Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas: lessons for America from a small school in Harlem focuses on the common sense innovations, policies and leadership decisions that made the Central Park East Elementary School and Secondary School (CPESS) a nationally-known success story. A founding co-principal and a driving force in the school’s development, Meier recounts the schools’ histories, mixing the stories of individual students with observations and anecdotes.
Her key themes: smaller is better, strong teachers matter, students should be developed and educated as whole human beings, and that the local school should develop and implement the rules and culture that works best for its students and communities. The larger educational, political, bureaucratic and economic debates may matter, but they are not part of Meier’s narrative. Also absent from The Power of Their Ideas are numbers, charts, or arguments presented and won on the basis of hard evidence. The book was written from the perspective of accomplishment, not as a work-in-progress, and as such the validity of the approach is presented as a given.
Ms. Meier must have been a positive influence for those that learned at Central Park East. The book is, in many ways, a tribute to them. Those that left the school and those that tangled with her probably have a different take on the matter and The Power of Their Ideas would leave them unconvinced. The book has a direct, engaging tone that binds up narrator, narrative and idea. I do not think that there is much more to Central Park East than what is represented here.
While higher education and the K-12 world share many attributes, they are two separate worlds with different language, culture and heroes. Ms. Meier’s successes belond squaredly in the realm of schools, not colleges, and unfortunately there is little here that translates well to academia.