How Our Schools Could Be

Standards, Top-Down Mandates, and Grass-Roots Communities

By Deborah Meier

Lasting education reform must rest on the creation and sustenance of self-governing learning

We stand poised between alternate ways of imagining the schools of tomorrow. The tough part is that to some extent each of these ways is often espoused by some of the same people, and teachers and citizens alike are led to believe that they can both be carried out simultaneously. Or people try to weave in and out of each, with the result that they end up never decisively setting course.

The two that interest me most are, not surprisingly, often seen as close cousins. This is due to the fact that they are both espoused by people who come out of a similar tradition — progressive and liberal-minded. The kinds of schools they’d both probably like to see are, indeed, in some ways quite similar, with a focus on critical inquiry, curriculum depth, and collaboration and a downplaying of multiple-choice testing, rote memorization, and highly competitive classrooms.

What they disagree about is how to get there, and as a corollary to this, what must be sacrificed for “later” in order to get there “sooner.” Faced with what may be a more imminent danger from the far right, it is tempting to forget these differences. But that would be a mistake because, in fact and despite their often complementary intentions, these two ways stand in chilling contrast to each other.

One way, the position of the supporters of Goals 2000 and, indeed, the entire standards-driven reform movement, rests on the assumption that top-down support for bottom-up change — which both positions are rhetorically for — means that the top will do the critical intellectual work of defining purposes and content as well as how to measure them, while the bottom does the “nuts and bolts,” the “how-to” — a sort of “men’s work” versus “women’s work” division of labor. This approach seeks a consensus of academic expertise and mainstream political correctness, reinforced by high-stakes testing to discipline unruly kids, teachers, and local school boards. (While it now tends toward a liberal/mainstream consensus, it’s worth noting that it’s an approach that could just as easily tilt toward a very different, radically right-wing political consensus.)

The Goals 2000 agenda and the state-mandated versions that are flowing from it, with their focus on measurable goals and standards and their vision set by international competition and the emerging global economy, are weighted down with the assumption that the task of school reform is far too important to leave the critical intellectual work to those responsible for implementing school practice. While much of the work emanating from the standard-setters is worthy, it cannot lead either to high-level intellectual work in our classrooms or to solving our global economic crisis.


There is another possible set of assumptions, based on a different vision of human capacity. This way of thinking leads to rejecting top-down reforms unless they are useful to the creation and sustenance of self-governing learning communities responsible for collaboratively and publicly deciding really important issues. The kind of education we want for our young requires schools that see themselves as membership communities, not service organizations. In such communities ideas are discussed, purposes argued about, and judgment exercised by parents, teachers, and students because that is at the heart of what it means to be well educated: having one’s own wonderful ideas. Students can’t learn, nor can the adults who must show them the way, unless they can practice what they preach.

At the moment, many political conservatives are also arguing against the creation of a national, standards-driven system. The trouble is not only that the political Right may support some rather horrendous locally driven standards, but also that they are also focused on eliminating the whole problem by abolishing public responsibility for all children’s education. They seek, in fact, the elimination of a public system of schooling and its replacement by a free market of private schools. Thus, while the opposition to the imposing of national standards is alive and well these days, those in opposition are not all of one mind. It would be unwise, however, to drop the argument just because of the sometimes unlikely alliances it has created. In fact, some of those who are attracted to the Right’s anti-federalist cause are motivated by many of the same concerns I have.

I’ve been told, during the past few years, that I’m ignoring the train that’s already left the station and is coming down the line, the “do-it-or-else” express. This new wave of the future, it is suggested, is not dependent on any central congressional bodies. (The power of the SATs or the Carnegie unit, for example, is not derived from any legislative act.) But if history is any guide, the kind of fast-track solutions being proposed

will often turn out to be expensive dead ends. Designed in heady conference centers, the blueprints are usually too unwieldy, covering everything but the kitchen sink, a patched-together consensus that satisfies no one, and finally just too susceptible to local resistance to produce what their architects had in mind.

One imagines a countermandate to the “all students will” dictums being invented by expert, university-based task forces: for example, how about insisting that standards be phased in only as fast as the school can bring its adult staff up to the standards it expects of all l8-year-olds? That might delay the train just a little.

We in New York have historically lived under the imposition of an awesome array of local and state curricular mandates and outcomes assessments. (Except for private schools, which were always free to ignore them and always have.) Every so often someone gets the idea to create still a new set, generally laid right on top of the old one, and then moves on to other things. New York teachers are experienced and inventive saboteurs of the best and worst of such plans. We are home, therefore, to some of the greatest as well as some of the worst of schools.

But an alternative to the Goals 2000 approach that rests squarely on a strong system of public schooling and a commitment to democracy is gathering surprising national momentum. The movement to empower teachers with the capacity to make professional judgments and the creation of small schools in which parents, teachers, and community can work closely together are two of the promising developments that may undermine the top-down plans.

We also have some hard-headed real history of school reform to point to, on a scale that should make it hard to dismiss this “other” way as suitable only for the brave and foolish, the maverick, and the exceptional. It’s no longer “alternative,” but almost mainstream.

When a handful of like-minded teachers in East Harlem’s Community School District Four started a “progressive,” “open education” elementary school — Central Park East — in 1974, we were encouraged by the then district superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, to pay little heed to rules and regulations. We were told to create the kind of school we believed would work for the children of District Four. This revolutionary autonomy, referred to locally as “creative compliance” or “creative noncompliance,” was simply doing publicly and collaboratively what many of us had long done behind closed doors.

Central Park East (CPE), along with more than 30 other small schools of choice begun by District Four over the next 10 years, was and remains an amazing success story. We lived a somewhat lonely existence for a decade, but today both the CPE schools and the District “way” have been roughly replicated in dozens of New York City school districts and are now part of accepted citywide reform plans. What they share is a way of looking at children reminiscent of good kindergarten practice. Put another way, they are based on what we know about how human beings learn as well as a deep-seated respect for all of the parties involved — parents, teachers, and kids.


Kindergarten is the one place — for many children maybe the last place — where such mutual respect has been a traditional norm (even if not always practiced). A kindergarten teacher, for example, is expected to know children well, even if they don’t hand in their homework, finish their Friday tests, or pay attention. Kindergarten teachers know that learning must be personalized, just because kids come that way — no two alike. They know that parents and the community must be partners, or kids will be shortchanged. Kindergarten teachers know that helping children learn to become more self-reliant is part of their job definition — starting with tying shoes and going to the bathroom on their own.

Alas, it is the last time children are given such independence, encouraged to make choices, and allowed to move about on their own. Having learned to use the bathroom by themselves at age five, at age six they are then required to wait until the whole class lines up at bathroom time. In kindergarten, parent and teacher meet to talk and often have each other’s phone numbers. After that it’s mainly a checklist of numbers and letters. The older they get, the less we take into account the importance of their own interests, their own active learning.

In kindergarten we design our rooms for real work, not just passive listening. We put things in the room that we have reason to believe will appeal to children, grab their interests, and engage their minds and hearts. Teachers in kindergarten are editors, critics, cheerleaders, and caretakers, not just lecturers or deliverers of instruction. What Ted Sizer calls “coaching” is second nature to the kindergarten teacher, who takes for granted that her job description includes curriculum as well as natural ongoing assessment. What’s true for students is true for teachers: they have less and less authority, responsibility, and independence as their charges get older. Until, of course, they make it into an elite college or graduate school. Then both teachers and students go back into kindergarten.

Indeed, it was Ted Sizer who, when he came to visit our school, pointed out to us that the kindergarten principles of Central Park East were the same principles he was espousing for the nation’s high schools. So we made the decision to see if we could use the principles of a good kindergarten as the basis for running a good high school. We opened Central Park East Secondary School in 1985 with a seventh grade and grew one grade each year thereafter.

One thing we very much wanted was to break away from the contemporary mode of breaking everything down into discrete bits and pieces — whether subject matter or “thinking skills.” We were determined to keep the elementary school tradition of respect for the wholeness of both subject matter and human learning intact.

Another priority for us was creating a setting in which all members of the community were expected to engage in the discussion of ideas and in the “having of [their own] wonderful ideas,” as Eleanor Duckworth has put it (Duckworth, 1987). Indeed, one of our most prominently stated, upfront aims was the cultivation of what we came to call “habits of mind,” habits that apply to all academic and nonacademic subject matter and to all thoughtful human activities.

The five habits we came up with are not exhaustive, but they suggest the kind of questions that we believed a well-educated person raises about his world:

  1. How do we know what we think we know? What’s our evidence? How credible is it?
  2. Whose viewpoint are we hearing, reading, seeing? What other viewpoints might there be if we changed our position?
  3. How is one thing connected to another? Is there a pattern here?
  4. How else might it have been? What if? Supposing that?
  5. What difference does it make? Who cares?


Proud as we are of these schools, we do not see what we do as the “one best or only way” to educate children. As Seymour Fliegel, a former deputy superintendent in Community District Four, has put it:

“The aim here has been to create a system that — instead of trying to fit all students into some standardized school — has a school to fit every student in this district. No kid gets left out, no kid gets lost. Every kid is important, every kid can learn if you put him or her in the right environment. But since kids have this huge range of different needs, different interests and different ways of learning, we’ve got to have a wide diversity of schools.” (Fliegel, 1987)

While it has taken time for the District Four ideas to “catch on” or for Central Park East’s particular approach to spread, today both are “in the mainstream.” Everyone is imitating District Four’s system of choices.

It was the creation of a broad and diverse set of new schools, not the reforming of existing schools, that was the crucial decision made in District Four’s “revolution” of two decades ago. It meant the district could focus on encouraging school people, not monitoring them for compliance with district-mandated reforms. The next phase will do well not to ignore the lessons learned: It’s easier to design a new school culture than to change an existing one. And it’s the whole school culture, not this or that program, that stands in the way of learning.

The role of parents in the new schools, as mentioned earlier, is another central issue. Choice offered a way of providing for increased professional decision-making without pitting parents and teachers against each other in a useless power struggle. Furthermore, small schools of choice offered everyone vastly increased time to meet together and work out differences — teachers, teachers and families, and parents through their formal and informal structures. The time needed is considerable but definitely worth it. One top-down mandate we’d have no trouble with would be legislating that employers provide time off for parents to attend school meetings.


What about the loud cries for “accountability” that play such a major role in support of top-down schemes? Who will tell us if it’s “world-class”? How will we know for sure how students stack up against each other nationally and internationally in the great race to see who’s first?

The capacity to create schools that are accountable to their own immediate community — parents, kids, and fellow staff members — is far easier in small, self-governed communities. However, the ways in which schools that set out to be independent and idiosyncratic can meet the legitimate needs for broader taxpayer accountability requires new thinking. We’ve built our current system of public accountability on the basis of the factory model school with its interchangeable parts. It’s no wonder that we get almost no useful or honest information back.

The danger here is that we will cramp the needed innovations with over-ambitious accountability demands. Practical realism must prevail. Changes in the daily conduct of schooling — whether it’s new curriculum or pedagogy or just new ways of collaborating and governing — are hard, slow, and above all immensely time-consuming; they require qualities of trust and patience that we are not accustomed to.

The structural reforms — changes in size, the role of choice, and shifts in power relationships — may be hard to make. To some degree these are the changes that can be “imposed” from above. The trouble is that they merely lay the ground for the slow and steady work that will impact on young people’s intellectual and moral development. That’s the tough realization. Some claim we can’t afford such slow changes. They are wrong. There is nothing faster. If we go faster we may get somewhere faster — but not where we need to go.


Although the reasons for the current national concern about schooling may have little to do with democracy, the reforms described here have everything to do with it. Giving wider choices and more power to those who are closest to the classroom are not reforms that appeal to busy legislators, politicians, and central board officials. They seem too messy and too hard to track. They cannot be initiated on Monday and measured on Friday. They require fewer constraints and fewer rules — not more of them. They require asking why it matters and who cares, not lists of 465 skills, facts, and concepts multiplied by the number of disciplines academia can invent. They require initiating a debate in this nation that might shake us to the roots, a debate about what it is we value so dearly that we incarcerate our children for 12 years to make sure they’ve “got it.”

A democratic society has a right to insist that the central function of schooling is to cultivate the mental and moral habits that a modern democracy requires. Such habits, in fact, can be troubling and uncomfortable to have, but, we hope, hard to shake. Openness to other view-points, the capacity to sustain uncertainty, the ability to act on partial knowledge, the inclination to step into the shoes of others — these are the controversial requirements, for example. Until we face such questions, it makes little sense to keep asking for better tools to measure what we haven’t agreed about.

“What’s it for?” the young ask often enough. It’s time adults took the question seriously. There are no silver bullets when it comes to raising children right, no fast-track solutions with guaranteed cures. Just hard work, keeping your eyes on the prize, and lots of patience for the disagreements that inevitably arise.

Deborah Meier is former co-director of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City and current program director at Mission Hill Elementary School in Roxbury, MA. The above is adapted from a longer essay in Transforming Public Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997), based on an article that originally appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan.


Duckworth, E, The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1987).

Fliegel, S, Quoted in Evans Clinchy, An Educational Renaissance in East Harlem. Unpublished paper. (Boston: Institute for Responsive Education, 1987).