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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Interview With Deborah Meier & Emily Gasoi: ‘Schools Belong to You & Me’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 23, 2017 9 min read
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Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, These Schools Belong To You And Me: Why We Can’t Afford To Abandon Our Public Schools.

Deborah Meier, author of the acclaimed books The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust, has spent more than five decades working in public education as a parent, school-board member, teacher, principal, writer, and advocate. Among her numerous accomplishments, she helped found the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, under the leadership of Ted Sizer. In 1987, she received a MacArthur award for her work in public education.

Emily Gasoi has been an educator for more than two decades and was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. In 2012 she earned a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Gasoi currently lives in Washington, DC, where she adjuncts at Georgetown University and is cofounder of Artful Education, an organization focused on helping schools and arts organizations improve practices related to creative teaching and learning.

LF: I was struck by your commentary about the “co-option” of progressive education ideas by those who might not share the original goals behind those ideas. Can you elaborate on that point?

Deborah Meier:

There are terms that we have used for decade in progressive education, such as “performance-based assessments” that refer to various ways of assessing learning that involves students demonstrating—through authentic means, such as presenting to a real audience of teachers and community members—what he or she has learned. Over the last couple of decades, I have found myself doing a doubletake more times than I can count when I hear a progressive term, such as “performance-based” used to refer to a standardized test or at best a scripted classroom routine.

Another such term is “personalized learning.” Progressive, child-centered educators have used this term for over a century to indicate that a human teacher has a strong relationship with individual students and therefore is able to set up the classroom in a way that encourages them to follow their own interests and to learn at their own pace. “Personalized Learning” has been co-opted by tech companies to indicate the delivery of leveled content and massive data collection via computer. It is, in fact, a very “impersonal” form of education. I used to advocate for “school choice” as a condition that strengthened democratic communities within schools; soon after I began advocating for choice, however, reformers began using the term to indicate competitive, market-driven ed reform that undermines our public schools, and ultimately, our democracy. I have even stopped using the word “reform” or thinking of myself as a “reformer” because that word now invokes the current aggressive, top-down, business-style approach to school change.

Emily Gasoi:

The cooption of language by market-oriented reformers who have demanded that schools provide quantifiable “results” in the form of ever-improving test scores has made it difficult to talk about alternatives to this vision of what it means to be a successful student, teacher, or school. There’s no longer a frame of reference or clear language for discussing established progressive practices, such as valuing process as much as product, emphasizing critical and creative thinking, collaboration, etc.—practices that have long been in teachers’ professional tool kits but that are currently overlooked and under-valued. Just as insidious, there has been a rise in rhetoric around the need for schools to adopt “21st Century” practices (again, these so called 21st C practices have an awful lot in common with those that John Dewey and others wrote about and documented over 100 years ago), but few schools are able to prioritize such practices because they tend to run counter to test- and standards-driven curriculum.

LF: Can you share a summary of your analysis of the role and impact of state testing in school “accountability”?

Deborah Meier:

Our overreliance on testing has distorted almost entirely the meaning of learning, academic and achievement. We use them as shortcuts for “academic achievement” while they actually are mostly an indication of social status and distort the meaning of academic, learning and achievement.

Emily Gasoi:

At the beginning of this year I attended a series of open forums in DC held by OSSE (Office of the State Superintendent of Education) to gather community input on their proposed ESSA plan. ESSA allows states to dial back the weight of test scores in assessing school quality to 50 or 55 percent and there is also a provision which allows states to propose an alternative accountability plan. Despite these opportunities, as of January of this year, only the state of New Hampshire has developed an alternative and too few states have taken advantage of the opportunity to significantly reduce the weight of standardized testing in measuring school quality.

The DC OSSE plan, for example, proposed allowing scores to account for 80 percent of a school’s rating. In the three forums I attended, hundreds of teachers, parents, and advocates expressed their utter frustration with the new plan. I go into some detail describing these meetings in the book, but suffice to say that teachers testified that they are torn between doing what they know is best for their students, especially students who traditionally do poorly on tests, such as English-language learners, newly arrived immigrant students, and low-income students in general, and prepping them to do well on tests in order to protect their schools from receiving a poor rating; parents spoke passionately about how testing negatively impacted their children’s learning and school experience. I am not exaggerating when I say that, in the three forums I attended, I only heard one individual out of hundreds testify in support of the new plan. Despite that, the only change OSSE agreed to make was to reduce the weight of test scores from 80 to 70 percent. Again, I think this illustrates how there is so little frame of reference for thinking beyond testing, and so little will on to find alternatives, that testing has just become the default, even when the opportunity arises to adopt more meaningful practices.

LF: Your book offers an alternative that define as “authentic accountability.” Can you explain what you mean?

Emily Gasoi:

As we write in the book, authentic accountability refers to schools being accountable for “meeting the actual educational and professional aims set by those working day in and day out with individual students and their families.” Authentic accountability methods engage educators in the evaluation of their own schools. We use the word “authentic” because these evaluations measure actual school goals defined and agreed upon within the school, network, or system in which a given school is situated. This is important because when educators actually believe in the value of the indicators being measured and are part of the evaluation process, they are more likely to hold themselves accountable. So authentic accountability actually helps to build a culture of accountability within schools themselves.

An example we write about in the book is the School Quality Review process used to evaluate Pilot Schools in Boston and alternative schools in Los Angeles. Another is an evolving state-wide performance-based accountability system called PACE being piloted in New Hampshire. Overall, Authentic accountability holds schools accountable for meeting goals they have actually defined in accordance with the actual and changing needs of the school community. This is all in great contrast to standardized test, which often tempt or compel educators to cheat. Rachel Aviv wrote a great piece on the Atlanta test cheating scandal that really gets at this problem.

Deborah Meier:

In the book we also address alternatives to testing for assessing student learning. Authentic student assessments require students to carry out a task being assessed under its real life use, such as their ability to perform a service in the community—for example, analyzing air, water, or soil quality, (see, for ex. Ron Berger’s book, Ethic of Excellence), or putting together an historically accurate production for local seniors based on primary and secondary research, etc. But there are also school-based approximations that can come close to being “authentic.” For example, presentations to an audience, real time back and forth in response to questions and critiques of various aspects of the field and pertinent embedded skills. At Mission Hill School, middle schoolers present portfolios of their work in six discipline areas before a committee that includes teachers, peers, family and at least one community member. We modeled this process after a dissertation defense.

LF: You share great stories and examples from schools you both started that exemplify “democratic schooling,” including collective teacher leadership and autonomy. Unfortunately, though, many teachers work in very different environments. What are two or three specific actions you recommend that educators in those situations do to promote this vision of schooling?

Deborah Meier:

Act “as if”, both individually and collectively, you and your colleagues are expected to exercise your best judgment on behalf of your students. And, where possible, write about and document and talk publically about successes and obstacles face in your efforts.

Emily Gasoi:

Find like-minded colleagues and organize! There are two great teacher empowerment groups that have formed this year in my hometown of DC. One is Empower ED, a teacher initiate group that draws teachers from across very different school settings—public, charter, private—to collaborate around creating more space for democratic practices within their respective schools. The other is The D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice (sponsored by the organization Teaching for Change) whose mission is to create a network of educators seeking to strengthen and deepen teaching practices/content that prioritize social justice. Both these groups have been inspired by similar groups forming around the country.

I think one of the obstacles to enacting meaningful change is the lack of attention being paid to existing models that show what is possible for schools to be. I encourage educators to counter the “single story” of school success that has emerged with the high stakes testing and No Excuses school movements. One way is to tell your own stories, as Deb suggests. There’s a great talk given by teacher and author, David B. Cohen about teachers using their stories as a form of advocacy. I also encourage educators to read about, view, and share widely examples of inspiring alternatives. Here are a few recommendations:

Loving Learning by Tom Little

The Hardest Questions are Not on the Test and Why Grit Isn’t Enough by Linda Nathan

⦁ Anything written by Mike Rose

⦁ Films: A Year at Mission Hill (shorts) and Good Morning Mission Hill (documentary) by Amy and Tom Valens

⦁ And anything written by Deborah Meier, including our book, of course!

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Deborah Meier:

There’s a long history/belief in what the Catholic Church calls subsidiarity and the American revolution saw as the value of decisions made “of by and for the people” and Dewey reminded us—that “means and ends” are connected. Education for democracy requires practicing it.

LF: Thanks, Deborah and Emily!


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