A Brief History of Reform!

Dear readers,

It’s been a while since I’ve written in this space.  But I’m mending my ways.

What set me off?   My granddaughter just came across something interesting—and not new.  In 2001 PBS put together a video called School: The History of American Public Education.  In connection with the film they listed ten significant individuals who had an impact on American public education.  And I was one of the ten!   It’s an interesting list.  It starts with some obvious names:  Horace Mann and John Dewey and Booker T. Washington. .  And then adds a number of individuals who I didn’t recognize at first.  John Joseph Hughes who, as Archbishop of NYC, initiated the widespread development of parochial Catholic schools in the late 19th century; Catherine Beecher who pioneered schooling for women;  Ellwood Cubberley who a century ago promoted scientific management of schools;  Albert Shanker whose life personified the growth and influence of teacher unionization;  Linda Brown Thompson—the Brown of “Brown vs Board of Education”;  Jose Angel Gutierrez who as a Texas community organizer led the movement for bilingual education.   The final two are E.D. Hirsch, Jr who pioneered the idea of a “common core” curriculum (which is now embodied in DOE policy in 48 states), and me–Deborah Meier!  The description of my work suggests that I made an impact by demonstrating how small democratic public schools could successfully educate low-income Black and Latino kids.

What’s interesting is precisely how varied the list of “reformers” is—representing contradictory developments that still have an impact on American public schools.   It helps see how the back and forth of our history was responding to changes in society itself and how many different viewpoints have influenced schooling, reflecting its specific time and circumstances.   Interesting, the two most recent individual innovators (Hirsh and I) both champion very different approaches, but both do so in the name of furthering democratic ideals.  Hirsh focuses on a “common” curriculum as the route to a better society, and has offered his detailed K-12 approach which, with some variations, has recently been embedded in national policy.  I have focused on the school itself as a community, one that teaches democracy as an institution.  Both pedagogy and curriculum are shaped democratically, teaching in the process what it means to be a member, a citizen.   Thus, as Dewey posed it, it’s a form of associated living, which builds on the mutually respectful relationships between family, school staff, students and community.   While agreeing on a few broad principles that unite us as a people, I’ve argued on behalf of schools delegating the endless array of decisions  that must be made amongst its members.   Some would adopt Hirsch’s curriculum, some would have detailed grade by grade mandates, some would make more use of technology than others, some would leave most pedagogical and curricular decisions to its faculty, etc.    But accountability would rest, as it does in a democracy, on the work of its leadership, which would—except for issues dealing with civil rights and health and safety—be responsive to those it serves.

What was only two decades ago the primary “reform” movement is now hanging on tenaciously, but has far less support in places of power.   The new reformers have borrowed from Cubberly,  remind us of the struggle over mass public education in the first half of the 20th century.  This was a period in which corporate practices—the assembly line ideal—had a serious influence, and labor unions were largely taboo in public service, including teaching.  Pay-by-performance goes back to this period, along with many other new ideas coming from the new reformers led largely by powerful and often wealthy non-educators, think-tanks and corporate Foundations.

In this context I welcome the new mayor of NYC’s appointment of an educator—Carmen Farina as our new Chancellor.  She’s a first in a long time—following four people who made their reputation in business, Wall Street , or political life.    DeBlasio’s campaign promises—which included pre-school education and considerable skepticism about the role of testing and charter schools—is encouraging.   Who knows who, a century from now, will be considered representative of the late 20th and early 2lst century.

That story is yet to be written.  But, of course, I’m cheering “my side”—which does not mean schools just like “ours”, but schools in which the “public” in the form of real-live school-based adults have a serious and respected role in most important decisions, and when what’s good-enough for the children of the rich won’t be viewed as “beyond the reach” (fiscally or intellectually) of all citizens.


27 Responses

  1. It’s so nice to see you posting again especially with a post that helps us all put today’s struggles in context. I long for the days of democratically run schools. I was always excited to start each day, but by the end, without realizing it, I had almost disappeared under a wave of exhaustion and stress. Please keep reminding us of the educational “reforms” we can celebrate.

  2. Really good piece, Debby. I wish you all the best in the New Year and hope to see you more than in the last. Much love,Anna


  3. Hi Deb,
    Yes, it’s nice to see you posting again. I agree that DeBlasio and Carmen Farina seem focused on real schools and real issues that arise in schools. I wonder about your characterization of Albert Shanker. You probably remember that some of us fought him tooth and nail within the UFT and then the AFT. In the meantime, I’d love to talk with you. I’m working with John Gunn and Janice Bloom to reach out to people from CPESS. There’s a new edition of a book that Susan Semel and Alan Sadovnik are putting together about progressive schools. They want a chapter about CPESS. We’re racing to meet an impossible deadline of Feb. 15. Happy New Year.


    • There are many strands to the remarkable CPESS story, developmentally as a formative institution, pedagogically, and culturally, as a place where values were imagined, discussed, challenged and evaluated. One strand that often gets overlooked is the importance of the “common”. A space where everyone associated with the school engaged in collaborative work, exploration and communication. At CPESS, this was the library, which was designed to be such a space. It was created to support a curriculum where students inquired, made choices, gathered information which allowed them to defend those choices. It was the place where students and adults could meet to collaborate, model behavior for each other, and coach each other. It was a space that supported the overall goals of the school as well as the individual tasks students needed. Thanks to the vision Debbie offered us, my years at CPESS were the highlight of my career as a librarian.

      • We’ve a new library for Hillsdale and Copake–that has had a wonderful effect n our community! You’d love it. It was fun, wasn’t it?

        Bruce: I can’t seem to get the right replies in the right reply boxes. I give up–see below re Dukor and Perlstein.

    • Brent Dukor and Daniel Perlsein have publshed an article–quite scholarly–about CPESS, Habits of Mind and Assessment. It’s cited as 2014? Happy new year.

    • Hi Bruce , I am Viv white from Big Picture Australia will you let john gun I often remember his fantastic work . He came to Australia …give him his message…Viv I am in San Diego today

  4. You are right and they are wrong! Democracy has to include grassroots decision making or it’s not democracy. I joyfully welcome carefully worked out Standards as long as the teachers, parents AND CHILDREN have a say in the matter. It seems to me that’s where folks get confused. But most people don’t really believe in democracy and there’s the crunch! Most people, when you scratch the surface, really believe that they know better how to help other people than the people know themselves. Maybe in one sense they do. But in a deeper sense, they don’t! Give us the right to make mistakes. Persuade us, but don’t force us! To Bill Gates et al – what about freedom don’t you understand?

  5. Congratulations on your longevitiy and your NEVER GIVE UP
    spirit! It reaches across generations and influences America’s youth:)

  6. I am so glad that I started my 2014 reading this. As always, you are an inspiration as well as keeping me grounded in the fact that what we do we do for the long haul. Thanks.

  7. Hello Deb. I’m so glad that you’re getting your strong and important voice heard again! I’m wondering if you would consider speaking out for kindergarten. The DOE no longer considers it to be an early childhood grade. This has opened the door for all sorts of inappropriate curriculum decisions. I’m hoping that we can convince the new regime to reinstate kindergarten as an early childhood grade so that when Mr. DeBlasio or Ms. Farina refer to early childhood, we know that it’s not only pre-kindergarten that they’re talking about.

    Thanks and Happy New Year!

  8. How heart-warming to hear this good news! I recall that the very first visit this hearing-impaired substitute teacher made to the Internet. In the library of Bowie Middle School here,I googled “Deborah Meier”. I’d read your books and been so inspired by your vision that is NOT an “impossible dream” so long as we who believe in it press on with what Pope Francis has called a “combative hope.” Happy New Year! .

  9. […] A Brief History of Reform!, life-long and much beloved educator Deborah Meier contrasts the educational philosophies of John […]

  10. Deb,
    Interesting note on Carmen Farina which I mention on my blog:

    I like that she’s a small-schooler and helped create several new, small middle schools within District 15, a tactic de Blasio has praised.


    • Deb, A lovely post, and such good news about Carmen Farina. I can’t resist adding–I am saying this every chance I get–how excellent it was of her to say (per the NYT story) that “fun is good,” for teachers, and for young people. This is like saying, “three cheers for humanity,” isn’t it? And to encourage and enable schools to strive to be places that are healthy for humans (of all ages) and for the qualities that are the best of our humanity. I hope that Ms. Farina takes, and “reformers” of all stripes take, her praise of fun as radical and radically humane, not sentimental, not trivial, but urgent. Happy new year!

  11. Deborah: Nice piece and a great way to start 2014. I especially like your statement about school-based adults having a serious and substantive role in the decisions that impact children and teachers in the classroom. What “reformers” from the corporate world or Wall Street forget is that the essential aim of business is to make a profit. It is an end. The essential aim of education is a process.
    Glad to see you haven’t given up the fight! One wonders where Hillary Clinton will enter this fray!

    • Thanks, Bob. Yes, first and foremost, kids need a school where adults are treated liked adults. Then we can think about the implications for how we treat children. Happy New Year.

  12. Dear Deborah: I have never responded to a blog before, but “hearing” your voice again is so meaningful to me, that I wanted to share with you, and your granddaughter, the impact you have had on me personally, and as an educator (aren’t the passions really the same?)! Reading “The Power of Their Ideas” in 2002 touched me so, as you described Central Park East and the kindergarten babies on the playground, out to save and change the world, full of confidence and brilliance, and your pondering on the change education makes as they lose that feeling! My teaching career began in Bedford Stuyvesant in NY, then to magnet schools in Florida, and back to Philadelphia where I was “given”, as a Principal, a large (1600 student) HS that no one wanted, with the support to create 4 small thematic neighborhood schools. That was almost 10 years ago, and what each school has brought to our predominantly low-income Black and Latino kids can be traced back to you, Ted and Nancy, and the ideals of the CES, most notably an intimate setting offering the best to our students so they can live the dreams that evolved on that playground! Thank you!

  13. Once upon a time the education of teachers required some understanding of the “headline history” you have recounted here and helped to shape. Congratulations on being on a top ten list.
    Too bad that so many in this generation of teachers–along with clue-less but deep pocket reformers–lack historical perspectives and an appreciation for the need for thinking deeply about the purposes of public schools in a democracy.
    So, hurray for the “useless” studies of history and philosophy of education that my generation, in another era, found so valuable in framing our day-to-day work and understanding variants of the enduring reformist impulse.

  14. I think Ms. Meir too easily sidesteps the fact that unionization is part and parcel to the industrialization and standardization of education. The management / labor coupling is a hegemonic equilibrium between non-representative partners who – together – centralize authority upward and away from students and communities.

    That is a far cry from empower at the most local level, a the democratic site level, the school.

    • Unlike you, I believe that for the most part unions do represent their members, albeit imperfectly. And without them, all the power would be on the side of the employers. I have seen unions as a generally positive force in education. There is no evidence that school systems without unions are more innovative or representative (in lots of states there are no unions or the unions have no power, so we can compare) and I would say quite a bit of evidence that they are less so. Certainly working conditions tend to be worse in non-unionized schools, and when teachers are happier with their working conditions they are more likely to teach better. In fact feeling secure leads to more creativity and innovation.

      All of the projects of reform that Deborah Meier has implemented were done with active support from the unions.

  15. Yes, it’s creepy. It is propaganda, pure and simple. And the head of all public schools in our country, Arne Duncan, has promised us he’s going to push for more and more of it.

  16. Unquestionably believe that which you stated. Your favorite
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  17. Hello,

    My fiance attended CPESS her name is Nicole Hamer land received a wonderful education in which she speaks about often. I have been sitting on this vision for ten years now and I believe the timing is now. I would like to know how I go about learning about your “core curriculum” so I can create one to use in the city of Newark, NJ. There are some other electives and core classes I believe would prepare these young men and women not only for the world but to trudge forward with respect for themselves and others. A deep sense of awareness and self worth is needed this will create the solution that WE SO desperately need for our city and around the globe. I need to either become an apprentice or obtain your curriculum. Please any guidance or suggestions is greatly appreciated.

    Thank you

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