Sunday, September 11, 2005

Book Review: The Power of Their Ideas

The Power of Their Ideas, by Deborah Meier. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995

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 Michael Klonsky, University of Illinois at Chicago.