Review of “In Schools We Trust”

In Schools We Trust:
Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization
by Deborah Meier
Beacon Press 200 pp.
© 2002


As in her first book, The Power of Their Ideas, Deborah Meier uses her experience as a principal of a small public school to illustrate her ideas of what the best of public education in a democracy can and should be. By grounding the book in her personal experience, her ideas become not just academic rhetoric, but complex stories of real children, teachers and parents. However, this is not specifically a narrative of a particular school, but rather an exploration and critique of ideas central to today’s struggles to improve public education for all children, using real stories to bring these ideas to life.

As the title implies, Meier centers the book around the idea of trust. She discusses what trust means, its centrality to learning, and how the issue of trust plays out on a variety of levels. As in her other works, Meier argues that the necessary level of trust is best built on as small a scale as practical. True trusting relationships require knowing each other well. And in heterogeneous communities getting to know each other well takes extra care and work. As common assumptions differ among different cultures, it becomes easy to inadvertently break that trust based on misconceptions, misinterpretations and unacknowledged biases.

Meier has divided the book into three section. The first centers on the school level. In this section she uses examples from her own schools to illustrate these issues extensively. The second discusses the current high stakes testing environment. The third looks at the larger political and policy contexts.

In the first section she looks at the issue of trust from a variety of in-school perspectives: adults and students, parents and school, teachers and teachers, and how issues of race and class further complexify all of these. Each of these issues is explored with anecdotal stories from her experiences in the three schools she has founded and directed.

The second section examines how high stakes standardized tests have arisen as a mistaken answer to the lack of policy makers’ trust in teachers and students. Meier examines closely what such tests can and can’t tell us about important learning, coming to the conclusion that not much important about individual children or deep learning can be gained from such tests. Further she looks at what effect these tests have on eroding the very trust they are supposedly designed to restore. She then examines what high standards, rather than standardization can mean for improving schools and the quality of learning. And finally she looks at what influence each of these stances are likely to have on the achievement gap. Again, she is able to compare how the exhibitions and portfolio assessments used in her schools have compared to the standardized tests both for what they tell us about students and about how they drive curriculum.

Many have criticized that despite the amazing and enormous success of all three of her schools with some of the most disadvantaged students, her ideas of small autonomous public schools cannot be taken to scale. In the third section she examines those criticisms. Meier speaks to how the current system is designed to undermine the success of such schools, and what it would take to create a policy environment to encourage rather than discourage such innovations, while still holding schools accountable to the larger public. Finally she sums up with a chapter on how public education and a truly democratic society are dependent on each other.
Meier’s writing style is engaging. The reader gets to feel like they are listening to the musing of a wise woman explore deeply, yet humbly, some of the most important questions confronting our educational system.

Other praise for this book
“A wise and beautiful book that elevates the level of debate on tests and school reform.”
—Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities

“A rich, nuanced reflection on trust and schooling that examines trust’s many layers. . . . A terrific, important book.”
—Mike Rose, author of Possible Lives

“A passionate, jargon-free plea for a rerouting of educational reform, sure to energize committed parents, progressive educators and maybe even a politician or two.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Listen carefully to Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust: She speaks to the heart of a school and of democracy itself.”
—Theodore R. Sizer, author of Horace’s Compromise and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

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