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Posted at 10:11 AM ET, 12/ 4/2010

Meier: Partisan mindsets and teacher collegiality

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by prominent educator Deborah Meier on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with historian Diane Ravitch on the Education Week website.

Meier and Ravitch exchange letters about what matters most in education. Meier is the founding principal of Mission Hill School in Boston and a renowned education reformer. Her latest book, written with Brenda Engel & Beth Taylor) is "Playing for keeps: Life and learning on a public school playground."

Dear Diane:
...It's a relief these days to shift from contemplating the ugly takeover of our public institutions by private wealth—at a time when these very same people have undermined the economy of the nation itself—to talk about what fascinated me for 45 years. It was not the politics of schooling.

A new book by Ryan Teves that just arrived in my mailbox is worth reading. Teves is a math and science secondary school teacher who now runs a tutoring service in Scott Valley, Calif. It's called In Defense of the American Teen and was published by "" He tells the same story Ted Sizer told 30 years ago in his Horace trilogy, about the "inefficiency" (at best) of our high schools. It's told as seen through the eyes and ears of an alert and sensitive teacher witnessing young people's wasted teen years.

Teves and I part company in the final two chapters on promising developments. He sees hope where you and I see danger. But this fact gives me hope, not the opposite!

I realize that some of the supporters of charters and opponents of tenure are smart and caring people who can't be accused of having a different agenda. We need to converse more, not less, because our own particular personal experiences have a lot to do with how we arrive at opposite conclusions!

I thought Ross Douthat's recent New York Times' column, "The Partisan Mind," made a good point that needs repeating: our partisan mindset sometimes blinds us. While some of our opponents have an agenda that I do not share—and even abhor—others are on our wave length, and we may find a meeting point if we keep pushing them and ourselves.

But Diane, I'm sick of it all. I think back to what excited me about teaching in K-12 schools. What are the Teach for America types excited about these days? What book? What idea? The first book I read that got me thinking that teaching might be a lifetime endeavor was John Holt's first—How Children Fail (1964)—just when I began my own adventures as a parent and teacher. It was an eye-opening account of a colleague's classroom in a good progressive private school.

Like Teves, it led Holt to become an advocate of home-schooling. I regretted that, but I followed his work and learned a lot from the magazine he sponsored, Growing Without Schooling. At the same time I became a regular at Lillian Weber's Workshop Center at City College of New York, which put out monthly "Notes" mostly written by working teachers.

In 1974, the North Dakota Study Group under the leadership of Vito Perrone began publishing occasional essays that teachers could get their teeth into. There were a plethora of others, such as Pat Carini in North Bennington, Herb and Ann Cook's Resource Center in Manhattan, and the exciting science and math work done in Boston by the Education Development Center, especially the Elementary Science Study under David Hawkins and then Philip Morrison that led us also to some of the classics of earlier times and places.

These constituted the heart of my professional development in the early "open classroom" communities that came into being during those years. A network of networks of teachers who were challenged to get to the bottom of "it," and discovered "it" had no bottom. It was endlessly fascinating—to adults and kids.

Where can teachers find such collegiality today? Where are the institutions or publications that are built around deep respect for the intelligence and inventiveness of teachers—and kids? Are they there, but I'm missing them? The teachers I run into seem instead overwhelmed with study groups and programs driven by contextually empty data. Garbage in, garbage out.

The foundations that supported these efforts got impatient and are on to other things. They are chasing rainbows looking for the pot of gold...

When I started Mission Hill in Boston, we began not with an Outward Bound ropes course, but with a course run by Eleanor Duckworth of Harvard (read The Having of Wonderful Ideas) with 10 parents, 10 Harvard students, and our original 10 staff members. It exposed us all to the risks of sharing our ignorance with others and the intellectual power of struggling together over matters we never had thought about before!

It took me back to 1975 when an 8-year-old at the newly founded Central Park East School said aloud, "You mean it, don't you? You want us to tell you what we don't know, not show off what we do know." I remember the thrill of that moment for both of us.

Will teachers still find such thrilling moments today? Probably even Bill Gates once did, before he thought he knew it all.



Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | December 4, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Deborah Meier, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  collaboration, deb meier, deborah meier, diane ravitch, teach for america, teachers, teachers and collaboration  
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"We need to converse more, not less, because our own particular personal experiences have a lot to do with how we arrive at opposite conclusions!"

An enlightening statement as true as ever. Adults spend so much time trying to stake out their differences rather than discovering what led us to those conclusions. All the while students are lost in the confusion of conclusions.

Possibly this is a downside of access to communications that allow us to take a stand we might not have when forced in a face to face meeting. After all, we all wear the cape and big red "S" on the Internet. This is especially true when at times the written word creates a separate identity and dimension from the spoken word.

I'm not sure what drover my teachers in my day. Many were products of WW II, The Depression, and the Korean War. Totally different atmosphere and experience. I had a few that were not as passionate as I thought could be, but then again I look at my classmates that went into the teaching profession and they too have this passion. Too bad we couldn't bottle whatever "that" is, and dispense it to our colleges.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 5, 2010 6:37 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher of urban teens, I often worry that, in my rush to dot all "i's" and cross all "t's," I sometimes do my students a disservice. There is so much about the world they need to be questioning, not just memorizing. I keep thinking they will uncover the deeper nuggets of their own truth in college and beyond. But then, every now and then (quite unexpectedly), one asks a question that is not on the menu and goes to the heart of the meal itself, and how it was prepared, and why. I love those moments and need to find ways to produce more of them--while still following the script I have been given. For me, teaching remains an incredible adventure, perhaps because I came to it later in life. To hear more about my experiences, I invite your readers to visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | December 5, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I too began my teaching inspired by John Holt. I arranged for him to come speak at my college my junior year. Then I interviewed him as part of my graduate work. There is hope, I believe. Allow me to refer you to a recent post from my blog:

I, too, have started to look seriously at home schooling. The day is coming when learning will be learner based, NOT institution based.

Posted by: briobrio33 | December 7, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

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