The Power of Her Ideas
Education expert Deborah Meier explains why trusting teachers, involving parents and knowing your students are still the foundations of a great education
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine - November 2002
© 2002 Professional Media Group LLC
As an educator, Deborah Meier walks the walk. Her learning theories are evident in the successes of the urban schools she's touched, and those theories have generated thinking about alternatives to large, impersonal one-size-fits-all schooling. The schools she has overhauled set the standard for excellence and raise educational expectations without falling into the trap of standardization. Meier's students demonstrate their knowledge to the community through her pioneering work with student exhibitions and the development of habits of mind.
Meier has spent more than three decades working in public education as a teacher, writer and public advocate. She began her teaching career in the mid-1960s as a kindergarten and Head Start teacher in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City schools. She was the founder and teacher-director of a network of highly successful public elementary schools in East Harlem, N.Y. The first, Central Park East, opened in 1974 and remains an example of innovation in education. In 1985 she founded and was principal of the Central Park East Secondary School, a New York City public high school also in East Harlem, where more than 90 percent of the entering students go on to college, mostly to four-year schools. Today, she is the founder and co-principal of the Mission Hill School, a K-8 Boston Public pilot school serving 180 children in the Roxbury neighborhood. Her students represent a typical range of low-income African-American and Latino students and are not subject to school entrance requirements.
Between 1992-96 Meier served as co-director of a project that successfully redesigned two large failing New York City high schools--one in Manhattan (Julia Richman) and one in the Bronx (James Monroe). She was instrumental in the opening of dozens of new small elementary and high schools modeled after the Central Park East schools. She was an adviser to New York City's Annenberg Challenge Grant and Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University from 1995-1997. Meier was a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. Quite simply, she is one of the world's most accomplished school reformers.
Her books, The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem (1995) and Will Standards Save Public Education? (2000, Beacon Press), are available in paperback. DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION Editor-At-Large Gary Stager, recently talked with Meier about her latest book, In Schools We Trust.' Creating Communities of Trust in an Era of Testing and Standardization (2002, Beacon Press).
District: Why did you go "back-to-school?"
Meier: Pleasure seeking. I have always enjoyed playing a public role, thinking big, speaking out and so forth-for a while here and there. But it doesn't sustain me; I get an urge to sink some roots, watch change over time. I enjoy the three-ring circus aspect of schools--the tangled connections between kids, teachers and families, how they fit together and come apart, and all the emotional, social and intellectual dilemmas that a real school poses. I just missed it too much and figured maybe I wasn't too old to do it again.
District: How does working at Mission Hill compare to your tenure in New York City?
Meier: I'm doing less; I'm more focused when I'm in Boston on just one thing (no family, no history and no political entanglements or ambitions) and otherwise-every school is different. Of course, Boston is a lot smaller and one has the illusion that it is therefore easier to change.
District: What is the impact of things like the MCAS on Mission Hill and how does your school cope with these external pressures?
Meier: It makes it twice as hard; it means time trying to help parents unravel what standardized tests are and aren't. It distracts us from our central tasks. Our governing board derided to remind parents that the school was not required to administer the test to children whose families said not to. A great many of our families ask us not to and this takes some pressure off of us. But we're also lucky to be a K-8 grade school, and thus the worst aspects of this high-stakes test do not fall on our kids. But it also requires us, and this is a good thing, to be very clear about how we are making judgments about our kids and school if we're not resting them on test scores.
District: Your book advocates a great deal of documentation, record-keeping and public reporting as a means for demonstrating student proficiency, professional competency and building trust in the community. This may seem incongruous to readers who recognize your objection to external standards and standardized testing. How would you help someone understand that there is a consistency in your beliefs and practice?
Meier: Sometimes I envy those who rely entirely on test scores. It is easier! But democratic control requires good information; as does trusting in the use of human judgment. If I depend on my own judgment I need good information-knowledge-tools for developing opinions. If I want opinions to be more than "mere" opinion-top-of-the-head biases and clinches--I need access to many thoughtfully collected descriptions, different sources, angles, views. I need to be open to hearing how others have put these all together, including the person or school under scrutiny. So the kind of schools I'm talking about depend on being judged by the same kinds of habits of mind that they are training kids to exercise.
District: If you could write a one-quarter-page ad or get a minute on TV to tell citizens about standardized testing, what would you want them to know?
Meier: Read my book and learn why they aren't telling you what you think they are: how well children are doing, whether their schools are doing a better or worse job, or what you should do about it. Not only don't [tests] tell you how likely [students] are to be able to deal with the serious issues confronting them as citizens, employees or consumers, but reading and math tests scores don't even tell you whether a child can or will read or compute accurately. Half the kids in America always have, and always will, by design, read below "grade level." No matter how fast they nm, there is always the same percentage of kids in the last half of the race and the first half.
District: You relate a sobering discussion with Alfie Kohn about what the reaction would be to outstanding test scores. You ponder whether there would be a celebratory parade to the state capital or if politicians would question the validity of the scores and suggest dumbing down or cheating. Since I predict there would be no joy in Mudville, how do you explain this mean-spiritedness?
Meier: It's not mean at all. It's the nature of the scoring game. Scores are meant to separate, produce a rank order--spread kids out. Questions we can all get right--or even most--are purposely left off. They don't serve a good testing purpose. If I claim everyone is doing equally well, folks who like tests will insist on more difficult items so the scores can once again spread the kids out in their proper rank order. We can temporarily create various cut-off points and call them pass or fail, proficient, advanced or needs improvement, but it's the rank order that's at the heart of it. Which is why some folks already are arguing for putting scores on kids' diplomas. Like SATs, but unlike drivers' tests or Law boards, these aren't pass/fail devices. No surprise, the rank order always reproduces the social economic status order.
District: I love the analogy you draw between being a medical patient asking tough questions and seeking second opinions and a parent seeking the best education for their child, but ultimately leaving the "mission-critical" work to the professionals. What is the role of parents in your school?
Meier: They have two kinds of roles. They are part of the governing structure representing parents as a whole, and they are parents of individual children. They are also welcome to throw in their opinions on all matters--since the doors of our faculty meetings are almost always open to everyone. In addition they are deluged with information and descriptions about life at school--about their own kids and others through weekly class and school newsletters, open houses, class and school sharings, performances. The doors are always open. In addition they receive three formal reports a year as well as attending at least two family/school conferences to review past work and discuss future plans. We expect that all this will help them make suggestions, work at home with their own children, provide suggestions for the school as a whole and make decisions for life after Mission Hill.
District: You do a brilliant job of discussing the importance of teachers being friendly, collegial and able to provide constructive criticism regarding each other's professional practice. You discuss the importance of the staff spending a great deal of formal and informal time together. What other advice would you give to an administrator interested in creating an environment in which every teacher feels responsible for the learning of every student and each other?
Meier: Figure out how to create more time, time, time. And figure out how to get teachers to think like principals while principals think more like teachers. Your teaching staff is your classroom.
District: Have you identified any new habits of mind since the publication of The Power of Their Ideas in 19957
Meier: I'm always discovering new ones. Like "Know thyself"--that's my latest. I think as these habits are now written they miss focusing on the importance of self-reflection, as well as personal passions. I also rather like "Compared to what?" which comes to my mind so often when people start complaining about our kids, our schools, the state of violence in the world, terrorism, bigotry, etc.
District: Your book is built upon the seemingly obvious notion that children grow up to be productive citizens by spending quality time with interesting adults like those they hope to become. Why aren't these ideas of community and apprenticeship obvious to the public or policy-makers?
Meier: We've grown accustomed to an idea, which is, I agree, relatively "modern." How do we go backward in time and see that it makes no sense? Of course, when the modern school was invented, kids weren't expected to spend many years in them. It was largely just for learning what were truly "the basics"--the three R's and had all the rest of the time for learning the important things of life. What we know today crept up on us gradually. (Meanwhile, the elite went to schools in which they were being prepared for the leisurely life, and leadership skills, of the ruling class--and also putting on those finishing touches that would help distinguish them from the unruly rabble. Or something like that.) I don't think we ever imagined that kids were supposed to spend 12 to 16 years in schoolhouses amongst their peers in order to learn to be grown-ups.
District: How does the current state of public education reflect this lack of community?
Meier: Communities were once jealous of their prerogatives, their jurisdictional boundaries. It's easier to centralize control further and further from the community as communities lose their character. While schooling in America has always had a social class character--different for rich and poor--it has also been a mixing place for most of the last century for the vast majority of at least white Americans. David Rusk points out that over the past 30 to 50 years class segregation in our schools has increased, as has housing segregation by income. Poor kids go to school pretty exclusively with poor kids. That's part of our current "crisis" too--the particular shape of our largely urban schools for the poor.
District: Have schools contributed in any way to the breakdown in community?
Meier: They are both cause and consequence. But if we want to reestablish a great sense of community, schools are vital places where public policy can intervene. That's a central part of my argument. We can't stop "globalism" (although we can reshape it); but we can build better basic communities for raising kids, and the cost will be small compared to the price we will pay for not doing so.
District: Why should we trust schools?
Meier: Because it's the only way to truly educate kids well-whether we're thinking of their sheer intellectual competence or if we're thinking of their qualities of heart and mind. So since we must (unless we decide to keep them at home with us), we better spend more time and energy making them worthy of that trust.
District: I've heard you speak of the decreasing number of school boards across the United States. Administrators might jump for joy at this prospect. Why do you find the trend worrisome?
Meier: If we don't trust democracy enough to encourage citizens to make important decisions about their own kids, what is it possibly good for? If we think schools are too complex for ordinary citizens to be making decisions about (and as a principal, I often have that feeling), what should ordinary citizens be entrusted with? I also think it lessens their "public" character, and thus the willingness of the public to defend them. Finally, we don't know our kids and their schooling when we depend on distant experts, media and statistics to define our schools for us-rather than see them as an extension of our own lives, families and communities.
District: It has somehow become virtuous to appoint non-educators to run large urban school districts. Is this a fad and what does it say about the public' faith in schools and trust in educators?
Meier: It could be that it shows lack of respect; it could also mean that they recognize that most schools and systems are such big and anonymous institutions that educational expertise is not what is needed. In either case, it's not a good sign.
District: Do kids approach or view school any differently since you began teaching? If so, how?
Meier: I think, from the viewpoint of a kindergarten teacher, that they are equally curious and tenaciously eager to make sense of life. Probably they are slightly more worldly today, and maybe somewhat more used to being entertained. But I hesitate because for generations we've been making claims about what kids "used to be like" in some bygone times.
District: You write eloquently about the challenges and benefits of racial diversity on the part of students and staff in your book. How are schools doing in regard to race, class and ethnicity?
Meier: Depending on where we put the benchmarks, it's better or worse. Since my childhood, there's considerably more racial diversity in our schools. There may be a reversal of this trend of late. But from what I can see, and what I gather from other experts, in terms of class and income diversity, we're going in the wrong direction. In the past 30 years, poor kids are increasingly isolated-across all racial and ethnic lines. Poorness is increasingly invisible to large numbers of Americans and poor kids know the word increasingly only through the media.
District: What do you think is in store for schools in the short- and long-term?
Meier: I'm a hopeless prognosticator. The will toward fairness will reassert itself, I feel sure. But I don't know when. The recognition that human beings are smartest and most creative when they aren't driven into narrow and standardized packages will be re-discovered. The unnecessary price we are paying for depriving young children and their families of the needed leisure time to play and enjoy each other will hit us over the head sooner or later. The fact that our declining voter statistics might have something to do with what's missing in schools-a sense of community-will sound reasonable one of these days. The idea that you can't raise kids to be trustworthy adults unless they are learning from adults we trust make any moment now seem an oxymoron.
On Providing Children with Meaningful Adult Contact
"Schools can turn the distrustful distance that the young experience toward the adult world around.... It's not true that the best way to learn to deal with adult change and trauma is to know nothing but change and trauma. In fact, quite the opposite. Greater, not less, intimacy between generations is at the heart of all the best school reform efforts around today and is the surest path to restoring public trust in public education."
On Closing the Achievement Gap
"One gap to focus on is the quality of teacher expertise provided, which is a tougher task than imposing more tests, but one not made easier by our relentless bashing of the people who teach poor kids--not to mention their lower salaries and inferior working conditions. I'll believe money doesn't count the day that the rich stop spending so much on their own children."
In her book, The Power of Their Ideas, Meier describes how student work is assessed through adjudicated, rigorous public exhibitions. Students work toward these exhibitions of knowledge, skills and talent through focus on the development of "habits of mind." Students are encouraged continuously to answer questions like the following in order to develop these habits.
1. EVIDENCE: How do we know what's true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us? This includes using the scientific method and more.
2. VIEWPOINT: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectations? This requires the exercise of informed "empathy" and imagination. It requires flexibility of mind.
3. CONNECTIONS/CAUSE AND EFFECT: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?
4. CONJECTURE: Could it have been otherwise? What if? This habit requires use of imagination as well as knowledge of alternative possibilities. It includes the habits described above.
5. RELEVANCE: Does it matter? Who cares?
On Public Education and Democracy
"For me the most important answer to the question, `Why save public education?' is this: It is in schools that we learn the art of living together as citizens, and it is in public schools that we are obliged to defend the idea of a public, not only a private, interest."