Assessment Opinion

What Works for Rich Kids Works for All Kids

By Deborah Meier — October 22, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

We’ve got to stop agreeing so much! I can’t wait to read your new book so I can go into “attack mode” again. I always wonder, however, whether our disagreements are “fundamental” or based on our very different entries into the world of schooling. I think it’s a bit of both. Your view that progressive education ideas became dominant at any time defied what I witnessed in schools I subbed in, sent my kids to, etc. (Even as it may well have swept the elite schools of education.) Your belief that there can be a curriculum that all could follow seems puzzling to me given what I also know about the kind of teachers and teaching you sought for your own kids, and even your reaction to CPESS. I just don’t believe that if you were a classroom teacher you’d agree to follow someone’s curriculum if you didn’t agree with it. I’d rather impose a pedagogy than a curriculum, and you the other way around. But I suspect we both have in our head versions of each other’s ideas that are not quite what the other means. We’ll see.

I wonder at times what it’s like to grow up in a society in which there are people whose bonuses are in the millions—many, many millions. Or annual salaries that are beyond most of our imagination in those big numbers we don’t quite fathom. Surely, they can’t “spend” it? But it represents the power to buy and sell ideas, information, political offices, and on and on. It unbalances the playing field beyond my wildest nightmares. And to get those bonuses when you failed—with built-in contracts that provide enormous pensions and severance pay—regardless of performance! And this from a business world that proclaims, if teachers get a few-thousand-dollar bonuses, they’d better work harder or smarter? Yes, I suppose I’d be less insulted if they offered a million to the top 10 teachers—based on anything they liked! It would be less demeaning.

If I had wanted to make a lot of money, would I have chosen to be a teacher? And to remain for 40-plus years inside the classroom and schoolhouse? I recall that when I got the MacArthur, reporters asked me whether I would now leave and do something more important. I used the money instead to support a teacher-led reform organization in NYC. (I also took my family on a vacation.) But the award was mostly important because it gained me respect—suddenly I was an “expert.” Earlier, I had been invited to panels as the “voice” from the classroom, and folks from the university and the business world were there as the experts.

I was, as reader Erin notes, not looking for ways to “tweak” the system or get a few points more on test scores (which were the rage when I began teaching, too); I wanted to figure out (for myself, I suppose) what it would take to create a different life trajectory for ordinary kids. I happened to live in communities where the schools mostly served children of color, so that’s where I worked, too. But the issue is broader—because the vast majority of our citizens are—I believe—poorly educated given the responsibility they possess for writing our future destiny.

I discovered, lo and behold, that what worked for the mostly rich kids who attended the independent progressive school I had gone to worked for all kids—with tweaks. If Obama, Duncan, Klein et al would send their kids to schools with small class sizes, then so should other families do the same. If their teachers had a variety of professional perks, so should ours. If their teachers had the freedom to explore new topics, to create environments that responded to children’s interests and the world around them—so should it be for others.

Of course, there are more traditional elite schools—but they, too, tend to be smaller schools with smaller class sizes and they teach a full range of human endeavor—the arts, music, sports, etc. Oh, how I envied that, given my inability to give my students both the “basics” and the “extras.” I made compromises that seemed immoral to me—but choices I felt we had to accept given time, budgets, and mandates.

I spent last Saturday evening with students and families who came to CPE in 1974 and many years thereafter—we now educate at CPE the children of our children—and hope to be around for their children, too. The power of their ideas—not mine or our teachers alone—was what drove the school. And it helped make it a place that adults enjoyed and were inspired by—constantly in a state of “relearning.”

It could be. And, alas, the charters are in many ways less free than we were within “the system"—and most don’t use what freedom they possess to be labs for the rest of us. But two quite remarkable superintendents—Anthony Alvarado and Steve Phillips—between them created a K-12 “district” larger than most cities in which school people redesigned what “regular” schooling could be. CPE was “merely” one of many—and many survive, hanging on by a thread, but determined to persist in going against the grain.


P.S. Did I tell you about a marvelous book by Garrett Delavan, The Teacher’s Attention (Temple University)? Delevan makes the case for smaller schools and smaller classes, or as he calls it “relationship load reduction.” Delavan is a high school teacher in Salt Lake City.

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