National Writing Project

Deborah Meier Strives to Give Education a Purpose—and Hope

By: Tiffany Chiao
Date: September 16, 2011

Summary: NWP's 2011 Annual Meeting will feature renowned educator Deborah Meier, who will share her insights about the purpose of education after a long career as a well-known educational reformer, writer, and activist.


What's the purpose of school?

Deborah Meier began to ask that question in the early 60s when she first started teaching in a Chicago public school and noticed parents picking up their children at the end of the day and asking, "Were you good today?"

"It was therefore not surprising that the kids readily answered my question about kindergarten with the following assorted answers: 'To learn to raise your hand,' 'to take your turn,' 'to line up,' 'to be quiet when the teacher is talking.' In short, being good," Meier wrote in "Educating for What? The Struggle for Education in a Democracy." (PDF)

Hardly the most exciting reasons to come to school. She was heartened when several students responded that it was important to learn how to read, but then discovered that they thought reading was important only so they would not be held back and could move up in grade level.

To view schools in such a light, when education is a mandatory obligation that lasts 12 to 16 years, five or six hours a day, indicated the glaring absence of a unified purpose among teachers and students that needs to be addressed immediately. "We cannot dare continue to keep kids in schools for so many, many years—incarcerated if you will—without doing a better job of making our schools places we all love," Meier writes in "Reinventing Schools That Keep Teachers in Teaching."

NWP is fortunate to have Deborah Meier come to speak at the 2011 NWP Annual Meeting in Chicago and share her insights about the purpose of education after a long career as a well-known educational reformer, writer, and activist.

Meier has since devoted over four decades to public education as a teacher, founder of progressive schools throughout Chicago, New York City, and Boston, and writer of books and articles on her experiences and aspirations. She has received numerous accolades for her accomplishments, and currently blogs on EdWeek with Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education, in a popular exchange of their differing opinions on educational policy.

Schools Focused on the Mind of the Learner

While teaching in kindergarten classrooms, Meier was amazed by the constant thought-provoking discussions she had with students and fellow teachers that renewed her sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.

When a New York district superintendent gave her and other teachers the opportunity to open their own schools in East Harlem, she aimed to design a system that would encourage the same mental stimulation among students, teachers, and parents.

Meier and her colleagues began to brainstorm such a school with a key piece of advice from high school mentor, Ted Sizer, who told them to keep the format of the schools simple and focus on the essentials: "the mind of the learner and the subject under study." By forming their new schools with this in mind, they created an environment adults could learn from as well.

The key step to making schools engaging for everyone involved was understanding that reforms are always possible and never settling for halfway. "To accept the status quo would be the greatest disservice to students and the society at large," Meier writes in "Reinventing Schools That Keep Teachers in Teaching."

Democracy in Schools

A crucial first step is incorporating democratic thought into schools. Though students may live in the United States all their lives, Meier noted that as they grow up, they have little exposure to how a democracy works and become adults who lack the skills and knowledge needed to become capable, competent members of a government intended to represent their voices.

Schools are the ideal places for teaching democracy and learning self-governance firsthand, but need to reflect those ideals in their structures, Meier emphasizes in "Democracy at Risk." (PDF)

To accept the status quo would be the greatest disservice to students and the society at large.

The "hierarchical, top-down" model of most schools sends students the wrong message, says Meier. Instead, teachers need to have a say in their curriculum, students need to have an active role in their education, and everyone involved in schools needs to be in constant conversation to discuss important issues, understand them, and see all sides of an argument.

"If we cannot trust our citizens—students, parents, teachers, and neighbors—to decide what kind of schools they want and how best to accommodate disagreements, how dare we leave it to citizens to decide what kind of world they want, in matters as important as war and peace?" Meier argues.

Threats to Public Education

Over her extensive career in education, Meier has fought for classroom reforms, founded small schools in several states, and seen changes, good and bad, to national education.

Among the "bad" are emphases on test scores, policies of "all or nothing," growing divisions between upper and lower class reflected in classrooms, schools being run more like businesses than places of learning, and unhealthy turnovers of teachers in schools.

Each factor speaks to a growing threat to public education, and the long, never-ending battle for attentive, cooperative schools has worn out many of its advocates, Meier included, as she confessed in "Looking at the Truth without Flinching." But to sit idly by and watch as our society moves toward standardized testing and away from equal education would be the greatest crime of all.

"We need to praise ornery, feisty resistance—which will sometimes be wrongheaded. We need to arouse anger when its alternative is passivity and withdrawal. We need to look for hope, for alternative paradigms, and for allies—even when it seems utopian to do so," Meier in a recent blog post.

Meier will be the featured Thursday luncheon speaker at the NWP 2011 Annual Meeting. Be sure to register to attend.

Watch a Video of Meier Speaking

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