Teaching Opinion

The Challenges of Large-Scale Action for Democratic School Change

By Deborah Meier — November 12, 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,

Here’s where I don’t “get it":

What sustains the extraordinary short-lived focused citizen action? What kind of institutional changes might make it more normal, part of the way we do things, common sense, not requiring unusual time and energy?

I think that the kind of exceptional schools that I’ve called “democratic” have engaged in institutional change that helps make democracy a more reasonable expectation. But such schools are also forced to confront a larger institutional pressure to stay alive and thus rarely grow exponentially. One dies as another begins.

There’s definitely a trade-off, as Mike Miller suggests, between individual experiments that create silos of excellence vs. working at-large. The former is not a “solution,” but at best a provocateur, as well as a place to try out some wild ideas. But going from one to two to four to eight to 16 to 32, etc., is not the way of the future. Unless. Unless we simultaneously change the rules, the norms that are counterproductive to democracy. Like voting on Tuesdays. Like limited voting places. Like not allowing mail ballots or increasing the time for voting. Like same-day registration.

School-family meetings are another example. Once we insisted the child be present it changed its nature. Once we focused on actual student work presented by the student we started a different conversation.

I wonder how many schools would actually say they do not want more autonomy? I suspect quite a few if we asked parents, fewer if we asked teachers—but maybe it would depend on whose autonomy we focused on. What structures would give the entire school community more autonomy, if they could come to some level of agreement?

That’s a structural change that might make a difference.

Some of the charters, like the pilots, have used autonomy well to create an engaged community. But when chartering and piloting don’t demand community buy-in, just “allow it” with lots of ifs and maybes, they dwindle away. I just discovered that this has been rapidly happening in Boston with Pilots. In the absence of any institutional body representing Pilots as a bargaining unit perhaps, this may be hard to fight.

Fighting each other, pitting parents against parents, teachers against teachers, teachers’ unions against parent unions, is surely not the way. But we too often allow ourselves to release most of our energetic opposition on our closest allies. What institutional changes would make it easier for us to avoid this trap?

Our “enemies” have helped to silo us. My allies are too busy trying to stay in business to take the time to meet with “competitor” allies in ways that might make it easier for us all to stay alive. Competition is inevitable to some degree. As the head teacher at CPE or Mission Hill that was always my immediate pressure. It was hard to expend my finite energies elsewhere. Now that I’m retired it’s easier to see where I was wrong!

How can we change this so that being a good citizen is somewhat less difficult?


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.