Mercedes Schneider has listened to Betsy DeVos’s complaints about the public schools, the most common of which is that it is time to change. Big change. Real change.

DeVos recently complained that students were sitting around in desks, watching the teacher, and that is so old-timey. She wants something new, really new.

Of course, the classes in the religious schools she loves are also sitting at desks watching the teacher, but let’s put that aside.

Mercedes says she doesn’t mind the desks all that much.

She writes:

As DeVos continues, one senses that she believes desks in rows preclude education being “organized around the needs of students.” Of course, if rows of desks were the result of a pervasive voucher program, then they would be parent-empowered rows of desks, and that would surely vindicate that desk configuration.

I was in my desks-in-rows classroom today, even though it is a Saturday, because I needed to input grades in my computer in order to begin next week without being swamped. Last weekend, much of this past week, and some of this weekend I have spent and will spend time grading essays.

I teach English. Time-consuming essay grading is part of my responsibility to my students, just as it was 100 years ago. (I’m fairly certain that the computerized grading component emerged at least a decade or two later.)

I also spent hours meeting with each student individually to discuss each student’s grade on that essay assignment and to strategize improvements for the next essay, which will be even longer and more complex. I’m not sure if such consultation happened 100 years ago. I do know that my father (born 99 years ago) and my aunt (born 108 years ago) finished school at the eighth grade, which was common in the 1920s-1930s in New Orleans.

Indeed, the amount of time and effort it takes for me to grade a set of essays for my 141 high school seniors does have me siding with DeVos to rethink schools.

But now she is thinking that DeVos is on to something big with that desk issue.

Schneider wants a Harkness table in her classroom. She thinks there should be a Harness table in every high school classroom.

What is a Harkness table?

That is a table where a teacher sits with 12 students and discusses issues. This innovation began at the exclusive Exeter Academy, where Chester Finn Jr. was a student.

Schneider recalls a letter she wrote Finn in 2013:


Yes, Betsy, I would willingly surrender my 28 student desks for one Harkness table.

A wonderful byproduct of this desk-surrendering plan would be the reduced class size that would, in turn, cut my essay-grading burden by more than half.

We are on our way to solving multiple problems.

In my 2013 post, I called my plan the Exeter Plan, named for Finn’s multi-generational, exclusive private school alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, which started using the Harkness method in 1930.

(DeVos would surely forgive the multi-generational aspect of Finn attendance at a school with the same seating configuration across those generations since the school is a private school, which she prefers above all.)

Still, there are some complications, not the least of which is what would become of the students who don’t secure a seat at the table. That’s one of those old-fashioned hang-ups of traditional public schools: They have an obligation to educate all students– the public. They’ve been doing so for generations, just as private schools have been operating via selective admissions for generations.

So what if it is expensive? It would be a very productive change! Why should we teach 28 (or 35 or more) students in old-fashioned desks when it is so much more innovative to teach 12 students at one table?