School Choice & Charters Opinion

Why Isn’t the ‘Mother of Small Schools’ Feeling Smug?

By Deborah Meier — February 04, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Funny you should ask, Diane. Yes, I am still a sort-of supporter of small schools—within the right context.

I came across a big, heavy award from 2004 called The Small Schools Award: “In honor of your support, in a bold way and over the long haul of small schools that educate one student at a time.” I’m frequently introduced as “the mother/grandmother of small schools.” So, why aren’t I feeling smug and successful? There are more urban small schools than ever before—even though small often now means 600, not 300.

Nearly 20 years ago a group of us proposed phasing out one big high school in each NYC borough and simultaneously opening six new small schools in available alternate spaces in each neighborhood. We barely got beyond doing one very successful “turnaround” in Manhattan when a variant of this idea swept city after city. NYC is going wild with “turn-arounds,” and today I’m largely an opponent! Why?


When I was teaching and principal-ing I regularly had great ideas. Usually just before falling asleep. They looked a little less exciting the next morning, but I plowed ahead filling in the details and arrived at school still enthusiastic. Some worked out. Most didn’t. They got shot down by the students’ reactions—which were ho-hum at best, or by my colleagues’ lack of interest, often accompanied by compelling reasons for their lack of enthusiasm. Greater “experts” than I have suffered this fate. Sometimes the “experts” see it as an ugly form of resistance to any change, laziness, self-interest, or a combination of such bad habits.

At some point I began to rethink the oft-accused culprit resistance. Maybe resistance is the response of choice given relative powerlessness. Suppose we had actually jumped on every bandwagon that came along? Maybe calling it “resistance” is a self-serving interpretation by true believers to explain disagreement from the ranks. Sometimes, of course, the idea might actually be great, but the resisters have embarked on another path already and now is not the time to interrupt. I always hoped it was the latter and that I could renew my great idea at a later date—if I still liked it myself. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

I reminded myself that in WWII (my pre-teen years), collaborators were the bad guys and resisters the heroes. When had we switched sides?

Once again, context is everything. The habit of “resistance” became my habitual stance, until others began to resist my best ideas. Then I became pro collaboration—with me—and founded a wonderful organization in NYC called the Center for Collaborative Education. It has since died, but I’m still on the board of Boston’s Center for Collaborative Education. Sometimes I collaborate, sometimes I resist.

I recently re-read an op-ed I wrote for The New York Times in 1989. (“In Education, Small is Sensible,” Sept. 8, 1989) I agree with every word of it. Except that.... It’s more complicated.

So, my next blog essay will be devoted to a defense of “yes, small schools, but...” Unless I get carried in another direction by your next letter, Diane.

When and how might “small schools” and “choice” become a favorite of teachers and parents and kids rather than, as in NYC these days, a heavy-handed intruder? Ditto for choice, which for some is also a new burden that further disempowers rather than empowers them. (See my 1991 piece in The Nation: “Choice Can Save Public Education.”) How did small schools and choice become the enemy of thousands of good teachers, parents, and students? Why have they launched attacks against New York’s mayor and school chancellor for mandating the closing of their large neighborhood schools, in order to morph them into small schools?

Wait and see. (Of course, if you’ve been reading Diane and me, you already know part of the answer.) Express your views on small schools and choice on this site. I hope, Diane, that you will weigh in, too. (You can also go to my Web site—www.deborahmeier.com—for a longer account of what happened.)


Afterword: It has been a hard few months. Last week, one of the most thoughtful voices in education—Seymour Sarason—died. At 91. He led a long, fruitful life, wrote many books and inspired many educators, including K-12 teachers, mental health practitioners, and more. He was curious about everything, including why deliberate change was so hard to “make” happen. The more things change, the more they stay the same, he reminded us. But he didn’t stop working for change. He was a friend and adviser to all those naïve enough to keep at the task. I owe him so much—even if we didn’t solve the conundrum posed. Read his books, starting with Revisiting: “The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” and including the one I read over and over before starting Central Park East Secondary School, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. Or Rob Fried’s The Skeptical Visionary, a compilation and commentary on Seymour’s work.

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.