Abandoning the Higher Purposes of Public Schools

Abandoning the Higher Purposes of Public Schools

Deborah Meier: Abandoning the Higher Purposes of Public Schools

In 1966 I wrote my first piece on education for Dissent, ?A Report from Philadelphia: Head Start or Dead End?? I was teaching morning Head Start after a few years of subbing and kindergarten in Chicago, and on the way to teaching kindergarten in Central Harlem. I had just begun to contemplate that teaching might not be a time killer until my kids got older and I could work full-time at something politically or intellectually Important.

Now, forty-five years later, I think about these amazingly interesting years. But, had I written this fifteen years ago I would have been more optimistic and triumphant. The ease with which my colleagues and I found ways to rethink ?ghetto? education for children in the early 1990s, despite a largely conservative political and cultural era, fooled me. Until the last decade, I thought that inch-by-inch we could create a new world. I wasn?t really that naïve, but I acted as if I were.

In that first Dissent article I recounted both the whirlwind fun of opening a center in a Germantown, Philadelphia church and the silly Fridays listening to our leader sing songs and teach us finger plays. My youngest son, frightened out of his local kindergarten by a teacher who threatened to keep him in school overnight if he didn?t learn to tie his shoes, joined me in Germantown, and I fantasized about opening a kindergarten at the local school. Instead, we moved to New York City. By the time I was ready for full-time work, I was what was thought of then as a ?school reformer.? I was out to prove that the least-advantaged children would thrive best in precisely the kind of educational setting we established for the most advantaged, ideally in an economic and racially mixed school, and with more focus on building trust with the families being served.

We had unqualified success. Many of us in New York branched out to take leadership of one public school after another?often small schools of choice, all firmly entrenched within the public sector and with strong ties to the local unions. But we tended to forget the larger picture, as we focused more narrowly on schooling in general and our own ventures?schools and classrooms?in particular. Our work spread from a focus on early childhood to the possibilities of secondary schools. I became a secondary school principal, with an amazing amount of freedom?free even to ignore credit hours and local tests?as part of a national experiment with Ted Sizer, head of Brown University?s education department.

Even as we enjoyed our triumphs, another train was leaving the station. At first, these new reformers didn?t sound unfriendly and even picked up a lot of our language?about school autonomy, empowerment, family?teacher engagement, engaged learning, and a tinge of radical disregard for mere credit hours. Having been converted myself to choice and small schools as vehicles for change, I was friendly even to their more extreme views on these matters. I reminded impatient foundation reformers that they should worry less about scaling-up in a hurry, about building replica chain schools, and instead invest in people with similar ideas. They told us, bluntly, that our work was impressive and deserving of all the awards and degrees we received, but that we needed system-wide change, something faster and more far-reaching that could be carried out by ordinary people following a good recipe.

The orders were blunt. We must save the children right now, said the new reformers. We must hurry through the leisurely years that middle-class children are allowed for informal play and get poor children into the ?real? stuff faster, even before they reached kindergarten. I, a long time revolutionary, found myself counseling corporate foundations for more patience!

In my 1966 Dissent article, I ?demolished? their arguments about ?those children,? myths I thought that the War on Poverty was too easily buying. I claimed that teachers fell into three categories: public school traditionalists, reformers, and radicals. The first were those who felt that ?the fault lies with the poor themselves.? They placed the emphasis on discipline, rules, morality, authority, and the three Rs (reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic). The traditionalists failed to see that most public education for the poor was already just what they were aiming for. Progressive education?and this is where Diane Ravitch and I sharply clashed?couldn?t be the cause of urban school failure because it never existed on a large scale in public schools for the poor. The reformers, on the other hand, accepted the idea that schools should provide what many families lacked: good manners, patience, and the ABCs. They saw this, I thought, as a way to mold the poor into ?something more akin to the successful middle-class five year olds.? (In retrospect, the reformers as I described them presented a more benign version of current corporate reform agenda.) The ?radicals,? like me, aimed our attention at ?remaking the school? rather than the child. We focused on the strengths of ?lower-class children,? which the ?necessity to survive? in an unfriendly world had produced. The ?culture of poverty,? I argued, can?t be overcome by pretending it doesn?t exist. Instead,

change begins with self-acceptance. They must find ways to utilize the ?culture of poverty? itself, to begin with the child’s own experiences, good and bad, to involve his parents and his community, and to let each child’s growth develop from his already functioning personality rather than cut off from it and rootless.

It was, as my mentor Lillian Weber declared, our task to promote continuities rather than use school as an ?alternative.? The latter might work with a few exceptions, but not for most. Otherwise, the student would ?leave?what he learns…at the door when he goes out.? In short, we had as our goal an adult who ?will be able to decide for himself?what kind of person he wants to become.?

I ended that piece with a reminder?to myself, I think?that ?education alone will not resolve the issues at stake in the War On Poverty.? But given that schools exist, they should for poor and rich alike rest on democratic purposes and ?respect for the child?s integrity.? We can, I concluded, ?accept society?s need to reform itself or simply pretend to reform the child.? Until we do the former, we are heading into a dead end.

And so we have. From the early 1990s on we?ve built a head of steam for precisely the ?dead end? we predicted, and called it revolution and reform simultaneously. We?ve placed our focus on the need for so-called ?mind workers? for the twenty-first century, a prognosis that?s at best controversial.We?ve maladapted new forms of technology as the answer: plug them in earlier.

Even the coin of the realm of these new reformers?test scores?have failed for a very long time. In the 1970s and 1980s scores actually rose; since the early 1990s, we?ve experienced stagnation, even as test scores have become the new purpose for schools. The old elitism at least had some relationship to genuine achievement. The new one is fruitless. It?s like focusing all driver education on longer and more frequent multiple-choice and short-answer tests. The road test is viewed, at best, as a luxury.

All the schools I?ve attended in my life, and those we founded in East Harlem (and eventually throughout all the boroughs but Staten Island) and in Boston, rested on quite a different view of purpose and achievement. Our graduates truly had to present the evidence of their capacities and competencies to a committee of experts from different backgrounds (academic and nonacademic) in a lengthy (often an hour-long) interview based on a body of work that demonstrated these competencies. We built the competencies around ?five habits of mind? we thought essential to a strong involved and informed citizenry (for example, being a good juror) in each of the usual academic domains as well as a few the school deemed equally important (like the arts and service to the community). No two schools used exactly the same formula but most used the same criteria?external and internal reviewers examining real accomplishments and making collective judgments of them and of the students? capacity to present and defend their work. It was preparation for this kind of ?old-fashioned? examination process for which the school was responsible year after year. And it was from such experiences that faculty, families, and kids got their inspiration.

This ?radical? idea has been around for centuries, waiting to be used by schools for ordinary children. It?s how a good apprenticeship works?whether for a tool-and-die maker or a lawyer. It?s how we review doctoral candidates in every university in the land. And the time it takes for such an approach or its many similar alternatives to work is part of, not separate from, the purpose of the school. It prepares kids to study and present and defend their ideas. Opinions come in many forms, but good ideas (in science, math, or social studies) all come with these same ingredients that our graduation requirements drew upon.

Never, in my worst nightmares of 1966, did I dream that we?d give up on public education as a vehicle for making a better future for all children. Never would I have dreamed that mayors of big cities would be given the power to transform public schools into private schools operated by trustees with no roots in the community, with low-paid teachers rotating in and out. Never once did I imagine that we?d literally turn schools over to chain-store operators, to do with the poor whatever they chose?as long as they could produce test scores not much worse than their public rivals. But we have. And overcoming this fast-moving train will be harder than I thought.

Yes, schools can make a difference, but the kind of difference depends on the purposes of the school; and it?s these higher intellectual, moral, and social purposes of the school that we are abandoning for the least advantaged. But, in the terms that John Dewey set the challenge a century ago, we have given up too quickly. We forget that democracy is an unfinished project, dependent on building a citizenry in which all see themselves as members of the ruling class?with an education that befits such a dream.