School Choice & Charters Opinion

Choice, Small Schools, and Trade-Offs

By Deborah Meier — April 24, 2014 7 min read
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Today, Deborah Meier writes to Mike Klonsky, who joined her on the blog this week.

Dear Mike,

We most often argue about strategy rather than principles. But maybe there’s a principle behind our differences in strategy. I’ve always had a hard time when asked, “Well. what would you do?” My answer is virtually always, “It depends.” I need to hear as much of the story as possible, and then feel myself toward possible next steps. That’s true whether we’re discussing what to do about Johnny’s behavior or how to help him learn his multiplication tables or make friends. Ditto for school reform.

Only by playing it out, observing, listening, and responding can I weigh the trade-offs that any particular step requires. If I do X, first, I can’t do Y first. What we sometimes argue about is our relative fierceness—who should be attacked without mercy, and who ..., etc. But to argue that “in general” would be futile. So maybe we’ll get into things sidewise, by figuring out some of our own dilemmas.

Thus my inconsistencies may be a form of consistency, given the circumstances. And, sometimes, however, it’s because I discover a trade-off I hadn’t previously thought about or a way I can have my cake and eat it, too.

I do see more merit than I once did—although I was always aware of its existence—between schools of choice vs. geographic neighborhood. I’m for neighborhood schools and I’m for schools of choice—that families can opt for based on their preferences—and I’m also for integration by class and race and ethnicity. I always both loved the idea of “neighborhood” and also recognized that it led to class and race and ethnic polarization, and as a result unequal schooling as well as polarization. But, of course, uncontrolled choice—based on a marketplace cannot, I think, serve the other two, but some form of controlled choice might at least serve two of the three. And maybe there’s a way to organize that serves all three. Partly it might then depend upon what the constituencies needed to make such changes we’re most willing or unwilling to sacrifice. But, in retrospect, I realize I favored choice for pretty much strictly personal educational reasons: I wanted to work with colleagues who shared my own general perspective and who wanted to create a coherently progressive school experience for “ordinary"—largely low-income black or Latino—families. I didn’t see how this could be done without choice, a place to “demonstrate” a viewpoint that had largely been dismissed even by many of my political allies. How could I resist the offer from the superintendent of East Harlem to open a new K-6 schools with colleagues of my choice!

So many of the progressive schools I knew best, and admired, were highly selective and inclined to get rid of kids who didn’t “fit.” As such they could hardly be the model for what I thought might serve all children well, especially if developing and sustaining democratic habits of heart and mind were high up on our agenda. At best they had a elitist social message—they were preparing the progressive leaders of the future. But in a democracy “the people” choose their leaders, not school headmasters.

I had unexpectedly found teaching young children a joy as long as the kids and I were allowed to dig deeply into interesting phenomena. Just put some wet earth, some sand, water, live animals, building materials, paints, pens, books, and written material of all sorts in the room and ... the problem was getting them to disengage. I got better at “group times,” and sometimes even loved them. But I also knew that next year, or the year after, etc., the students would have to abandon this rigorous investigative work for five or six hours a day—and that it would soon appear obvious that “boring” and “academic” were synonymous. I wanted to see what it might be like if we kept the spirit of the kindergarten alive in grades 6 through 12. So I jumped without much hesitation at the opportunity to start a small school of choice in East Harlem—the first of what the superintendent, Tony Alvarado, hoped might be many, so that all parents in East Harlem would have the choice of their immediate neighborhood school or an alternative within not much more than a half-mile away.

But Tony also wanted to fill more of the district’s school buildings and get additional federal funds available for integration. So he urged schools to widen their invitations to close-by neighborhoods—central Harlem, the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side.

It convinced me, as Mission Hill did again 20-something years later, that kids were all different, but that they were all intrigued, fascinated with the opportunity to explore the world in depth. They were also delighted by doing so in the company of others, including other generations. Most of my management problems came from an occasional frustration or over-enthusiasm. The children and their families responded much as they had in my first kindergarten in Chicago’s South Side in an 80 percent African-American school and again in the Head Start program in Philadelphia.

My friend and mentor Lillian Weber of City College of New York had mixed feelings about our work at Central Park East. She opted to work within existing schools with a cluster or more of interested teachers working off of the same corridor—thus, thus called “the open corridor” program, which I was part of for several years.

Both approaches attracted more and more followers over the next decade, although obviously the open corridor suffered from greater mobility of its student population since the corridor was created by individual teachers. More and more families and teachers sought to have something akin to our setting. But just as we all thought we were about to be the wave of the future, from K-12, we also all suffered when, in the early 1990s, another sweeping reform movement—with enormous resources and fiscal and political power—made our work harder. I speak, of course, of the “corporate reforms” we are witnessing in full bloom today.

But I was intrigued by how much of our language that sweeping reform movement adopted: smallness being one example. The participants also adopted a variant on the language of self-governance—but aimed only at removing the system’s public bureaucracy. In too many cases they simply replaced it with self-appointed leaders of schools without any form of teacher representation, under the aegis of powerful individuals, foundations, or self-appointed trustees. On the whole, teachers and parents were “choosing,” but had less power than in the traditional public schools. They adopted our words, to mean their opposite!

I also recognized that the new “reformers” used this to argue that their approach could be implemented top-down, which would make it easier to replicate. And they promised improved test scores and saw no contradiction between their aims and a curriculum designed as a form of standardized test preparation.

And I was gratified to see how important it was for the communities affected to come to the defense of their schools, even some pretty bad ones. What mobilized people was their sense of being disrespected, toyed with for other people’s end needs. It reminded me that it was precisely this kind of solidarity in the face of the outsider that was one of democracy’s essential backbones. It made me question once again when and where choice was appropriate. I remembered the joy I had listening to Ernie Cortes of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) describe the group’s grassroots work in Texas, and realizing that I had chosen a good path, but that I had abandoned another equally essential one. Could we have both?

Thus, Mike, I was thrilled at the work you showed us in Little Village, a parent-led movement developed out of the passionate work of a group of local parents on behalf of a different kind of schooling.

So, let’s discuss these trade-offs and some ways we might imagine them being tackled on a larger scale—say in a district/city of 50,000 students—just for starters. How can we preserve both the needed internal democracy and also build deep roots in a potentially powerful political constituency that might thus protect their children from outsider “interests”? While choice and smallness offer much greater opportunities for building a consistent philosophy for democratic governance of school life and for getting to know each other better, can they hold fast to all these virtues while also building a broader constituency for increased local democratic empowerment? Maybe if we listen and observe closely we’ll find the different combinations that work best in our own different communities, and choose our trade-offs wisely.


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.