Should Schools Create Employees Or Citizens?

What Are The Best Methods For School Improvement?

The Obama administration has an ambitious goal of turning around the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years. To achieve this, the strategies adopted must be ones that can be applied on a large scale. What are the best methods of school improvement that will work across the country? What are some examples of successful school turnaround models? Can they be replicated elsewhere in the country?

-- Eliza Krigman, NationalJournal.com

Deborah Meier's response:

Turning around 5,000 schools—with stimulus money as the bribe? It's a question that is [b]ound to lead us into a deadend. If the only goal is creating “employees” (vs citizens) of the future I may also be both short-sighted--just plain wrongheaded. If we see them as counter-objectives we may be forgetting that it is “the people” who create the future. It will take more than “school reform” to “turn around” the working lives of tomorrow’s adults. It may depend also on the kind of citizens they become—passively awaiting decisions made elsewhere or actively involved in decision-making. Yes, schools can and must be important players—but it begins with knowing what the game is we want to be players in. The ends we wish for limit the means we need to follow. The local nature of schooling is part of our Constitution for a reason—and I’m not at all convinced it doesn’t remain legitimate and critical to our future as a democratic nation.

Schools are composed of people—constituents. It’s their hearts and souls that need to be engaged in building new kind of interactions on the local level. Part of that task will require a new language for connecting the federal government and the states and the locals and finally the actual constituents of schools. As long as keep thinking that the COE can “do it” to “them” s long as they have the right recipe we have immediately undermined the relationships needed to do the job. It would be as foolhardy as imagining that the Feds can, through bribery, prescribe for all families the best way to raise their children—what message to impart to them, what rewards and punishments, and then how best to monitor their compliance. Because that’s what schooling is all about—raising kids. It takes adults and “villages” to do the task—above all if the goals is to produce children who can nourish democracy—our one and only secular “faith. It takes faith in ordinary people—parents, professional educators, other lay citizens and the children they share—to produce a generation of democrats. How to do that? It might mean bribing them to join together in a democratic dialogue—in every community—over their aspirations for schooling, not just schooling for their own individual child but for all their children. It takes making accessible the best ideas around, and the funds to initiate serious conversation, and then serious funding to launch new ideas. It takes remembering that democracy is always about both conserving and experimenting! Just “restoring” the early 20th century model—be it the factory or the “academy”—can’t work. Nor can the perfect curriculum. Nor more tests. Nor more “holding their feet to the fire”. Those kind of reforms lead to burnt and bloodied feet, not transformed hearts and minds.

For those who want the details about such an approach, I wrote up some of the ideas we came to in NYC 15 yeas ago about school change, based on our work at Julia Richman H.S. in NYC (see also Linda-Darling-Hammond, Jackie Ancess et al,” Reinventing High School, “NCRES, 2002). . It was a plan for “scaling up”—changing the odds—that began with what we knew close to the ground and “let it spread” by removing mandates, not adding to them. It included schools with more than one approach—progressive and conservative. I’ve written about it in “In Schools We Trust” (Beacon).. (It was alas abandoned when a new chancellor and state superintendent arrived). It was taken up again in Boston—known as Pilot Schools—and spread in pockets here and there. But it’s the kind of work that accepts the quirks that make us all different, and builds on them. It turns schools and thei[r] communities into think-tanks for change—with the same kind of funding now spent on the think-tanks funded by private-interest players.

Fzar[sic] too much to be said on this subject! [emphasis mine]

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