Equity & Diversity Opinion

Seeking Common Ground, for Schools & Walmarts

By Deborah Meier — November 21, 2012 4 min read
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Editor’s note: Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, Deborah Meier’s post for this week is being published one day early. Happy Thanksgiving all!

Dear Pedro,

Strategy has to follow from where adults and young people are—that’s the big lesson I learned from being a classroom teacher, especially of 4- and 5-year-olds. Kindergarten, I’m reminded, would be like trying to keep 30 corks simultaneously under water at one time. (Mark Twain?) But since children are not corks, there’s another answer: listening to them in action.

This means that we won’t and can’t have a thoroughly consistent set of “progressive” school demands—since different cities and communities and groupings are differently affected by the new “deforms.” This requires us to be kind to each other as we sometimes take different paths to shared goals. It’s what community organizing often fails at—uniting communities organized around different priorities!

The workers at Walmart are engaged in strike action. It won’t end up with great concessions, I suspect. But taking collective action is a victory. It’s a first in the mega-store’s 50-year history. We need to remind ourselves that the terrible Walmart jobs may be the “the 2lst century” if we don’t join forces to create a different 21st century. We must look for common ground, for schools and Walmarts.

But it means we also must address that common ground. That’s the rub.

We don’t have to agree on everything. What we need to collectively fight for are processes that allow us to try our best to persuade our fellow citizens. Which means sufficient democracy for it to be reasonably feasible for the average citizen to have an impact. Schools are great for this. I would argue that we need to consider forms of public choice that can both unite a community around broad principles while also allowing for differences. What might those principles be?

One might be security—some predictability upon which to base one’s lifetime aspirations, along with sufficient resources to take care of oneself and one’s family. Plus, sufficient power and freedom to protect one’s interests. Maybe we could go back to the Four Freedoms declared eloquently nearly 80 years ago by Franklin Roosevelt. They still sound good. But we need to add a fifth—as your letter reminds us.

The other is equality. It was the freedom that Roosevelt left out. We broke the “Hands off our schools!” policy (embedded in our Constitution!) in the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s on behalf of it; we called it civil rights. It wasn’t easy, was never completed, and we continue to bear the scars of that fight. But, while eliminating de jure segregation was an important victory, I note with sadness and rage how little we have done to eliminate the other kind. Meanwhile, while I espoused choice in order to create more integration, it has also been used to aid segregation. That’s the trouble with decontextualized solutions. It can do either. It depends ...

The one thing though that we shouldn’t and needn’t give up is the neighborliness of schools, and that means changes in policy re. housing, highways, jobs, and more. Democracy requires it. Because while the right-wing always starts with it’s “the family” (not altogether unappealing), I start with neighbors and communities. Democracy depends on the existence of communities, not autonomous individuals—although we need both!

Nor in the past half-century have we eliminated funding inequities. I believe the baseline should be what is spent to educate the most well-to-do kids. Plus, some extra for schools that we do not, or refuse to, desegregate by both race and class. Plus, Pedro, that wrap-around concept of schooling—actually a form of neighborliness—that you referred to. Yes, it’s not going to happen soon, but it must be at the forefront in our minds, as our “measuring” stick.

Some of this will take federal intervention. Hopefully better planned than what happened in Boston years ago. I saw the impact of thoughtlessly enacted integration there. But my colleagues and I were able in East Harlem and in Roxbury (in Boston) to create schools that more closely resembled their “communities.” Central Park East, like Mission Hill in Boston, is about 20 to 25 percent white, 40 percent black, and 35 percent Latino, and a majority of the students are low income. The Central Park East Secondary School, while it lasted (1985-2000), was somewhat less white. I watch events in Boston and suspect that the popularity of Mission Hill may please those in power, but whether they look to it for inspiration or strategy for further integration I doubt. I’d like to be wrong, but the “deformers” surely are looking elsewhere for examples.

Democracy is never easily defined, and it’s never finished. It will forever be full of contradictions. But, there comes a point where it’s hard to still call it democracy. I think we are drifting in that direction. So I’m for emphasizing the part of our larger agenda that tackles ways to give more power to the citizens most impacted by the decisions made. It’s the right direction even though it may not produce schools I always like.

I wrote up a proposal which I drew up for the Forum on Education and Democracy: “Who Shall Govern Our Schools?” I’ll send it along when I find it.

Meanwhile, Pedro, perhaps we need to adopt the OCCUPY theme—We’re the 99 percent—to address school reform. Maybe too, we can agree with one of the headlines in the NASSP Principal’s Update of Nov. 13, 2012: “Culture, Not Curriculum, May be Key to High School Reform.” But a respectful and open-minded culture must be the outcome of the work of people joined in common tasks, or as Ted Sizer used to say, accustomed to looking each other in the eye.


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.