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Teaching Pioneer Deborah Meier on Obama’s Education Policy and the Future of Charter Schools

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As part of the Obama administration’s education plan, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged states to consider partnerships with successful charter school operators. We speak to Deborah Meier, who has spent nearly four decades working in public education as a teacher, principal, writer and public advocate. She is considered to be the founder of the small schools movement and founded a number of public elementary and secondary schools in New York and Boston that serve predominantly low-income African American and Latino students. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We switch gears now to education here at home. Juan?


Well, Education Secretary Arne Duncan outlined the key components of President Obama’s education plan on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Expanding on the White House goal of turning around 5,000 of the lowest-performing public schools in the country over the next five years, Secretary Duncan pledged some $5 billion to improve public schools over the next year. He urged states to take “bold actions” to turn around what he called “dropout factories,” and to consider partnerships with successful charter school operators.

    ARNE DUNCAN: [I’d like to set a goal] to turn around over time 1,000 low-performing schools each year. I do not want to invest in the status quo. For children, families and communities that have been poorly served for too long, we must act with a sense of urgency. We cannot wait, because they cannot wait.

    We think about only 2,000 schools in this country, producing 50 percent of our nation’s dropouts and 75 percent of our minority children dropouts, we have a real challenge there. And we have a real opportunity, with resources on the table and with courage and political will, to challenge that, to work with those dropout factories, to work with their feeder middle schools and elementary schools to fundamentally stop those dropout factories, those dropout pipelines, and do something dramatically better for those children in communities that, I would argue, in many places have been underserved, not for a couple years, but for decades.

    And everyone in this room knows that when children drop out today, they are basically condemned to poverty and to social failure. There are no good jobs out there for a high school dropout. And we have to act now to make sure we do something better for those children in those communities.

    I want states and districts to take bold action that will lead directly to the improvement in student learning. I want local leaders to find those change agents who can fix these schools. I want them to provide incentives for the best teachers and the best principals to take on the challenge of teaching in these schools. And where appropriate, I want them to create partnerships with charter school operators with a track record for success. I want superintendents to be aggressive in taking the difficult step of shutting down a failing school and replacing it with one they know will work. We’ve proposed a $52 million increase in funding to develop and expand successful charter schools.

    Many of you have heard me say that I believe education is the civil rights issue of our time. I absolutely believe every child is entitled to a high-quality education.


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, speaking before the House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday.

Well, our next guest is deeply familiar with the state of our educational system, its failings and successes, and the promises and pitfalls of charter schools. Deborah Meier has been — well, has spent nearly four decades working in public education as a teacher, a principal, a writer, a public advocate, considered to be the founder of the small schools movement and founded a number of public elementary and secondary schools here in New York, also in Boston, that serve predominantly low-income African American and Latino students.

Deborah Meier won a MacArthur Genius Award in 1987. She’s the author of many books, including The Power of Their Ideas, In Schools We Trust and Many Children Left Behind.

She serves as principal emeritus of Mission Hill School in Boston, co-chair of the Coalition for Essential Schools, currently senior scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education.

Welcome to Democracy Now! What is your response to the education policy of President Obama and Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary?


I think it’s missing the heart of what’s the problem and looking at this from the eyes of — there’s a wonderful book called Seeing Like a State, which I urge people to read, because there’s a way of looking at what’s wrong with schools that I think the business eye sees, which is different than the teacher, child and parent eye, what’s wrong with our schools. And so, to look for the answer increasingly in distant from where the action takes place, the cutting out of teachers’, parents’ and children’s voices in making decisions about schools, as we escalate the penalties if they don’t meet test scores. The incredible obsession with test scores, particularly in two particular areas, that hardly define what it means to be a well-educated person.

I had a grandmother who probably couldn’t have passed them, but she was a well-educated woman. She had a mindfulness and thoughtfulness about the world around her. She knew how to read the world. And an enormous number of our children are not being educated to have that view of themselves.

So, the focus he has on that, if they don’t graduate high school, that they won’t get as good a job, you know, we have simply upped the scale. We have lots of people who have BAs and MAs who are not making decent wages. General Motors and Chrysler are planning to close plants and send workers overseas, who are less well-educated than the workers who are in those plants now.

So, what disturbs me — and I was just thinking about that program right before this, and I think, oh, who can possibly care about schools when you see what’s happening in some places in the world? But there is a connection. And it’s the lack of good education about the world, my fellow citizens, that contributes to bad politics in America and a democracy that doesn’t come close to meeting its potential. And that’s the connection that I would love our Department of Education to be the bully pulpit on.


Deborah Meiers, I’d like to ask you — obviously the Obama administration and Secretary Duncan are very much behind the idea of more charter schools that are spreading across the country. And actually, you started the small schools movement, that was tremendously successful. What is the essential difference between the small schools movement that you started and these charter schools, where many African American religious leaders and others around the country are buying into and participating in this whole charter school movement?


Well, when the charter movement started, while I thought they could have done the same thing within the regular public schools, you know, there were several hundred small schools in New York that grew out of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, and they didn’t get anything like the hype that the charter movement has gotten. And I originally thought it was just another way for small schools to start.

But there’s nothing particular about charter schools that gives schools either greater autonomy to make decisions, powerful decisions, close to the children — that’s what I think is wonderful about a small school, that you can know kids and their families, can all know each other well, and can have a conversation that impacts on the school.

But what we’re seeing instead is an enormous number of pilot schools that are really replicas of the worst parts of the public system, where decisions are made farther and farther away from children, and they’re made on the basis of people who don’t know the kids or that school well. So I pictured a lot of mom and pop stores. And there are some wonderful pilot — charter schools that I love around the country. But 90 percent of what the charter schools have become is not small schools, but just alternate private systems within the public sector.


Well, you have, for instance, chains that are developing —


That’s what I mean.


— like the KIPP Academy and some of these others. But one of the things I’ve been noticing in my investigations is that a lot of these charter schools, especially the chain types, pay enormous salaries. I reported on one here in Harlem, Eva Moskowitz. She was making, for just running a school of 300 kids, making $370,000 a year. And the New York Post, last week, reported that a charter school in Brooklyn, the director, was making $700,000 a year. This is a non-profit.


And I was making seventy. So, it is an idea cooked up. It was an idea that may have had marvelous origins. I’m really not sure how it started. We have something in Boston called pilot schools, that were an internal attempt to capture the best qualities of charters but to remain within the system and was supported and initiated by the union.

So, what’s interesting to me is the lack of interest in our taking what we’ve learned and using it in the ordinary public system, rather than getting into this blame teacher, blame union fight and pulling schools out of the public sector. And there just isn’t any evidence. None of the studies. Here are these people who are big on test score data, but they are only interested in test score data when they can use it to attack normal public education, because there’s no — there is no consistent evidence that charter schools are getting better results, and there’s no consistent evidence that you can turn around 5,000 schools.

You know, it’s not only that we shouldn’t be driven by data, but informed by data, which would require a much different kind of press coverage of education than we get, so that — we imagine that you can run schools on the basis of a distant — a lever from some distant place that looks at data and manipulates the system from that place. And there’s no data that works. There’s no suggestion — there’s not even, on their own terms, data that works.

The mayor claims that mayoral control works, but, in fact, if you look at the data about which systems are doing best around this country, urban systems, in fact it’s the ones that don’t have mayoral control, not mayoral control. And even in this last round of test scores in New York City, in fact, the cities in New York State that don’t have mayoral control did better than New York City. So, what’s frustrating to me is I don’t like that definition of success, but that they don’t even believe it for themselves.


Deborah Meier, this past week is the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate the schools of this country. Where are we today with this?


We’re not [inaudible] — not anywhere. I mean, when I came to New York City in the mid-’60s and taught in Central Harlem — actually, by the way, it’s closer to five decades that I’ve been working in the public schools. But when I came to New York City and worked in Central Harlem in kindergarten and was telling the kids about desegregation, it was hard to convince them, because they looked around the room, and what did I — when I said, “It’s only in the South that we have segregation.”

So, segregation has been with us a very long time, but it hasn’t changed. And you can send your kid, if you’re an upper-middle-class New Yorker, you can send your kids, for example, to schools in New York City from kindergarten through twelfth grade that have fewer black and Latino kids in it than most private schools. I know this personally.

And we have not — we’re so interested in the best and the brightest, by our very narrow definition of what we’re looking for in this country, what we mean by merit and what we mean by leadership. So I’m also just stunned by the Department of Education that includes virtually no educators, whose definition of being well-educated is that you graduated from Harvard.

There’s something basically missing about what we want from our schools. And if we don’t get that right, and even discuss it, so that the only meaning of achievement now is improving test scores.


Well, and when you mentioned the people who are running the system that aren’t even educators, increasingly now, especially with this charter school movement, even the principals have no experience as teachers.


There is no respect for — now, it’s not the only place we do this. I‘m a little stunned that you send in people on the basis of some general brightness category to fix automobile industries, who know nothing about manufacturing and industry. We’ve gotten — you know, this decade of interest in finance has made us think that only people who know how to manipulate money know how to change the world for the better.

And I think that’s unfortunately the lesson we’re teaching in schools, by the way we view the schools and by the way we want teachers to view their students. We want them to look at their students as products, and that the way they can tell whether their product is good is whether its scores are higher, and then they’ll get paid more money.

And that whole bonus assumption corrupts the work itself. You know, there’s a principle, Campbell’s Principle, I think it’s called, that the more you focus on a particular indicator, the more corrupt that indicator becomes itself. And I think we have under — a corrupt educational system, not in the sense, really, that so many people are making money off it — too many are — but mostly in the sense that we’ve corrupted the purposes.


Well, in New York City, they took it one step further, starting to offer children money for getting higher test scores, right? The mayor wants — has a plan to cash bonuses for students who get higher test scores.


Yeah, it’s a fundamental corruption of the definition that I have of being well-educated. And the purpose of small schools and the purpose of a strong and powerful faculty was because you can’t pass on to kids what it means to be part of a powerful community if you’re not part of a powerful community. And teachers whom we don’t respect enough to make judgments of importance can’t teach the fundamental underlying principle of democracy, which is the exercise of judgment.


Well, we certainly will continue this conversation. We thank you, Deborah Meier, for being on with us today. And I want to encourage teachers and students around the country to suggest stories to us about what’s happening in your community. You can email us at stories@democracynow.org.

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