Small Schools and Choice Revisited

Dear friends,

Sigh! It’s not the first time I’ve noted how even my good ideas can be “corrupted” for quite different purposes than intended. It’s the story of many of the political ideals I still hold to. Small schools were a tool, not an end. So was the idea of requiring a super-majority in the Senate a way to prevent the majority from railroading the minority. So too, I guess, is democracy itself. We can all bemoan it at times.

A colleague from whom I learnt so much died recently, Seymour Sarason. He always thought I was too naïve, but he never tried to discourage me. I will miss his encouragement.

Two of my favorite ideas: small schools and choice – have become bywords of reform, backed by millions and millions of dollars and the power of the city, state and federal government. As “the grandmother” (or so I am often introduced) of the small schools movement, I should be overjoyed. As the author of an article in The Nation magazine in 1991 called Choice Can Save Public Education, why then aren’t I feeling proud? I was right, and wrong. Here’s my account.

My mistake was forgetting a puzzling fact. (In fact I gloated about it, as evidence that the twain can meet.) These two ideas became popular at a moment when the nation was moving to the right, not the left and when the idea that “the free market place” was the over-riding safeguard of our liberties held sway. I was right to take advantage of every crack that came along to do better for kids, and enjoy my work as well. But, as Sarason said, I was atypically (I claim) naïve. All in all, I don’t regret it. The “small-schoolers” made a difference, and still do, in the lives of many children and restored hope to many adults. That cannot be taken away. But…

My slogan in the 80s and 90s was not just small schools, not just schools of choice, but self-governing small schools of choice, democratic schools where most decisions were made at the place that family, teachers and students met. (Exceptions: issues pertaining to civil rights, health and financial integrity). Richard Rothstein in The Way Things Were reminds us that change has long been needed. We did not face a new educational crisis but just one more educational “opportunity” to rethink practices that have not served us well for a century and more. Change of the magnitude that I believed desirable (leave out necessary—who knows about that?) could not be mandated, I argued. They could not be brought to scale by either the logic of argument or the power of the State. A free people must freely change its mind. We could nudge, and we could set the odds in favor, but we cannot and should not override the opposition through mandates.

I believed, in hindsight maybe foolishly, that smallness was perhaps something however that could be mandated. That’s a fact—I did! Because, I argued, only in a small community of adults could the conversation that was needed take place; only face-to-face could teachers and parents explore their common goals, restore trust. To expect a weekend retreat in which 100 teachers and who knows how many parents will usefully come up with a mission or vision was absurd. Only in a small community could the trust needed be built, so that parents and teachers might ‘experiment” together on the young. . This isn’t to make guinea pigs out of the children—but to allow local committees to use what they know about their own children and students. But, as I used to remind parents, neither were their first born, and there’s some evidence that they turn out “best.” But, to make sure, I also urged, sufficient choice should exist so that all families would not need blind trust. Unfamiliar practices would expand as rapidly as the demand for them grew. (I too, am a free-marketer on many issues.)

I argued that only a small community could focus on the multitude of academic and social needs of the young while also educating them for democracy. Only a small community could dare take leaps—of faith. The balance of forces required frequent revision, we had to stop often to be sure we weren’t leaving some behind in our adult enthusiasms. We also needed external review to help us see what we otherwise might overlook, to restore needed balance. We said we’d do X, are we doing it? We said it would help us do Y, is it?

Starting with many short-lived storefront and freedom schools in the 60s, the exploration grew. Teacher centers blossomed around New York City, for example, run and operated by local colleges full of teacher-talk and experimenting together. Out of these grew programs on with physical sites, such as Lillian Weber’s Workshop Center at City College. We created small communities of teachers within existing schools which had permission to work together around a common corridor, across grade levels, with the support of their principals and assistance from the Workshop Center. (I was an advisor to such sites.).

Out of such programs grew essentially semi-“independent” public schools. Central Park East in East Harlem was one of a great many that came into being in the 70s under the leadership of Anthony Alvarado and Sy Fliegel. (Most were not recognized as real schools for 20 years, and were therefore led by teacher-directors not official principals.) Many teachers got excited at the idea that they could work differently without abandoning the public sector, that public did not have to mean mediocre and lockstep. As the idea took off, it seemed as though the genii could never be stuffed back into the bottle.

We struggled with the idea of how voluntarism would work. We argued about whether such schools could be selective without doing harm to the idea itself, and to the children not selected. We argued about whether the choice was the school’s or the families’? We argued about how far we ought to be able to stray with public money. We proposed, in the early 90s, that we initiate (with Annenberg monies) a large-scale pilot of approximately 50,000 students with a 5-year mission to bring these ideas to scale, while Columbia University and New York University studied our work and an external body of critical friends and experts kept close touch with what was happening (responsible in the end to the Chancellor and the School Board.) The local teacher’s union waived virtually all the contract provisions to further this experiment, as did our then chancellor and the State Superintendent and our local NYC Board. We had everything ready to go, including financial support . And then…a new chancellor and a new state commissioner put an end to it. They did not see themselves as coming to office while their empire was taken apart—even gradually.

Although not followed through in New York, the ideas of small schools and choice was picked up by others. My joy that many a Big Business was also excited by our ideas gave me hope. My paranoiac antenna was overcome by the unlikely friendships the idea seemed to create. When charter schools began I saw them as an offshoot of our ideas. In fact one of the early high schools to break into smaller units was in Philadelphia and they called themselves charters. (See work by Michelle Fine.)

I never had illusions about the voucher idea—of free-market private schools paid for with public funds—which were being turned down in state after state. Charters, I assumed, would be thoroughly public, as in the East Harlem and Annenberg proposal. An example was Ted Sizer’s Parker School in Massachusetts, where for once he could try his ideas out as he had dreamed of them (modified by those who joined him). Friends all over the country got excited and I urged them on. Groups of teachers or parents with their own different ideas and willing to exploit themselves to make them work cropped up in many unlikely places. But so did similar public schools—in Boston, Chicago, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and on and on. I went on to Boston where a smaller scale model of our Annenberg proposal got under way—the Pilot School network.

Well, you all know what happened. Diane Ravitch. in her new book the Death and Life of the Great American School System. has laid it out pretty thoroughly, as have others. Charters became the favorite new toy of businesses and businessmen. Some hoped to make a profit off it, some hoped to find fame and glory, some just liked to be part of the latest fad. They saw testing as a way to relatively cheaply control their quality, and ward off regulators and monitors. They saw teachers and parents as buyers/clients/wage earners. The model was business—and maybe not the best of business at that, as some business reformers warned them.

The crisis talk, our economic shakiness all seemed a perfect backdrop for scaring people into forgetting about our age-old experiment in public education, an experiment that has been adopted throughout most of the world, above all in democracies.

We have installed new bureaucracies, we have recreated too many chain store schools. Decisions were made further and further from school folks. The charter schools themselves also grew larger to accommodate efficiency. In several cities the mayors decided to use them to unload their own “accountability” for public education and replace it with privately managed corporations. Maybe deliberately, maybe not. I’m hoping for the latter, and that they too will take a careful look at what they have created before we cross the line of—well I was going to say “no-return”, but actually history doesn’t end and if democracy remains a good idea, we will grow truly public schools again. And again.

If this privatization fails in the ways I suspect it will, it will have destroyed our public system; and it may be hard to put humpty-dumpty back again. That’s why we need to work very hard to retain the best examples of public education before even the memory of what it meant for us all to have a stake in each other’s children.


P.S. Mike & Susan Klonskly lay out an extended treatment of this issue in their book Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society

12 Responses

  1. I love your thought provoking essays written out of your true life, but sometimes I wonder where in midsize towns like mine where two charters have come in and I believe are failing miserably I can find teachers who really care and are not too scared of leaving traditions. Any ideas? Right now I am at a supertendent's target school – which is a nice way to call us a low performing school where we are under mandate after mandate after mandate and the threat that "the state" whoever that is could come in and close us down in forty eight hours at any time.

  2. I am really studying your work and previously had been a supporter of charter schools basically because I wanted "something" that had proven itself in some form, however, what I always thought about places like KIPP is that once you get a lottery you are no longer proving that your program would work for ANY child which is the only solution we really need – Not one that works for a very select group. Also my thoughts are very much towards the fact that whatever we work towards to solve the immence problem of education in our country must be duplicatable (if that is a word) and KIPP is really not on a large scale. Small, intimate schools are and would be able to employ the current work force available with very little training. Hmmmmm, you are changing my beliefs, Mrs. Meier.

  3. Hi Debbie,There are two issues/questions you raise in your latest blog entry that I think about often and are unresolved in my mind. Who chooses who? Meaning does a family choose a school or does a school choose a family? When prospective parents ask me for what type of child our school is best, my response is that I believe our school is right for every child, but not for every family. While school and family will never agree on everything, I think there has to be a trust and deep belief that each side can rely on the other as partners in educating and raising young people. When children face difficulties (academic, emotional or behavioral) I find it hardest to believe the school is meeting the child's needs when its partner (parent or guardian) is absent or unreliable. I know parents must feel this way too about schools. This is when I think about the school choosing the family. All that said, it doesn't feel right.As for small schools, the high stakes of the small size success that doesn't seem to come along with larger schools frightens me. I connect it with stereotypes. A few that fail become what's true of all and caution is thrown into the wind. Who are these people that jump on band wagons so quickly without thinking things through? Are they using their habits of mind? 🙂

  4. AylaI feel so honored when someone enters conversation with me, so thank you. The second paragraph of your entry confused me a bit, but let me talk some about your first point. Wow! My school district in a midsized town in the deep south has no concept of parents choosing anything other than the three test wise successful and large magnet middle and high schools. Otherwise parents just put their kids mostly in the neighborhood schools good or bad and quite frankly don't expect much. I have often thought about going to churches in the city and talking about school choice, parental involvement, "what parents of successful students know", etc. But as just a "classroom teacher" and not someone with a title, I have not tried to get a platform. But obviously parents selected these two charter schools after several "town hall" meetings where they literally fed them to get them to attend, but I have not heard good reports from these schools and personally have received a few of their cast offs now that testing time is approaching. Therefore if they are keeping only those who will do well on the test, their scores could possibly bring about some life to their popularity. Absent and unreliable parenting as you talk about is huge in my classes as just yesterday I could not find one parent to answer his phone that I needed to speak to – frustrating. But it does appear the charter schools picked their families which is again frustrating to those of us who have no choice.

  5. Deborah, I always welcome the chance to hear what you are thinking. I vividly remember reading your NYT op ed about small high schools in 1989 (?) while working in Chelsea. It influenced my work and thinking. When starting my own charter in 2001, I was intrigued with how small could a small high school be and still be academically and financially viable? We're settled on 145 students as our target number. I agree completely that small – by itself – ensures nothing. Small schools can be crummy, too! But our experience clearly is our small size enhances the opportunity for meaningful thoughtful conversations among all the members – studnets, faculty, parents, community partners. By locating ourselves inside a community health center, we're able to overcome any tendency toward isolation. Small can become a bit precious…

  6. Deborah-Thank you for the retrospective on small schools. As an Indiana educator, I was involved in CES work in the 90s. We were so full of hope and action — we thought we could make a real difference.Today in Indiana we have budget cutting demands/actions from our governor and state superintendent of instruction that is devastating schools. We expect more cuts. We have this crazy focus on building financial supports for charter schools. I cannot believe where things stand today in terms of public education. The word "reform" has been usurped by individuals and groups who have no idea what happens in schools.I agree with you that we have to preserve the schools that stand as models of good public education. We have needed to influence major changes in how we "do school" for a very long time — before the advent of the charter movement.In Indiana educators cannot even get a seat at the table to help establish policy and direction. It is being handled by a small group of political and business folks who determine what "success in school" means. We have lost control of the conversation.I love reading your commentaries — it reminds me that I am not alone in my beliefs and concerns. And it is hard and frightening work to stand up when the tide is crashing against me. I wonder how my small blogging in a local paper and my letter writing will make a difference.I never thought public education could be threatened as mightily as it is now. I too fear what will be left when the wave of "reform" ends.But thank you for saying what you say. There are many of us here in Indiana who appreciate it.Sue Blackwell

  7. SusanWho would have ever thought we educators would be so afraid of what is before us?Next week I have an audience (temporary) wih my principals to ask them if I can follow my students to the next grade and the one after – creating a small mini school within the school. I am so nervous that they are so busy pleasing the powers that be, that they won't "see" what I am telling them. I know with every ounce of my being that they will achieve great things if I have more time with them. I will keep you posted as to the outcome.

  8. I am new to your blog but am a veteran of the 'small schools' machine. I've been teaching 24 years and had the unpleasant experience of working for 7 years at a precious "we're so small, we'll be wonderful school" founded by an elite ivy league university. I stayed hoping things would get better. In 7 years they went through 4 principals and all but one was incompetant. Their student scores are now in the toilet. Why? Sorry to say this but I see it as the fact that veteran teachers were/are NEVER consulted on any school practices. If you haven't taught for very long you don't understand the issues. Now that you and yours are "revisiting" your education visions perhaps some real teachers will be part of the dialogue? I always have hope.

  9. "Small school machine" – never heard it called that, but I do know what you mean. I think one of the issues must have been the principal, so that really has nothing to do with the size. Unfortunately bad principals are a dime a dozen. Everything trickles down for sure. I do hate it when the powers that be do not listen to those in the trenches, but that is not unique to education. I applaud your hanging in there and am sure you made a difference. I am sure there must be something positive you saw, huh? Have you ever worked in a huge school?

  10. I'm inclined to agree with all the commenters! Even when they disagree. Ayla–it can never be perfect, and if we recognize the trade-offs publicly it will help. Our lottery system in Boston,lie all lotteries, depends on who joins the pool. We did a lot to widen that audience for our school over the years, but probably we still attract a larger proportion of middle class and white families than most schools. I wonder how our numbers compare to the K-8 student population of Boston, including those who go to private, parochial, or charter schools?Yes we have belonged to a disrespected profession since time immemorial. With some exceptions relating to the social class of the school's population, and to some degree the age of the kids. When I became a kindergarten teacher I shocked my family and friends–or maybe in fact what I did was embarrass them. deb

  11. DeborahThat always cracks me up when you say that about your friends and family being embarrassed. You must run in higher circles than I for my friends and family were impressed until I started teaching in predominantly at risk schools – then they were like, oh – is that the ONLY place you can find a teaching job? Isn't there some nice school where you can work? Well first of all I am looking for that so called nice school, but second my own children always say – she actually wants to teach there – ha, ha! Where I have taught, though, a lot of those teachers have not earned respect from anyone sad to say. I finally have an audience with my assistant principal to talk to her about looping – I will let you know how it goes. I have to meet her for dinner to get the private audience, but I am very glad you is doing that!

  12. small schools and choice Revisited in best post of blog nice posting thanks for sharing

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