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Thinking Big: How to Expand Democratic Schools

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Three things have come together—your pre-Christmas letter being the clincher. 

My recent medical problems involving when and on whom certain new experimental procedures can be used has led me into thinking about the degree of autonomy doctors should have, and by extension teachers, and going one step further, ordinary citizens!

Listening to the political debates led me to think about the underlying assumptions regarding top-down vs. bottom-up initiatives. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders represent a different take on this. But we are none of us consistent—and for probably good reasons. The desire for a strong, powerful leader probably lurks in the hearts of many a staunch Democrat.

Then as I reread your letter and its description of the remarkable work in Columbia, I'm reminded of how I stuck closely to single-school "reform" vs. systemic reform. For most of the first 40 years of work in public education I focused on what could be done in a school setting to further democratic concepts. I didn't think it possible to expand much further in the climate I worked. Schools couldn't lead the revolution; and in the words of a famous socialist, "You cannot build socialism in a single country." In short, my aims were modest. Maybe too modest.

Still, I was deeply committed to the idea that schooling had a huge impact on its citizen-members. I explored the limits in the three schools I was most involved with—one school at a time. I put my oar into widening our own autonomies—with or without permissionand building networks of like-minded school people.

I was occasionally pushed to think bigger by the readings of others—like Seymour Sarason and Vito Perrone, Lillian Weber and Ted Sizer. The first try was to transform a non-zoned large high school into many small Coalition K-12 schools. It worked!

By luck (named Ted Sizer) the Annenberg Institute offered me a chance to consider a far larger project in the 1990s. We put together a coalition, not always like-minded, with a plan to expand to 150 K-6, 7-12 schools. We rested our hopes on the idea of changing the odds in favor of schools with far greater autonomy and the power of networks to sustain the work while also providing feedback and accountability. I depended on Linda Darling-Hammond, then at Columbia, and Tom Sobol, then-chief of New York City's public system, to find ways these could be accountable to/with publicly elected authorities! They did some pioneering work in this direction—work now lost. 

What did they know in Colombia that we hadn't yet acknowledged that has given them such staying power?

Most of those schools still are hanging on. Perhaps by creating a coalition between the mom-and-pop charters and progressive-minded public schools seeking greater autonomy we might come up with a set of basic principles of democratic accountability alongside with sufficient autonomy to build onto this past work before it's lost.

We may need to learn from other fields. This morning I read a piece by Adam Gopnik in the November 30 issue of The New Yorker called "Spooked," with the subhead, "What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?" One particular lesson is about the nature of "evidence" in science vs. "evidence" in education. They are, as I read in Gopnik, not as far apart as we think, not because we aren't tough or rigorous enough as educators, but because even in science "evidence" is no simple yes/no matter. 

I also discovered a piece called "Public Accountability for Charter Schools," published in 2014 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, that I hadn't read! Everyone should get a copy. It might include a viable starting point. 

I treasure schools which start from similar premises about democracy, equity, and justice and have come to different conclusions about pedagogy, curriculum, uniforms, field work, etc., and have settled on different governance structures. 

This probably excludes the charter chains that dominate the discussion, which replicate all the vices of current urban systems, with even less public accountability or democracy, except redefined as "voting with your feet"—choice. New Orleans has decided to experiment with a private free market system; L.A. is considering it. We need to act fast.


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