for a dozen Pilot Schools. Boston’s student population is 60,000 vs. NYC’s 1.2 million so the Boston plan was much smaller. It now encompasses about 30 relatively small schools. The plan in Boston and the aborted one in New York both presumed that teachers would still be covered by many sections of the union-management contract—primarily those relating to pay and benefits. (The plan was initiated by the teachers’ union.)

Both plans provided schools with considerable leeway in terms of how and who made decisions and endorsed the Consortium’s approach to assessment. Both included roles for parents in decisionmaking and assumed schools were small enough to explore forms of direct democracy alongside representative democracy. The Boston plan has been an unquestioned success.

In short, we’re not bereft of ideas about how to turn a centralized, bureaucratic system into a “system” of relatively autonomous schools with unionized teachers and wholly within the public sector. If the New York plan could include both ACORN and the Manhattan Institute, political differences shouldn’t be the problem.

Both plans relied on creating fairly small networks of schools whose autonomy rested on their mutual agreement to be open and accountable to each other, develop independent “boards” serving individual schools that included all constituents, equal per-pupil funding, and demographic diversity in keeping with the city’s.

Might it be possible, Robert, for us to argue, about the pluses, minuses, risks, and advantages of such ideas—ideas that could be fleshed out in ways that might appeal to New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and his newly appointed chancellor, Carmen Farina?


P.S. Perhaps a “smaller central government” would work if we only had small democratically operating “corporations"—like small self-governing schools?

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