To Strengthen Democracy, Invest in Our Public Schools

(reprinted from American Educator, Spring 2018)

By Emily Gasoi, Deborah Meier

American Educator Spring 2018

Who could have imagined that, more than 150 years into this bold project of preparing successive generations for informed citizenship, our system of universal education would be as imperiled as it is today? One of the original ideas behind establishing a system of “common schools”—as one of the early advocates for public education, Horace Mann, referred to them—was not that they would all be mediocre, but that children from different backgrounds, the children of workers and the children of factory owners, would be educated together. As Mann wrote in 1848, “Education … beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”1

Of course, Mann’s own understanding of equality and citizenship was surely limited, as he wrote these words at a time when only white men had the vote, the Emancipation Proclamation was yet to be signed, and the children of workers were more likely to be working in factories themselves than they were to be attending school. And while schools have historically mirrored society’s inequities as much as they have inoculated against them, our public institutions nevertheless have at their foundation the ideals set forth in Mann’s quote and in our most soaring rhetoric about individual freedom and the common good.

And yet, in our current reform climate, our system of public education is often referred to as a “monopoly” rather than a public good. As such, in districts around the country, public schools are being shuttered at an alarming rate, with more than 1,700 schools closed nationwide in 2013 alone.2

Nowhere is this trend more dramatically played out than in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where entire school districts are losing the battle against unregulated privatization through for-profit charter management entities and voucher programs. And while there is no evidence that school choice alone helps to create more equitable educational opportunities, DeVos seems determined to make Michigan a model for the rest of the country.3

With the very existence of our system of free, universal education hanging in the balance, there has not been much of a frame of reference for discussing the need to make our schools more democratic. However, in our recent book, These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, we argue that the threat facing public education is a threat to our democracy writ large. Thus, if we are to take seriously our nation’s founding ideals, schools must remain grounded in the humanistic values underlying the original purpose of a system of education that aims to prepare all comers for competent participation in a country governed of, by, and for the people.

* * *

American Educator Spring 2018W. E. B. Du Bois laid claim to this original purpose in 1905 when he declared in a Niagara Movement speech: “When we call for education we mean real education. … Education is the development of power and ideal. We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people.”4 All societies educate a ruling class to make important decisions in their own interests, as well as for the society over which they rule. The history of our democracy is defined by the struggle to expand who is part of that ruling class. Du Bois’s quote highlights both the enduring shortcomings of our system of public schooling and the promise it holds out to provide all children—the future stewards of our commonweal*—with a ruling-class education.

There are multiple and complex reasons why, more than a century after Du Bois spoke these words, and nearly two decades after the aggressive and ineffective accountability measures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our schools remain as segregated and unequal as ever.5 Certainly one of the primary causes is systemic racism that continues to plague our society. While few schools, regardless of demographics, have ever done a good job at providing children or adults opportunities to engage in experiences with democratic life, in low-income communities of color, schools tend to be characterized by an authoritative school culture. In fact, the level of intellectual and physical freedom in schools tends to correlate directly with the socioeconomic status and skin tone of the student body.6

But another strong factor in perpetuating school inequality is our historic tendency to conflate free-market ideology with democratic ideals. The tension between economic freedom—the right of individuals to enrich themselves—and the need for regulation, social services, and safety nets in the name of creating a strong civic fabric is long-standing in the evolution of our democracy. But over the last several decades, the ideas of free-market thinkers, such as economist Milton Friedman, who wrote the 1995 essay “Public Schools: Make Them Private,”7 have increasingly gained currency, in education reform and beyond.

Within the free-market paradigm, a one-to-one correlation is drawn between what is framed as the “failure” of public schools and what is seen as the “failure” of economically disadvantaged groups to pull themselves up and out of their circumstances. If schools would just teach “those” students more effectively, then, the argument goes, they’d be as likely as their more advantaged peers to compete competently in the pursuit of material wealth and happiness.

But market-oriented reforms prioritize the interests of the already advantaged. This is evidenced in test-based accountability strategies used to leverage school equity, a centerpiece of NCLB. A quick scan of National Assessment of Educational Progress data reveals that white students perpetually do better on standardized tests than all other groups, ensuring their demographically less privileged peers a Sisyphean cycle of catch-up.8 And yet, closing this elusive test-score gap has become a proxy for addressing the very real gaps in privilege. Thus, even as reform rhetoric champions the use of tests and privatization as tools to level the playing field, such tactics actually move us further from that goal.

Although it may seem impractical, even naive, in our current reform climate to advocate for prioritizing democratic education, we argue that such a change in course is imperative if we are ever to get on track toward a more inclusive and, not incidentally, more productive and just society. Our work in democratically governed settings has taught us about the benefits, difficulties, obstacles, and ways forward for creating democratic public schools that prepare the young for engaged citizenship.

It was in working together with colleagues, students, and families that we learned more about the dilemmas a democracy inevitably runs into and how to get comfortable grappling with the inevitable flaws and tradeoffs that arose within the system we created in our school. And through such grappling, we were able to model democratic practices and values for students. In democratic schools, teachers and families discuss, debate, and, as much as possible, make important decisions that affect the school community. Similarly, in such settings, young people have the opportunity to be “apprentice citizens” of their schools, in order to practice becoming active citizens in the larger society.

Ultimately, the purpose of public education in a democracy is to get more Americans, starting in early childhood, to internalize the idea that they are part of the deciding class, as entitled as anyone else to voice an opinion and to make a mark on the world. That, of course, is the ideal—one worth striving for. Given the increasingly precarious state of our public and democratic institutions, it is clear that we are paying a price for not making democratic citizenship an explicit and urgent goal of our national education reform agenda. For how can we hope to educate for democracy if children and the adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? And if such an education doesn’t take place in our public schools, then where will it happen?

Emily Gasoi, a cofounder of the consulting firm Artful Education, teaches in the education, inquiry, and justice program at Georgetown University. She was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. Deborah Meier is a former senior scholar at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the author of numerous books and articles about public education. A former teacher and principal, she is also a MacArthur Foundation award winner.

*The word commonweal is not often used in writing, let alone common parlance. And yet the meaning, “the common welfare of the public,” should be more familiar, especially in schools, where, we argue, students should be taught to care about the commonweal, their place in it, and what contributions they will make to preserve and improve it. (back to the article)


1. Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts School Board, 1848,” in American Educational Thought: Essays from 1640–1940, 2nd ed., ed. Andrew J. Milson et al. (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 163–175.

2. “Number and Enrollment of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools That Have Closed, by School Level, Type, and Charter Status: Selected Years, 1995–96 through 2013–14,” in National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2015, table 216.95.

3. Kevin Carey, “Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins,” New York Times, February 23, 2017; and Mari Binelli, “The Michigan Experiment,” New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2017.

4. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Niagara Movement Speech,” 1905,, accessed January 2, 2018, (link is external).

5. Gary Orfield et al., “Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State” (Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project, 2016),… (link is external).

6. Jason P. Nance, “Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias,” Emory Law Journal 66 (2017): 765–837.

7. Milton Friedman, “Public Schools: Make Them Private,” Washington Post, February 19, 1995.

8. See National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012 (Washington, DC: Department of Education, 2013).

American Educator, Spring 2018

My latest books

MEIER_GASOI_TheseSchools_FINALEmily Gasoi and I published last fall These Schools Belong to You and Me: Beacon Press, and so we have been busy promoting it around the country.





beyond_testing-332pxI will mention again that Matthew Knoester and I had a book published by TC Press last summer:  Beyond Testing: 7 Assessments of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests.  And, by the way, more compatible with the purposes of schools.



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.

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.



Saving CPE I


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

The Annenberg Grant: A Lost Opportunity


I just recently reread The New York Network for School Renewal: A Proposal to the Annenberg Foundation. This was the early 1990s. It was quite amazing. It was approved not only by the Annenbergs, but by the then Chancellor, Mayor, State Commissioner, Board Chairman, President of the UFT, and three partner school-based organizations with rather varied political and educational agendas. We were ready to launch an experimental district of 50,000 students at its maximum and 150 or so schools with fiscal support for five years (nearly 100 schools were already launched). We had agreed upon freedom from all but a few Board, City, State and Union rules, a plan for documentation by both NYU and Teacher College, both ethnographic and statistical. We committed ourselves to serving a population demographically comparable to the city as a whole.

But it never got off the ground because a new Chancellor vetoed it. We got the money—50 million over 5 years—but not the agreed upon autonomies to learn what we needed to learn.

It was a lost opportunity, but it sent me on my way to Boston to join a much smaller and more modest plan developed by the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public Schools called the Pilot Project. The Pilot Project was fun, modestly successful, and far less well funded. While it has grown it has lost a lot of its promise as attention shifted to a combination of centralized planning, privatization and anti-union media. I had fun starting a Pilot K-8, Mission Hill, school that is still going strong. No regrets about that. You can see Good Morning Mission Hill on my website and on YouTube for some happy moments.

But we lost the moment to make the case for true accontablity—changes that might change everything that needed changing.