School Choice & Charters Opinion

Preparing Kids for More Than College

By Deborah Meier — January 21, 2014 7 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst today.

Dear Robert,

Yes, I’m fixated on who decides what. That’s the fundamental dilemma of a democracy. Since we agree that schooling is about teaching kids respect for democracy and liberty, it can’t be brushed aside. But I see you’re fixated on deciding what all students should know. I’ve hardly “hidden” my answers! I’ve written prolifically on the subject. It isn’t a mystery. You just don’t agree with me!

I hope the following helps you out.

The schools I “founded” agreed with studying history, mathematics, physical and natural science, literature, and the arts—although in a more interdisciplinary manner. We generally favored a “less is more” approach. For example, we spent far more time than is usual studying light in year one of physics. And we focused more on American rather than European history. We encouraged curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the “essential questions” in each discipline. But we also honored uncertainty—ours and theirs, and knowing “how” to get at and evaluate information.

Central Park East Secondary School (in East Harlem, NYC) had very clear graduation requirements for 12th graders, as did Mission Hill (in Roxbury, Boston) for 8th graders. For CPESS, the standards were developed on the basis of New York state’s credit and course requirements. They were reviewed by respected educators, including Tom Sobol (then the state education commissioner in New York) and Tom Payzant (the superintendent in Boston).

We had outside experts at each of the graduation committees’ sessions that reviewed a student’s record in a particular academic discipline and rated their presentations and defense of their accumulated work. We videotaped these and kept the material and occasionally called in experts to review both the students’ work and our decisions.

The process and the content were basically drawn from the work of Ted Sizer, then at Brown University and formerly the head of Harvard’s school of education and of Andover. These were spelled out in several of his books (Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s Hope, and Horace’s School).

The work of our students was scrupulously reviewed, written about, and preserved. The curriculum at CPESS—there were no electives in 7th through 10th grade—was spelled out in detail. During the final two years, students took college courses (mostly auditing), electives, and completed courses and independent study in order to prepare for their graduation exams. There were seven exams lasting up to an hour each, plus seven “minors” that were reviewed in a less exhaustive way.

We also followed up on students in college and postgraduate employment, and are still in touch with most.

At Mission Hill, we essentially followed the same process, except that we were preparing them for high schools, not colleges or careers.

At CPESS and MH we focused on whether the work that the students presented demonstrated the five intellectual habits of mind that undergirded all our work: What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern? Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares? It was their task to convince the committee that they could defend their work using these criteria. (In both schools there were several on-demand tasks, as well.)

Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them. We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

We were among many schools, nationwide, and 30 in New York state alone, that pursued a similar—but far from identical—path, most of which are still engaged in this kind of authentic assessment. (One marvelous middle school, for example, offers almost nothing but electives.)

Their work was investigated by a panel, appointed by New York state Commissioner Richard Mills, which praised the work and urged the state to support it. The committee even included several very respected psychometricians. What is unusual about the approach is that students have the opportunity to select, within broad guidelines, the work that will go into their portfolios and their major presentation in each discipline. (In the arts this often includes public presentations.)

As Ralph Tyler demonstrated more than 70 years ago in his famous eight-year study, it’s not easy to try doing things differently. Between college requirements and our own history of schooling, innovations are hard to stick with. We knew that it took courage to “stray"—to actually attend to student passions, questions, dilemmas. To provide an “ordinary” group of largely low-income and minority students with the kind of habits of mind that would prepare them to handle the immense challenges facing them we needed to listen to each student, family, and colleague carefully in order to plan ahead from there.

In short, neither the state nor our schools felt we needed to agree on a list of specific information all students were required to know. Our students record of success was sufficient to satisfy many skeptics. (Including Diane Ravitch, who visited while she was still a critic of our approach, or thought she was.)

Movies have been made—documentarian Fred Wiseman made one about CPESS. Another shorter award-winning film presented the work of a 2nd/3rd grade class in the midst of a study of King Tut and ancient Egypt. Many books have been written solely or partially about these schools.

Learning to use one’s mind well required content knowledge. Information is the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Principle #1. But you can’t use it about nothing! So the subject of study needs to be rich, important, and accessible. I’m a Luddite at heart, but I do appreciate modern technology for making this easier. But it doesn’t solve the need to carefully weigh the reliability of “the facts,” and the logic of the argument. These are no less important than prior to technology and constitute the heart of democratic citizenship.

While I still like “our” five, some schools that followed us developed quite different “essentials” and different processes for deciding when students were ready to graduate.

What was common across such schools was the obligation to be open to each other’s criticism of our work. It meant that while we treasured “coherence,” we did not worry about alignment. We honored standards, but not standardization. Our freedom had the advantage of enabling us to connect “big” ideas when they happened to be in the headlines. Like the Supreme Court hearings about Clarence Thomas. Or the Rodney King trial. Or an unexpected hurricane.

Did it prepare them for the world? I personally hate the term “college prep.” I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too. On the whole, the thing that best helped us get kids into colleges were the kids themselves. They were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way and appeared naturally and comfortably respectful; their apprenticeship as novice adults had paid off. This was remarked upon over and over by college interviewers and faculty.

I found the films about Democracy Prep, thanks for sending them on. The kids and staff seemed cheerful and attentive. But it’s not a setting that seems particularly innovative nor intellectually stimulating. I’m one of those former kindergarten and Head Start teachers who thinks that 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds can carry on serious conversations and are grappling with important concepts—if we avoid viewing their ideas as “cute” or are only seeking quick right answers. I was happy to be told that the school respected children’s passions and encouraged exploring the world outside the schoolhouse. And probably much more that wasn’t, alas, part of the film I watched.

But my major point is that I want Democracy Prep to be able to listen to my criticisms and vice-versa while we both have the right to continue to pursue our different approaches. Meanwhile, let’s spend our resources on real-life evidence. We have little long-term research that can help us see what the trade-offs are in each of our approaches.

I went into teaching, accidentally, in 1963, filled with questions. I’ve answered some to my satisfaction—above all, that kids of all races and incomes can benefit from what we provide for the richest and most favored. But there are ever so many more that I wish I had time to explore in depth.


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.