Review: These Schools Belong to You and Me

These schools

These Schools Belong to You and MeDeborah Meier and Emily Gasoi. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Summary: An argument for public schools where democracy is not simply taught but practiced by including teachers, students, and parents, as well as administrators as active participants in the educational process.

It might be argued that both public schools and democracy are under serious attack in this country. Political figures including the president and current Secretary of Education have argued for at least reducing and displacing public schools by private enterprise charter schools as more efficient education delivery systems.

The co-authors of this new book, defending the idea of democratically run public schools, argue that one of the reasons we seem to be inclined to democratically elect leaders with autocratic tendencies is that, while we may formally teach democracy in our schools, the practices that shape public education are top down and autocratic in practice, and this is what students really learn. Their rejoinder to the criticism of public schools and the rise of privatization is to offer an extended argument based on actual successes of democratically operated public schools where teachers, students, and parents all have an active role in shaping the educational experience.

Deborah Meier has been a leader in educational reform for nearly fifty years, starting a number of democratically organized schools around the country, especially in New York City. She was the founding principal of Mission Hill School in Boston, where Emily Gasoi was hired as one of the founding teachers of the school. The co-authors take turns contributing chapters of the book, with Emily Gasoi introducing the book and Deborah Meier concluding it. In these openings and closings Gasoi and Meier argue passionately for public schools as a treasure all of us should care for, especially if we care about equity among different classes and ethnic groups in society. And they argue that the best way to educate citizens to sustain a democracy is to practice it in the schools.

In the body of the Meier tends to speak to the bigger picture issues and the history of her involvement in education reform, from her initial experiences as a substitute teacher in South Chicago, her efforts in Harlem and other parts of New York to found democratically run schools, and her role at Mission Hill School, including the tension between being an education leader with so much experience, and giving teachers, students and parents a real voice in shaping the schools.

Gasoi describes her own conversion to democratic practice and how this changed her own educational practice as she learned how to teach an integrated, project-based curriculum instead of discrete subjects. She goes in depth in how students determine the particular focus of projects, integrate different subject areas into their research, and cultivate communication and presentation skills as they share their work with parents and the local community.

Together, the two of them take on the “accountability” movement which has teachers teaching to the assessment tests. They point to the Mission Hill example that focuses on depth rather than breadth of coverage, that teaches students how to learn where students do the work and teachers coach. Assessment involves the presentation and defense of an individualized portfolio, similar to a dissertation defense, rather than standardized tests. They express concern that privatized education may give parents “choice” but no real voice as they might have with a public school in their neighborhood.

It seems in our public discourse, we only hear about the private option versus poorly performing public schools. These two educators represent a group whose voices are not being heard. They think there is a better form of accountability than the top down accountability of national and state politicians making ideologically shaped decisions about education. It is to give educators, parents, and the students themselves a real stake in shaping their schools. The truth that Gasoi and Meier don’t acknowledge is that this is what religious schools and the home school movement have been saying for years (perhaps because this also is perceived as a threat to public education).

Behind this is an “educators know best” attitude that cuts parents out of the picture. They acknowledge that in the Mission Hill model, they needed to learn how to better include parents’ voices. What they really are talking about is learning how to return democracy to the neighborhood, to local communities, rather than ceding control to state and federal governments. What they don’t answer is what happens when you don’t have the good school leadership and community buy-in that was apparent at Mission Hill. Nor do they deal with the inequities of the funding models of schools and the dependency on state and federal funding to mitigate these inequities, and the corollary that with control of the purse strings come expectations of accountability.

What they do show is that there are a number of committed public educators out there who care for students, who care for quality education, and who should not be an “excluded middle” in the discussion of the future of public primary and secondary education in this country. These are people who have a proven track record of educational excellence. Both I and my son benefited greatly from such educators. If we care about the future of education and the future of our democracy, it seems we must also listen to people like Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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