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Small schools creator says sustaining innovation is difficult

One of the books I read during my blogging vacation was “Those Who Dared: Five Visionaries Who Changed American Education.” The new volume, edited by Carl Glickman, contains autobiographical essays by five progressive educators. This week, I’ll be highlighting the most provocative observation made by each one.

First up is Deborah Meier, one of the progenitors of the small schools movement who founded an influential elementary school, Central Park East, in East Harlem in 1974. She went on to help create a host of non-traditional schools in the neighborhood and now teaches at New York University’s education school.

A proponent of play, democratic classrooms, and assessments other than standardized tests, Meier generally isn’t part of the education policy discussion dominated by fans of “no excuses” schools such as KIPP. But in her essay, she describes one challenge currently facing some “idealocrat” reformers: How to sustain innovative schools that are only barely able to exist in the first place. On that question, Meier doesn’t have much advice. She writes:

None of the schools I started were permanently protected from the standardizing influences that have surrounded them in the last 20 years. Above all, I never figured out how, in the world of here and now, such schools could survive without very particular conditions — strong godfathers, politically strong leadership, and few key politically hep parents. Sustainability, short of revolutionizing the entire system to one’s way of thinking or breaking free altogether of the public system, has eluded me.

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