School Choice & Charters Opinion

Addressing the Gap Between the Rich and ‘Others’

By Deborah Meier — May 02, 2013 5 min read
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Today marks Deborah Meier’s final blog post with educator Elliott Witney. Next week she begins blogging with Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Dear Elliott,

Let’s do this again a year from now!

At the end of this brief exchange where I see much damage done, you are lucky to see hopeful signs. Maybe by next year I’ll be more hopeful, too.

I see a huge setback for the idea of democracy in many of the developments you are still hopeful about in schools, and even more in what is happening outside of our schools. (We never got into the out-of-school issues.)

There was a time 15 years ago when I was puzzled by why education seemed to be still moving in a progressive direction while little else was. When I left New York City after suffering the defeat of an exciting new plan to promote a very different idea of what school accountability might look like—it was called the Networks for School Renewal, as I recall—I was discouraged. Annenberg had offered us $50 million to pretend to be a city of 50,000 pupils, and conduct an experiment in democratic accountability over the next five years. We had the written support of the mayor, chancellor, school board, union, and the state chief of education. But ... It collapsed overnight. A new chancellor came to town and said “No.” So I moved to Brown University and then Boston. I got a lift out of the early success of the Pilot Program in Boston—a small scale effort to do just what we had planned on a large scale in NYC—and decided to join in. Mission Hill became one of the early Pilot schools.

Accountability is what democracy is all about—but when separated from governance democracy it’s simply a businessman’s term for the accounting he must give to his shareholders and board: In short, has he made them a profit?

Yes, we may have a selected number of schools with public funding that produce more technically well-educated people—maybe even with higher test scores. (Although the connection between income/wealth and test scores is on the rise, not falling.) Unlikely. But that’s not my dream, Elliott. Not even close.

Yes, I borrowed some great ideas from my own private independent school history—from Ethical Culture/Fieldston through Antioch and then the University of Chicago. But no one pretended those schools were intended for “all” children. They were schools meant to produce the leaders of the nation, with broadly ethical ideals in mind. They prided themselves on their selectivity, on how many could not get in. Antioch collapsed—and is trying again with some possibly more contemporary ideas. Note how we conflate the two not-necessarily coupled traits when we brag about “the best and the brightest"—and how both terms are worded comparatively.

In a society intended to make everyone a member of the ruling class, with the leisure and knowledge and power to be a force in the life of the nation (and planet), we don’t need a different kind of education for leaders. They will emerge. From birth until age 18 the ONLY purposes that matter deeply to me are two: (1) that each child shall get an education that respects and dignifies his or her own talent and humanity and (2) that every child receive an education that makes every citizen or would-be citizen equally prepared to defend his/her interests and the interests of the larger community and society to which he/she belongs.

Armed with these two aptitudes and attitudes I’m quite prepared to see one’s post-18-year-old education focused on how one might make a living! Until then, the purpose of “leaving to learn,” in the title of Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski’s new book, describes the work of the MET not as a voc ed school, but as a school simply aimed to educate all students with an understanding of the world they are a part of: who does what, who decides what, and how do they go about doing it. Its function is to join adults and youth in useful common tasks. Indeed, it may also serve to nourish a passion that will last way beyond schooling, but more importantly, it might help the young to see themselves with a stake in the world we share.

It comes more easily at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School—because so many already have adults in their lives who belong to the “ruling class"—if not the 1 percent, the 90 percent. But that’s why such schooling is even more important for the rest of us. It’s not a luxury reserved for the rich. I want a more level playing field in school and out, which is what the promise of democracy is all about. It can only thrive when there is a more level field. Note that I do not speak about absolutely levelness. But we are so far from that defining equal is a quibble.

I’m willing to declare victory each and every time the bottom and the top start moving closer and closer. The gap between rich and “others” is greater in school and out than ever before in our history, ditto for black/Latino vs. white. The last recession wiped out large portions of the black and Latino middle class who are moving downhill fast a time when opportunities are fewer and democracy weaker.

Yes, yes, the slogan “knowledge is power” represents an idea that is losing its real-life strength, even as KIPP expands. That’s what I hope is worrying us both.

The gift we all have is the potential to make a difference in the world and to create an America that takes itself more seriously as “a leader of the free world.” After fighting one war after another—at great cost—for democracy, we shame ourselves when we let it slip through our fingers so fast.

Good luck, and let’s not wait for a public exchange to keep our argument going. Arguing is at the heart of democracy—if done in the hope that both parties gain insight in the process. Along with the powerful connections we share, let’s also keep talking about how we might make our schools themselves lessons in democracy—including learning the value of disagreeing, which may sometimes appear to be “making excuses.”


P.S. Definitely pick up Nel Noddings’ new book Education and Democracy in the 2lst Century.

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.