Symposium takes on schools' role in creating democracy

By Brittani Howell

From the Bloomington Hearld-Times  April 8, 2017

If the U.S. wants children to become democratic citizens, it should make its public schools more democratic themselves.

That’s what Deborah Meier told educators Friday morning during a symposium discussion.

Meier, a renowned education expert, pioneering leader in the small schools movement and the first teacher or principal to win a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” joined Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and Terry Mason, dean of the Indiana University School of Education, for the Harmony-Meier Institute symposium’s closing event, “A Public Conversation about Public Education in Indiana.”

Meier was unable to attend in person because of health reasons, but that didn’t stop her from bringing her voice to the conversation via Skype. The symposium organizers projected her Skype window onto a screen at the front of the School of Education auditorium, where she loomed large over her fellow speakers. IU’s Mason compared her to the Wizard of Oz. Both Meier and the audience laughed.

The conversation, co-sponsored by the Harmony-Meier Institute and the Department of Education, covered teacher autonomy, the growing role of technology in the classroom and the influence of high-stakes testing, but it returned often to the role of public schools in creating a democratic society.

It’s a vital role, Meier said, but one that public schools don’t perform very well.

“I think we have this odd phenomenon where we send ourselves through 12 years of education in a thoroughly authoritarian system,” she said, in which decisions are made at the upper levels of administration and teachers are expected to comply.

Instead, Meier argued, teachers should be involved in the decisions of a school, and parents should consider themselves constituents who have the right to contribute to the way a school operates.

And students need to be right there to witness the process, she added.

“I want them to see how adults solve difficult problems, and argue about it and disagree and take risky steps, and have an opportunity to try those out,” Meier said.

Being in the company of thoughtful, decision-making adults would groom children into “apprentice citizens,” who develop an early understanding of how to weigh risks, exercise careful judgment, evaluate how their decisions affect others and work collaboratively within their community.

State schools superintendent McCormick, who took office this year, emphasized the importance of empowering teachers in their classrooms.

Teachers have so many policies they must adhere to from federal, state and local entities that it sometimes leaves little room for, or even restricts, the kind of innovation they want to pursue or even have time to develop, McCormick said.

Technology, such as one-to-one devices in K-12 classrooms, brings opportunities for innovation and gives more students equal access to quality resources, but it has its own implications for democracy, she said.

“We’d better be aware of the way we are educating our students on their technological citizenship,” McCormick said.

Meier was more hesitant to praise the role of technology in the classroom, saying she feared it made students more inclined to simply accept the curriculum handed to them and teachers to lean on the pre-programmed lessons, inhibiting creativity and innovation at multiple levels.

The core of democracy is the ability to question and critique, Meier said, and, if needed, to disagree with the status quo rather than submitting to the system.

“We need to teach noncompliance,” she said.

The discussion closed after a brief question-and-answer session with the audience.