Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Water In Which I Swim

I've found myself lately talking about my teaching philosophy. Now understand, on a day-to-day basis I don't really see myself as having a philosophy per se, at least not in the sense of a cohesive, comprehensive approach to early childhood education. I do attempt to adhere to certain principles, like being genuine with children, treating them like fully formed individual human beings, taking time each day for reflection, and then getting out of the way, which, increasingly, is how I attempt to interact with the grown-up people as well.

Not too long ago I attempted to flesh-out some of my thinking in a long post that took several days to write entitled Why I Teach the Way I Do, but I've recently coming to realize that I neglected to recognize just how fundamental the cooperative model is to how I live my day-to-day life. I guess maybe that's because it's so much the water in which I swim, the air I breathe, that it's hard for me to step back and fully appreciate this truly remarkable, democratic, and even revolutionary way we've chose to organize ourselves to deliver the "product" of early childhood education.

I often joke that we're "a little communist society," one in which all the members are there voluntarily, one that works as smoothly as any enterprise with which I have personal knowledge, one where, indeed, at any given moment, those with "ability" do, and those with "needs" receive. But I realize I do the cooperative model a disservice when I speak of this way, causing many people who would otherwise be enthusiasts to dismiss us as some sort of out-of-the-mainstream, hippy-dippy, crunchy granola school. 

Today, I want to try to correct that impression. 

Cooperatives exist in almost every sector of our economy. If you've ever purchased products from, say, Sunkist, Ocean Spray, Sun-maid, or Sunsweet, you've done business with a cooperative. In fact, cooperatives drive a significant proportion of our nation's agricultural and food marketing economic activity. True Value and Ace Hardware are cooperatives. Credit unions are cooperatives. Cooperatives provide healthcare, transportation, insurance, financial services, food, clothing, recreational equipment, housing, energy, telephone service, and, of course, child care and education. According to a recent study by University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, US cooperatives in all their various forms "operate at 72,993 places of business (establishments), collectively accounting for nearly $652B in revenue, $154B in income, (more than) $74B in wages, and (more than) 2M jobs." Cooperatives hold over $3 trillion in assets. That's real business.

The Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools are a type of cooperative that is defined as "customer owned," in that the families that enroll their children become equal owner-operators, which is how the vast majority of cooperatives are organized, although there are also producer-owned and worker-owned cooperatives, as well as purchasing cooperatives. Whatever the organization, however, it is the underlying principles of cooperatives that are the most intriguing, and inspiring, to me:

Traditionally, the defining characteristics of a cooperative business are that the interests of the capital investor are subordinate to those of the business user, or patron, and returns on capital are limited. Cooperative control is in the hands of its member-patrons, who democratically elect the board of directors. Member-patrons are the primary source of equity capital, and net earnings are allocated on the basis of patronage instead of investment . . . The USDA summarized these characteristics in its definition of a cooperative as a "user-owned, user-controlled business that distributes benefits on the basis of use." A broader definition of cooperative by The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) employs broader terms in its definition of a cooperative as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise." The ICA has adopted the Rochdale principles (based on a consumer cooperative in England dating to 1844), seven world-wide, generally acknowledged principles that guide the cooperative enterprise: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community . . .

There are those, many of whom in powerful positions in our government and economy, who insist that the future, and specifically the future of education, belongs to the principles that underpin for-profit corporations, that the competitive drive for profit will somehow lead to the best educational results. I can't see that from where I sit. I understand, I suppose, how level playing field competition (and that's a mighty important condition) might lead to innovation and lower costs when it comes to consumer products like televisions, but my experience with cooperatives, both as an employee and member, has taught me that this is not the only way to achieve high quality, low cost results. In fact, what most cooperatives do is remove the impediment of profit, allowing customer-owners to directly focus on our common needs and aspirations without having to consider the pressures of producing return-on-investment to stockholders.

This is the water in which I swim as a teacher and it is, in a very real sense, why equality, democracy, independence, cooperation, and community stand at the center of everything we do.

(If you want to read more about how a preschool cooperative like ours operates, you might want to read my 5-part series entitled Cooperative Nuts & Bolts and read from the bottom up.)

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