In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization

In her school leadership work and in her writing, Deborah Meier powerfully sweeps aside distractions and identiWes how schools work best for all students. In Schools We Trust focuses on three elements that create good conditions for teaching and learning: small size, self-governance and choice-that is, that students and teachers elect to be part of a school community. Schools with these qualities are likely to encourage faculty, parents, and children to establish and strengthen bonds of mutual trust; schools with these qualities regularly produce mindful, well-prepared students.

Drawing on her experience at Boston’s Mission Hill School and other schools she’s led and worked in, Meier describes the opportunities that schools have to create trust between teachers and students, and how, sometimes, schools that aim to know their students well still fail to unite youth and adult cultures. She looks at the nuances of parental trust in the school people who work with their children and delves into the complex interactions required to foster the sort of trust that can withstand criticism and inevitable bias among a school community’s teachers.

I know that I will reach for In Schools We Trust to steady my nerves when conflicts arise and things get, as Meier says, “messy.” In schools and other places where people trust each other, inevitably they Wnd themselves disagreeing. The discomfort of strife can be overwhelmingly scary; many of us with less experience and fortitude than Meier shrink away. But Meier steadies us, reminding that conflicts point to what we’re most passionate about, even if we don’t always arrive at happy endings. We can trust Meier on the subject of separating distraction from essence, and she reminds us that the ubiquitous interpersonal messiness that results from sustained collective pursuit of a complicated goal such as creating a good school should not be seen as a distraction.

A detailed argument against state-mandated and other forms of standardized testing-the most pernicious distraction threatening schools today, in Meier’s view-occupies the center of In Schools We Trust. Meier details the ways in which tests from on high are, themselves, both untrustworthy and painfully unfair. She argues that true authentic assessment, honoring a child’s growth toward the goals that her community hopes she can reach, is necessarily particular and local. Though Meier doesn’t attempt to take on the task of designing “a theory and practice of assessment consistent with the democratic demand for high achievement for all children,” she knows that at every level we have to trust schools to do their work right.

In conclusion, Meier asks how we can take the qualities of trustworthy schools that work in a variety of settings and create systemic conditions so they can flourish widely. Recounting her experience with success, Meier describes New York City’s Coalition Campus School Project, which resulted in the establishment of six small, autonomous schools in an ediWce that contained Julia Richman, a ghost town of a comprehensive high school. The Julia Richman building serves as one of the premier examples of transforming dysfunction into small-school success. Meier also describes a failure, the Annenberg Project-sponsored Learning Zone, a virtual district in New York City meant to create an environment for better, sustainable schooling for Wve percent of the city’s students. (That you may not be intimately familiar with the Learning Zone’s successes points to its fate; In Schools We Trust’s Chapter Nine, “Scaling Up: Stacking the Odds in Favor of the Best,” contains succinct descriptions of the project’s premises and eventual outcomes.)

Taking on the argument that “her kind” of schools can’t be widespread because the teaching force is too fraught with mediocrity, Meier speculates, “Given the right context, the majority of ordinary teachers will bring new intellectual and moral energy to their schools.” But the omnipresence of the cold, far reach of testing-the most destructive symptom of systemic distrust-is rendering attempts to create such contexts infertile. While the concluding pages raise questions rather than provide solutions, Meier’s inquiries push us to focus on what’s most important: how to build and honor the bonds of trust between individuals and let all larger systems flow from there.

reviewed by Jill Davidson