Education Reform: Editorials

What Do Kids Need?

By Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier is the principal of The Mission Hill School, a new K-8 public school in Boston. She is also is Vice-Chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national reform network. Previously, she founded and directed the Central Park East Schools, a network of small public schools in East Harlem. This article is an excerpt from her book, "Will Standards Save Public Education?"

To educate today's children for tomorrow's democracy, we need locally grown standards that celebrate differences and reflect their communities.

Virtually every discussion of education reform in the United States today takes for granted the notion that kids need "higher standards" in school. It is a simple and an enormously popular idea: let's decide what everyone ought to know, and then let's test every kid to make sure they all know it. The ones who don't won't be promoted or get a diploma. But is this really what our kids need?

I believe that the current push for national and state-mandated standards is fundamentally misguided. It leads inevitably to standardization, which is the antithesis of real education. It will not help to develop young minds, contribute to a robust democratic life, or aid the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. By shifting the locus of authority to outside bodies, it undermines the capacity of schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that schools in a democracy should be fostering in kids responsibility for one's own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences. Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment. It thus decreases the chances that young people will grow up in the midst of adults who are making hard decisions and exercising mature judgment in the face of disagreements. And it squeezes out those schools and educators with innovative ideas.

Too Big, Too Standardized, Too Uniform...
If there is a crisis in public education it is a subtle one one that the standards movement can only exacerbate. Its cause, in part, is that the closer our youth come to adulthood the less they belong to communities that include responsible adults, and the more stuck they are in peer-only subcultures. We've created two parallel cultures, and it's no wonder the ones on the grown-up side are feeling angry at the way the ones on the other side live and act: apparently footloose and fancy-free, but in truth often lost, confused, and knit together for temporary self-protection. Many changes in our society have contributed to this alienation, but changes in the nature of schooling have been among the most important. Our schools have grown too distant, too big, too standardized, too uniform, too divorced from their communities, too alienating of young from old and old from young. Few youngsters and few teachers have an opportunity to know each other by more than name (if that); and schools are organized so as to make knowing each other nearly impossible. In such settings it's hard to teach young people how to be responsible to others, or to concern themselves with their community. The consequences of this are critical for all our youngsters, but obviously more severe and often disastrous for those less identified with the larger culture of success.

The factory-like schools we invented a century ago to handle the masses are only making things worse. And the current movement toward educational standardization will do nothing to help. The problems are not primarily caused by too-easy coursework or too much tolerance for violence. The big trouble lies instead in the company our children keep or, more precisely, don't keep. They no longer keep company with us the grown-ups they are about to become. And many of the adults they do encounter seem less and less worthy of their respect.

A Crisis in Human Relationships
There is also a bigger crisis a crisis in human relationships that schools have played a major part in deepening, if not actually creating. They can play a big part in curing it. To begin with, we have the lowest voter turnout by far of any modern industrial country. We are exceptional for the absence of responsible care for our most vulnerable citizens. We spend less on child welfare baby care, medical care, family leave than almost every competitor. We don't come close to our competitors in income equity. Our high rate of (and investment in) incarceration places us in a class by ourselves. All of these social and political indicators affect some citizens far more than others, and the heaviest burdens fall on the poor, the young, and people of color those who cannot find a way to belong to the culture of success.

Our hope lies in schools that are more personal, compelling, and attractive than the Internet or TV, where youngsters can keep company with interesting and powerful adults, who are in turn in alliance with the students' families and local institutions. We need to surround kids with adults who know and care for our children, who have opinions and are accustomed to expressing them publicly, and who know how to reach reasonable collective decisions in the face of disagreement. That means increasing local decision-making, and simultaneously decreasing the size and bureaucratic complexity of schools.

Is such an alternative practical? Are the assumptions behind it mere sentiment?

Our Own Standards
The Mission Hill School, one of ten new Boston public schools initiated by the city's school administration and the Boston Teachers Union, is designed to support such alternative practices. The families that came to Mission Hill were chosen by lottery and represent a cross-section of Boston's population. We intentionally kept the school small fewer than 200 students ages five to thirteen so that the adults could meet regularly, take responsibility for each others' work, and argue over how best to get things right. Parents join the staff not only for formal governance meetings but also for monthly informal suppers, conversations, good times. Our oldest kids the eighth graders will graduate only when they can show us all that they meet our graduation standards, which are the result of lots of parent, staff, and community dialogue over several years.

We invented our own standards not out of whole cloth but with an eye to what the world out there expects and what we deem valuable and important. And we assess them through the work the kids do and the commentary of others about that work. Our standards are intended to deepen and broaden young people's habits of mind, their craftsmanship, and their work habits.

Other schools may select quite a different way of describing and exhibiting their standards. But they too need to consciously construct their standards in ways that give schooling purpose and coherence, and then commit themselves to achieving them. And the kids need to understand the standards and their rationale. They must see school as not just a place to get a certificate, but a place that lives by the same standards it sets for them. Thus the Mission Hill school not only sets standards but has considerable freedom and flexibility with regard to how it spends its public funds and organizes its time to attain them.

Standards of assessment are not once-for-all issues. We re-examine our school constantly to see that it remains a place that engages all of us in tough but interesting learning tasks, nourishes and encourages the development of reasonable and judicious trust, and nurtures a passion for making sense of things and the skills needed to do so. We expect disagreements sometimes painful ones. We know that even well-intentioned, reasonable people cross swords over deeply held beliefs. But we know, too, that these differences can be sources of valuable education when the school itself can negotiate the needed compromises.

What is impressive at Mission Hill, in Boston's nine other pilot schools, at the Central Park East Schools in New York's East Harlem (where I worked for 25 years), and in thousands of other small schools like them, is that over time the kids buy in. The evidence suggests that most youngsters have a sufficiently deep hunger for the relationships these schools offer them among kids and between adults and kids that they choose it over the alternative cultures on the Net, tube, and street.

Over 90 percent of Central Park East's very typical students stuck it out, graduated, and went on to college. And most persevered through higher education. Did they ever rebel, get mad at us, reassert their contrary values and adolescent preferences? Of course. Did we fail with some? Yes. But it turns out that the hunger for grown-up connections is strong enough to make a difference, if we give it a chance. Studies conducted on the other similar schools launched in New York between 1975 and 1995 showed the same pattern of success.

Schools That Might Better Serve Democracy
If we are to make use of what we knew in Dewey's day (and know even better today) about how the human species best learns, we will have to start by throwing away the dystopia of the ant colony, the smoothly functioning (and quietly humming) factory where everything goes according to plan, and replace it with a messy, often rambunctious community, with its multiple demands and complicated trade-offs. The new schools that might better serve democracy and the economy will have to be capable of constantly remaking themselves and still provide for sufficient stability, routine, ritual, and shared ethos.

Impossible? Of course. So such schools will veer too far one way or the other at different times in their history, will learn from each other, shift focus, and find a new balance. There will always be a party of order and a party of messiness.

But if schools are not all required to follow all the same fads, maybe they will learn something from their separate experiments. And that will help to nurture the two indispensable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others indeed genuine empathy for them; and a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement indeed enjoyment of them.

A vibrant and nurturing community, with clear and regular guideposts its own set of understandings, and a commitment to each other that feels rather like love and affection can sustain such rapid change without losing its humanity. Such a community must relish its disagreements, its oddballs, its misfits. Not quite families, but closer to our definition of family than factory, such schools will make high demands on their members, have a sustaining and relentless sense of purpose and coherence, but be ready also to always (well, at least sometimes) even reconsider their own core beliefs. We will come home exhausted, but not burned out.

Everything that moves us toward these qualities will be good for the ideal of democracy. A democracy in which less than half its members see themselves as "making enough difference" to bother to vote in any election is surely endangered far more endangered, at risk, than our economy. It's for the loss of belief in the capacity to influence the world, not our economic ups and downs, that we educators should accept some responsibility.

What I have learned from 30 years in small powerful schools is that it is here above all that schools can make a difference, that they can alter the odds.

A Matter of Choice
We can't beat the stacked odds on the next round of tests that the advantaged enjoy over the disadvantaged; we can, however, substantially affect the gap between rich and poor where it will count, in the long haul of life. Even there it's hard to see how schools by themselves can eliminate the gap, but we can stop enlarging it. Trained mindlessness may have fit the world of work so many young people were destined for a century ago. Let us not reinvent a 21st-century version of those factory-like schools for the mindworkers of tomorrow.

It is a matter of choice such a future does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. We have the resources, the knowledge, and plenty of living examples of the many different kinds of schools that might serve our needs better. All we need is a little more patient confidence in the good sense of "the people" in short, a little more commitment to democracy.