Five Great Educators Who Make a Difference

By Jay Mathews
Friday, October 17, 2008; 6:39 AM

Columbia University's Teachers College Press comes out next month with a book about five important reformers: James P. Comer, John I. Goodlad, Henry M. Levin, Deborah Meier and Theodore R. Sizer. If you were assembling the leading American thinkers and writers about education, you would have to include these five. They tell the stories of how they became so obsessed with education and what they learned about improving schools in the book "Those Who Dared: Five Visionaries Who Changed American Education."

It occurred to me that a review of the book by an intellectual midget like myself would not do their lives justice. I don't always agree with them, but many readers will say that is my problem, not theirs. So I asked the book's editor, Carl Glickman, co-convener of the Forum for Education and Democracy, if he could persuade each of them to send me a short essay on the best way to help impoverished children learn.

Sizer, a legendary high school reformer, was ill and could not participate, but the other four have sent me the pieces below, plus a bonus essay from Glickman. I am taking a risk, showing how interesting this column would be if written by any of these visionaries, but I think it is worth it:

Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East Secondary School and a leader of the small school movement in urban areas:

To my question, "What do our kids who are the most at risk need?" the answer, in one, short sentence, is: exactly what our most advantaged kids need, and then some.

We learn best and most efficiently in the company of those who are demonstrably good at doing what we'd like to do and those whom we can imagine becoming. That's the history of the human species -- and that's precisely what formal schooling has eschewed for most kids.

What do I mean by "and then some"? I mean that we need to widen the possibilities of the type of person these children imagine themselves becoming. Schools must provide interesting adults who demonstrate their talents in the company of students in ways that make those talents seem accessible and worthwhile to the young. Once we have that right, other things will follow.

The only absolute necessity -- the bottom line that makes public education a civil right --is that we must be sure that, during the 12 years they spend in school, our students have lots of opportunities to see how power is exercised. We must provide them with a passion for democratic forms of power, which are not natural and involve complex trade-offs, balancing acts, and tensions. Neither a few experiences with public service nor a few courses in civics will give them this passion. Nothing less than immersion in a culture that values democracy and grapples with its contradictions, limitations, and compromises can prepare students for citizenship.

Also, we need to help our students get in the habit of seeing themselves as potentially powerful beings -- as being full members of the larger public world, not merely an outsider or a passive observer of it. One of the advantages that come with being a member of a powerful family is that one already takes the latter for granted. However, the best schools for the rich make a big point of training for power. One of the disadvantages of being on the edges of society is that one tends to take one's irrelevance in the larger public arena for granted. And the "boot camp" schools we usually design for the poor reinforce that sense of powerlessness.

Of course, our less advantaged children also need to have equal access to high-quality health care and all the other goodies that money buys their more advantaged peers. It takes a powerful school culture working in collaboration with family and community to turn the habits of powerlessness into the aptitudes of powerfulness. This won't happen by imitating traditional schooling -- even the traditional preparatory schooling of the ruling class. The power of the latter comes precisely from its exclusivity; we can't replicate it on a mass scale.

If we want that for everyone, we need to invent new forms of community for adults and students, forms that create laboratories for exploring -- among many subjects -- the nature of democracy.

James P. Comer, the child psychiatrist who pioneered research on raising student achievement among poor minorities via collaborating with parents and community services.

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