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Teaching Opinion

Democracy ‘Experiments': Alternatives to Traditional Schools

By Deborah Meier — October 29, 2015 2 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Democracy does, indeed, become an empty word in the absence of any real experience with it—lived experience. One place we might provide such experience is in schools dependent on precisely such a “democratic public.” It’s a place that families, students, and staff have the opportunity to test out their own and the institution’s power to learn about how democracy might work in the “real world.” We not only waste that opportunity but we do precisely the opposite. We do some fake exercises in trivializing democracy—meaningless voting for our favorite color, mascot, et al. for kids, and not much more for adults, except behind closed doors. And then too often the adults exercise their power only over younger and less powerful “children,” not with peers, and not with the authorities who make the decisions they must live by. Kids watch and learn—over 12 to 14 years of impressionable youth. Most also note that their families—especially if they are poor or nonwhite—have little power. Growing up is not liberating but more of the same.

Yes, the word “commonwealth"—both words imbedded in it—is a nice way of viewing what’s public: what belongs to us all. I have perhaps less scorn for political parties and ideologies than you do. Perhaps that’s the “difference” I hope I can bridge—or really better understand—between us.

When people ask me, what would you recommend as an alternative to our current public education system—can your “kind of” work be spread to scale? I feel obliged to come up with suggestions both short- and long-term.

For instance, in the early 1990s we invented a possible answer that, alas, we were never able to test out. Some 100 plus K-12 schools in NYC proposed a large-scale experiment, serving about 50,000 students and representative of the city as a whole. Our aim: to demonstrate the value of greater school/community-based autonomy including show-casing alternative systems of accountability. Annenberg offered us 50 million dollars to try it out. The mayor, NYC chancellor, NYC board of education, the state superintendent of schools, and the American Federation of Teachers local chapter signed on. Two local universities agreed to study our work over five years both statistically and ethnographically. If we hadn’t been stopped by a new chancellor and a new state superintendent we’d have learned a lot.

Boston’s Pilot schools, a smaller similar effort begun 20 years ago in a much smaller city, was studied with less rigor, but seemed generally successful. But those in power seemed remarkably uninterested in this public solution, and preferred to put their money into charter chains or vouchers.

Similarly, 39 NYC high schools have pioneered for more than 20 years a state-approved alternative system of assessment—the Consortium of schools has been studied and found successful. Again with relatively little attention. Amazing.

So I’m “desperate” to find ways to make these alternatives better understood and explored because they were deliberate attempts to explore what democratic reforms might look like: to persuade, not to mandate. Some of the young admirers of these efforts feel stymied and turn to opening “mom and pop” small charters with more autonomy but where accountability consists primarily in test scores.

How can we break through the silence by making these public alternatives more visible before they die off as their autonomies are chipped away?


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.