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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

On Schools Where Students Want to Be: A Conversation with Deborah Meier

    Creating smaller schools, granting parents choice in schools, and, especially, starting a conversation about what it means to be an educated person—these are Deborah Meier's suggestions for those who want to craft a better alternative to traditional schooling.

      Creating smaller schools, granting parents choice in schools, and, especially, starting a conversation about what it means to be an educated person—these are Deborah Meier's suggestions for those who want to craft a better alternative to traditional schooling.
      You are co-principal of a famous and successful public school, often referred to as an alternative school—Central Park East in New York City. But I know you really don't like that label “alternative.” What is it that you object to about the idea of alternative schools?
      It implies that traditional education should stay in place. And it suggests the notion that while regular education works for most kids, students who are the exceptions—who in some way don't fit—require alternatives. Just recently the New York Times ran a piece about a place in California where they want to “expel from the schools” students who engage in certain anti-social behavior. For a moment, I thought they were going to prohibit students from attending any school, but when I read the story more carefully, it meant they were going to send them to alternative schools. The implication is that if schools are alternative schools, they're not real schools. They just serve some kind of holding purpose for misfits.
      Is the other side of the coin that alternative schools can be model schools and point the way for reform in all education?
      They can be. They have an honorable history of serving that purpose. But if we're talking about remodeling the schools, alternative is a poor word. If someone says to me, “We're going to have a conference about alternative schools,” I do not assume that what's being discussed is changing the regular way in which we create educational programs.
      Do you have a particular name you like to call that kind of school where you make these kinds of changes?
      Just a small school.
      Just a small school?
      Just a good small school. I don't think all small schools are good by a long shot. But small schools can be where you start changing the way your schools are. You can't change education all at once.
      We need to develop altern... I'm not making a fetish of not using the word alternative; I just think it obscures what we're trying to do and that is—change what we mean by providing good educational programs for all children.
      One of the reasons given for the resurgence in popularity of new kinds of schools, especially charter schools, is that the new models put decisions about education in the hands of parents. Should parents be able to choose their child's school?
      Yes. If they don't have confidence in their school, they make good education very nearly impossible. When the school represents a hostile viewpoint to their family, kids don't feel safe and aren't receptive to learning. Parents should have an opportunity to visit schools and think, “Is this a school where I don't mind leaving my child?” The most important decision they make may not be about the pedagogy, but rather about how comfortable it is to drop in
      ...and participate in the running of the school?
      Some schools want parents to be around a lot. But some parents can't be around a lot. Others don't feel like sending a child to school in which a lot of other parents are quote “meddling.” So those parents may want to choose a school with much more professional decision making than parental involvement.
      In the new video about your secondary school, High School II<EMPH TYPE="3"> (see p.6), the camera captures a number of parent/teacher conferences where everybody, including the student, is discussing what that student needs to do at school. A lot of principals and teachers would be interested in knowing how to get that kind of involvement from parents.
      Starting with the children in kindergarten, we schedule at least two meetings a year with each parent. A meeting lasts at least a half hour, and we urge as many members of the family as can to come. We share the child's work, the child's ideas, and the many different ways of looking at what we might do next.
      Do all the child's teachers attend, too?
      No. In all grades—just one teacher. If there's a particular problem, we may hold a problem-solving meeting in which we would bring in all of the adults who might be concerned, but the schools are organized so that each year one main adult guides the child's life at school.
      That the student is involved in the planning and has a say in what's happening encourages parents to come in. We spend a good deal of time and attention making sure this meeting is the kind at which parents end up feeling more effective than when they walked in. If you don't do that, you're not likely to get them to come back.
      Having the child present makes it much harder for the adults to discuss the child in psychological terms. As a parent, I cannot do anything about someone's psychological theories about my child. What I can do something about is homework, making sure my child comes to school on time, clarifying to the teacher what the child is confused about. Plus, parents learn things about their children that way. It's a nice time in many ways. But suppose there is a dispute. For example, at my son's conferences, the teacher would invariably say “He didn't turn in all his homework” or “he does this or that.” When I would get home, my son would say, “That's not true.”
      The conference clears the tangle of misunderstandings between the school and the family. If there are disagreements, which there often are, it's better to find ways to talk about them in the child's presence. It's good for the children because they can observe the adults work out their differences.
      This is another hallmark of your school, isn't it? I've heard you say that traditional schools often abandon adolescents to a world bereft of powerful adults.
      Most adolescents live in a powerful peer culture completely cut off from the adult world. We do a lot of things at school to tighten the bond among peers, but very little to strengthen the bond across generations. That's exactly the opposite of what we need to do. Peer friendships are important but not as counters to the influence of other generations. We've put students together in huge age cohorts. High school teachers see five different groups of 30 in the course of a day. Every semester they see a different 150 students, and they have 2 or 3 minutes between classes. No wonder they can get impatient when the student stays behind and wants to chat.
      It's the exception when a student establishes an important relationship with even a single adult during high school. And rarely do students experience the two worlds of young people and adults joined together in a shared community.
      If you want to influence young people, you first have to convince them that being a potential member of the adult community is an exciting prospect. Adults who work with adolescents are much more powerful than kids see them. Often it's the institution that makes students see adults as having only a petty power—the power to give you grades, the power to make your life miserable.
      How do you empower the adults and counteract the institutionalized peer pressure?
      Once again, schools need to be small enough so you can have a community. And all the members of the community should have at least an initial choice about being at that school, and they should know the rules for getting out if they should want to leave. The day is organized so that both formal and informal exchanges can occur. Adults are in and out of one another's rooms, watching one another teach. Most adult meetings are open to young people. Adults and young people sit around the same room together when they have free time. They read in the same library. Portions of the day are scheduled for informal tutoring and coaching between adults and students, and between older and younger students. Classes have an age span of two or three years.
      The expertise of others is valued. All the other adults in the school, not just professional teachers but aides and secretaries and cafeteria workers, are accessible to students, possible guides to their learning.
      In other words, this is a fluid community. But it is a community. When you join it, you can't say, well, I don't buy into the norms. Kids are aware that the school is designed by the people who are there. There's no adult who's likely to say very often, “There's nothing I can do about this. That's the rule.” They might say “I disagree with that rule, but at the moment we can't do anything about it until we can come up with a better argument against it.”
      Do you think choosing exceptional teachers is central to creating this kind of environment?
      No, but it's important that adults come to the school the same way students come, by choice. Teachers can't close the door: what goes on in their classroom is shared with everybody. We agree to be a family. Anyone who wants to be that kind of teacher badly enough is probably going to work out well over time.
      How does your curriculum differ from a traditional curriculum? Does it differ from student to student?
      It always differs. No two children do exactly the same piece of work. A majority of time the curriculum has a thematic focus, and often the curriculum is interdisciplinary. For example, if the topic is “bridges” an elementary teacher thinks of things that might get the students involved: mathematics, art, history, geography.
      Sometimes themes emerge because talking about bridges leads to talking about dams or rivers. Sometimes there are classwide themes, and sometimes individual students take the theme in unanticipated directions. But usually the catalyst for the curriculum is the teacher, who gathers materials and brings in outside expertise. Some teachers do the same topic year after year. Some make a point to never repeat. The faculty does seek balance so children K–6 experience continuity.
      E. D. Hirsch's core curriculum school is a popular alternative now. Is the idea that every student needs to know certain subjects and read classic literature misguided?
      It's a notion about what it means to be educated that I don't share. But there are worse curriculums, and it may be meatier than some.... The idea behind it is that a well-educated person needs to know particular facts. The way I know whether someone is well educated is not whether he or she happens to know what I know. For example, I'm at a real handicap very often with students because I very rarely watch TV and I'm not up on pop culture. That could make a lot of kids think I'm pretty dumb. But I hope I convince them otherwise by the way I ask questions, the way I share information, the way I respond to the world.
      On the other hand, there is information that I think adults need to increasingly share with young people to bring them into their world. But particular pieces of information, I'm not so sure. Left out are all the passions the kids have and the passions the teachers have.
      What is the role of the principal in an effective school— instructional leader or...?
      There are many different possible roles depending largely on the staff and what the principal likes to do. Somebody has to be primarily focused on the whole. Teachers tend to have, with good reason, tunnel vision. They are focusing on the 30 to 40 students they're responsible for, and an enormous emotional, intellectual energy goes into thinking, “What do I need to do for this student? Has this happened before? What did I do last time?” Of course, the school as a whole is fundamental to the other worries. It doesn't matter that teachers are doing fine if the school as a whole is falling apart.
      Someone has to keep an eye on the whole and alert everyone when parts need close- or long-range attention. A principal's job is to put forth to the staff an agenda. The staff may or may not agree but they do have an opportunity to discuss it. I'll say, “Listen, I've been around class after class and I notice this, don't notice this. We made a commitment to be accountable for one another, but I didn't see anybody visiting anybody else's class.”
      Recently Paul [Schwarz] and I, co-directors of the school, made a list of the kids who transferred out. We wanted to know more about the kids who left us, particularly those who didn't end up graduating from any high school. We've decided to hold a workshop to consider four or five of those students. Our purpose is to learn something that will help all the kids in the future. This is an example of an initiative more likely to come from us than from the classroom teachers.
      Paul and I also read all the teachers' assessments of students. Once we noticed that the 9th and 10th grade math teachers often said the kids didn't seem to have an aptitude for math. We asked the math staff, “How can these kids do nicely in 7th and 8th grade and then seem inept in 9th and 10th? Are we fooling ourselves in 7th and 8th or are we fooling ourselves in 9th and 10th? Because they are the same kids.”
      I've heard you say that too few educators listen to students and find out what they want out of education. How do you inspire kids with a passion for learning?
      It isn't something you have to inspire them with; it's something you have to keep from extinguishing. Human beings are by nature passionate, curious, intrigued. We are by nature theorists. We seek to connect, find patterns, make sense of things. We wouldn't last our first two years if we weren't that way. Unfortunately, kids stop expecting school to be a place where they use their curiosity and theoretical abilities. They think of school as a place to find out what someone one else wants from you or how to appear to conform. That's true of our successful students and our failures both.
      Except in terms of their social life, they don't come to school thinking, “I wonder what will happen today.” Figuring out where they fit in various pecking orders, how authority is established, how to get the attention they want, and how to avoid the attention they don't want—that's the focus.
      How do you refocus them?
      You have to develop a school in which students continue the habit of using those qualities. The subject matter has to be interesting. We're not all interested in the same things, of course, and we may do some things for the interest of something else that matters a lot to us. We may practice the scales a lot because we have an enormous drive toward musicianship. But students who have no interest in becoming musicians will not practice well. And students who have never heard good music will not practice well. And students who have no idea about the connection between their practice and the music will stop practicing.
      Kids will practice basketball for hours because they see a relationship between their practice and getting better at basketball. And yes, they can see themselves as potential basketball players.
      A large number of students in school have no particular interest in becoming whatever it is that they're studying. They don't see a relationship between knowing these things and getting to be good at something. When you sever that connection, it's very hard for kids to be passionate about learning.
      How do you motivate them, then?
      The problem with focusing on motivation is that it leads us away from the heart—the curriculum itself—and toward external rewards and punishment. Teachers begin to concern themselves with being better entertainers.
      We should focus less on motivation and instead ask: Why is this topic of interest? Is this a good time to share it with the kids? It's not enough for teachers to be interested in the subjects they are teaching. It's imperative that they be intellectually curious about the world around them—and about the way kids see the world. Kids ask wonderful questions. If you're simply transmitting information, it's pretty boring. If you are studying bridges because you yourself think they're fascinating and because you have questions about bridges, then you're sharing on a different level.
      Do you think American schools need new standards to revitalize education?
      Standards, yes, but not more standardization! When I think about all these mandates that are coming down, I think of a counter mandate. For all those statements that begin, “By the time they are 18, all students shall...,” I suggest: “No high school shall have a requirement for graduation that every single member of the faculty can't meet.” That applies to social studies, math, and literature.
      We as teachers often say “I've forgotten everything I learned in math,” but then consider ourselves well-educated people.” Isn't it an odd statement to say that every 18-year-old should be able to do what we can't do ourselves.
      Schools must start engaging themselves in a conversation about what it means to be an educated person. We must ask the parents, the school board, and the kids the same question. What we will be doing is inducting kids into an intellectual conversation, a discussion about what we want the world to be like in the future. It is the most important discussion we can have.
      To create schools that would lead such discussions means restructuring schools. This conversation cannot take place between 3 and 4 o'clock once a month. We need to create smaller communities, we need to give parents some choices, encourage on-site power. We have to focus on what education is about. Is it just to get jobs? If the total number of good jobs stays the same, then why would it matter whether more students learn algebra? But what we're really talking about is what we want the future generation to look like.
      And we don't all have to arrive at the same conclusion. That is the spirit of the alternative movement that I'm eager to keep alive. I hope there won't come a time when a single national standard says that all schools will have to be exactly like ours. Schools have to be communities that nourish our common values and our differences.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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