“I want schools small enough to fail as they learn on the job”: An Interview with Deborah Meier

Deborah MeierDeborah Meier is the founder of the modern small schools movement. After teaching kindergarten in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, Meier founded Central Park East elementary school in 1974.  This alternative but still public school embraced progressive ideals in the tradition of John Dewey in an effort to provide better education for inner-city children in East Harlem, within the New York City public school system.

She then served as founding principal for two other small public elementary schools, Central Park East II and River East, both in East Harlem. In 1984, with the assistance and support of Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, Meier founded the Central Park East Secondary School. The story of these schools is told in David Bensman’s Central Park East and its Graduates: Learning by Heart (2000), and in Frederick Wiseman’s High School II (1994). In 1987 Meier received a MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship for her efforts.

I’ve known her for at least 20 years and have admired her for more. Now 78, Deb is still going strong, as this recent interchange proves.

The Interview

Just about everyone seems to favor national or common standards: The Obama Administration, nearly every state, lots of prominent superintendents, and many others. Are you feeling like a lone wolf, a voice crying in the wilderness? Why are you so strongly opposed?

When I came back to NYC in 1966, I was told that “no one sends their children to public school,” even though more than a million children were attending public schools. “No one”, like “everyone” in your initial question, is in the eye of the beholder. But I’m sure “everyone” on the inside of this debate thinks the debate has been resolved. Even they will be surprised down the line as the “details” get worked out. But above all, they are wrong about “everyone” just as my friends were about “no one.”

Touché. But you didn’t answer the question.

My opposition probably reflects the views of the founders of our Constitution and the vast majority of Americans up to….yesterday (so to speak). The current DOE/Duncan agenda—Mayoral control, tougher national tests based on a national curriculum, teachers paid by test score results, etc, in fact, was never even mentioned in Obama’s political campaign. (Similarly, recent studies indicate that neither mayoral control has produced almost no statistical changes in its two most prominent trials—NYC and Chicago. What’s interesting is how in such a short time we went from practically no one agreeing with it—much less assuming it was an imminent plan!—to its being official policy–already in the works! The process itself chills me. The “behind the scenes” nature of the decision-making by interlocking circles of “influential” interests on matters affecting the minds of our children appalls me.

Tell me more.

I think it is dangerous to the fabric of democracy. The nation has had a relatively long history with this fragile and possibly counter-intuitive idea, and its meaning is again in danger of being ‘shallowed out.’ I’m in favor of reinvigorating the democratic underpinnings of our nation—which include the ideal of local control, respect and trust for ordinary citizens, and on and on—rather than seeking to “race to the top” on test scores by cutting schools off from their roots—their community. If any institution needed to remain close to those who are most affected, it’s our public schools, because of their subtle influence the mindset of future citizens. Yet we act as if this were not true.

I didn’t realize you were so upset.

You’re probably right: I am! It undermines the work of nearly 50 years in public education. I’m further dismayed, but not surprised, that the people who are to be entrusted with implementing this have already been named, and include largely the very test-makers and test-defenders that will be enriched by this work—Achieve, SAT and ACT. There is no talk about the local conversations that would need to go into such a revolutionary task, the kinds of expertise that democracy rests on—expertise close to the ground–not to mention the actual subject matter experts who might inform the test makers. They are all now outsiders, at best “looking on”. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you if needed.”

How would you go about it, if you were in charge?

What we needed first was a conversation about the purposes of our enormous dedication and investment in public education. If the purpose is not merely to keep kids out of the labor market, or to sort them into their future roles, then what is it? Apparently we claim to have reached a consensus: the aim of public schooling is to produce students who can outmatch anyone else on standardized tests. Plus the unproven theory that this will allow us to compete better economically. (First it was the now defunct USSR, then Japan, then…Singapore and Finland!) We’ve made what can be measured (and thus students and schools ranked on) the definition of being “well-educated”. We’ve defined “achievement” and even “performance” to scores on paper-and-pencil tasks, largely of the multiple choice variety without any evidence that this is wise policy, or will produce either a stronger economy or a stronger democracy. Or even stronger college performance!

We’ve linked test results to economic health without asking ourselves whether the collapse of the American economy—above all its capacity to build, make and invent—was due to the achievement of the average working American or because of decisions made by a small high-scoring elite? Is a test-driven education the most likely path for producing an inventive and thoughtful citizenry—precisely the kind that has been the envy of the world for generations?

I like small hometown banks, and so I also want schools small enough to fail as they learn on the job. I want a federal government that insures that we spend the same amount of our public resources for all children, and that provides parents, kids, communities and teachers with high quality uncorrupted information about the relationship between means and ends. Democracy is “unnatural” and fragile precisely because at a whiff of trouble we imagine that the problem lies with “the people” and the solution is therefore a knight in white/black armor. We need to decide if democracy is a luxury or a fundamental basic skill.

Wow. That’s more than you wanted to know.

The Charter Movement is also picking up steam. Is this a good thing? What’s the downside?

Like a national curriculum enforced by a national test, charter schools have had a very short history. They were sold, and I bought into them, as a public means of trying out innovative ideas. Central Park East and Central Park East Secondary School (and approximately 80-100 like them in NYC) and the Pilot schools in Boston were precursors to charters. I thought of them as exciting labs—‘mom and pop store–with a willingness to take risks. But instead I’ve noticed that few charters are using their freedom to differ much from existing practice—except for paying teachers less and requiring longer hours. Not surprising, since most charters are “run” by people without educational experience or expertise, much less “dreams”. They have spawned their own large bureaucracies, with their own top-down operations—with even less regard for parents and teachers than our old-fashioned traditional urban school systems. They are adventures in “entrepreneurship” void of expertise—as we lost our belief in real expertise, and invested it in some magic beliefs in “financial and business acumen.”

The incontrovertibly nonpartisan (or pro-charter) study done at Stamford demonstrates that only 17% of charter school students in the 16 studied states performed better than their matched control group, 37% did worse, and the remainder about the same. If this were a drug being tested, it wouldn’t pass muster. It might certainly suggest that we not use this historic moment for multiplying their numbers until we understand the data better.

On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good? What’s its greatest contribution? Worst effect?

The greatest contribution of NCLB was to make everyone talk as though their primary concern was the schooling of poor and minority kids, and not due to their genetic inheritance, etc, etc. The greatest damage is that it has turned back the clock on what were burgeoning efforts to rethinking assessment and pedagogy and school design that was picking up steam in the late 80s and early 90s. It has diverted attention from some extraordinary work that was and still is being done in our urban centers. Secondly, in ignoring the role of other forces in society upon our poor and poor minority students we simultaneously pulled the rug from under efforts to build a more equitable economic structure (economic inequalities are greater than they’ve been since 1928). We have never been so test-score conscious in our history—starting with 4 and 5 year olds—and so convinced by our “betters” that the answer lies at the top of the pinnacle and trusting those “at the bottom” is foolish. There may still be room for serious thinking about what it means to be well educated in precisely those upper-income communities and schools where it is least desperately needed. In fact if we looked at the school’s our leaders send their own kids too, we might be better served than listening to what they propose for other people’s.

I was, for a short period in my youth, a revolutionary—impatient in face of slow change. I’ve changed my mind about this. Democracy rests on patience in face of disagreement. But it’s ironic to see how the wealthy and powerful intend to revolutionize—overnight—American schooling for “other people’s children”. I went to my 60th high school reunion last week. It was and is today a pioneer in progressive education—for the rich. I know that this new regime in D.C. will not do them much harm, although the times we live in may. But unlike today’s reformers what I believed, and still believe, is that Fieldston/Ethical Culture schools would have been good for every child whose families wanted to send them there. CPE and CPESS, like Mission Hill, were successful “experiments” in doing just that. The graduates of CPE/CPESS are gathering July 17th to reminisce, celebrate and be heard. You are invited to join us.

I can’t tell whether you are still optimistic. Are you?

Most days I am! Teaching has reinforced my belief in human possibility. I’ve rarely met a 5 year old whose intellectual capacity didn’t astound me. We need schools that challenge this curiosity for all our children and the adults who keep company with them. There’s a natural thirst for fairness, as well as for wonderment and awe that suggests that we’ll keep trying to become a better world. Losing now and then is not the end of the journey. But, on occasion, I want it RIGHT NOW, while I’m still around—which may be a bit less likely.

10 thoughts on ““I want schools small enough to fail as they learn on the job”: An Interview with Deborah Meier

  1. This person absolutely knows what she is talking about…I think that reform starts from the bottom up with teacher automony and meeting the students needs…it is not about one-size fits all because it is the context that counts.


  2. I think that this should be inscribed on the walls of the Department of Education …when evaluating educational reform beware of” entrepreneurship void of expertise”- great insight! This will stop the textbook publishers, the politicians, the post-secondary doctoral elite, from instituting reform that is not based on research and statisitically significant outcomes.


  3. We measure the end of process with tests, and call that progress with incremental increases. Why? We start with that interested and curious 5-year old..by the summer of 6th grade we lost most kids….I do not buy that our American kids are just going through adolescence….I think we do not spend enough time engaging that curiousity and these smart kids just gave up on us….We need reform of post-secondary teacher training that value expertise, appropriate content knowledge, and inquiry learning from 3rd grade on…. I think that our post-secondary teacher training programs do an adequate job at getting kids to develop math and ELA skills, but are devoid of applying these skills in the real world to keep engaging the kids…..just learning the skills without application, self actualization, and career planning are not engaging to students so we loose them (about ~70%) at the end of elementary school


  4. Ms. Meier is not a lone wolf. Her concerns about the largely clandestine effort of the CCSSO and the NGA ought to be raising the loud caution flag similar to the outcry we hear daily about universal healthcare.

    The very process of defining a one size fits all core curriculum may have disasterous effects, especially if the reigns of this curriculum rest in the hands of the very few.

    US public school education does need critical attention. Transparency and state lead initiatives need to be part and parcel to any process.


    Thank you!


  5. http://mathunderground.blogspot.com/2009/07/plan-to-increase-achievement-explicit.html

    Since we are already captives of vendor-based standards, I trust we will not be far off if we refer to the coming Common Core Standards as the No Vendor Left Behind Law. These vendor-friendly standards will be products of the oligarchy and not of democratic decision-making. Vendor-friendly standards are biased toward spending on expensive to develop and administer annual tests, which increase corporate profits but not learning. Often technological spending is advocated, which usually fails to increase achievement. It is time to focus on providing each child with the education they need for successful lives and careers. Both remediation and acceleration through effective interventions are needed. The ending of social promotion will do far more than another artificially raised and expensively annually monitored bar. Support of democratic reforms for greater local autonomy in the classroom and school may enable teachers to use explicit instruction instead of being required to use ineffective approaches.

    All the talk about accountability in public education produces little if any improvement. It is time to end the trend toward centralized authority in education at both the state and national level. Sham accountability must end. No Child Left Behind sanctions were often counterproductive. A school with its own board of trustees and a principal having greater control over both budget and instructional decisions would be a significant improvement. Then the principal as leader could be easily supported and held responsible by both the board and school community. This structure would greatly reduce central administration inefficiency as well as fad- and vendor-based decisions. Such schools are necessary if we are to make the substantial improvements needed in public education. Learning improvement occurs locally. Believing otherwise is folly.


  6. What can be done? How can we get more people, especially Obama/Duncan AND our legislators to really listen and stop this impending train wreck. I myself and feeling such a longing to really pay attention to the cultivation of joy in the classroom – making storytelling, music, art, movement – the focus, rather than standards. I know the standards, I also care about academic growth, but I want more for my students. The scary thing is – there is not a collective outrage about the call for national standards and national tests. My colleagues either don’t believe that it’s a threat or they agree for the need for them, even at NEA! But, right now, in the unreality that is summer, I am charged up, determined to be the teacher I always wanted to be. We’ll see if I am able to keep up this passion as I return to school. Will they let me be? Or will the try to control me?


  7. Diane
    I am surprised you say “even at NEA”. The NEA, the Obama administration and the vendors are in this together and well on their way in accomplishing everything they want. The NEA is not about teachers and the distant second students. The whole process is right on target. You hear nothing about this in the news. National education is full speed ahead. Follow the money trail.


  8. Ms. Meier misread the Stanford study. It clearly says that charter schools outperform traditional public schools for children in poverty and where there is a single source of governance and accountability. The most critical reform necessary for public education is to define what is essential in a student’s education, and then to allow money to follow the child to empower teachers to innovate around those standards to high quality education options as diverse as the students they serve.


  9. No, John Warner, you’re distorting the results of the Stanford study and making a false claim about its findings. Ms. Meier did not misread it. Here’s the wording of the summary from the study itself: “The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent,deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

    Mr. Merrow, it’s amazing that you’re still promoting charters and the lies behind them after having this compelling discussion with Deb Meier.


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