Standards Opinion

Schools Should Teach Students to Lead, Not Follow

By Deborah Meier — November 11, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier’s conversation with Leo E. Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute continues today.

Dear Leo,

Ten days of traveling; all wonderful but ... exhausting. I was left with no time to think about responding to your very thoughtful comments last week.

There are so many absolutely critical issues facing us that I find myself using overblown language about everything. Yes, democracy is at risk—locally, nationally, and worldwide. It will never be entirely abolished as a struggle worth fighting for. But it has received some serious blows. The role of money in politics is perhaps the inevitable outcome of the obscene levels of inequality we face.

And the demise of public education in any form that you and I recognize is high on the list of casualties.

Of course, part of our dilemma is that the real world has never fully embraced what you and I would describe as “the core of public education” with its attention to "... the skills of democratic citizenship such as critical thinking ... and self-direction that leads to a purposeful life.” These things have been almost entirely absent in the public schools that the majority of Americans attended, or where most teachers taught. Democracy survived—barely—despite an education that has served us badly.

Our schools have reinforced the “natural” divisions of powers: rulers vs. ruled. Rather than being examples of what it means to educate for leading, schools have traditionally provided educations in the habits of being ruled over.

The promise of unions to take on this challenge was a worthy one, and remains so. But we didn’t go far enough. If teachers are treated disrespectfully, it hardly sends a good message to students. What it means to be a grown-up in a democracy is lost on the young. If well-educated, “professionally trained” adults can’t be trusted to be citizens of their workplace—not even in relatively small institutions like schools—we are kidding ourselves that we can collectively rule a nation! The hypocrisy is just too blatant.

Yes, schools have some additional complexities—because there are other adults who must also play a “ruling” role. These include parents and others affected by the school’s presence in their lives; but, above all, the families of the students, and to some extent, surely, the students themselves.

Yes, I agree, Leo, that we need a coalition—and at the moment it can be a pretty broad one, in my opinion—focused on returning some substantial power to those closest to the action. But we also need a union that works closely with parents to develop some experimental models of school democracy that can pioneer such work, as many as we can.

New York City’s recent PROSE contract proposal is a step. Pilots in Boston took it one step further. But even they didn’t go far enough. The union avoided the issue of how Pilots were governed. Both, however, were efforts to increase the autonomy of schools to control more of the factors that affect all of their immediate constituents. But the question of who is a citizen of the school remained to be spelled out.

Charters, in fact, are more often an even worse example of local democracy since so many are controlled by boards and moneyed interests distant from the interests of those served. They are modeled after “businesses"—where we have employees and customers, but no citizens.

Isn’t it ironic that this effort that began as a way to give more power to locals has ended up doing the opposite for 90 percent of its constituents! In an increasingly unequal society, that’s the danger of every innovation—that it is captured by its enemies. Thus, my old slogan—small, self-governing schools of choice—has too often been turned into a nightmare.

My interest in the audience that the Tea Party attracts is not based on our common view of so-called common-core standards, as you suggest, but our shared fear of centralized power. Sometimes we’ve let the opposition confuse our respect for the essential democratic role of governments for a respect for centralized power.

Unions were formed, originally, alongside people with many prejudices that unions themselves helped to overcome as they struggled to survive. We need to figure out a strategy for winning over the prejudices of our fellow citizens, as they experience how counterproductive they are in practice. Schools are potential institutions for doing precisely this, if we can make them so!

Schooling for democracy must essentially be schooling for teaching the arts and crafts of ruling: to students, their teachers, and their families and neighbors. And, alas, “ruling” involves some peculiar kind of respect for fairly odious allies.

Yes, Leo, I’m struggling with this one. I keep reminding myself that our students are watching and learning from how we tackle these dilemmas. Dare we disrespect—in some essential sense—any of our fellow human beings if we hope to create a more powerful and sustainable democracy?


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.