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A Q&A with Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi

Children from St. Andrews Elementary School
Photo credit: Joint Base Charleston

According to MacArthur Award-winning educator Deborah Meier and fellow educator Emily Gasoi, a public school system that explicitly serves democracy provides an education that helps students see themselves as full citizens. Unfortunately, the last two decades of education reform have been characterized by “a disconnect” between the original purpose of education and anything remotely resembling foundational ideas about democracy. And as of this year, the forces of the free-market ideology are threatening to undo our institution of free, universal education. Meier and Gasoi teamed up to get to the heart of the issue in their new book These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools. In this Q&A, they chat with us about the inspiration for the book; why public education is so tightly bound with democracy; and our current administration’s stance on public education.

Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration for writing the book? 

Deborah Meier: Getting old! It was an opportunity to look back and reflect on my work with colleagues over the last several decades. I was also worrying about the future of democracy and wanted to explore how schools bear some responsibility for its perilous condition, as well as ways schools might strengthen our democracy.

Emily Gasoi: As I write in the preface of the book, I consider Deborah my mentor, so I was thrilled when she asked me if I wanted to work on this project with her. But for me, the inspiration was knowing that schools like Mission Hill School and other similarly well-establish models of schools that prioritize democratic and humanist values are out there, but get almost no attention. I wanted to write a book based on our experience creating a democratic school from the ground up to show readers what it is possible for schools to be.

CC: Your book is an intergenerational exchange that analyzes the last several decades of education reform. How did you decide to structure it by writing alternating chapters? 

DM: It seemed, after several other iterations, to be obvious! Democracy requires discourse/back and forth, and we wanted our book to reflect that kind of exchange.

EG: We settled on this way to organize the book, not incidentally, after sharing our work and engaging in conversation with colleagues in a few different forums. Something that emerged from these forums was an interest in the potential for an intergenerational discourse around the past, present, and future of public education. As Deb said, once we started playing with that idea, it just seemed to be an obvious marriage of form and function: the alternating chapters allowed us to share our respective experiences while mirroring the kind of exchange we believe is so essential to democratic life.

CC: One of your central themes is about how universal education is necessary to provide young people with an “apprenticeship for citizenship in a democracy.” Why is public education so tightly bound with democracy?  

DM: Because we aren’t natural democrats. We have to learn to be citizens. 

EG: One reason why early advocates pushed to establish a universal, compulsory education system was because, in a democracy, the presumption is that we are all part of the “deciding class,” and therefore need to be educated in order to make informed decisions. And public institutions and spaces, including public schools, are essential in a democracy, because their very existence conveys that we are a society in which we meet together and share common resources. So it’s not just public schools that we argue are essential, but public institutions writ large. Throughout the book, we deliberately use the word commonweal, which means the “welfare of the public.” It’s a word that few people use in conversation, but we make a modest effort to bring it into our communal conscious. 

At the very least, schools are charged with preparing each subsequent generation to become well-informed and contributing members of society. Since we live in a democracy (even if many of our democratic aspirations are yet to be fulfilled for many citizens), it follows that schools should provide every child with an apprenticeship as democratic citizens.

At the end of the first chapter, Deb asks two central questions: How can we hope to educate children for democracy if they and the adults in their lives have never really experienced it? And if that education doesn’t happen in our public schools, then where will it happen?

This reminds me of another quote from developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky who wrote, “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” In other words, if the adults in schools don’t model for students what it looks like to be an engaged member of the community, then where do we think children will learn what it means to be a stakeholder and a contributor in our democracy?

CC: What are some of the successes you’ve had working in democratically governed schools? 

DM: I think the sense of community was a joy for us all and convinced us it’s a good way to live.

EG: I agree with Deb. The level of engagement that I experienced working with my Mission Hill School colleagues made was incredibly energizing. Creating a community in which everyone had a voice, including students, families, among others, certainly has its challenges, especially in the daily work of teaching and co-governing a school. But the feeling of being part of something larger than one’s self is actually thrilling. 

More specific successes:

  • Family engagement: I think we successfully created forums for families that increased their sense of investment in and their engagement with the school.
  • Cultivating intellect: Because they were constantly asked to demonstrate their learning in informal and formal ways, students came to understand that they were expected to develop and explain their ideas.
  • Creating authentic assessments: The Mission Hill School middle school graduation by portfolio process is an intellectually rigorous and authentic assessment of students’ learning. The process itself encapsulates the best practices of progressive and democratic education.

CC: Many of us are worried about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s 2018 proposed budget, which is projected to cut $10.6 billion from public education by eliminating twenty-two programs, including teacher training and after-school programming, while spending $1.4 billion funding on school choice, plus a national voucher system. What’s your take on the current administration’s stance on public education? 

DM: They’re not for it! To them, democracy isn’t as important as the free market place. To me, public education is at the heart of a democracy, because it requires a citizenry prepared to fight for it, which requires understanding and valuing it! Not an easy task for schools to take on, but essential, nevertheless.

EG: Whether they are aware of it or not, it seems as if DeVos and other voucher supporters are looking for ways to address the incredible inequity from which they (the very wealthy) benefit in ways that will allow them to continue to benefit, financially and otherwise. The New York Times Magazine featured a story on how for-profit forces have only deepened educational disparities in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. The fact that this level of deregulated “choice” (i.e. privatization) is her primary policy ambition should frighten anyone who cares about the future of public education.


About the Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi

Deborah Meier
, author of the acclaimed books The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust, has spent more than five decades working in public education as a parent, school-board member, teacher, principal, writer, and advocate. Meier ranks among the most acclaimed leaders of the school reform movement in the United States. Among her numerous accomplishments, she helped found the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, under the leadership of Ted Sizer. In 1987, she received a MacArthur award for her work in public education. Follow her on Twitter at @DebMeier and visit her website.

Emily Gasoi has been an educator for more than two decades and was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. In 2012 she earned a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Gasoi currently lives in Washington, DC, where she adjuncts at Georgetown University and is cofounder of Artful Education, an organization focused on helping schools and arts organizations improve practices related to creative teaching and learning. Follow her on Twitter at @emilygasoi.