School Choice & Charters Opinion

Let’s Open the Doors Wider

By Deborah Meier — May 23, 2013 7 min read
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Editor’s note: This piece has been updated by Deborah Meier.

Dear Michael,

You say, “The choice today is not between 100,000 Central Park Easts or Mission Hills and 100,000 test-prep factories. If it were, I’d pick Deborah Meier schools in a heartbeat. But let’s face it: There aren’t more than a handful of Deborah Meier schools out there ....”

One “minor” correction, there are far more than a handful of schools “like” mine, and during that short window of support in the 1980s and early 1990s, there were hundreds and the number was growing fast. But I’ll save that for another exchange. You’ve come up with a proposal—an opt-out—that I might work on while we continue to quarrel over means and ends. (How about giving parents an opt-out, too?)

We’re closer on this point than I’m comfortable with! It’s perhaps a plan that, if implemented, would get us moving in a different direction—if we also don’t insist that it solve all our schooling or economic problems! It would not make me more supportive of charters with boards that do not represent their constituents, or of vouchers, or evaluating teachers by student test scores, or trying to cut back—if not destroy—teacher unionism. Given all that, it sounds like a useful step that could help. And it might even give the “test prep factories” another choice.

Some years ago I wrote a chapter on “scaling up” for Part II of In Schools We Trust. I still agree with it. It summarized what I had learned about the short, lonely life of so many schools that were celebrated over the years for their breakthrough results. I was cocky enough to think we had finally gotten the answer, and we put together a proposal for a major experiment on behalf of accountability to our students, their families, and our colleagues—and later to the world. Plus $50 million from Walter Annenberg to carry it out. Read the chapter for more of the details. (Also published in Educational Policy in 1997: Can the odds be changed? Educational Policy, 11(2), 194-208. PDF)

But alas—it got scuttled when the chancellor who supported it left at just the same time that Tom Sobel stepped down as state commissioner. Both the new chancellor and superintendent said “no.” We missed a chance for a closely studied experiment with 50,000 students (the size of the average city). We also have the biggest “public” experiment in an alternative way to “measure” good schooling—in the N.Y. State Consortium, with a 20-year history (see Urban Academy, Beacon, School of the Future, Ella Baker, Village Community) which dozens of other public and private schools have copied.

Exciting reforms don’t “inevitably” fail, but are often “murdered.”

So, I think our ideas—maybe—are running on similar paths. How do we sustain good schools so that over time there are more and more of them? I think networks of schools are a useful added component—schools that are accountable to each other—with school-by-school or network boards representing no more than five to 10 schools.

I think there is absolutely nothing in the nature of “public’ness” that prevents us from carrying out a plan of the sort you describe with as many public schools as might be interested in “inventing” their own approach and testing it out under the most rigorous, or perhaps vigorous, manner—in a fishbowl, as we proposed.

Our plan operated from many of the same premises yours does. Like Anthony Bryk’s study of the Chicago decentralization plan, we thought most of the power—with as few exceptions as possible, e.g. health, fiscal integrity and civil rights—should be in the hands of those closest to the action. That was our overriding default position. Over many years organizations tend to add more and more restrictions—one for each time something goes wrong—and never remove any! We had a list of the funniest and most absurd ones—to remind us of the dangers we might impose on ourselves if we weren’t careful.

The default you suggest—common core, high-stakes testing, et al—unless schools present a reasonable alternative is not ideal. (I’ll leave more on why it’s not ideal for another time, too.) But it’s an opening for tackling the right issues. Still we shouldn’t choose mediocrity just because it’s easier to scale up!

We’re luckily not starting from scratch. From Boston, New York City, and East Harlem (where I’ve worked for 40 years) there is already much we have learned. For example, in all three the requirement that schools take their share of students in special education and students in poverty is critical. It still doesn’t solve the oranges vs. oranges dilemma. In reality, there are many levels of “poverty” as well as of “special needs,” which make comparing schools difficult if not impossible. We also knew that when schools serve largely poor children vs. a heterogeneous student body, they face different problems.

A good school shouldn’t be measured “in comparison"—this is not a “race to the top” (one of the uglier slogans I’ve heard in educational circles). Do we compare our own children and rank-order them? Should we? How to balance sometimes-conflicting goals and settings will be difficult. But it’s worth tackling rather than pretending we’ve solved these issues. Unlike you (maybe?) my experiences in NYC and Boston suggest that competition between schools neither motivates nor supports serious innovation. While, yes, I still believe that some forms of choice are quite compatible with public schooling. (See my piece in the March 4, 1991, issue of The Nation: Choice Can Save Public Education.)

There is, in short, absolutely no reason why the innovative practices that you and I may seek can’t take place in public, unionized schools ultimately responsible to city and state authorities. I’m struck over and over about how un-innovative most independent private schools are—and how choosy they are even in their choice of rich kids. Ditto for most charters: Aside from those having more control over their student population and more funds per pupil—allowing for smaller class sizes—they remind me in their no-excuses tone of the Chicago schools I subbed in during the 1960s. Is something else is at stake—like general opposition to “government” schools?

Would your plan scale up fast? No. Buy-in from others might be slow. But remember charters expand slowly (too fast for me, of course). And if truly monitored, more charters would be closed than opened—open if we used the same criteria Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel are using to close “their” public schools!

Yes, I’m momentarily pretending that there are no other special interests—ideological as well as financial—behind the drive to bash teachers, unions, and public bureaucracies and closing existing public schools! But maybe we’d find out whether I’m right or not if we tried to launch a collaboration such as you describe. I’m frequently accused by friends of being naïve and “too generous.” This may be true, but it may occasionally be a virtue.

So let’s pretend we are writing an ESEA proposal that followed this idea. What might it look like? Maybe we can share some proposals—such as those already prepared by FairTest?

We need to push healthy controversy into more productive directions. The use of high-stakes testing is so clearly not the answer even to improved test scores. Meanwhile, the more alarmed I become about the fragile condition of our democracy, the more desperate I am to break the “testing lock” that drowns out real innovation. Like democracy, this idea depends on collaborative decision-making by ordinary people—those most affected. Why not restart our democratic faith by inventing schools that honor democracy in practice? I think your proposal and our 20-year-old Annenberg proposal had a chance for moving in that direction. If we don’t stop blaming schools for the gaps that inequality of resources creates (or “genes” or “bad parenting”), this could be a step that would make success easier to come by. Plus, how nice it would be if we acknowledged that equal outcomes would require equal resources. In New York City, the Daltons, Fieldstons, et al spend four to five times as much and average class sizes are around 12 to 15 students tops vs. 25 to 35.

Yes, it’s urgent. If we don’t stop the current rapid slide toward inequality, in schooling and out, we’re in big trouble. We’re way out of the kind of balance of power democracy requires. Schools are only one example, but since that’s what I “do,” I’m game for seeing how far we can go if we open the gates wider for how we define school purposes, school success, and the evidence that counts. We’re a long way from the balance of power democracy requires. Schools are only one example, but since that’s what I “do"—I’m game for seeing how far we can go if we open the gates wider so that public schools can belong once again to their own public; opening the gates for a real discussion about school purposes, school success, and the evidence that counts.


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.