• Bridging Differences

    In Bridging Differences
    Deborah exchanges views with a different colleague, each for a month or two.  Her current correspondent is Harry Boyte, a Minnesotan (although his roots are southern). He has always been a friend and mentor, even though we come to stuff in different ways and even disagree on and off. He is a professor and an activist, a theorist and a practitioner, with a focus on democracy—beginning a long time ago when he worked with Martin Luther King. He has written or edited ten books on the topic and founded a Center on
    democracy which is now at St Augsberg College, but formerly at the University of Minnesota.  

  • Where I’ll Be

    Dec 1-3, 2016 Fall Forum Coalition of Essential Schools: Providence, Rhode Island

  • Network for Public Education

  • Good Morning Mission Hill

    For information on showings or purchasing the video Good Morning Mission Hill
  • Central Park East Elementary School

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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

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.

 

 

 

 

Personalization

My latest gripe. How the word “personal” has shifted its meaning so that machines are now programmed to pretend to be people in personal contact with children.

Is there any word or phrase left to us to describe authentic human relationships? And how might we define it so that we can differentiate the one from the other? Meanwhile, BEWARE any conferences, speeches or programs that claim to be promoting “personalized learning.”

Ron Wolk, the original publisher of Ed Week, has a good piece on this in the January 6th issue of his old paper (link).  He describes what we all used to think the phrase “personalized learning” meant and how it was, and in some places is still, practiced. He ends with a warning: “The reason nothing important changes in education is because if one significant change is made, everything would have to change.” That is why Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools laid out ten principles that went together for real change to occur. Many signed on, few got very far, and some of those who went the furthest were murdered along the way. But we need to revisit the ones that have survived and the ones that have started lately. We need a way to keep these principles, and the schools that represent them even incompletely, alive—in one way or another. They won’t all look alike and to live in today’s world they have each made some compromises. But even in a perfect world there would be trade-offs.  That is the ornery and also wonderful nature of institutions designed by the people who will live in them.

 

Small Self-Governing Schools of Choice Revisited

Dear friends,

I spent three days last month in Texas with the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) in its new form—much younger (maybe a dozen “oldsters” of whom I think I was the oldest), probably half or more people of color (more Hispanic than Africa-American this time).   While we were kept too busy to reflect together on our experiences than I would have liked, the conversations we did have were both reassuring and insightful. I came away bursting with questions to explore. And with new colleagues and friends.

One thing I was thinking about was how my views about “small, self-governing schools of choice” has held up since the early 1970s when the NDSG was formed.  I think I would exclude the last—choice. It is not that I am now opposed to choice, but I see that my position is really “it depends.” “It depends” is my latest position on many things. But small and self-governing remain—although self-governing has gotten more complicated.  Who are the constituents of that “self”? I have discovered a new word—subsidiarity—that Catholic friends introduced me to. It means that decisions should be made by those most affected by them!

My central purpose through it all has been figuring out what best supports democracy versus what makes it easier to undermine it—while simultaneously educating each other. Inequality of power is our greatest enemy.

It is on the firm ground of communal responsibility, in which all have had equal voice—that democracy rests. When community members know each other and share some critical common spaces—like schools, post offices, libraries, etc.—and some critical common interests—such as what happens to your kids happens to mine—that democracy has a fighting chance. Without such mutuality democracy can simply become a fight over who can win an advantage without regard for the losers.

Is this too idealistic?  Maybe, maybe not. We have to recapture, I believe, the spirit of democracy writ small until we can truly start re-installing it writ large. That is why I have always supported small schools. Small schools make easer that face-to-face communal spirit and realistic communal responsibility for those besides oneself (and those most closely connected). It does not magically cure selfishness and greed, but it gives generosity and trust a chance to take root.

Those “communities” ideally should cross typical racial and class boundaries; but equally important, they need roots that outlast this or that single cause. In today’s world “communities” are too often built on a single interest, be it recreational, occupational or political. But those communities hold together only as long as that single interest holds. ”Home turf” can be a stronger shared turf—which neighborhood institutions (libraries, schools, playgrounds, et al) reinforce. Whether schools should be integrated at the expense of neighborhoods is a complex issue and I am leaning the other way of late. In a largely society, spreading kids—especially Black and Latino kids—around in other neighborhood seems disruptive of democracy and spreading middle class white kids around largely Black and Latino schools seems hopeless.

I am hoping we can do some thinking aloud about this dilemma. In the meantime “choice” has taken on a largely market-place meaning which inevitably increased class and race isolation. Is there a third alternative—since choice has so many obvious attractions?

Deb

 

 

The Time Has Come…

The Time Has Come…

…to get back to writing about what’s happening. I am preparing for my granddaughter’s wedding a week from Sunday (at my place in Hillsdale). I am working on a project (book) with Emily Gasoi that hopefully takes a useful look at the past half-century of school “reform” as it relates to democracy. And just got a copy of a book edited by Matthew Knoester, Kathy Clunis D’Andrea and myself called Teaching in Themes, An Approach to Schoolwide Learning, Creating Community and Differentiating Instruction. TC Press, just arriving in the store(s).

Then yesterday an old friend dropped by—Fred Bay—and obsessed with me about the state of the planet Earth. He is right—it is not an issue that can wait until we better educate another generation. It is this generation of adults or else.

So why am I ignoring it? It doesn’t even matter what/who “caused it.” The only thing that matters is who is going to turn it around if not us. Why do I avoid it?

Because I find it much more comforting to stick with what I know best, and which seems do-able: creating schools that might protect the future of the democratic idea.

But if there’s no future…..?

So I have five immediate projects: (1) enjoy my granddaughter’s wedding, 2) work on the book Emily and I are writing, 3) figure out how we can better define what a public education is and how we can defend it—and maybe how that can fit into our thinking about the future of the Coalition of Essential Schools, 4) think about my health—as well as being sure to swim every morning, and now…FIVE

Putting some part of my energy and mind to saving the planet for humans and other living things.

Suggestions welcome.

Deborah