Our 11th-grade American history teacher didn’t mince words. “I am going to teach you about democracy in an autocratic manner,” he said on the first day of class.
The stab at irony may have produced some smiles, but none of us expected it to be any different. Of course, he would be an autocrat. School was an autocratic institution. We all knew that.
Deborah Meier may have known it, but she didn’t accept it. The renowned progressive educator has spent her career not only preaching but practicing progressive, democratic principles at places like Central Park East schools in New York and Mission Hill School in Boston.
Speaking last week to an audience at the Indiana University School of Education, she said it’s odd that we send our kids to “thoroughly autocratic” schools and expect them to learn democratic citizenship.
“There are very few places where young people experience what democracy looks like,” she said.
Researchers have shown school choice via charter schools and private school vouchers is increasing the segregation of American schools by race and social class. That’s a worrisome and important finding, but schools were growing more segregated before the rise of choice, in part because of decisions we made as individuals and communities.
One example is Bloomington, Ind., the small college town where I live. With relatively few black and Latino students, you can’t say the schools are segregated by race. But students from different socioeconomic groups are separated in different schools.
That’s the backdrop for discussions that will take place this week at the Harmony-Meier Institute’s third annual symposium. It will include conversations on local school equity issues on Thursday and a panel featuring legendary progressive educator Deborah Meier and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick on Friday.
Thursday’s event celebrates the legacy of the late Indiana University education professor Ellen Brantlinger, who described class segregation in local schools in her 2003 book “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.”
The local school district has put more resources into high-poverty schools since then, but the basic situation continues. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch range from over 85 percent in one school to less than 7 percent in another. Not surprisingly, low-poverty schools tend to have higher test scores and consistently get As on the state’s school grading system, while high-poverty schools sometimes struggle.