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A Conversation with Deborah W. Meier
by Merri Rosenberg

Teaching hadn’t been part of Deborah W. Meier’s original game plan.

As the mother of three young children, studying for a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, and involved in the civil rights movement, teaching was “the last thing in the world I ever thought of doing,” admitted this affable grandmother of four, two of whose three grown children now work as teachers. “It seemed like a simple way to make $25 a week as a substitute teacher.”

That original gig turned into a job, up to $50 a week, as a half-day kindergarten teacher. Ms. Meier was hooked. “I fell in love with it.”

Even so, love didn’t make Ms. Meier blind to the flaws in public education, or quash her determination to make schools better for children, teachers and parents.

“I was stunned to see what public education was like,” said Ms. Meier. “I couldn’t survive where teachers didn’t have an interesting life.”

To Meier, it is critically important that teachers have opportunities to develop professionally, and that the students in their charge get to see their teachers as people who continue to struggle with challenges, and to learn.

“It’s not that students don’t know the date of the Civil War,” she explained. “It’s that they’re not growing up in the company of adults and experts. They’re not learning what it is to be a member of a community; they can’t learn to think things through. Kids need to see adults struggling with knowledge.”

In the schools she has founded, and others she has worked with, Ms. Meier has passionately tried to imbue them with that underlying purpose and spirit: “to educate people to be adults, to exercise judgment. Our teachers are not given much leeway to be that kind of grown-up. When you’re speaking to 25 kids at once, that’s not a real relationship. The danger is that we’re raising kids through far-removed experts.”

For more than three decades, Ms. Meier has been a teacher, writer and advocate for public education. A native New Yorker—and product of the Ethical Culture/Fieldston schools—who attended Antioch College and earned an M.A. in history from the University of Chicago, Ms. Meier has received honorary degrees from the Bank Street College of Education, Bard, Brown, Teachers College of Columbia University, Dartmouth, Harvard, The New School, Yale, and others.

Her influential work developing schools like Central Park East Secondary School, a New York City public high school based on her theories of educational reform, explain in part why Ms. Meier was recognized with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. Now the founder and principal of the Mission Hill School, a k-8 Public Pilot school in Boston, another affiliate of the national Coalition of Essential Schools, Ms. Meier has also served as the co-director of a project to successfully reform two large failing urban high schools.

That’s not all.

She’s the author of such influential books as The Power of their Ideas: Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem (1995, Beacon Press); Will Standards Save Public Education? (2000), and the recently published, In Schools We Trust ( 2002).

Ms. Meier, an adviser to New York City’s Annenberg Challenge to improve public schools, and a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University from 1995-1997, also serves on the editorial boards of Dissent magazine, the Harvard Education Letter and The Nation. A founding member of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, Ms. Meier is also a board member of the Educational Alliance, the Association of Urban Democracry and Educators for Social Responsibility.

In a recent lecture given at the Child Development Institute of Sarah Lawrence College, Ms. Meier focused on the role of public schools in a democracy.

“Why save public schools?” she asked. “Public schools are about the art of living together as citizens. If we don’t trust our schools, we will all pay the price in a democratic culture.”

Commercialism must be removed from schools, said Ms. Meier, and any underlying anti-intellectual attitudes, so that students absorb the values that schools really want them to learn.

“We need to stop and think about what values school represents,” she said.

Meier also expressed concern that the pace of contemporary life leaves little time for families to be together, or for children to observe their parents directly.

“Our children’s lives are less connected to grown-ups,” Ms. Meier said. “Schools have gotten larger and larger, and more impersonal despite the rhetoric about small schools.” She pointed out that in 1931, there were 200,000 school districts in America. Now, although the school population has doubled, there are fewer than 15,000 school boards. In 1931, the average school had 200 students–compare that to today’s average of 1000 students.

And Ms. Meier decried the trend towards creating schools that segregate kindergarteners and first graders from the second through fourth graders, followed by middle schools, followed by 9th grade schools, etc. By the time kids graduate from 12th grade they ( and their families) have had to negotiate four to five different schools.

“Continuity matters,” insisted Ms. Meier. “That’s the essence of good education. That’s how we learn: children and families, families and schools, schools and community. Most kids are hungry for the ties across generations, and for these relationships. We can change schools, and build schools in which kids are with the same adults for three or four years, and in which the adults at home and the schools get to know one another well. Kids need to be in the company of at least two sets of grown ups who care about them, and are in their face—at home and at school. We made a mistake when we invented the kind of schools we did. We need to restore authority to the adults in children’s lives.”#



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