September: These Schools Belong to You and Me by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi

Students should want to go to school — learning is fun, interesting, and natural— but the more we accept our place under the dictatorial rule of standardized, government orders, the less our students will subscribe.


15 min read
September: These Schools Belong to You and Me by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi

Students should want to go to school — learning is fun, interesting, and natural— but the more we accept our place under the dictatorial rule of standardized, government orders, the less our students will subscribe. In These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, renowned progressive educator Deborah Meier and professor, as well as current D.C. Education State Board candidate, Emily Gasoi present not only a hopeful, backed argument for public education, but fundamental structural changes that almost any school would benefit from.

Meier and Gasoi speak through part-memoir, part-school reform — engaging in a discussion that guides from Meier’s start as an elementary school teacher, to organizing her first “mini-school”, to reforming Central Park East Elementary/High (with Gasoi), and onward. Throughout, we are shown the immense benefits of public education and how we can do better.

Meier’s primary focus is to institute democratic schoolsa place where students, parents, community members, and staff are intertwined in a learning community, each having an important voice. Rather than prescribing a mandated, expensive tool for solving society’s ailes, Meier and Gasoi share a systematic framework that could apply to any school, anywhere.

Democratic schools are defined as:

  1. Small — very small — institutions. It’s possible to have unique voices. If schools are large, they would be divided into “mini schools” where groups of teachers/students are seen as one unit.
  2. Autonomous. Teachers have the freedom to make strategic decisions in their classroom and at the school level.
  3. Closely connected with families. They’re not only respected, but invited into the learning process.
  4. Choice. If possible, students would choose to go there. (Notably, this is not the same as voucher programs or the expanding for-profit charter movement.)

Before describing how these schools look in practice, Meier and Gasoi show their journey to this line of thinking. As an elementary school teacher, Meier used to ask students why they went to school, and the answers shocked her: “‘To learn to raise your hand’, ‘to take your tune,’ ‘to line up,’ ‘to be quiet when the teacher is talking.’” Essentially, to be “well-behaved.” She explains,

Regardless of the content of the lessons we intend to teach, these superficial ‘school moves’ — the ‘grammar of schooling’ — appear to be the dominant messages that many children internalize about the purpose of their twelve years of education.

In perhaps one of the best quotes from the book (and arguably in general) on the transformation of public schools, Meier states,

“These blunt words may seem surprising coming from a lifelong educator, but I assert that schooling, as it exists in most traditional settings, is fundamentally the legally enforced removal of children’s personal liberty for five to six hours a day, 185 days each year. Why has the enduring classroom norm been to keep lively, vital youngsters sitting still at desks for twelve to fifteen years no matter what their interests and inclinations? Most inexplicably, why have so many of the most popular charter franchises designed specifically to serve poor and minority students…used their autonomy to intensify a prison-like, zero-tolerance culture within their schools?”

At times, progressive voices have been conflated with wanting an alternative school movement — and many have charted their own course in lieu of the public system. This isn’t necessarily because they want to dismantle public education (although it is true for some), rather they want a radical transformation of what lies within. For some, this is doing everything that exists better — e.g. buying the latest tech tools, being very passionate about subject matter, or making improved formal assessments. However, Meier’s argument gets to the core of what public education needs: a complete, radical shift that treats students differently, fundamentally reworks the goals of the education system, and changes the dynamics between all those involved.

And of course, given the title of the book, Meier is a staunch defender of the public education system. One can be critical of the system while still promoting its necessity:

“…there are, of course, good reasons for instituting free, compulsory schooling. All societies educate a ruling class to be able to make important decisions not just for their individual self-interests but ostensibly in the interest of the larger society over which they rule. When all citizens are members of the ruling class, then all citizens need to be educated to meet their own self-interests and the interests of society as a whole. Of course, throughout history, few democracies have extended citizenship to all their inhabitants, and the United States is no exception.”

Both Meier and Gosai have worked almost entirely in low-income schools and consistently invoke the need for equitable reform. This isn’t a change that only affects the suburbs. Both are concerned that progressive education methods — experiential learning, democratic education, and more — are increasingly seen (or enforced) as an upper-class endeavor. Montessori, Steiner, and Dewey schools are often synonymous with ridiculous tuition rates, even though they used to be aimed for all. In their place, for-profit charters have exploited inner-city populations — playing off their fears and stereotypes of behavior. Meier notes,

“…preparedness involves (as college readiness often does today) feeding poor minority students a stripped-down curriculum of rote facts, basic skills, and middle-class social norms that richer peers are assumed to pick up naturally. Somehow, the kind of sophisticated, experiential education that children who attend progressive private schools experienced was considered risky for poor minority children. One has to wonder if it is not considered risky by some (namely, the privileged elite) to educate everyone to feel entitled to a seat at the table and a say in what is ‘served.’”

Therefore, democratic schools are for everyone — they’re to empower and provide authentic voice to all participants, regardless of background. With this power, students are active members of their community and can take charge of their education. Put succinctly,

“…schooling for democracy guides children to discover and develop their individual passions and strengths, while also enhancing their sense of belonging and responsibility to the greater society.”

Democratic schools aren’t a standardized process that one plasters on a school wall — they’re co-developed frameworks by the entire school. However, there are plenty of ideas provided by These Schools Belong to You and Me:

  • Meetings are almost entirely held in common spaces so that students can see their teachers who engage in democratic practice.
  • Staff is given real power on decision making and ultimately have say in school rules and procedures.
  • Students have a voice in school policy. In Meier and Gasoi’s schools, an advisory period serves as time for critical feedback and reflection.
  • Nothing is standardized or mandated — through creative ways, testing and curriculum standards are minimized.
  • Communication is open and constant with families.

As one can see, almost everything surrounds a transparent, welcoming environment. Instead of schools forcibly assigning labels (through grades, discipline, and curricula), they are a place for growth, fostering a collective of learners. Most schools would not fit Meier’s assertion of a core democratic idea:

“If you want to know whether a school is a proving ground for democracy, look at who within its walls has the time to think about the school as a whole and who has the power to weigh in on matters both critical and small. My litmus test always considers the effect a school’s organization has on its various constituents’ sense of power and respect. Do constituents think they have a say in the life of the school?

Many educators are dismayed by closed door meetings, never seeing administration, or being forced to teach seemingly random state ideas or the latest trend in professional development. Coupled with standardized testing and a growing concern for “college-ready” students, schools are opting for going “back to basics” — code for doubling down on outdated, traditional practice, drilling a lifeless classroom. As explained,

“…when under pressure (which is often, in school settings), we humans are likely to drop our democratic ideals in favor of ‘doing what we have to do.’ Adversity may bring out the best in some, but history has taught us that the habits of democracy are often the very ones we abandon under stress.”

Fear of failure, reprimand, and termination keeps educators from accepting new ideas. Pressure from all sides ensures difficulty in true innovation. Meier is all too familiar when she suggests the following:

“Early in my teaching career, my colleagues taught me the art of ’creative noncompliance’, a form of resistance that involved deflection and, yes, a level of dishonesty in which I always regretted having to engage. But I argue that teaching without exercising judgement is not truly teaching…, and it is impossible to exercise sound, responsive judgment while also, for example, obediently following a canned curriculum, a mandated pacing guide, or a prescribed mode of instruction.”

Meier highlights this when she was assigned to teach a unit on Los Angeles and Tokyo — a confusing unit as her school was in Chicago. Instead, she replaced Los Angeles with Chicago and by happenstance, the Chicago Central District Office appeared unannounced and were horrified. They pulled her into the hallway — they argued — and was promptly scolded. Meier’s colleagues offered her first taste of “creative noncompliance”: don’t argue — instead, act confused as if you had no idea, apologize, then essentially ignore them.

Of course, for change to occur in the public system, rebellion is necessary — we need voices willing to stick up for students and not run away at the smallest setback. Together, educators with this same line of thinking would change the game. It’s easier said than done, however. Emily Gasoi reflects on her experiences as a teacher under Meier’s administration, helping set up the newly philosophized Central Park East. Teachers met for hours over the summer, planning an interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum with overwhelming student engagement. As often is the case, teachers fell back to their training and “view of school as it should be.” Despite their planning, the execution was essentially a “good” traditional school. Meier visited Gasoi’s classroom at the beginning of the year:

“…she expressed frustration that it was often difficult to engage one another in critical feedback. She explained that if we were to have a democratically governed school, then we all had to be open to questioning one another, especially concerning matters we didn’t understand or with which we disagreed.”

If learning is a social endeavor —then students aren’t the only ones sharing and accepting critical feedback. Teachers must be comfortable with feedback from their peers and constantly improving — they mustn’t equate safety with never having someone observe them, observation should be a positive moment for discourse. This connectivity is core to the entire system working — again, it’s all about transparency. Gasoi highlights,

“Deb envisioned a setting in which communication would support the cultivation of tight-knit relationships among members of the school community: teachers would know every child by name and feel a sense of responsibility, not only for the students in their classroom but for every individual in the school; all families should feel a strong connection with at least one staff member; and staff would share practices on a regular basis and feel part of a supportive professional community.”

We need a change that ensures public schools are for all of us — not by accepting the system but by revolutionizing from within. By doing the minimum amount required of poor practice (usually handed down from the government) and maximizing community interaction and what educators, families, and students want — we would reimagine and revitalize. Public schools are necessary, but many of their practices hurt rather than heal — These Schools Belong to You and Me provides an essential critique paired with an inspirational message that any educator would benefit from.Students should want to go to school — learning is fun, interesting, and natural— but the more we accept our place under the dictatorial rule of standardized, government orders, the less our students will subscribe. In These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, renowned progressive educator Deborah Meier and professor, as well as current D.C. Education State Board candidate, Emily Gasoi present not only a hopeful, backed argument for public education, but fundamental structural changes that almost any school would benefit from.

Meier and Gasoi speak through part-memoir, part-school reform — engaging in a discussion that guides from Meier’s start as an elementary school teacher, to organizing her first “mini-school”, to reforming Central Park East Elementary/High (with Gasoi), and onward. Throughout, we are shown the immense benefits of public education and how we can do better.

Meier’s primary focus is to institute democratic schoolsa place where students, parents, community members, and staff are intertwined in a learning community, each having an important voice. Rather than prescribing a mandated, expensive tool for solving society’s ailes, Meier and Gasoi share a systematic framework that could apply to any school, anywhere.

Democratic schools are defined as:

  1. Small — very small — institutions. It’s possible to have unique voices. If schools are large, they would be divided into “mini schools” where groups of teachers/students are seen as one unit.
  2. Autonomous. Teachers have the freedom to make strategic decisions in their classroom and at the school level.
  3. Closely connected with families. They’re not only respected, but invited into the learning process.
  4. Choice. If possible, students would choose to go there. (Notably, this is not the same as voucher programs or the expanding for-profit charter movement.)

Before describing how these schools look in practice, Meier and Gasoi show their journey to this line of thinking. As an elementary school teacher, Meier used to ask students why they went to school, and the answers shocked her: “‘To learn to raise your hand’, ‘to take your tune,’ ‘to line up,’ ‘to be quiet when the teacher is talking.’” Essentially, to be “well-behaved.” She explains,

Regardless of the content of the lessons we intend to teach, these superficial ‘school moves’ — the ‘grammar of schooling’ — appear to be the dominant messages that many children internalize about the purpose of their twelve years of education.

In perhaps one of the best quotes from the book (and arguably in general) on the transformation of public schools, Meier states,

“These blunt words may seem surprising coming from a lifelong educator, but I assert that schooling, as it exists in most traditional settings, is fundamentally the legally enforced removal of children’s personal liberty for five to six hours a day, 185 days each year. Why has the enduring classroom norm been to keep lively, vital youngsters sitting still at desks for twelve to fifteen years no matter what their interests and inclinations? Most inexplicably, why have so many of the most popular charter franchises designed specifically to serve poor and minority students…used their autonomy to intensify a prison-like, zero-tolerance culture within their schools?”

At times, progressive voices have been conflated with wanting an alternative school movement — and many have charted their own course in lieu of the public system. This isn’t necessarily because they want to dismantle public education (although it is true for some), rather they want a radical transformation of what lies within. For some, this is doing everything that exists better — e.g. buying the latest tech tools, being very passionate about subject matter, or making improved formal assessments. However, Meier’s argument gets to the core of what public education needs: a complete, radical shift that treats students differently, fundamentally reworks the goals of the education system, and changes the dynamics between all those involved.

And of course, given the title of the book, Meier is a staunch defender of the public education system. One can be critical of the system while still promoting its necessity:

“…there are, of course, good reasons for instituting free, compulsory schooling. All societies educate a ruling class to be able to make important decisions not just for their individual self-interests but ostensibly in the interest of the larger society over which they rule. When all citizens are members of the ruling class, then all citizens need to be educated to meet their own self-interests and the interests of society as a whole. Of course, throughout history, few democracies have extended citizenship to all their inhabitants, and the United States is no exception.”

Both Meier and Gosai have worked almost entirely in low-income schools and consistently invoke the need for equitable reform. This isn’t a change that only affects the suburbs. Both are concerned that progressive education methods — experiential learning, democratic education, and more — are increasingly seen (or enforced) as an upper-class endeavor. Montessori, Steiner, and Dewey schools are often synonymous with ridiculous tuition rates, even though they used to be aimed for all. In their place, for-profit charters have exploited inner-city populations — playing off their fears and stereotypes of behavior. Meier notes,

“…preparedness involves (as college readiness often does today) feeding poor minority students a stripped-down curriculum of rote facts, basic skills, and middle-class social norms that richer peers are assumed to pick up naturally. Somehow, the kind of sophisticated, experiential education that children who attend progressive private schools experienced was considered risky for poor minority children. One has to wonder if it is not considered risky by some (namely, the privileged elite) to educate everyone to feel entitled to a seat at the table and a say in what is ‘served.’”

Therefore, democratic schools are for everyone — they’re to empower and provide authentic voice to all participants, regardless of background. With this power, students are active members of their community and can take charge of their education. Put succinctly,

“…schooling for democracy guides children to discover and develop their individual passions and strengths, while also enhancing their sense of belonging and responsibility to the greater society.”

Democratic schools aren’t a standardized process that one plasters on a school wall — they’re co-developed frameworks by the entire school. However, there are plenty of ideas provided by These Schools Belong to You and Me:

  • Meetings are almost entirely held in common spaces so that students can see their teachers who engage in democratic practice.
  • Staff is given real power on decision making and ultimately have say in school rules and procedures.
  • Students have a voice in school policy. In Meier and Gasoi’s schools, an advisory period serves as time for critical feedback and reflection.
  • Nothing is standardized or mandated — through creative ways, testing and curriculum standards are minimized.
  • Communication is open and constant with families.

As one can see, almost everything surrounds a transparent, welcoming environment. Instead of schools forcibly assigning labels (through grades, discipline, and curricula), they are a place for growth, fostering a collective of learners. Most schools would not fit Meier’s assertion of a core democratic idea:

“If you want to know whether a school is a proving ground for democracy, look at who within its walls has the time to think about the school as a whole and who has the power to weigh in on matters both critical and small. My litmus test always considers the effect a school’s organization has on its various constituents’ sense of power and respect. Do constituents think they have a say in the life of the school?

Many educators are dismayed by closed door meetings, never seeing administration, or being forced to teach seemingly random state ideas or the latest trend in professional development. Coupled with standardized testing and a growing concern for “college-ready” students, schools are opting for going “back to basics” — code for doubling down on outdated, traditional practice, drilling a lifeless classroom. As explained,

“…when under pressure (which is often, in school settings), we humans are likely to drop our democratic ideals in favor of ‘doing what we have to do.’ Adversity may bring out the best in some, but history has taught us that the habits of democracy are often the very ones we abandon under stress.”

Fear of failure, reprimand, and termination keeps educators from accepting new ideas. Pressure from all sides ensures difficulty in true innovation. Meier is all too familiar when she suggests the following:

“Early in my teaching career, my colleagues taught me the art of ’creative noncompliance’, a form of resistance that involved deflection and, yes, a level of dishonesty in which I always regretted having to engage. But I argue that teaching without exercising judgement is not truly teaching…, and it is impossible to exercise sound, responsive judgment while also, for example, obediently following a canned curriculum, a mandated pacing guide, or a prescribed mode of instruction.”

Meier highlights this when she was assigned to teach a unit on Los Angeles and Tokyo — a confusing unit as her school was in Chicago. Instead, she replaced Los Angeles with Chicago and by happenstance, the Chicago Central District Office appeared unannounced and were horrified. They pulled her into the hallway — they argued — and was promptly scolded. Meier’s colleagues offered her first taste of “creative noncompliance”: don’t argue — instead, act confused as if you had no idea, apologize, then essentially ignore them.

Of course, for change to occur in the public system, rebellion is necessary — we need voices willing to stick up for students and not run away at the smallest setback. Together, educators with this same line of thinking would change the game. It’s easier said than done, however. Emily Gasoi reflects on her experiences as a teacher under Meier’s administration, helping set up the newly philosophized Central Park East. Teachers met for hours over the summer, planning an interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum with overwhelming student engagement. As often is the case, teachers fell back to their training and “view of school as it should be.” Despite their planning, the execution was essentially a “good” traditional school. Meier visited Gasoi’s classroom at the beginning of the year:

“…she expressed frustration that it was often difficult to engage one another in critical feedback. She explained that if we were to have a democratically governed school, then we all had to be open to questioning one another, especially concerning matters we didn’t understand or with which we disagreed.”

If learning is a social endeavor —then students aren’t the only ones sharing and accepting critical feedback. Teachers must be comfortable with feedback from their peers and constantly improving — they mustn’t equate safety with never having someone observe them, observation should be a positive moment for discourse. This connectivity is core to the entire system working — again, it’s all about transparency. Gasoi highlights,

“Deb envisioned a setting in which communication would support the cultivation of tight-knit relationships among members of the school community: teachers would know every child by name and feel a sense of responsibility, not only for the students in their classroom but for every individual in the school; all families should feel a strong connection with at least one staff member; and staff would share practices on a regular basis and feel part of a supportive professional community.”

We need a change that ensures public schools are for all of us — not by accepting the system but by revolutionizing from within. By doing the minimum amount required of poor practice (usually handed down from the government) and maximizing community interaction and what educators, families, and students want — we would reimagine and revitalize. Public schools are necessary, but many of their practices hurt rather than heal — These Schools Belong to You and Me provides an essential critique paired with an inspirational message that any educator would benefit from.

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