Saturday, December 18, 2004

Deborah Meier

Okay, so every time I write "more later" on this blog, later never happens. But my morning with Debbie Meier was awesome, so here goes. I have to write quickly; it's almost time to take my laundry out of the dryer!

My principal happened to have a ticket to an "Assistant Principal's Seminar" with Debbie Meier. Ms. Dean was too busy to go, so she sent me instead, knowing how much I admire Meier's work. It was partly to make sure the ticket (which was expensive) got used, and partly to reward my hard work in a way that would be particularly meaningful to me. That's one of the signs of a good organization: leaders find little incentives and surprises for their employees. It helps keep morale up and promotes an environment of constant learning.

The seminar was at the Ethical Culture Society, in a beautiful wood-paneled room. Meier began speaking and it was instantly clear that she is a firebrand. She founded the Central Park East Schools in East Harlem, demonstrating dramatically that innovative, progressive methods of education could work well for kids from minority backgrounds and low-income families. Since leaving the CPE schools, she has gone on to do many other things, including starting the Mission Hill school in Boston and working on the editorial board of the Nation and several other important magazines. She very recently retired from Mission Hill.

The main idea of her talk on Thursday was that the purpose of public education is to prepare students to become participants in our democratic society, citizens who are critical and questioning, who can see things from multiple viewpoints, who can distinguish things that matter from those that do not, who practice the "habits of mind" that were central to everything they did at Central Park East and since.

1. Evidence: How do we know what's true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us?

2. Viewpoint: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectations?

3. Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?

4. Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that? What if?

5. Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?

She talked about the ways that education policy today demands that students, teachers, and administrators be compliant, unquestioning, undemocratic. She asked us to think about when to resist, when to compromise, and when to agree or go along with the changes in education. And thus started a lively and emotional discussion, with far more questions asked than answers given.

One AP from the School of the Future stood up and very emotionally described her school's graduation requirements, which are based on those created at Central Park East. The students present work to a panel of teachers, students, parents, etc., attempting to demonstrate that they have mastered the content and kinds of thinking important to that field. These presentations can be a very rigorous requirement; Meier said that at times at CPE, 50% of the students have not passed and have had to go back and do more work and try presenting again. For several years, the School of the Future had been exempt from some of the Regents requirements because this alternative assessment was accepted in its place (if I understand the AP's comments correctly). Her students had voluntarily boycotted many exams that they were not exempt from - this was an individual or family decision, not something the school forced on the students. Now, however, her students are required to take and pass all the Regents exams in order to graduate with a Regents diploma - key for college admissions, etc. - and her teachers feel increased pressure to spend time prepping them for the Regents rather than helping them prepare their portfolio work. She said that fifty of her students and their parents and teachers were in Albany that day, protesting the exams; they believe that they have an alternative system in place that should be honored as rigorous and as promoting creative and critical thinking rather than the memorization of facts. Her question was, where is the line in the sand? How does a high school student decide whether to put his or her future on the line by boycotting a test, or take the test which they don't believe accurately assesses their knowledge and skills and, in fact, takes time away from the education they wish to receive?

Well... I'm going to leave you with that story. I've been working on this post all weekend and must go to bed soon! (The laundry mentioned in the first paragraph was finished Saturday morning...).


Blogger Just Surfing said...

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7:22 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Dear V,

My granddaughter and I were looking at my google hits and found your letter from 2004. How nice!

I think School of the Future is one of the schools that eventually won its battle with the state. But mostly we're losing.

How're you doing?

Best, Deborah,

4:22 PM  

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