Democratic Schooling

I have argued in speech and writing for years that democracy is not “natural.” Although it is well within our human capacities it is not our “default” position. To demonstrate this would take longer than this blog/web allows. But I think there are good solid reasons why as a specie we retreat to authoritarian solutions so often. We cut corners when it seems too important to trust “our members,” our fellow citizens, etc. Sometimes we do it with open eyes and often we do it with eyes closed. We organize our organizations, our schools, our towns, cities and federal governments in ways that make some have a head start, extra weight, etc, etc. I am even in favor of some of these obstacles we place on “pure” forms of democracy.

As an educator the place I have tried to explore and work with creating Democratic organizations has been in my schools. As we designed and lived with our original plan at Mission Hill (the K-8 school I was one of the founders of in Boson in 1997) we saw flaws and we wrestled with them. Some we changed, others we lived with because we could not see how to improve them. We did not include everyone on our Governing Board, like the cook and maintenance staff. Probably we should have? We did not include students for many years, and then just 7th and 8th graders. I can defend this decision but what were the trade-offs? We worked out a consensus system that required the approval of three out of the five elected representatives of each constituency group to move ahead. We also gave the principal the power to delay a vote if he/she felt it was a matter of the health/safety of children or fiscal irresponsibility—two areas he/she was legally responsible for. In case of a paralyzed situation (like we have had in D.C.) we had a plan for bringing in mediators and if need be, a new vote of representatives, or a change in leadership.

It was in working these out that I learned to understand more about the problems a democracy inevitability runs into. It worked for us as well as it did because it was only the tip of the iceberg. Democracy pervaded the school’s culture in so many particulars, including how we held family/teacher conferences, how we arrived at curriculum decisions, how we decided on the agenda of staff meeting and retreats, and much more.

I believe that it is such experiences that most citizens lack—have literally never seen or been participants of. We spend 12 years of our youth in authoritarian settings, where no one we encounter has democratic rights over the important decisions being made daily. In a school like Mission Hill, and some other brave public schools, we are exploring what would happen if all our constituents felt “this place belongs to you and me.” We agreed to disagree in public on purpose, so we would all learn to disagree in useful ways that did not hurt the school. We discussed power—who had what powers—with the students and among ourselves—the adults. It is time consuming, but it is probably no more time consuming than adding a Civics class, which isn’t a bad idea either.

We cannot afford to let our citizens reach 18 without such real life experience. It is far too costly. They need to be apprentice citizens first, and they need to be real citizens of their schools long before they are of age to be legal independent citizens of the larger society. And, course, we need teachers who are citizens of their schools and play a part in all decision made, except where it is agreed to delegate them or where basic rights are in play. And even then, nothing should be delegated permanently. We need schools that focus on habits of mind that make it easier to trust each other, including habits of examining evidence, imaginings alternatives and the other three of Mission HIIl’s and Central Park East’shabits of mind”, plus a few we forgot: like “compared to what?” Plus quite different ones others come up with.

The first reform I would make if I were … what? – is that every publicly funded school (and maybe institution) must develop a plan of governance that can be defended as explicitly democratic and where those most affected have the freedom to make important decisions with the fewest possible exceptions. In Catholic theology this is called “subsidiarity.” Yes, there must be exceptions laid down by larger and broader based governing bodies (like a locally elected school board, Congress of the United State or the State Legislature or the Supreme Court). Mistakes will be made. But that is at the heart of democracy—the right to make one’s own mistakes— and one reason it is “not natural” for humans who seem inclined to shrink from uncertainties and mistakes. .

It requires a kind of unfounded “as if” trust that has some limitations but which we feel we can safely, although not always happily, abide by. Let us start by practicing it where governance hits the daily road of young people’s lives. Tomorrow is already too late, but we are paying a piece of not having done it long ago.

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What now?

Dear friends,

What a few months we’ve been through. No point in rehearsing all the stages I have gone through. But since I am incapable of not being an optimist, even though I know better, I have solved it in this way: I had been thinking that if I made it for five more years I would probably see a great-grandchild or two born. Worth doing. But now I have decided to try to live 12 more years (three electoral presidential cycles) so I can see the pendulum swing and take some healthy breaths before I call it quits. I do envy those much younger for having more time to do this.

Of course, it means that we all, including me, cannot spend too much time grieving and complaining. We do always need smart analyses, thoughtful historical perspectives, etc. (We need, for example, to remember that less than ¼ of all potential voters voted for Trump, and half of the eligible voters did not or could not vote at all.) But we also need motion—action—face-to-face as well as all other ways. We need to bury—or put on the back burner—as many differences on our side that we can tolerate (and which smart strategy suggests doing). We need to build bridges: we need the kind of listening skills that good educator’s work rests on.

A good classroom is always building bridges between what different people think—even in a math class. Listening to and taking seriously the absurd, the offensive, and the illogical ideas as I tried to do in kindergarten classes was not a frill. There was always a nugget of truth, an insight that still informs me, and even angry words were important to me—where does this passion come from? For example, were Stein votes in Wisconsin enough to have turned that state Democratic? Only Stein supporters need to consider that; while we remember how hard it was for many others to vote for Hillary as they did. The fewer litmus tests we demand, the more likely we can in the long run be persuasive.

If we write-off too many citizens (and would-be citizens) then in 12 years we may even eke out a victory with those solidly or our side, but not the landslide we need to safely move ahead. Starting in 2018 we need to practice what we preach: respecting the opinions of others.

We also need to be there, while doing our very best to take care of those directly wounded by Trump—and there will be many mortally wounded, not just disappointed.

For me it brings into question the “inevitability” of democracy that I was raised to believe in. T’aint so. It may be that some will always seek it, but it does not mean they will achieve it. Even in the shabby form of the democracy we live in. Amanda Taub wrote a piece in the NY Times on Tuesday, November 29th, page A7 entitled “Warning Signs Flashing Red for Democracies.” Read it.

I will discuss this further in my next blog.

More Books!

Here is my latest in both some new(ish) books that I want to recommend as well as a few older ones that are still worth reading.

 

artisan

The Artisan Teaching Model,
by Kenneth Baum and Daniel Krulwich

“Explore a powerful and innovative new approach to leadership development within schools. Based on the authors’ success in a South Bronx school, this book merges the idea of teamwork with the concept of an artisan-apprentice relationship. As in any apprenticeship, newer members of the profession work alongside experts (“artisans”). As apprentices become more skilled, they take on larger and more substantial roles and continue to work alongside, and together with, artisans. Over time, the apprentices become artisans themselves and in turn share the art and craft of teaching with newer teachers.”

white

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood—and the rest of y’all too
By Christopher Emdin

“Drawing on his own experience of feeling undervalued and invisible in classrooms as a young man of color and merging his experiences with more than a decade of teaching and researching in urban America, award-winning educator Christopher Emdin offers a new lens on an approach to teaching and learning in urban schools. He begins by taking to task the perception of urban youth of color as unteachable, and he challenges educators to embrace and respect each student’s culture and to reimagine the classroom as a site where roles are reversed and students become the experts in their own learning.”

mismeasuring_our_lives

Mismeasuring Our Lives
by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen ad Jean-Paul Fitoussi

On the problems with using GDP for measuring economic process (which is as biased politically as measuring chidren’s education their teachers effectiveness and the school itself) and offers alternatives.   (Then reread “Mismeasuring Man” on testing.)

 

choicedtime

Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2
by Renee Dinnerstein

“In her inspirational, well-researched book, Renée describes the kinds of learning opportunities that all parents want for their own children. Her accessible writing style makes it easy to envision the environment, teaching, and community she describes with such clarity you’ll want to get started on her ideas tomorrow.” —Jennifer Serravallo

And go back and read  Parental Involvement and the Political Principle by Seymour Sarason, as well as his book Productive Learning with Stanislaw Glazek

Also a reminder of a book I recently reviewed here:

Education and the Commercial Mindset
by Samuel Abrams
On keeping the market place and privatization out of public education.

 

Meanwhile, please come up with wonderful ideas to protect the vulnerable and rebuild the Democratic Party.  (Reminder: the Democratic Party got more votes in both the Presidential race and the senatorial races.)

 

Post election thoughts

Dear friends,

I was hoping that if I waited to write until after the election it would be easier to think of what we must do. But….

Maybe it isn’t so different? Clinton would have needed mobilized nudges on a lot of fronts and maybe especially on education. But I am kidding myself if I pretend it is not going to be a lot rougher. What our new president wants is unknowable but given his alliances here’s a guess: a push for privatization in every sphere: health, social security, prisons and schools. An end to abortion rights. A takeover of the courts. Not to mention what cruelty he will inflict on the undocumented, those hoping to escape horrendous circumstances (that we are largely responsible for) and citizens who don’t fit the picture of the “model” “normal” American: White Christians.

Probably.

Of course, egotistically I think this is all my fault because for health reasons I have done so damn little this year on the campaign trail!! I didn’t do much for Bernie or Hillary. Maybe with only one working eye I will be able to focus on the hopeful half. And soon enough my nonworking left eye will almost look like the working right one. The “hopeful” side is the possibility that we can carry out the task we have been working for since I was a young girl. Changing the Democratic Party. My political allies in the 50s and part of the 60s were for creating a Labor Party. So I didn’t vote for any “bourgeois” party etc. until… hmmm. Not sure when I got wiser, or so I think. I voted for the Socialist Party. Maybe it is why I have a harder time than some being mad at those who voted third party last week. It useful to remember the changes we have made in our own viewpoint before counting those who disagree with us as out. And if we had made no changes, that too would be suspicious.

Thoughts on Democracy

Dear friends,

I am back “in business”—I hope. Permanently one-eyed but out of pain.

I am usually out of town before general elections—I have gone to Pennsylvania several times as well as Ohio. I combine visiting friends and electioneering in possible swing states. I would love to be there in Ohio now.

What a terrible election to live through. I was excited by the possibility of voting for someone I was enthusiastic about (Bernie), but I am equally “enthusiastically” against Trump, so I find I can put my whole heart into this anyway. We did miss a great chance—maybe once in a lifetime (mine) of electing someone who is a democratic in the full sense of that word. Many of my allies did not support him even though they agreed with me because they thought since he had no chance in the primary, and certainly not in the general election, it was fruitless effort. Oddly they turned out to probably be wrong on both counts.

What next? I have no idea. Forgive me for rarely being a good prognosticator. Actually on the whole I have anticipated worse rather than better than we got. That’s the good news.

Harry Boyte and I are carrying on an exchange—not a debate—about the meaning of democracy on my Bridging Differences EdWeek blog. There is a range of so-called democracies from outright fraud to a fulsome healthy democracy such as maybe we have never seen on a grand scale. Defining its essence is not easy. An uncompromised democracy on a large scale may even be impossible. It is hard enough in one small school.  Which should not stop us from getting as close as we can in each situation and not falling back on undemocratic means in order to get our ends.

Robert Reich, economist at the U of California, Berkeley has written a neat little book called Saving Capitalism. Actually, I am not for saving it as a system, although some practices that developed as capitalism took over the world are definitely worth preserving. That is because my definition of socialism is a system of democracy—both economic and political and social. There is plenty of room for argument about who should control the “means of production,” where decisions should be made about x, y and z, and who should have the vote (12 year olds? Felons? “foreigners”, etc.). What a fulsome democratic community should look like will take time for “the people” themselves to develop, and it will involve compromises of all sorts. And arguments. The only reasons we need democracy is because we need those arguments, and we need them to matter—count in the real world.

Also—have Isuggested before that you get a copy of The Math Myth by Andrew Hacker. Of course, I see democracy as part of most arguments—including the math wars. Therefore, I would claim that Hacker presents a case for the kind of math schools should be teaching that supports democracy. And I am not for mandating it! More on that another time. Meanwhile it is a fun read.

Keeping Up

Dear friends…and readers all,

I meant to do better in keeping up with my blog. However, this past year has been a difficult one in terms of basic health issues. First, I had a heart valve replacement and now complications from macular degeneration has caused me to be totally blind in the left eye—which also frequently causes pain too.

Otherwise I live in a lucky bubble. My kids and grandkids are all working at something that is either very satisfying or tolerable. And in good health. I am up here in beautiful Columbia County—swimming once or twice a day, at dawn and sunset, when the sun’s rays don’t bother me. I am catching up on piles of stuff I saved to write about. I shall never get to it all, but it is good for thinking about even if I don’t get to write about it all. Writing does help me clarify my own position on things, and this is a time in my life when I am very interested in reexamining my own history and ideas. I am working on a book (when my sight allows) with my friend Emily Gasoi about our school teaching experiences and what has driven us both, including differences in our histories which we account for in part by the differences in our ages (considerable).

I am also trying to find out more about schools that have tried to be internal democracies and how they fared, as well as how they defined democracy ideally and “in practice.”

I am also hoping someone will do a study of what the small school movement in New York City  did and did not accomplish—particularly the self-starters before the Klein regime—those who designed their own schools with their colleagues and sometimes families and students. Most are still around, but in the new centralization in New York City what has happened to them???

Winners get to write the story about the past—too often that means we get a distorted reading. I think we need to tell our stories ourselves – now – so that we can see how we can use past history to make our own new history.

I have not been properly keeping up on new books—by friends even.

So, for now, I will mention just one, that is just about to hit the streets. It is by my friend and colleague Renee Dinnerstein entitled: Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2

And, there is a new edition of How Children Learn coming out soon (by John Holt). I am writing a foreword for it. But before you read it reread his first book , How Children Fail. Buy it, borrow it, read it.

More in a few weeks. By then I might have news for you about what’s happening to my dear old Central Park East.

Deb

 

Saving CPE I

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Dear friends,

I am frequently asked about the situation at Central Park East I that has recently made the news. Which side am I on, I’m asked.

I am unequivocally on the side of those who wisely have concluded that the current principal must move on. She cannot do the job required. Bringing in someone to “help” her where she is weak is not a solution, but merely a postponing of the inevitable drift into more “standardized” practice and a more hierarchical school structure.

What is needed is an interim solution that helps pull the school together, hire new staff, set the tone and continue to improve the practices and approach that has marked CPE I’s 43 year history.

These include: staff governance, choice for families and staff, strong parental voice and advice, substantial teacher autonomy to develop curriculum, no admissions requirements re academic or social “fitness.” dedicated to serving predominantly low-income students of color, and the belief that a good open, progressive school should be able to serve all children together without separating them by so-called ability—by tracking in any form including social or racial indicators. CPE I’s form of progressivism was, on the spectrum, perhaps more inclined to emphasizing “play”—self-initiated cognitive activity—which often includes physical movement, as well as choice, sustained periods for uninterrupted work, peer collaboration, and demonstration versus standardized testing. Work and Play share common purposes and are, in fact, hard to distinguish. Play is at the heart of serious intellectual work, and observation provides teachers with the best means of support for further growth which rests, in professional jargon, in something called self “agency”.

CPE was dedicated to the task of creating a democratic community of citizens with different roles to play—students playing the role of citizens-to-be in some areas and equal citizens in others. It was based on substantial time set aside for children and their families to meet with their teachers, and open access to classrooms by family members.

It was also based on an agreement between the staff to meet together several hours a week, mostly during the school day, as well as before and after the school year—plus a planning meeting for the fulltime professional staff in mid-winter. If the faculty was responsible for the school’s work it needed time to effectively play such a role—on matters great and small.

For 32 years this process worked—serving largely District 4 families, plus a very small number of District 5 and others. We had a commitment not to seek a waiting list! When we had more applicants than spaces the District agreed to start other schools that worked together with us and had a single application process—thus CPE II and River East. The teacher-directors (and later principals) of these schools were almost always former teachers in the same or similar schools.

We were just three out of what became a District of 50 small schools during that same period, all with far more autonomy than generally found in urban public schools—including the neighborhood schools (only one was closed due to low enrollment in the district) and the new schools of choice.

A few years after we opened the District asked us to add white students to help the District to gain access to Federal integration funds—and to increase District enrollment. We liked the idea and set a kind of informal quota so that we would still remain predominately for low-income minority students. (Before that it was first come, first serve.)

When Jane Andrias left as principal in the early 2000s no one on the staff was prepared to take the job. Over the next 10 yeas, CPE I had 5 different principals, only one of whom had a professional background in any form of progressive education. During this period the school was largely held together by the commitment of its staff and the activism of its devoted families. It often faltered in terms of cohesion, shared time, and support for new teachers. In some ways, while classrooms continued to attract positive attention from parents, university educators and scholars, it lacked what a lead-teacher/principal (the former was the original conception) could do best. It remained the school I happily sent colleagues to visit—including those from Mission Hill, which I started in Boston.

But this fall, after the last short-lived principal retired, it was clear that the newly appointed principal had no background knowledge or experience with elementary, early childhood and/or progressive education, much less functioning in the tradition of collective decision-making and belief that all children—not just privileged children—were well-served by our kind of pedagogy. We had data that proved it had worked for more than 30 years—why all of a sudden was this kind of school not sustainable by a principal who believed in such practices. Rather than wait to critique, the newly appointed principal almost immediately began to make changes in the way the school had practiced open, progressive education.

Many decisions were made without consulting staff from day one through yesterday—on matters that have always been the purview of faculty and parents. Some of it was unavoidable given the circumstances but the practice continued even where emergencies did not require it. It was clear by word and action that the principal believed that she was the boss, the first and final authority. It appeared also, that she saw the kind of play that CPE always engaged in as frivolous and that the flexibility the school was accustomed to regarding rules and regulations were henceforth taboo (we had followed our former Superintendent’s advice to practice “creative compliance”). Above all she made clear that “some” children needed a very different kind of education than the school was accustomed to providing—i.e, Black and low-income children; in short, the very children we had historically served.

For reasons mostly out of the school’s control—the changed demographics of East and Central Harlem (gentrification) and CPE’s disengagement from District Four during the Bloomberg reorganization—the school’s demographics gradually changed during the past ten years. It became a school with a minority of low-income children, although still substantially racially integrated in a city with few such integrated schools. If one included bi-racial families as students of color, CPE has remained about 60% Black, Brown and bi-racial and 40% White and Asian. (About 2/3 of the families of color have signed the petition asking for the removal of the current principal)

To rectify the loss of low-income children the elected parent representatives made efforts to apply for the new Chancellor’s admissions initiative that would enable CPE to set aside spaces for low-income children. The new principal was uninterested. Thus while other progressive schools have applied in order to help them be more economically integrated CPE I has not. Unsurprisingly, by following the “rules” the latest lottery-based Pre-K will be almost entirely White and mostly District 4.

All our early dreams seemed to me unachievable if the mission we began with continued to be undermined—by misinformation or open disagreement. We lasted through many superintendents in District 4 and even more city-wide regimens for a very long time. I tended to despair as I learned more about the situation—including conversations with the new principal and the district superintendent. But committed parents and staff kept “pestering” me and I realized I could not avoid my responsibility to them. I had to take a stand.

We need to find a solution that is fair to the latest principal, who might well be fine in a different setting she is more in tune with, to those parents who agree with her, while also providing the majority of the community with the leadership that will enable the CPE we put so much of our hearts into to be restored. We need to embrace the spirit of democracy that CPE I was intended to demonstrate but which requires an unusual collegial form of leadership to restore, .

That is where I stand.

Deborah Meier
Founding teacher-director of Central Park East