Prestige prize for a principal. MacArthur grant honors Deborah Meier - and her innovative school

`AT first I thought teaching was unprestigious `women's work,''' says Deborah Meier, principal of Central Park East in East Harlem. ``I wanted to change the world: write the world's best novel, be a foreign correspondent. But then I got captivated by the children. It's still unprestigious, and it's still mainly women doing it. But I thought it was challenging, amazing work.'' It's work that is starting to gain some prestige. Mrs. Meier is the first teacher to be awarded a MacArthur ``genius'' grant for her accomplishments in setting up an unusual progressive school within the New York City public school system.

Formed in 1974 in one wing of PS 171 in strife-torn East Harlem, Central Park East started with only 100 pupils, and the ideas of the teachers who volunteered to teach there. Meier, as principal, and the teachers had a new vision of school: one that was teacher-run, had parental involvement, and was centered on subject matter rather than skills.

Today, Central Park East is a network of three elementary schools and a high school. Of the first group of students, only one has not finished high school; half the graduates went on to college.

Meier was in Boston recently as a host of a conference on progressive schools. She spoke to the Monitor about educational issues.

Do you think the Central Park East concept is something that can be replicated across the nation?

If we mean are there schools like this where you can give a lot of the autonomy and control collectively to the people who work in that school and who send their children to that school? yes, I think that idea can work all over the place. Can you create environments which are responsive to children? Yes, I think that can work all over the place. It would be satisfying and very successful. But the details, how people would carry it out, how they would organize their classrooms, what subjects they would focus on, what their particular priorities would be ... that would vary from community to community, from individual to individual.

How can we go about improving education?

If we took into account half of what we know about how human beings learn, and what we ourselves need to learn, we wouldn't organize schools the way we do. We wouldn't assume that decisions can come from some distant place, telling a teacher and school what to do with kids, and that some completely mystical way that none of us understand - the modern standardized test - would be used to assess whether we're doing well.

We wouldn't block schedules into 40-minute periods and assume that every 40 minutes kids can turn their minds off one thing and on to another thing. We wouldn't teach literature, history, and science as though they were all absolutely unrelated subjects, but would help students connect them. We would not assume that any adult can know well 150 kids and think about how they write, how they work, how they think, and then get a new group next semester. But that's how we organize our high schools.

We wouldn't assume that adolescence, of all ages, is the place we give the least adult support and provide the most anonymous environment. The American high school is the most anonymous institution anyone ever invented. You're one among 4,000 in the average N.Y.C. school, and we've been doing that for 50 to 60 years. And then we brag about the fact that some people survive it.

Everything we know would tell us that doesn't make any sense at all, but we have all kinds of reasons why we say it's very hard to change. ``What can we do,'' we say. ``We have these great big [school] buildings.'' But we don't say we can't have small companies because in New York City we only have big buildings.

Why do you think parental involvement in the schools is so important?

When children are in schools where parents feel a lack of trust and feel that their values are not respected, then that child is in a terrible bind, and the school is unlikely to get the maximum interest from the children. ... We can enormously lessen that gap of trust between families and schools. We can meet with the family from the start, and include students in conversations so young people can see that their family and school can talk things out. And that can make a major transformation in what children are allowed to do in school.... To relax and invest their interests in learning rather than holding back and watching.

It's equally true with adolescents. ... [Schools] shouldn't say as they do that now your kid is grown up and you shouldn't be interfering. It misunderstands what adolescents want and need, which is to be reassured that the family is a lifelong commitment. Schools [sometimes contribute to] a sense of abandonment at that time.

What do you think of the stricter measures of accountability required of teachers these days?

There is no way to educate children well if we don't have confidence in the adults that do it. We have to do all the things we need to do to protect ourselves ahead of time; try to think of ways we train teachers well, observe them well, give them sufficiently long internships until we have confidence in them. Then we have to act as if we have confidence in them.

I find [a lesson plan] unspeakably infuriating, horrible, degrading. It sends all the wrong messages and cannot lead to good education. If some teacher's room shows signs of being not well thought through, that's a teacher who needs help. That's not a teacher who needs to send you lesson plans every week. If you look at a room and it's clear that it's a room that's thoughtfully organized, and demonstrating the results of good planning, then why in the world would you ask that person for a lesson plan?

How did you get involved in teaching?

I started by subbing in Chicago schools and then teaching kindergarten full time when my children were small. ... I got really fascinated by math and science. I had to ask myself much deeper questions with them than anything I had done before. Schools are a place where much of the meaning of public life is explained to kids; an environment in which all important social issues are played out. They're a microcosm of the world.

What do you think of the MacArthur grant finally being given to a teacher?

I think it's some reflection of the fact that we're in the happy state of being a little bit more interested in schools and what teachers do.... There's some recognition that there's something odd on the one hand about our asking the best and the brightest to go into teaching because it's such a wonderful field, and on the other hand narrowing the decisionmaking that's left for teachers.

I hope the MacArthur is the first of many awards for people who are in the teaching profession. I hope that it's unusual that people will be so surprised that it's a teacher any more than they'd be surprised that a biologist or physicist got it.

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