Sigh! It’s not the first time I’ve noted how even my good ideas can be “corrupted” for quite different purposes than intended. It’s the story of many of the political ideals I still hold to. Small schools were a tool, not an end. So was the idea of requiring a super-majority in the Senate a way to prevent the majority from railroading the minority. So too, I guess, is democracy itself. We can all bemoan it at times.
A colleague from whom I learnt so much died recently, Seymour Sarason. He always thought I was too naïve, but he never tried to discourage me. I will miss his encouragement.
Two of my favorite ideas: small schools and choice – have become bywords of reform, backed by millions and millions of dollars and the power of the city, state and federal government. As “the grandmother” (or so I am often introduced) of the small schools movement, I should be overjoyed. As the author of an article in The Nation magazine in 1991 called Choice Can Save Public Education, why then aren’t I feeling proud? I was right, and wrong. Here’s my account.
My mistake was forgetting a puzzling fact. (In fact I gloated about it, as evidence that the twain can meet.) These two ideas became popular at a moment when the nation was moving to the right, not the left and when the idea that “the free market place” was the over-riding safeguard of our liberties held sway. I was right to take advantage of every crack that came along to do better for kids, and enjoy my work as well. But, as Sarason said, I was atypically (I claim) naïve. All in all, I don’t regret it. The “small-schoolers” made a difference, and still do, in the lives of many children and restored hope to many adults. That cannot be taken away. But…
My slogan in the 80s and 90s was not just small schools, not just schools of choice, but self-governing small schools of choice, democratic schools where most decisions were made at the place that family, teachers and students met. (Exceptions: issues pertaining to civil rights, health and financial integrity). Richard Rothstein in The Way Things Were reminds us that change has long been needed. We did not face a new educational crisis but just one more educational “opportunity” to rethink practices that have not served us well for a century and more. Change of the magnitude that I believed desirable (leave out necessary—who knows about that?) could not be mandated, I argued. They could not be brought to scale by either the logic of argument or the power of the State. A free people must freely change its mind. We could nudge, and we could set the odds in favor, but we cannot and should not override the opposition through mandates.
I believed, in hindsight maybe foolishly, that smallness was perhaps something however that could be mandated. That’s a fact—I did! Because, I argued, only in a small community of adults could the conversation that was needed take place; only face-to-face could teachers and parents explore their common goals, restore trust. To expect a weekend retreat in which 100 teachers and who knows how many parents will usefully come up with a mission or vision was absurd. Only in a small community could the trust needed be built, so that parents and teachers might ‘experiment” together on the young. . This isn’t to make guinea pigs out of the children—but to allow local committees to use what they know about their own children and students. But, as I used to remind parents, neither were their first born, and there’s some evidence that they turn out “best.” But, to make sure, I also urged, sufficient choice should exist so that all families would not need blind trust. Unfamiliar practices would expand as rapidly as the demand for them grew. (I too, am a free-marketer on many issues.)
I argued that only a small community could focus on the multitude of academic and social needs of the young while also educating them for democracy. Only a small community could dare take leaps—of faith. The balance of forces required frequent revision, we had to stop often to be sure we weren’t leaving some behind in our adult enthusiasms. We also needed external review to help us see what we otherwise might overlook, to restore needed balance. We said we’d do X, are we doing it? We said it would help us do Y, is it?
Starting with many short-lived storefront and freedom schools in the 60s, the exploration grew. Teacher centers blossomed around New York City, for example, run and operated by local colleges full of teacher-talk and experimenting together. Out of these grew programs on with physical sites, such as Lillian Weber’s Workshop Center at City College. We created small communities of teachers within existing schools which had permission to work together around a common corridor, across grade levels, with the support of their principals and assistance from the Workshop Center. (I was an advisor to such sites.).
Out of such programs grew essentially semi-“independent” public schools. Central Park East in East Harlem was one of a great many that came into being in the 70s under the leadership of Anthony Alvarado and Sy Fliegel. (Most were not recognized as real schools for 20 years, and were therefore led by teacher-directors not official principals.) Many teachers got excited at the idea that they could work differently without abandoning the public sector, that public did not have to mean mediocre and lockstep. As the idea took off, it seemed as though the genii could never be stuffed back into the bottle.
We struggled with the idea of how voluntarism would work. We argued about whether such schools could be selective without doing harm to the idea itself, and to the children not selected. We argued about whether the choice was the school’s or the families’? We argued about how far we ought to be able to stray with public money. We proposed, in the early 90s, that we initiate (with Annenberg monies) a large-scale pilot of approximately 50,000 students with a 5-year mission to bring these ideas to scale, while Columbia University and New York University studied our work and an external body of critical friends and experts kept close touch with what was happening (responsible in the end to the Chancellor and the School Board.) The local teacher’s union waived virtually all the contract provisions to further this experiment, as did our then chancellor and the State Superintendent and our local NYC Board. We had everything ready to go, including financial support . And then…a new chancellor and a new state commissioner put an end to it. They did not see themselves as coming to office while their empire was taken apart—even gradually.
Although not followed through in New York, the ideas of small schools and choice was picked up by others. My joy that many a Big Business was also excited by our ideas gave me hope. My paranoiac antenna was overcome by the unlikely friendships the idea seemed to create. When charter schools began I saw them as an offshoot of our ideas. In fact one of the early high schools to break into smaller units was in Philadelphia and they called themselves charters. (See work by Michelle Fine.)
I never had illusions about the voucher idea—of free-market private schools paid for with public funds—which were being turned down in state after state. Charters, I assumed, would be thoroughly public, as in the East Harlem and Annenberg proposal. An example was Ted Sizer’s Parker School in Massachusetts, where for once he could try his ideas out as he had dreamed of them (modified by those who joined him). Friends all over the country got excited and I urged them on. Groups of teachers or parents with their own different ideas and willing to exploit themselves to make them work cropped up in many unlikely places. But so did similar public schools—in Boston, Chicago, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and on and on. I went on to Boston where a smaller scale model of our Annenberg proposal got under way—the Pilot School network.
Well, you all know what happened. Diane Ravitch. in her new book the Death and Life of the Great American School System. has laid it out pretty thoroughly, as have others. Charters became the favorite new toy of businesses and businessmen. Some hoped to make a profit off it, some hoped to find fame and glory, some just liked to be part of the latest fad. They saw testing as a way to relatively cheaply control their quality, and ward off regulators and monitors. They saw teachers and parents as buyers/clients/wage earners. The model was business—and maybe not the best of business at that, as some business reformers warned them.
The crisis talk, our economic shakiness all seemed a perfect backdrop for scaring people into forgetting about our age-old experiment in public education, an experiment that has been adopted throughout most of the world, above all in democracies.
We have installed new bureaucracies, we have recreated too many chain store schools. Decisions were made further and further from school folks. The charter schools themselves also grew larger to accommodate efficiency. In several cities the mayors decided to use them to unload their own “accountability” for public education and replace it with privately managed corporations. Maybe deliberately, maybe not. I’m hoping for the latter, and that they too will take a careful look at what they have created before we cross the line of—well I was going to say “no-return”, but actually history doesn’t end and if democracy remains a good idea, we will grow truly public schools again. And again.
If this privatization fails in the ways I suspect it will, it will have destroyed our public system; and it may be hard to put humpty-dumpty back again. That’s why we need to work very hard to retain the best examples of public education before even the memory of what it meant for us all to have a stake in each other’s children.
P.S. Mike & Susan Klonskly lay out an extended treatment of this issue in their book Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society