Schools for Democracy – Deborah Meier

Deborah Democracy

I’d like to share some insightful observations from one of the “real” pioneers in education reform, Deborah Meier. In this presentation she made in Chicago, from 2006, Dr. Meier talks about how most of America’s schools function as authoritarian institutions, where democracy and collaboration are neither practiced, taught, experienced or modeled.

This is a huge failing of our nation, because in order for children to truly understand democracy they need real life opportunities to observe and apply it. Dr. Meier’s insights are aligned with the ideas of progressive educators such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori, as well as the research of Barbara Rogoff, and the theories of Lev Vygotsky, about the role of apprenticeship experiences, adult modeling and scaffolding with children’s learning.

In another presentation, she said:

“The motives of the drivers behind NCLB—which fixes in law our misplaced obsessions—vary, but between them they have helped create a climate that removes democracy from our schoolhouses. Folks like us who advocate a different kind of childhood are on occasion labeled elitist, failing to confront the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged that requires that we throw overboard the frills of childhood along with the frills of local democracy.

“The” poor need, our critics argue, something different—something more akin to a boot camp with a boot camp approach to intellectual skill and authority. And to this end, they say, we must cut out our romantic love affair with local democracy.”

I would argue that Dr. Meier’s ideas are not romantic, and that designing schools for democracy is an idea whose time has come. It’s also something that is backed up with real research evidence, and has already been successfully implemented in many places.

A few months ago, in the New York Times article Make Schools a Democracy, UC Berkeley Prof. David Kirp described how the Escuela Nueva (New School) model has been flourishing in thousands of Columbian and Latin American schools for decades:

“Escuela Nueva turns the schoolhouse into a laboratory for democracy. Rather than being run as a mini-dictatorship, with the principal as its unquestioned leader, the school operates as a self-governing community, where teachers, parents and students have a real say in how it is run. When teachers unfamiliar with this approach are assigned to these schools, it’s often the students themselves who teach them how to apply the method. “In these schools, citizenship isn’t abstract theory,” Ms. Colbert told me. “It’s daily practice.”

Can you imagine that? Schools exist where teachers unfamiliar with collaborative and democratic approaches are taught by their students.

The success of the New School model shows that John Dewey’s dream of educating for democracy can be implemented successfully, even with children from poor and supposedly “less educated” communities. A similar approach is taken in the Mission Hill School that Deborah Meier founded in 1997.

As shown in this video below, at Mission Hill, teachers collaborate with one another and with students. Democracy is modeled and experienced, learning is hands on, creative, enjoyable, playful and exploratory.

What current so-called “education reforms” ignore is that the authoritarian social dynamics of most public and charter schools is miseducating children, in very destructive ways. They were designed this way, as John Taylor Gatto has explained, over a century ago, as factory-like institutions that teach children obedience and conformity, training them to study boring things, do as you are told and complete designated tasks on time.

What we know now is that schools do not have to be this way. More thoughts from Deborah Meier:

“The current focus on narrowly defined “academics”—starting more or less at birth is, I would argue, a frill. Likewise the current test-oriented approach to defining “academic” deprives the least powerful of precisely what academia at its best offers: the ability to use one’s mind agilely, freely and with the utmost self-discipline.

That cannot happen in settings in which everything that young people (and incidentally their teachers) have a natural curiosity about that appeals to their enthusiasms for challenge and risk-taking is labeled a frill where uncertainty doesn’t fit the multiple-choice format.

It cannot happen if children’s thirst for independence is called fluff. If their hands-on delight with real craftsmanship and real entrepreneurship are no-no’s! Too time-consuming, Untestable!

The ending of recess, the ignoring of arts and crafts, of shop and music— are signs of peril—Peril to human intellect, and grandiose as this will sound: threats to democracy which rests on both intellectual skepticism and empathy—the two underpinnings as well of play. Yes that’s what play is all about!

If our purpose is to prepare a generation of citizens equipped to respond skillfully to difficult and complex and, above all, novel situations-it won’t do. Focusing on test scores is the wrong prescription. It cannot and does not respond to what either academia, democracy, or in fact, a healthy economy requires of its members.

Even if tests were far better than they were—and in fact they are appallingly limited at even measuring important skills or knowledge—and likely to get worse in our rush to multiply more and more of them–such a focus betray their best potential.

If learning to weigh decisions and consider trade-offs, to take into account not only one’s immediate interests but long term ones, and not only one’s own community but the nation and even the planet, if taking initiative and risks, of working well with others, if speaking clearly, if meeting deadlines and accepting responsibility count—and on and on; than we need an alternative because none of the above don’t count a whit on the tests our kids are now subjected to.

America’s prominence in science and technology was built upon America’s perennial respect for imagination and the practical arts. To preserve it we have to tamp our enthusiasm for text-based-learning as the only source of achievement or competence. It doesn’t work. No wonder my contractor in upstate NY complains that he hires graduates who passed the math test but don’t know how to use a ruler.

The best schools keep their eye on the prize—the kids—not just whether they are pleasing higher civil authorities. They see the job of adults as one of nurturing intelligence and empathy, openness to the world, while cherishing their children’s uniqueness. They stay close to families, and see teachers and parents as allies not adversaries.

Schools for democracy are quintessentially always an act of collaboration with families and communities… an expression of the grassroots vitality and ingenuity that has always made our nation great…”

Text source: Democracy & Education – Thoughts by Deb Meier


“For those who don’t know her work, Deborah Meier is one of the most important people in the education field.  She founded Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, which demonstrated that one could teach children from economically poor backgrounds in an human and progressive fashion and still have them succeed.  She later founded a progressive charter school in Boston named after Francis Parker, one of the giants of the progressive education movement.  Both of these are members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which is founded upon the principles of Theodore Sizer. Now she is, along with George Wood and others, one of the Conveners of The Forum for Education and Democracy.  It was at a May 20 town meeting of the forum that Meier gavethe remarks on which this diary is based.” ~teacherken, 2006

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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