- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Beacon Press; unknown edition (August 16, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0807031135
- ISBN-13: 978-0807031131
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 24 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem unknown Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
An educational reformer, teacher and veteran school principal, Meier has led the movement to restructure large high schools into small, vibrant educational enclaves?schools within a school, housed within the same building. In a visionary, hopeful blueprint for revitalizing America's public schools, she first discusses her work as co-principal of Central Park East, an alternative public secondary school in East Harlem, New York, which she founded in 1974. Its students, mostly black and Hispanic, come from low-income families; 90% of them graduate high school, and 90% of those go on to college. Meier advocates small classes that encourage independent, critical thinking by using real-world exercises. Her blueprint for reform calls for enclave schools with autonomy over teaching; parents' right to choose the schools their children will attend; and student participation in socially useful, school-directed work experiences. 40,000 first printing; author tour.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Defending public education is difficult, but the best defense is by example, says Meier. As founder of the highly regarded Central Park East schools in Harlem, she has provided such examples?and more. Throughout her account, Meier stresses the need for schools that develop human beings and citizens rather than skilled workers or educated academics. Privatization would open education to extremist influences and destroy these goals, she argues. Current problems in public education are caused by economic inequities, large and unwieldy school bureaucracies, and unrealistic demands for academic performance. Overall, Meier's account is an opinionated treatise relying less on research findings or published data than on experience and positive faith in its outcome. There is much good, persuasive writing here in support of traditional, progressive education. Recommended as a solid contribution to any education collection.?Arla Lindgren, St. John's Univ., New York
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Deborah Meier has lived it, not for one or two years, but for decades. In one of the worst slums in New York City, she and her associates turned an elementary and high school that rarely graduated anyone and sent almost no one on to college into one that sent almost everyone on to college and graduation.
Read how they did it. It is inspirational. It worked in Harlem. It will work in Chatsworth, Chatfield and Chattanooga, El Paso, El Dorado and Elgin. It is real.
Unfortunately, that skill started to not serve me so well toward the end of my college years nor in grad. school, much less in life itself. When I am confronted with a situation in which I must decide for myself what to do and how to do it, I tend to freeze. For all the alleged brain power my GPA and test scores indicate I should have, I’ve never been good at tapping into it. I’ve puzzled over that for years.
It’s only been since I’ve had kids myself that I’ve wondered about the role of education. I had always assumed I had gotten quite a wonderful education – my parents were always pleased with my teachers. But I started hearing a lot about standardized testing – that there’s too much of it, that too many high-stakes (including promotion and graduation, as well as teachers’ jobs and schools’ futures) riding on it. Although I’d guess that my kids would have no more trouble with standardized tests than I did, I never wanted them to be defined as a test score or have their whole educational career defined by such tests.
And as I learned more about tests, I learned more about education itself and came to question my own education. Maybe education isn’t something that happens with kids sitting silently in neat rows listening to the teacher and absorbing her knowledge. Maybe education itself shouldn’t be standardized. Maybe education is more about the school meeting the needs of the student, rather than conforming the student to the needs of the school. As much as I have always supported public education, my own two daughters (ages 6 and 8) are now enrolled at a private progressive school because it seems like the public system has been virtually overrun by the testing zealots, in virtual lock-step with the “no-excuses” discipline crowd.
What’s astounding about Deborah Meier’s Central Park East Schools is that they are public schools. Granted, they were founded at a time when progressive education was still holding its own. But they have survived even through the testing mania, the zeal to eliminate “extras” like art and music and the “no excuses” discipline. This book tells at least the beginning of the story of that survival.
In addition to being a knowledgeable and committed education, Meier is also a wonderful storyteller. This is not dry, academic reading. It is a story of pluck and gumption, with not a little bit of luck thrown in. It is a story of a charismatic leader, her struggle to create a democratic school, the inevitable collision between charismatic leadership and true democracy and the lessons in humility all around. It’s the story of struggling to find – and, for the most part, indeed finding – ways to involve students in their own education, ways to involve families without alienation, and ways to create a true community of learners involving all stake-holders.
Deborah Meier’s writing is both clear and witty. She writes in the conversational tone of one both knowledgeable and passionate about her work. Her writing is also down-to-earth. She makes no bones about the struggles, both internal and external, that the schools have faced in their inevitable growing pains. Perhaps the most valuable portions of the book are the snippets of journal entries and CPE newsletters in which she wrestles with thorny issues that have presented themselves, issues involving race and/or class, for instance, and the frequent misunderstandings that arise across those chasms. Sometimes we find out the resolution to these dilemmas, sometimes we do not. But they put a very human face on the book; Meier does not make herself out to be an omniscient guru who has all the answers to all the most vexing issues facing inner-city public education today. But she is willing to wade in and wrestle with the beast, hear input (including and especially negative input), come collaboratively to a solution and bear the consequences of such decisions. She would be the first to admit that sometimes they got it right, sometimes they didn’t.
Of course, one of the central themes that Meier wrestles with is the issue of “choice”. Considering that CPE schools are schools of choice, naturally Meier supports school choice. But, even twenty years ago when Meier wrote the book, she recognized the perils and pitfalls of choice. She saw that private interests were beginning to co-opt the issue of “choice” as a stealth means to privatization, which she was opposed to. Her hope, however, was that the public system could make use of and control the narrative regarding “choice” by creating a network of small, semi-autonomous, teacher-created/teacher-led schools like CPE from which parents would choose. She recognized that some would be good, others not so much; some would succeed, some would fail, and that such success or failure might not necessarily be related to the quality of the school per se, but political and personality issues. But anything, Meier argued, would be better than the vast, impersonal behemoth schools, especially high schools, typically found in New York City. Schools, Meier argues, should be small enough that the entire faculty can meet face-to-face and that each teacher should have a small number of kids they can get to know well (approximately 20 elementary students per teacher; no more than two to three times that for a high school teacher).
The “small school experiment” has had many post-mortems written about it, many of them declaring it a failure. High schools especially, it has been declared, need to be larger in order to have enough students to offer a variety of advanced and elective classes, as well as extra-curricular activities. But Meier’s point about impersonal schools, especially high schools, still stands, and it’s still something that needs to be wrestled with as Meier did. Students who seek out advance classes and electives and extra-curricular activities will find adult connections in any size high school. But the kids who need to be worried about are those who typically don’t seek out those experiences, either because they don’t believe themselves capable or because they’ve been steered away, or because other issues in their lives preclude them. Meier believes that all kids have great things to contribute and accomplish, but most won’t unless the adults in their lives create the conditions and encourage them to do so.
The curriculum at CPE schools is designed to do just that. Rather than sitting at desks absorbing information from their teachers, students are busy asking their own questions and designing their own projects and experiments to answer those questions. Students are responsible for their own learning, and in order to graduate, high school students must present and defend their own original work. Many people graduate college without ever doing such intense work, so there goes the idea that progressive education isn’t “rigorous”.
But there’s still the issue of “choice” to wrestle with. Twenty years of hindsight tells us that perhaps choice isn’t the panacea Meier hoped it would be. There are fewer and fewer neighborhood schools in urban districts now. Parents are faced with a sea of choices, often without adequate information to evaluate each one. Some choices may be across town, others may be better for one sibling or another, so siblings may go to different schools far apart leaving parents floundering to provide transportation. Many choices these days are private (or public-private partnerships such as charters) which Meier feared. Some are fly-by-night with slick marketing which draws parents in regardless of the actual quality of the education. In New York in particular, getting a student into a particular middle or high school can be as much (or more) work and drama as getting into college. The choice that many parents seem to be wanting these days – which seems to be the one choice that’s often not available - is quality neighborhood public schools.
To me, the way to reconcile the issue of “choice” is rather than offering choice among different schools, to offer choice within each school, precisely as Meier did with her CPE schools. Research has long shown that progressive education creates students who are more likely to be engaged in their own learning and to become life-long learners. Such students tend to be original, creative problem solvers as well as collaborative workers. They are typically able to handle as much or more “rigor” at the college level and beyond as traditionally educated students. Why shouldn’t every child have the choice to study material that is engaging and relevant to him? Why shouldn’t every child have the choice to work at his own pace and have his own strengths recognized and his own needs met?.
Somehow, we must reverse the testing and other mandates that are increasingly making our public schools one-size fits all, “no excuses”, “drill-and-kill” test-prep factories. We must find a way to offer all students a broad, rich curriculum in arts, civics, languages as well the “three Rs” with opportunities for self-directed, interdisciplinary studies at an age-appropriate level.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in education, which really should be anyone who is interested in the future of our country. Meier’s provocative and witty writing will entertain and challenge you. You may agree or disagree (probably vehemently in either case), but you will not be bored. I'd give it ten stars if Amazon would let me.
Long before the current school restructuring movement was born, Deborah Meier's heart and soul were already in it. She came out of the 1960s as a "movement" person who began teaching accidentally, without any grand plan. But in 1974, Meier and a small group of colleagues founded Central Park East Elementary School in one wing of P.S. 171 in East Harlem, as a school that was not just "child-centered, but community-centered as well."
Unlike the wave of small alternative schools that had sprung up during that turbulent period, Central Park East was born as a school inside, not outside, the system. Under the protection of a new risk-taking district superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, Meier and her band of determined educators won the right to engage in a most radical practice--good teaching. They wanted, says Meier, "to provide at public expense for the least advantaged what the most advantaged bought privately for their own children."
The Power of Their Ideas refers to the ideas of those who were at the center of this small- schools movement: the teachers, parents, and students who created what Alternative Schools Director Sy Fliegel would later call, in the title of his book, Miracle in East Harlem. These ideas led to the success of four small schools of choice, working under all the constraints of the public school system. Meier, a radical critic of the system and at the same time a staunch defender of public education, wanted no part of vouchers or privatization. Her philosophy emerges from the telling of her story. Good teaching, she insists, is fostered by "small schools, schools of choice, school autonomy over the critical dimensions of teaching and learning, lots of time for building relationships...."
In journal notes, she finds meaning for small schools in the death of Carmela, one of her students:
The school's steady attention to Carmela and her family as she lay dying for nearly a year can't happen in a school five times our size. Yet death surrounds our kids. If death doesn't count, does life?
While the population of Central Park East still reflects a cross section of New York City, with the majority coming from low-income, African-American and Latino families, nearly all of its students graduate, go on to college, and do well there. Is this really a "miracle"? If all children can learn, why should Central Park East be equated with Lourdes?
It shouldn't. Central Park East and the 50 or so New York City schools modeled on it were not handed down from heaven. As Meier tells it, they were the product of hard work done by groups of teachers coming together voluntarily around a common philosophy:
a small crew of teachers who were ready to take the risks and seize the opportunities; and a group of families either desperate enough or eager enough to give it a chance.
The Power of Their Ideas is part journal, part handbook for the next generation of caring, innovative teachers who aren't sure if or how it can be done, and part treatise on democracy and education, taking on the why's, not just the how's of schooling. "For us," says Meier, "a democratic community was the nonnegotiable purpose of good schooling."
Available from Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
--Reviewed by Mike Klonsky, Small Schools Workshop