Columnist

Deborah Meier, probably the leading American writer-educator of her generation, and Emily Gasoi, an experienced teacher working to improve schools nationwide, have written one of the best books ever on the growth of what is called progressive education.

They make a great case for democratically governed schools where teachers make decisions together, with much input from parents and students. It sounds messy, but they note that many successful schools have done it, such as the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the Belmont Zone of Choice in Los Angeles, schools using the New Hampshire Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) and the Mission Hill pilot school in Boston.

“The nitty-gritty of daily decisions should be left to the people who know their particular community and children best — families and educators,” Meier writes in “These Schools Belong to You and Me.”

“While history offers those who know to look for it some insight into the connection between free, universal education and democratic citizenship,” writes Gasoi, co-founder of the nonprofit Artful Education, “it’s entirely possible to go through the better part of two decades of schooling without ever being asked to consider this aspect of our education.”

So why are they so unhappy with some successful schools that have plenty of faculty and parent involvement? The authors are particularly critical of KIPP, the largest and in some ways most successful charter network in the country. In one of Meier’s chapters, she seems to give KIPP a nod of approval by noting its South Bronx campus began with help from reformer Sy Fliegel, who also backed Meier’s successful Central Park East alternative schools.

But then she says: “The spread of KIPP and KIPP-style, segregated, no-excuses schools . . . signals our nation’s shameful return to the pursuit of separate, and tacitly unequal, schools.” Having visited 42 creative and high-achieving KIPP schools over the years, I sought an explanation for this sentence. The authors call for small, autonomous, family-centered schools with democratic cultures. KIPP seems to me way ahead in those factors. It has longer school days and very careful selection of principals and teachers. What was the problem?

Meier said she visited a KIPP school once, 10 years ago, and didn’t like the discipline, including isolating misbehaving students, which seemed to her a “kind of shaming.” She said the instruction seemed to be mostly teacher-directed. Gasoi said the KIPP schools she visited in Houston in 2009 and 2010 were small and autonomous but too tied to success in test scores. As for democracy, the authors said, KIPP does not follow progressive traditions of letting students often decide what and how to learn.

But why, I asked, did they think KIPP signaled “a shameful return” to separate but unequal? Gasoi told me that KIPP schools were “segregated by design.” I didn’t understand that. They are mostly located in low-income neighborhoods where children need better instruction. How can that be the same as Jim Crow?

Gasoi said she did not mean to equate KIPP with the Old South. She said KIPP segregated by having practices that left middle-class parents not wanting to send their kids there. “KIPP schools focus on behaviors and not so much on intellectual engagement and development,” she said. “I’m not saying there’s no intellectual development happening in KIPP classrooms . . . but that’s not what they prioritize, at least in their public messaging.”

I clicked on KIPP’s national website. Its key themes are high expectations; focus on character; highly effective teachers and leaders; safe, structured and nurturing environments; and advising students even after they reach college. I saw no shortchanging of intellectual development there, nor have I seen it in KIPP schools, which have moved away from discipline by shaming to a more positive approach.

The authors’ overall approach to nourishing democracy provides the answer to their flawed comments on KIPP. As their book says, families and educators know their communities best, and will make the right decisions for their children. That is happening at many schools, some KIPP, some not, whether they have middle-class parents or not. And that’s not shameful.