What is the purpose of public education that welcomes all students?

It may seem like a simple question, but the answer lies at the heart of one of the most important and heated debates in education. That came into stark relief a few years ago when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker quietly tried to change the University of Wisconsin system’s century-old mission by proposing to remove words in the state code that command the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

In a new book titled “These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools,” the MacArthur-award winning educator and author Deborah Meier and educator Emily Gasoi argue the answer to that question does not lie in the business-driven premise guiding the past several decades of school reform, but rather in the notion of preparing young people to be active and thoughtful citizens in the American democratic experiment.

Expressing concern that the U.S. public education system is in danger from reformers such as DeVos, who has called traditional public education “a dead end,” Meier and Gasoi draw on decades of experience and research to describe the kinds of changes that are necessary in public education to renew the democratic spirit and practice in the nation’s schools. Far from being “defenders of the status quo,” as DeVos calls people who don’t agree with her school choice vision, Meier and Gasoi write about what real reform would and should look like and how the current system could be transformed into one that serves all children. They argue all public schools should have the kind of authority charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — have in many states today.

Meier, one of the most highly regarded U.S. educators, began her teaching career in the mid-1960s in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City, and later went on to found and direct a network of successful public schools in East Harlem. In 1997, she founded a public pilot school called Mission Hill in Boston, where Gasoi was one of the team of founding teachers. Mission Hill became famous for its democratically run structure — with a core faculty group making all major staffing, curriculum and scheduling decisions — and is project-based, collaborative curriculum. In 1987, Meier received a MacArthur award for her work.

Gasoi taught at Mission Hill School from 1997-2004, and in 2012, she earned a doctorate  in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. She teaches at Georgetown University and is co-founder of Artful Education, a nonprofit focused on helping schools and arts groups improve practices related to creative teaching and learning.

This is a conversation by email that I had with Meier and Gasoi about their book:

Q) Why did you write this book now?

A) DEBORAH MEIER: The last few years have not been good for democracy.  It may be that we’re not well prepared to sustain much less nourish it. I never imagined we might let public schooling go. So I thought it worth trying to put together the case for democracy and why schools must change. But equally why they must become examples of local democratic communities that teach by authentically practicing what we also need to preach: that democracy is the toughest but only way to serve our common purposes!  Self-interest, especially the short-term type, is important but must be balanced by institutions and habits that simultaneously focus on the common good while maximizing personal freedom. It’s achievable, and we must never forget that. So the book is an attempt to look back at our work and remembering what we learned in trying to put the idea of democracy into practice. We started working on the book two-plus years ago, and it’s even more pressing today.

EMILY GASOI: First, I think we both felt a sense of urgency about the damage that over 15 years of high-stakes accountability has created in our schools. I worked with aspiring and new teachers in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C., over the past decade. Coming into the profession during the reform era of No Child Left Behind, “no excuses” and let’s get touch on teachers, many educators felt they were under attack from multiple sides from the moment they stepped into the classroom. Others simply felt disillusioned at being told they were going to be working in a school that valued the “whole child” or that integrated the arts, or that focused on STEM, etc., only to find the need to raise students’ test scores took precedence over all else.

In non-testing grades, teachers often expressed frustration over being told to do things they knew were developmentally inappropriate, or even abusive, such as punishing prekindergarten students for displaying developmentally appropriate behaviors. Most of these teachers had never heard of Deborah’s schools in New York and Boston that prioritize education for democracy. It drove me crazy to know schools like Mission Hill, and other similarly well-established models that prioritize democratic and humanist values were out there, but that they get almost no attention in our current reform climate. I wanted to write a book based on our experience creating a democratic school from the ground up to show readers what it is possible for schools to be.

Perhaps even more pressing, however, was the sense that our very system of public education — indeed public institutions generally, were in grave peril. We actually began working on the book before the 2016 election. Now, with a billionaire secretary of education who has no experience with public education, who has proposed billions of dollars in cuts to the education budget, and whose policy ambition is to privatize public education, that sense of peril has only intensified. We wanted to write a book that would make a strong case for why it’s essential to the survival of our democracy that our schools remain public — free and open to all — while also arguing that public schools, as they are, can and must improve. As Deb writes at the end of the first chapter, “How can we hope to educate for democracy if children and adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? And if such an education doesn’t take place in our public schools, then where will it happen?”

Q) Betsy DeVos talks a lot about the school system, and I emphasize the word “system,” because she speaks of it in derogatory terms. How do you respond to her insistence that the school system is outdated and needs to be replaced with, essentially, a collection of schools?

A) EMILY GASOI: In our book, we unequivocally support a system of public education as foundational to democracy. Without shared investment in public education — indeed, in public institutions and public spaces generally — the civic fabric that connects us will more easily come unraveled. While we are still struggling to make our education system more equitable, at least we are able to focus our advocacy on that system which is ostensibly bound by laws and regulations to meet the needs of all comers in the interest of the larger society. In places, such as DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where that system has more or less dissolved into a collection of schools, it becomes much more difficult for families to protest or make demands regarding their children’s learning because oversight and accountability is much more opaque and diffuse. In addition, allowing for-profit school operators to run schools creates incentive to place shareholders’ interests ahead of students’ interests, let alone any notion of a common good.

I am not opposed to infusing our school system with some degree of choice, especially when it leads to teachers, families, and students having a greater sense of belonging and investment in their schools. It is true that choice has the potential of providing poor families with options they would not otherwise have. But choice alone will not create greater equity. And, of course, pushing for unregulated choice while cutting billions from the education budget, as DeVos has proposed to do, certainly will not lead us to have more equitable schools or society.

The balance between allowing for greater local autonomy in schools, family choice, and strong oversight is essential. A healthier approach to choice would be one in which we grapple with how to balance giving families choices over where to send their children to school while still supporting common investment in a strong system of education that is free and accessible to all.

DEB MEIER: What kind of system or nonsystem of schooling best serves democracy? Answer: a system of self-governing schools with responsibility to the larger public mediated by local school-by-school boards and a body with limited powers serving a collection of such locally-controlled schools.

Principle One: Most of the decisions that affect the individual school’s operations be made by the constituents of the school — those who must either implement the decisions made or are directly affected by those decisions — where it makes sense to include representatives of the students/and or community. Decisions made must represent some form of consensus, with the school parents and staff constituting half of the board. Each school’s meetings and financial records must be open to the public, as well as other pertinent information about the operation of the school. Some system of consensus rather than majority voting should be developed.

Principle Two. Leaders are chosen by the people they serve, not vice versa. It is vital that final say over the school’s leadership be in the hands of the constituents.

Principle Three. Schools must provide open access to data (with provision for privacy).

Principle Four. Schools will belong to geographic networks governed by a representative board. The default position will be in favor of local individual school control vs. network control. For such purposes, schools will be joined in larger geographic networks covering no more than 50,000 citizens. A Network Board will be responsible for overseeing civil rights and health and safety for sure, as well as raising and distributing needed moneys, providing for equality of services and space, enrollment boundaries (if any) and rules regarding expulsion and suspension. The networks will be responsible for a very lean collective-bargained contract, with schools negotiating details. Maybe there would be some form of compliance with a brief statewide re subject matter coverage — and some other unavoidable federal or state mandates. This representative body may also handle some of the myriad tasks and problems best and most efficiently handled by a geographically broader network of local schools. Such a body could also provide data and oversight to the local taxpayers and the state. E.g. such a body could handle collective bargaining for a lean “essentialist” contract with its employees leaving other details to each school to negotiate.  Such a body might provide for audits and surveys on issues of relevance to the larger community — county, city, or other subdivisions and serve as lobbyists for the schools within its jurisdiction on shared concerns.

In short: To give all schools more or less the kind of authority that charters have in many states. (Particular attention should be paid to Minnesota’s legislation, which favors independent charters and prohibits for-profit schools.) That where possible such charters become members of the collective network and work alongside until they come up with a way to dissolve all distinctions between the new self-governing public schools and the self-governing charters.

Q) Talk a little more about how charter schools fit into the system of governance described by Deb Meier.

A) EMILY  GASOI: I think the last sentence in Deb’s description of a system of self-governing schools touches on this question of where and how charters might fit: “That where possible . . . charters become members of the collective network and work alongside [public schools] until they come up with a way to dissolving all distinctions between the new self-governing public schools and the self-governing charters.”

In other words, all schools should have the kind of freedom to innovate, to evolve, and to take responsibility for making important decisions about the things that most impact members of the school community — the kind of site-based autonomy that is generally only enjoyed by charter schools. However, while we advocate local decision-making, we also understand the need to have some external guidelines that schools follow to ensure the overall quality of the learning environment meet agreed-upon standards and every one’s rights are being honored.

In our book, we describe several external oversight/support organizations that provide schools networks with cohesive principles and guidelines, while also allowing for site-specific variation and flexibility. Such organizations include the Performance Assessment Review Board in New York City, Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, and the Pilot School Steering Committee in Los Angeles.

If all public schools —  in-district, in-network, charter, magnet, alternative, etc. — had the same level of freedom to innovate, developed their programs according to shared guidelines and principles and were evenly supported in their efforts to actualize those shared principles, then the issue of charter schools would cease to be so divisive. Such a shift in how schools are organized and held accountable would foster collaboration, rather than competition, and, I suppose, obviate the need for charters altogether.

Q) Given the state of things today, what is the path toward accomplishing the kind of education system you are talking about?

DEBORAH MEIER: If this whole argument is really about greater self-governance at the site where the rubber meets the road (where kids, families and teachers join forces) it’s not rocket science. But I fear it’s really as much about privatization as “autonomy,” about designing a school system around the “magic” of the market and profiting off the public largesse rather than releasing the creative energies of those who know the most about what children need.

That said, there have been enough successful experiments with democratic models of schooling over the past 50-plus years to say we do know a lot about how to make it work. We have lots of examples to draw from — starting with the District 4 schools in East Harlem. We have Boston’s successful Pilots initiated started by the Boston Teachers Union in the 1990s; we have the L.A. pilots, and we even have lessons to learn from a statewide plan in Minnesota. Lean district union-management contracts and greater authority resting in each school community.  Rochester pioneered that long ago.

EMILY GASOI:  First, we need to stop using standardized testing as a proxy for everything that matters in education. Striving to close a test-score gap between white, privileged children and their peers who have been denied privilege is a diversion that keeps us from addressing the very real inequities that have been socially, politically, and legally reinforced throughout history (see, for example Richard Rothstein’s new book, “The Color of Law” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story “The Case for Reparations”).

There is already broad agreement that the tests are at best an inadequate tool for assessing student learning, especially the kind of learning they need to prepare them to navigate and help to shape our fast-changing world. Yet testing still dictates and constricts much of what happens in schools. Standardized tests could perhaps be useful if scores were acknowledged to be just one among many assessments that stakeholders use to better understand and share student learning. But they should not be prioritized.

In their place, we advocate for prioritizing more rigorous, useful, and meaningful assessments, such as the well-established New York City Performance Assessment Consortium, as well as the emerging New Hampshire Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE). There is little that can be done to innovate within the current high-stakes accountability climate (we are still in a high-stakes climate despite language in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor federal K-12 law to No Child Left Behind, that emphasizes providing students with a “well-rounded education” and giving schools the option of judging schools based on more than test scores).

If we want to move away from the current test-centric culture that creates perverse incentives — encouraging educators to teach to the test, to focus more attention on some students (i.e. “bubble kids”), to prioritize test scores over actual student needs, and in some cases, to cheat — then we need to look to other models that emphasize practices and conditions conducive to teachers holding themselves and their colleagues accountable to meeting agreed-upon needs of students and the entire school community. Luckily, we have such models to draw from, some of which I mentioned in my previous response, and that we describe at length in chapter six of our book.

A national shift toward using assessment methods that both reflect and cultivate the kind of “21st Century skills” reformers claim students need to learn would at least point our educational compass in the right direction. And, with the billions that we would otherwise waste on tests and related materials, we could begin to address the real problem, which is a very long-standing privilege gap.

Let’s acknowledge and then close that gap by providing schools in high poverty areas with the kinds of resources their wealthy counterparts enjoy: state of the art facilities, small class sizes, rich curriculums and well-rounded programming that includes the arts, sciences, civics, etc., as well as compensating for the kinds of traumas many children living in areas of concentrated poverty face, providing them with wraparound services, an army of counselors, trauma-informed training for educators, etc. That would be a good start!