As an introduction to this email, I want to be clear that I take no joy in pointing out that certain old guard ed reformers who have become enemies of genuine reform are emperors with no clothes. I find it sad and counter-productive that the old and new guards aren’t working together more closely, and acknowledge that a less confrontational approach than the one I’ve chosen might yield better results.
For each of the people I critique below, I respect their tireless commitment over decades to this issue, share their passion, and wish so much that they would change their views and support the next generation of reformers. But they haven’t and are instead doing real harm, putting forth tired, failed, disconnected-from-reality ideas that won’t work and, worse yet, attacking things that are working. In light of this – and the enormous stakes: the futures of millions of children – I can’t pull my punches.
In my last email (more than a week ago – a record I think!), I blasted the discussion (posted on the EdWeek blog) between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier about the NYT article, Scholarly Investments (www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/fashion/06charter.html), calling it “idiotic” and “moronic”. Here was my intro:
Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, responding to the NYT article two Sunday’s ago, engage in one of the most moronic discussions of charter schools I’ve ever read. Here’s Meier, slamming the founders of Harlem Success, with no acknowledgment (likely due to no knowledge) of Harlem Success’s extraordinary success.
In response, I received this email from a friend who runs a charter school:
I realize by sending this note, I risk your wrath. However, I can’t allow my silence to be the voice of complacency in support of this attack on Deborah Meier.
Deborah Meier may be off base here but she was doing great things for the neediest children in our society decades before it became so popular. Rather than attack her maybe the movement, and you, would be better served by a small dose of humility. I believe an old warrior like Deborah Meier should be honored and granted some latitude. You give a lot of attention, rightly so, to the modern day “warriors” in the movement, Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer were warriors from a different era. Truth be told, much of the success in the movement today looks similar to the schools Deborah and Ted advocated for decades ago. In recent years, KIPP and Coalition of Essential Schools seem to have more and more in common.
Besides, I think it is wise to be skeptical of the elite because without humility they do act in a superior manner which, regardless of stated intentions, can be oppressive.
Wendy Kopp and Deborah Meir inspired me to become a career educator. They are both heroes. Why are we not given pause by Deborah Meier’s critique? Aren’t we all better off if we work together and engage an old warrior like Deborah Meier? In the end we may simply not agree. I just can’t imagine we ever need to refer to Deborah Meier as moronic or idiotic. This seems a bit personal.
I hope you can trust these sentiments were conveyed without malice.
Here was my response:
I’m not nearly as familiar with Meier as I am with Ravitch. Based on the nonsense she wrote (which WAS moronic and idiotic; note that I did NOT call her a moron and an idiot), she seems to want to kill your school. What leads you to believe she’s more like Sizer and less like dangerous crackpots like Ravitch and Kozol?
And here was his reply:
I am very confident she is more like Sizer. She is passionate about high quality instruction. I intentionally did not mention Ravitch since your writing has convinced me of her evil.
What actually leads you to believe Meier wants to kill my school? Because she raised concerns? Hasn't she earned the right? Why not engage her?
My school is consistent with her values and doesn't benefit from generous donations of the elite. My school also serves high percentages of special needs students Also, my graduates outperform schools in the community that do benefit from many gifts. I know she would appreciate my school and how my school treats kids and teachers.
I simply think it is a mistake to fold Meier into the crackpots group.
I think my friend makes fair points: I should have done more research on Meier before lumping her in with Ravitch, who truly has gone off the deep end – in case you think I exaggerate, here’s a recent Twitter tweet of hers:
Race to the Top relies on old GOP agenda of accountability, choice, merit pay. Nothing new. Which Dems if any will fight it?
Race to the Top is a bad joke. It is really Race to Nowhere. Same old NCLB, but with Democratic support.
Evaluating teachers by their students' test scores is a dumb idea. What role does student motivation play? None? Poverty? None?
The Race to Nowhere is the Obama express train to privatizing hundreds or thousands of public schools.
Read my blog at "Bridging Differences" (EdWeek). It is titled "Obama's Race to Nowhere."
The current era of school reform is our great national fraud.
(For more on what I’ve written about Ravitch, see: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/04/debate-over-nyc-performance-ravitch.html, http://edreform.blogspot.com/2007/10/hypocritical-critic.html, http://edreform.blogspot.com/2007/11/feud-twixt-wylde-ravitch-laid-to-citys.html, http://edreform.blogspot.com/2007/11/unfair-attack.html, http://edreform.blogspot.com/2007/10/grading-tests.html, and http://edreform.blogspot.com/2008/03/why-i-resigned.html.)
While Ravitch has gone off the deep end, my friend is right that just because Meier engages her in a discussion and agrees with her on some points doesn’t mean that Meier should be viewed in the same way as Ravitch. In fact, our movement is likely to be more successful if we can engage (rather than attack) thought leaders like Meier, who clearly cares passionately about children and improving schools and has, in fact, built a number of highly successful schools herself. (At the end of this email, I include Meier’s description of her background and her bio on the PBS web site. Also see Seymour Fliegel’s 1994 article about her and her schools here: www.city-journal.org/article01.php?aid=1414.)
Thus, I should have tempered my comments about Meier somewhat. It would be wrong to dismiss someone who has spent a lifetime fighting for kids based on one blog post, no matter deeply ignorant and offensive I find it. That said, it WAS deeply ignorant and offensive, and below I go through it line by line, detailing exactly why I think this.
I then address a bigger question: how is it possible for Meier (and a number of others like her) to be so very wrong about charter schools and their supporters specifically, and, in general, about genuine reform?
Here’s my detailed rebuttal of her blog post (the full text is below and is also posted at: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2009/12/dear_diane_you_may_have.html#comments):
1) After Meier quotes from the part of the NYT article about the founders of the Success Charter Network (friends of mine, BTW), Meier writes: “I'm at a loss for words because I think it shouldn't be necessary to be chilled by the above description.” I think she’s saying that she’s chilled by this, but doesn’t explain why and instead writes: “So, I won't explain. But I will think about it.”
2) She writes: “The oddest thing, as you note, Diane, is that New York City's mayor himself takes credit for the charters, but not blame for the public schools he directly controls.”
Where’s the evidence for this? Mayor Bloomberg, in fighting for mayoral control initially and then renewal earlier this year, has consistently taken responsibility for ALL public schools in NYC, both regular and charter.
3) She then claims: “He's a fanatic for test scores, but the NAEP scores (the only psychometrically reliable tests NYC students take—in 4th and 8th grades) show no improvement since 2003 in math or reading. No closing of the gap (correction: a narrow one for low-income, but not African-American students, in 8th grade), virtually no change in the numbers who meet specific benchmarks, etc.”
Even Ravitch doesn’t agree with this completely false statement: in her Dec. 10th NY Post article (www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/cheating_kids_PFK1dnYncNK42Lc5QDhnrJ#ixzz0ZPg5c4xT), Ravitch wrote: “The national scores show that the proportion of fourth-grade students who reached proficiency rose from 21 percent to 35 percent. That is solid, and Chancellor Joel Klein can certainly take pride in that improvement. But it certainly doesn't support the state's claim that 84.9 percent are proficient. The eighth-graders showed modest improvement in the six-year span, from 21 percent proficient to 26 percent. Again, commendable progress, but it is far from the 71.3 percent that the state announced.” In short, Ravitch directly contradicts Meier’s assertion – and if it’s Ravitch saying so, you can be 110% sure that Meier is wrong.
While the NAEP data showed only small gains from 2007-2009, there has been indisputable progress since 2003, even using the tougher NAEP standards – see my post at http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/12/naep-math-results.html, where I concluded that “NYC’s gains from 2007-09 were more modest than the exceptional gains from 2005-07, but were still better than the rest of the state and nation (which largely flat-lined).” For more discussion of NYC’s progress, see http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/04/debate-over-nyc-performance-ravitch.html and the links embedded on this page.
4) Meier then writes: “even schools that are doing no better or worse than others are being closed and replaced with charters”.
Where’s her evidence that good or even mediocre public schools are being shut down? There isn’t any because her assertion is nonsense. The main problem in NYC is not that too many schools are being shut down, but that not enough are! There are literally hundreds of schools in NYC alone that chronically fail to properly educate children and should be shut down, with their buildings turned over to operators with proven track records (not necessarily charter schools – there are many models of success).
5) She then writes: “It's as though Bloomberg/Klein were bragging about what they have not accomplished in their own back yards, which require them to encourage the replacement of the regular, publicly accountable system for a privately accountable one.”
This is a very odd sentence, but clear that she’s charging Bloomberg and Klein with a conspiracy to privatize public education in NYC by shutting down regular public schools and replacing them with charter schools. What nonsense! Charter schools ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS!!!! While they are accountable, on a short-term basis, to a board of directors rather than the central bureaucracy, they are ultimately 100% accountable to the public. In fact, it’s a much better form of accountability because, unlike regular public schools, there is a mechanism built into the system to shut them down: in NYS, charters, once approved, are rigorously evaluated every five years. If they fail to meet their goals, they can (and sometimes do) lose their charter and go out of business. Compare this to regular public schools, which can commit educational malpractice for years (even decades) on end, with few consequences (at least until Bloomberg and Klein took over).
6) Meier then continues nothing: “They've relied for quality on one simple measure: Can it attract money and students sufficient to stay alive? (And, offering unprecedented public and private inducements, so that when a charter and regular public school share a building, the latter's resources are actually less than the former's—including, above all, class sizes. Apparently, in NYC charters, class size matters, but not in NYC regular public schools.) I keep feeling that I've missed something. Have the past decades convinced us that the marketplace is more accountable than public institutions of democracy? Have there been fewer scandals during these same years in charter schools than regular ones? And how would we know? What do they do better—other than attract the "in" crowd's money?”
I’m getting tired rebutting every single sentence, but they’re all worthy. In short, Meier is so ignorant about charters that it boggles my mind. Has she ever visited a high-performing charter school?! I can only assume not.
7) She couldn’t be more wrong when she asserts: “"Good" charter states are those considered by their allies to be those that are least regulated.”
I’m on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and on its web site (www.publiccharters.org/issues), it says one of the main things the NAPCS is fighting for is: “Demand quality oversight. The quality of authorizing and oversight has been uneven across the country. The Alliance is working with other charter school organizations to address this imbalance.” Poor regulation has led to a lot of crappy charter schools, which are a black eye to our movement, so we agree with Meier on this point (though she’s not aware of it).
8) Meier then goes off on a rant comparing charter schools to the financial crisis: “Whatever makes us think that someone is going to be a better whistle-blower in the education of largely low-income city kids than they were about what was happening to our mortgages, banks, etc.???”
Oh please! This is beyond ridiculous on so many levels. Is she seriously claiming that because a board member of a charter school works at a financial institution that they bear guilt for the blowup of the financial system and/or are incapable of being a good board member? On another level, Meier is demonstrating that her ignorance isn’t limited to just charter schools – it extends to the financial crisis. The last I checked, Alan Greenspan, Dick Fuld, Chuck Prince, Angelo Mozilo and others who were most directly responsible for the meltdown have no involvement whatsoever with charter schools. In fact, charter schools are much more popular with hedge funds, which had little or no role in the blowup of the system (in fact, hedge fund managers – myself included – were among the few lone voices who were warning everyone about the impending disaster).
It’s apparently not enough to Meier to blame charter school supporters for the financial meltdown – we’re also responsible for jobs going overseas! “P.S. Does it remind you of how industries went south for better "business environments," and then went further "south" (overseas) for the same? Alas, it will be harder to out-source our schools.”
9) Meier concludes her screed with an ad hominem attack on my friends (and me and all of us): “what Misters Petry and Greenblatt and their friends "get" is something that I think will damage our most vulnerable future citizens.”
Petry and Greenblatt have spent countless hours and literally MILLIONS of dollars to back Eva Moskowitz to start Success Charter Network, which is now four schools, growing next year to seven, and to 40 over time. These are INCREDIBLE schools that Meier obviously has never visited and knows nothing about. Here are the results from the original school, whose oldest students took the 3rd grade exam last year: (from www.harlemsuccess.org/results):
Harlem Success Academy 3rd graders took their first standardized state test in 2009.
• 100% of Harlem Success 3rd graders passed the math exam, with 71% achieving the top score of "4," ranking the school #1 out of all public charters in the state.
• 95% of Harlem Success 3rd graders passed the English Language Arts exam, with nearly a quarter achieving the top score of "4," ranking the school #2 out of all public charters in the state.
• Harlem Success Academy ranks #32 out of 3500 public schools in New York.
• No public school in the state scored higher than Harlem Success on the math exam.
• Harlem Success outperformed its school district by nearly 25 percentage points in English Language Arts. The percentage of students "advanced proficient" in math surpasses even the affluent Upper East Side of Manhattan by nearly 35%.
In light of this, Meier’s assertion that what Harlem Success is doing “will damage our most vulnerable future citizens” is [I’m searching for the right word: ludicrous? bizarre? Orwellian?]. It is failing schools that are damaging our most vulnerable future citizens, yet Meier attacks Bloomberg and Klein for shutting down failing schools and instead attacks those who have given enormous amounts of time and/or money to schools that are achieving nothing short of educational miracles!
Now I’d like to turn to the bigger question: how is it possible that someone as smart, informed and caring as Deborah Meier is so very wrong about charter schools and their supporters? And it’s not just her: to one degree or another, there are a number people like her – certain people who I’ll respectfully call old guard education warriors – who have similar views: Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol and Linda Darling-Hammond come to mind (I say old guard because all are in their 70s except LDH, who is 58). What could explain such people being hostile not only to charter schools, even high-performing ones, but also Teach for America and, in general, the reforms being pushed by those I’ll call new-guard education warriors (Obama, Duncan, Klein, Rhee, Kopp, Levin/Feinberg, etc.)?
Partly it’s knee-jerk politics: the members of the old guard I’m talking about are characterized by far left ideology, so any idea or program that Republicans develop or support must, ipso facto, be evil and deserving of attack (witness Ravitch’s idiotic tweet above: “Race to the Top relies on old GOP agenda of accountability, choice, merit pay. Nothing new. Which Dems if any will fight it?”). Somehow charter schools have fallen into this category, despite the fact that I struggle to think of a single charter school leader/principal/founder (and I know A LOT) who is a Republican.
I’m a Democrat, but I’m not silly enough to believe that Democrats have a monopoly on good ideas. I’m perfectly willing to take good ideas from whatever source that will help fix our schools and help children. Look at what Bill Clinton did with welfare reform, for example: he took an issue that Republicans were, by and large, right on (the welfare system, like our educational system today, had become politicized, bloated and bureaucratic and was poorly serving the people it was supposed to be helping) and made it his own, taking the Republicans’ best ideas, couching them in Democratic language, and riding this issue all the way into the White House and beyond. It is so exciting to see Obama doing the same with education reform – and it’s so interesting (and predictable) that the reaction from the old guard then is EXACTLY the same as it is today: clinging to old, failed ideas and fighting their own party’s embrace of new ideas, calling the new guard sellouts or dupes of the Republicans. Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same…
It’s not simply a Republican vs. Democrat issue, however. It’s broader than that – it’s vastly different world views. The members of the old guard I’m talking about, to know knowledge without exception, have spent their entire careers within the system, especially at ed schools (if anyone is aware that Meier, Ravitch, Kozol or LDH have spent a single day in the private sector EVER, please let me know). This explains a lot, as I think it would be hard for even the most rational person’s mind not to be poisoned by prolonged exposure to the politically correct, Alice-in-Wonderland, bizzaro world of big city educational systems and ed schools (aka, The Blob).
In marked contrast, the new guard are on average 30 years younger, are much more centrist ideologically, and have much less exposure to the Blob – enough, in general, to recognize the insanity, but not so much to actually be brainwashed by the nonsense.
To be clear, both the old guard and the new guard recognize that the existing system is evil and insane, but their approaches to fixing it are vastly different. The old guard seems to think that more money, more love, more whatever sounds and feels good – a very bottoms-up approach – will somehow produce different outcomes. If only every school, they believe, could be as nurturing and successful as Meier’s Central Park East alternative schools. But there’s a reason that, 35 years later, there are only a small handful of such schools: the model is not replicable, as it depends on a very rare set of circumstances, starting with a certain type of committed person like Meier. Of greater concern is the fact that if the methods of alternative schools – loosey goosey discipline, no testing, etc. – are applied to big-city school systems, disaster is the result.
In contrast, the new guard recognizes that the problem IS the system and that reforming it requires more of a top-down approach, similar to turning around ANY big, broken, bureaucratic system, whether for-profit or nonprofit/governmental. I outline the new guard approach on pages 48-56 in my school reform presentation (posted at www.tilsonfunds.com/Personal/TheCriticalNeedforGenuineSchoolReform.pdf). For example, here is page 55:
I welcome comments on this discussion, which I’m sure will be ongoing.
What Do Charter Schools Do Better?
Deborah Meier| 21 Comments |
I know you saw this article in last Sunday's New York Times.
" 'You get the religion fast.'
"Mr. Petry, 38, and Mr. Greenblatt, 52, may spend their days poring over spreadsheets and overseeing trades, but their obsession—one shared with many other hedge funders—is creating charter schools, the tax-funded, independently run schools that they see as an entrepreneurial answer to the nation's education woes. Charters have attracted benefactors from many fields. But it is impossible to ignore that in New York, hedge funds are at the movement's epicenter.
" "These guys get it," said Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City Council member, whom Mr. Petry and Mr. Greenblatt hired in 2006 to run the Success Charter Network, for which they provide the financial muscle, including compensation for Ms. Moskowitz of $371,000 her first year. "They aren't afraid of competition or upsetting the system. They thrive on that." "
I'm at a loss for words because I think it shouldn't be necessary to be chilled by the above description. But I suspect that many readers will simply be delighted that these rich young men have "gotten religion"—and that the religion they've gotten is to play a role in starting their own schools for the least advantaged youngsters.
So, I won't explain. But I will think about it. Because I remember years ago talking with a very wealthy and respected business couple about their work on behalf of the "I Have a Dream" foundation, supporting kids after school and on Saturdays. I may even have said something about how I'd love it if they'd just put the same money into improving the regular public schools. We discussed why it is that giving to the opera is "in," but not giving to public education. And I think I even recommended that they start their own public school.
They did. I visited and liked it. It was a "regular," irregular public school. I believe today it has gone charter. Along, probably, with the schools of the founders' friends. It's "in."
The oddest thing, as you note, Diane, is that New York City's mayor himself takes credit for the charters, but not blame for the public schools he directly controls. He's a fanatic for test scores, but the NAEP scores (the only psychometrically reliable tests NYC students take—in 4th and 8th grades) show no improvement since 2003 in math or reading. No closing of the gap (correction: a narrow one for low-income, but not African-American students, in 8th grade), virtually no change in the numbers who meet specific benchmarks, etc. Meanwhile, even schools that are doing no better or worse than others are being closed and replaced with charters. It's as though Bloomberg/Klein were bragging about what they have not accomplished in their own back yards, which require them to encourage the replacement of the regular, publicly accountable system for a privately accountable one. They've relied for quality on one simple measure: Can it attract money and students sufficient to stay alive? (And, offering unprecedented public and private inducements, so that when a charter and regular public school share a building, the latter's resources are actually less than the former's—including, above all, class sizes. Apparently, in NYC charters, class size matters, but not in NYC regular public schools.)
I keep feeling that I've missed something. Have the past decades convinced us that the marketplace is more accountable than public institutions of democracy? Have there been fewer scandals during these same years in charter schools than regular ones? And how would we know? What do they do better—other than attract the "in" crowd's money?
While K-12 education was made universal because it seemed important that every single potential citizen be well-educated if democracy was to flourish, we have substituted the idea of democracy with the idea of the "marketplace." The less regulated, the better—ditto for charters. "Good" charter states are those considered by their allies to be those that are least regulated. Does it sound familiar? (Actually, there is relatively little interest in charters outside of urban poor neighborhoods—by voters or hedge-funders.)
Whatever makes us think that someone is going to be a better whistle-blower in the education of largely low-income city kids than they were about what was happening to our mortgages, banks, etc.???
The next step, I think, Diane, is to convene folks committed to the preservation of directly democratically controlled schools responsible for the future of every child within their jurisdiction. Then we might "safely" discuss new ways to conceive of better educating the young for full participation in democratic life—from the polling place to the jury room and everything in between. We won't all agree, but we might initiate some well-thought-out alternatives that could catch the attention of those wealthy funders and, more importantly, those politicians who share our goal.
We need our own new, eight-year study, like the one Ralph Tyler led in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as I recall. His was a controlled study of high schools. We could do it better now.
Meanwhile, the future is not yet written, so we need to keep up the spirits of those who are roughly on "our side"—despite other disagreements. It's hard enough lately to keep up my own spirits, but.... If I believe all that rhetoric I fed kids for 47 years in our schools, I have no choice, because what Misters Petry and Greenblatt and their friends "get" is something that I think will damage our most vulnerable future citizens.
P.S. Does it remind you of how industries went south for better "business environments," and then went further "south" (overseas) for the same? Alas, it will be harder to out-source our schools.
February 26, 2007
Introducing Deborah Meier
Since I'm writing my introduction after Diane wrote (and shared) hers, I have a chance to make mine a "reply"—to set the stage for our future blogs.
First of all, Diane and I have been arguing for a lot longer than she mentions. Diane called me maybe 15 years ago to suggest that since I had been a critic of some of her works, why didn't she come and actually see some of mine—the school I was working in. So we met, for the first time, at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem. And we bonded thereafter, even as we continued to criticize each other's ideas—especially when it came to matters of education policy. This is easier to do now—many years later—when we are both at New York University.
Second, our histories are interestingly different. I grew up in New York—for 8 years in what was once the rural suburbs, and later in Manhattan. My family were always engaged in politics—liberal, labor-oriented, (my mother once ran for City Council), as well as in the world of Jewish intellectual and social causes. I went to privileged independent progressive schools, then to Antioch and finally the University of Chicago for a Master's Degree in History. So Diane and I are both historians by training, if not in professional focus. I almost went on for a doctorate but instead had three kids and got involved on a semi-fulltime basis in the socialist, civil rights and peace movements of the 50s-60s in Chicago—mostly using my house as the base of operations. I was a founding member with Michael Harrington of a group called Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. (I've always had a penchant for small "schools" of thought.)
Third, when my kids were about school age, I tried to earn a little money the easiest way I could: as a substitute teacher on Chicago's southside. It turned out to be the hardest thing I had ever done, and I had no natural talent for it. But it was an extraordinary experience. These schools, it struck me, were hardly designed in ways that would help produce a feisty, smart, compassionate citizenry. Fortunately our democracy has survived as well as it has despite schooling that was more oriented toward compliance than democracy. What could it be if... I wondered.
One thing led to another and I'm still wondering.
For the next 40-something years I've been wondering from inside schools: as a parent of publicly educated urban kids, as a kindergarten (and Head Start) teacher, a founding member and sort-of-head of a number of new small democratically-governed public elementary and secondary schools in NYC and Boston. Always looking for the cracks that could expand the democratic nature of classrooms and schools. Along the way I got the necessary credentials and began to write about my work-mostly for the families of the kids in the schools in which I worked, for Dissent and The Nation, among others, and finally wrote a few books, starting with "The Power of Their Ideas" in 1995. My political “organizing” largely focused on trying to get networks of teachers and parents together—being a rep to NYC’s AFT local, forming the North Dakota Study Group, The Center for Collaborative Education, the Coalition of Essential Schools, The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and lately the Progressive Ed Network of New England and a Campaign for Children to demand that we support playfulness at least for our youngest children! It helped to receive support from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, in the form of a hefty award in the late ‘80s.
If only our voices, those closest to the children, would be heard in the halls of policy makers how much easier it would be to do good work on the ground, we thought. Even when we weren’t being heard, being in the midst of vibrant, living and complicated schools sustained my hopes. I'm missing that now.
All this leads to my current worry: the threatened future of public education itself. I worry also about the ties that bind my colleagues together through their unions. These two powerful common concerns connect Diane's work and my own. That we still disagree on so many other matters fascinates me; hopefully it will interest others as well.
Deborah Meier (1931- )
Deborah Meier has spent more than three decades working in public education as a teacher, principal, writer, advocate, and ranks among the most acclaimed leaders of the school reform movement in the U.S. Meier was born in New York City in 1931 and was educated at Antioch College and the University of Chicago. She began her teaching career in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia as an elementary and Head Start teacher, continually fascinated with why schools did not work well and what was needed to fix them.
For 20 years, Meier helped revitalize public schools in New York City’s East Harlem district. In 1974, Superintendent Tony Alvarado asked Meier to test her theories in a new elementary school in Harlem’s District 4, where test scores were the lowest in the city. She founded Central Park Elementary School (CPE), a highly successful alternative school emphasizing active learning. Within the next dozen years, Meier opened two other Central Park elementary schools and, in collaboration with the National Coalition of Essential Schools, the Central Park East Secondary School. At CPE and the schools that grew out of it, Meier succeeded by fostering democratic community, giving teachers greater autonomy in the running of a school, giving parents a voice in what happens to their children in schools, and promoting a family-oriented system. The Central Park East Secondary School has been lauded as a model of urban education reform. Her progressive philosophy created an environment of nurturing adults with high standards, resulting in a school with a graduation rate of 90 (90 percent of these graduates going on to college) and is now a model school for the Small Schools Collaborative.
She is the author of The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem and an outspoken critic of state-mandated standards and tests. Meier is currently the principal of the Mission Hill School, a K-8 pilot elementary school recently established in Boston’s Roxbury community. Despite all of the praise including a MacArthur Fellowship and several honorary degrees from elite schools, Meier’s commitment remains simple and sincere: “What I wanted was to create thoughtful citizens — people who believed they could live interesting lives and be productive and socially useful. So I tried to create a community of children and adults where the adults shared and respected the children’s lives.”