One expert’s opinion: We need to reconnect the public with public schools

iStock_000021006935XSmallAmericans need to make public education a public enterprise, asserts Deborah Meier. Meier is known for her leadership of a successful public school in Harlem, which she described in her book “The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem.”

Meier reports that in 1930 there were 200,000 school boards in the United States. Today, with twice as many citizens and three times as many students in our public schools, there are only 15,000. At one time, one of every 500 citizens sat on a school board; today it’s one in 20,000. Once, most people knew a school board member personally; today it is rare to know one.

Meier believes that this shrinkage in public participation in school governance is an enormous loss for our children’s learning and their relationship to the adult world. And she believes it is at the heart of what’s gone wrong with education and what must be changed.

The demise of small school districts parallels the demise of small schools and this has led, in her opinion, to the disconnect between young people and adults, between youth culture and adult culture. Big schools and districts were often seen as a way of enlarging young people’s exposure to a wider range of academic offerings, greater expertise and more specialized programs.

Small schools could not offer the kinds libraries, science labs, sports programs, or foreign-language and advanced-placement options that are possible in large schools. New state and federal mandates also created compliance problems for small districts. reports, however, that the costs of larger schools and districts were not foreseen. Consolidation and centralization created new problems.

Citizenship requires that individuals learn what it means to be a member of something. Youth today, Meier writes, have little experience of being members of anything other than their own family and self-chosen peer group. Instead of expanding their sense of membership in the world, larger schools destroy their feeling of community. Consolidation did not achieve other hoped-for outcomes, such as greater ethnic, racial and social class diversity.

Within large schools, kids have recreated their groups of look-alike peers. By the time they are adolescents, children are largely cut off from relationships with adults outside their immediate families and put in a world designed for them by strangers. And it doesn’t save money – the cost per graduate is less in small schools. Meier points out that with today’s advances in technology, small schools are no longer in danger of being isolated from the larger world.

Good schools, she says, can prosper only in communities that trust them, educators and citizens need to work to make schools trustworthy. Schools need to be transparent to their communities, their leaders need to be people we know, and we should be able to track the progress of children in our community.

Meier believes that trust among school boards, schools and the public can be established by multiplying the number of districts. She recommends that school boards have authority over no more than 2,500 students and no more than 10 schools. Trust in schools can’t grow unless principals, parents, teachers and children know each other well and their work is visible to the community. Meier is currently co-principal of the Mission Hill School, a K-8 public school in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Its school board is made up of five parents, five educators, five members of the public chosen jointly and two students. She reports that while the Boston School Committee has ultimate power, the board makes important policy, budget and personnel decisions.

Meier says states can set broad guidelines and demand that schools make their standards explicit and evidence of performance publicly accessible. But each local board should be responsible for the details, including exactly how schools are held accountable to their constituents. The state might reasonably require that sample populations of students be tested to look at indicators across districts, and it could require schools to submit to a review of their work by a panel of outside experts every few years, with the analysis being made public.

Democracy is messy, Meier says, but it is the only way to reconnect the public with public education. Our students will benefit from closing the gap between the children and adults in each community. There are no shortcuts to rebuilding trust in our schools and it will only happen with the local voice of parents and citizens. Smaller school districts can lead to more information and greater trust between schools, citizens and students.

“The Road to Trust”, American School Board Journal, Volume 190, Number 9, September 2003, pp. 18-25.

Published in ERN October 2003 Volume 16 Number 7

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