Mark Danner

How Not To Fix The Schools

The public schools of America long ago sank to a level of decrepitude guaranteeing them the sort of dogged scrutiny by blue ribbon commissions reserved for a "crisis" both intolerable and permanent.

The public schools of America long ago sank to a level of decrepitude guaranteeing them the sort of dogged scrutiny by blue ribbon commissions reserved for a “crisis” both intolerable and permanent. The distinguished panel reports by now fill many shelves; but the standardized test scores, trumpeted as the unfailing indicator of the system’s health, continue to languish.

Like its predecessors, the Reagan Administration has proclaimed that improving education is a number-one priority; unlike them, it has succeeded in persuading the states to enact what it calls a “tidal wave” of reform. Purportedly designed to make the schools more “accountable,” these laws mandate more requirements and more standardized tests, further concentrating power in the state capitals. The reforms, aimed at an already heavily bureaucratic and inflexible system, propose to heal the patient by administering more of what made him sick.

What will this current wave of school reform actually achieve? What are the real problems of American schools, and why are they so intractable? What sorts of action would serve as the beginning of true reform? Harper’s invited education scholars, former government officials, a superintendent, a principal, and a high school teacher to consider how best to fix America’s schools-and how not to.

The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the Harvard Club in New York City. Mark D. Danner served as moderator.

is senior editor of Harper’s.

is chairman of the social studies department at Farmingdale High School in Nassau County, New York. He has been a high school teacher for thirty years.

is superintendent of the District of Columbia public school system. She served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education from 1979 to 1981.

is president of the American Federation of Teachers.

is president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the author of its 1983 study, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America. He was chancellor of the State University of New York from 1970 to 1977 and United States commissioner of education from 1977 to 1979.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s and the author of Indispensable Enemies and The Politics of War.

is executive director of the Council for Basic Education, a national advocacy group dedicated to improving liberal arts education in elementary and secondary schools.

is a professor of education at Brown University and the author of Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. He was headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1972 to 1981.

is principal of Thayer Junior/Senior High School in Winchester, New Hampshire. He created the Shoreham Wading River Middle School in Shoreham, N. Y., and served as principal there from 1972 to 1978.

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . . . [T]he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur-others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

MARK D. DANNER: These incendiary words are drawn from the opening paragraphs of A Nation at Risk, a report on America’s schools, written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The document was obviously intended to provoke a strong response, and it did: its publication in 1983 set off a heated national debate about the perilous condition of America’s schools, a debate that quickly spread from the editorial pages to the state legislatures to the presidential debates the following year, culminating in a small library of books and follow-up reports.

What is most surprising, however, is the fact that A Nation at Risk, unlike most government reports, actually provoked significant changes in school policy, what the Department of Education called “a tidal wave of school reform.”

As of 1984, forty-one states, following the report’s recommendations, had stiffened high school graduation requirements; thirty-seven states had introduced new, presumably stricter student evaluation and testing programs; and twenty states had increased the amount of required instruction time in their schools, by lengthening the school day, the school year, or both. And we could offer other examples.

Yet the general effect of the report’s proposals can be summarized in one phrase: more of the same. The report takes the schools as they exist for granted, arguing that we need only add more requirements, more standardized testing, more hours spent in the classroom. A gross disparity seems to exist between the urgency of the crisis situation described in the report – the “rising tide of mediocrity” – and the comparative mildness, even superficiality of the proposed remedies. If a crisis of such magnitude is indeed upon us, we should be scrutinizing our schools in a more fundamental way. I hope we can make a start on that today.

Perhaps we should begin by trying to predict what the results of these reforms will be, at least in the short run. Mr. Krakowsky, what do you expect will happen in your classroom as the New York State program is phased in?

IVAN KRAKOWSKY: The New York State Regents Action Plan is potentially revolutionary. To earn a diploma, all students will be required to pass four years of English, four years of social studies, at least two years of math, two years of science, one year of a foreign language, and one year of art and music. In my field, social studies,
every student must not only successfully complete four years but must also pass a statewide examination in the tenth and eleventh grades. Students who fail the exams must take remedial classes until they can pass.

Our schools have never had requirements like this before; I don’t know how students will respond. It seems likely that many more of them will fail; certainly large numbers will not be able to meet the new standards. Many will leave school; some might stay in school longer in order to graduate. Actually, in my opinion, the most likely scenario is that the New York State Regents will retreat the moment a problem arises, particularly if the problem is on a leviathan scale, such as thousands more kids suddenly flunking out of school. The Regents may reduce the requirements or water them down.

By the way, despite all the publicity, the New York State Regents Action Plan, at least at the high school level, does not go into effect until 1989, and I suspect that in the average school the full implications of it are not even being discussed. Administrators and teachers will probably realize them two days before it’s implemented, or two years after. There is certainly no sense of urgency. Some educators no doubt hope the plan will go away. They may be right.

FLOREITA D. MCKENZIE: It’s obvious that some serious costs of these programs have not been calculated or perhaps even thought about. After all, remedial classes mean a lot more teachers, no two ways about it. And the extended school day, or school year, that’s being mandated in a lot of states is going to mean a lot more money.

ALBERT SHANKER: SO is this new foreign language requirement. Where are the teachers going to come from? No one has been studying languages for the last twenty years! It’s ridiculous.

MCKENZIE: There’s great potential for a negative impact if these tough standards are set without a compensating effort to make sure students can meet them. It’s easy to set the standards and let kids fail, but in the end communities simply won’t tolerate a lot more failing students.

DANNER: How will the local school boards react?

MCKENZIE: First off, they’ll fire the superintendent. You don’t fail large numbers of students and expect everyone to be happy. There’ll be a lot of turnover, I can tell you that.

The word you hear everywhere today is excellence; everyone is concerned with the quality of graduates, not the quantity. I worry that by wrapping ourselves in this cloak of “excellence” we’ll be satisfied if the percentage of Americans graduating from high school continues to hover around 75 percent when other nations are graduating 90 percent. Excellence is important, sure; but we have to confront the simple fact that a high school dropout is likely to become part of a permanent underclass with very little hope of decent employment.

Of course we need the concern and the support of the state legislatures. But one result of all this political action is that we on the front lines become afraid to talk about the real problems, even to tell the truth about how many dropouts there are in some districts. We don’t know if we have any hope of attracting these young people back to school, because we don’t know whether we’re giving them anything better or more useful than what they were getting before.

We need to talk about these problems honestly before we can develop a meaningful policy. A lot of kids are going to get hurt while we skitter around on this hot political frying pan.

ERNEST L. BOYER: This is a school reform movement, in short, driven by political and economic interests, not by educational and human ones. Well over 90 percent of the so-called advances in the fifty states listed by the Department of Education in a recent report are regulatory-do this, don’t do that.SHANKER: Politicians look for slogan answers and quick results within election periods of two or four years. For all the tough exams being mandated, nobody is mentioning the obvious fact that these tests measure the end product of a long educational process: they measure what students didn’t learn in the first, second, and third grades. You don’t hear much talk about in- vesting in the earlier grades so that when these students get to high school they will have a better chance of making it. These “reforms” are political measures designed to get test numbers up fast; everybody wants to have some “improvement” to point to before the next election.

SHANKER: The message out of the state capitals is: We think you superintendents and principals and teachers are a bunch of idiots, so we’re going to tell you to spend this number of minutes on this subject, and we’ll provide a standard set of materials and a standardized examination to make sure you follow orders. At a time when the administration in Washington is claiming that our biggest sin has been to stifle initiative by overregulation, we have entered the greatest era of educational regulation in history.

BOYER: But the politicians are only filling a vacuum; they certainly aren’t trying to subvert or hurt the schools. They’re doing what they know how to do, and legislators know how to do one thing: to regulate. So they tighten standards and mandate more tests. The motivation is there; the attitude is constructive. People generally don’t want simple answers; but they do want real answers, evidence, and accountability.

DANNER: But must accountability be achieved at the expense of real reform?

BOYER: This is our central dilemma: historically, Americans have wanted local control of education but national results. Americans like the idea of localism. But how do they know their schools are doing a good job unless they have a national yardstick to measure them against?

The problem is, we’ve never been able to devise a system that allows the excitement and flexibility of local control as well as the accountability of national results. In the end we do the worst of all things: we not only mandate rigid standards but also hand out to the nation an annual report card based on SAT scores – yardsticks that were devised precisely to be schoolproof, to measure aptitude rather than learning. And the media use these test averages to pass on to Americans the one bit of information the tests can’t reliably tell us: whether our schools are getting better or worse.

WALTER KARP: I think we ought to be a little more skeptical about how the wheels of power turn. Educational “reform” movements have assumed a certain pattern in this century. The so-called progressive movement of the 1920s was brutally converted into tracking and vocational education. Today, the drive for so-called excellence is immediately converted into state-mandated requirements; the need to develop critical, independent thinking turned into more standardized tests that encourage its opposite; the demand for better teaching into less pedagogic freedom in the classroom. Those in power seem to have a habit of manipulating to their own ends any desire for meaningful reform.

You have to accept the fact that the schools are political institutions. If you went to a state legislature and said that the schools should produce inquiring, idealistic, active students, students with self-esteem and self-confidence who have been encouraged from the moment they start school to think for themselves and understand their liberties, those politicians would faint dead away. That is exactly the opposite of what they want to see.

DANNER: Presumably it’s not the opposite of what the people at large want to see. Or do we have any real idea what Americans want today’s schools to do? Do we want the schools to produce effective workers and thereby help our economy keep pace with the ]apanese, as the writers of A Nation at Risk assume? Should the schools promote social justice, as Mrs. McKenzie believes? Or should they produce vigilant citizens, as Thomas Jefferson thought?

KARP: We tell young people incessantly that if they stay in school they’re going to get a better job, but very often we’re lying to them; for many of them, the jobs simply aren’t there. This single-minded purpose is drummed into kids, and not only high school kids. My wife is a school-teacher; she recently asked a class of second- graders why they were in school. They said, “To get a better job”; it was a chorus sung by thirty eight-year-olds. My wife said, “That’s not the only purpose.” Pencils dropped. The kids thought it was a trap.

There is a tremendous amount of this kind of crass utilitarianism in our schools, a pervasive propaganda that comes down from the tops of school systems all over the country. The confusion in children, their lack of interest in school, is often the result of the confusion and dishonesty of the schools themselves.

A. GRAHAM DOWN: To make people more functionally competent and employable is only the implicit purpose of education. Surely its abiding, all-encompassing purpose must be to equip people with the taste for lifelong learning.

THEODORE R. SIZER: At the heart of it is teaching people to use their minds well. Jefferson’s conception of education as essential to true citizenship comes into that: if a person is ill-equipped to think issues through carefully, he becomes a ready target for those who would manipulate him. Similarly, the necessary complement to developing the ability to think is developing character. Whether we like it or not, schools help youngsters develop values by which to live. They may do it well or badly, implicitly or explicitly, but they inevitably do it.

BOYER: The two fundamental goals of education are personal empowerment and civic engagement. Personal empowerment requires that people be able to think analytically and examine information critically; that they be able to think creatively – go beyond the analysis and challenge assumptions, leap out of the present and imagine beyond where they are; and that they be able to act with a clear sense of integrity. Civic engagement requires that people learn how to use these skills while taking full part in the life of the larger community.

KARP: One simple concept includes all those purposes: Americans do not go to school in order to increase the social efficiency or economic prosperity of the country, but to become informed, critical citizens. A citizen is not a worker. The Soviet Union has workers, the American republic has citizens. A citizen is a political being; he has private powers and a public role. As Jefferson wrote, the education of a citizen must “enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.”

In practice, that goal is persistently betrayed. It is essential that citizens be able to judge for themselves and have the courage and confidence to think for themselves. Yet America’s high schools characteristically breed conformity and mental passivity. They do this through large, impersonal classes, a focus on order as the first priority, and an emphasis on standardized, short-answer tests, among other things. Our schools do not attempt to make citizens; they attempt to break citizens.

SIZER: And the recent reforms reinforce the tendency toward fact-stuffing, short answers, and mental passivity by emphasizing tighter requirements and standardized testing.

One of the reasons the reforms aren’t changing this tendency is the surprisingly substantial public support for the schools. The idea that most people believe schools are in disastrous shape is, I think, quite mistaken. If anything, people exhibit a rather mindless, ill-informed satisfaction about the schools. This is why our political system avoids challenging the basic assumptions and merely strengthens and extends them: our schools are basically OK; let’s just push them a little harder, add an eighth period to a seven-period day, add thirty days to a 180- day-a-year schedule, test the kids more. That approach certainly does not suggest people are tremendously upset with the schools as they are.

BOYER: Meanwhile, students don’t have the fog- giest idea why they’re in school. We asked hundreds of students what they were doing in school. The most frequent response was, “I have to be here.” They know it’s the law. Or, “If I finish this, I have a better chance at a job.” The “this” remains a blank. Or, “I need this in order to go to college.” Or, “This is where I meet my friends,” Not once in all our conversations did students mention what they were learning or why they should learn it.

In general, we found among students a feeling of passivity and non-engagement, a sense that they don’t fit, that they are not really being asked to become responsible adults. The schools have become institutions of passivity and are viewed by most students as adult places where rules are imposed and they must conform. If 40 million children do not see their schools as places for learning that somehow touch what they worry about every day, the prospects of making school a vital place are not good.

MCKENZIE: So many of these kids are just marking time, just playing the game to get through the day. And a good deal of the time teachers are doing the same thing, doing just enough to get through the hour. The two sides are partners; neither side pushes the other.

I taught a class in geography during American Education Week, a class full of bright but lazy youngsters. I asked a lot of questions about things they should have known just by living. But they didn’t know, not because they weren’t bright but because they lacked interest. I’m talking about some very bright kids – some of the brightest – who should be having fun challenging the teacher, making that teacher move. The problem is not that everything is dramatically falling apart in the schools; it’s that the schools are working in a passive, dull, mediocre way.

If we were to design a place whose sole purpose was to develop the qualities all of you listed, it might look nothing like an institution that, as its first priority, must ensure that three thousand kids get there at 8:30 in the morning, stay until 3:00 in the afternoon, and are reason- ably well behaved for most of that time.SHANKER: We’re forgetting something essential about schools. Although the aims of education certainly include the development of character, civic virtues, and so on, the public also pays its school taxes for quite a different purpose. The need to control children, to harbor them for a certain amount of time away from their working or otherwise engaged parents, tends to become the most important function schools perform. And this custodial function often conflicts with, even dominates, the others.
What are the purposes of summer camps? Teaching children to work with others, to enjoy the beauty of nature, and so on. Well, I once worked at a camp whose real purpose was to ensure that a camper could not escape and wander back to his or her parents at the main hotel. So keeping close track of the campers became our major purpose; they were no longer permitted to wander off and catch butterflies or look at trees or just stroll in the woods. What might have been the major benefits of camp were lost.

DENNIS LlTTKY: One of my teachers did a fantastic month and a half of classes on questioning- teaching the kids how to analyze a subject and ask the right questions. The sessions were designed to teach critical thinking, and they were highly successful. But we got a huge amount of flak – from parents. They didn’t want their kids pestering them with questions. We thought our job was somehow forcing these kids to use their minds; the parents thought we should take care of their kids during the day and eventually reward them with a diploma.

SHANKER: Insofar as a student is influenced at home, he is told to go to class, find out what the teachers want, and give it to them. Not because he’ll become a good citizen or come to enjoy learning for the rest of his life or learn how to think critically, but to get that piece of paper and trade it in for a job.

BOYER: So a school becomes not a place of learning but an institution issuing certificates of upward mobility to those who conform to the rules.

DANNER: You educators seem to be in a rather embarrassing minority position here. You think of schools as places where people are taught how to think critically and how to become vigilant citizens, whereas most adults and students apparently believe the schools exist to keep kids out of trouble for a few years and help them get jobs.

SIZER: Well, some schools produce students who in fact know they’re there to learn. Last year five students – two seniors, one junior, and two ninth graders from Dennis Littky’s Thayer School – lectured to one of our education classes at Brown. These were tough kids, examples of the wonderfully complicated kind of classic kid who fights the system relentlessly and ultimately walks away from it – drops out. The Thayer people had taken time with these youngsters and had somehow managed to make them see a clear connection between their wish to get ahead and the larger intellectual and civic vir- tues of education. These kids spoke about school with the passion of converts at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

LlTTKY: What was different about these kids was that they became committed to learning. They stayed in school because they were given a lot of respect, and the time to talk about what they were studying and why they were studying it. It is crucial that a kid understand why he’s learning something, almost as important as the fact that he does learn it. Sometimes I find myself watching a student who’s not doing anything. I know if I told him, “Hey, go on and do this,” he’d do it, but he’d just be following orders. Teachers must not only present material and help students understand it; they also must be patient enough to let students discover for themselves.

BOYER: But educators themselves have become less sure of what is worth knowing. Why should we expect a principal at a Long Island high school to be enlightened and clearheaded, to say nothing of a second-grade teacher, when the faculties at our universities endlessly debate what is necessary for a good education? There’s no longer a single accepted core of knowledge.

KARP: We can go on and on about the complexity of knowledge, but when we get down to brass tacks we find more basic problems in our schools; one example is the systematic, protracted failure to teach reading – just one of those minor skills without which you can’t achieve anything in this society. A student who can’t read will be so far behind by the sixth grade that school will be a nightmare.

What about the teaching of history? Jefferson thought it was crucial that citizens learn history, so that they might “know ambition under all its shapes.” Travel to any schoolroom in the country and you will not find ambition, let alone the disguises of ambition, taught this way. What you will find is something called “social studies,” in which schoolchildren learn a great deal more about the Panama Canal than about Abraham Lincoln, a great deal more about Betsy Ross than about freedom of the press. And how about the development of critical thinking in the classroom? Studies appear pointing out the failure of schools to develop critical thinking in students. Instantly, statewide standardized tests are mandated, multiple-choice tests guaranteed to wipe out any vestige of critical thinking.

SIZER: The degree to which the reform movement ignores the current concepts about learning is astonishing. It is doubly ironic that these educational reforms, supposedly based on a belief in the power of the mind, are in fact profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-scholarly. John Goodlad’s seven-year study A Place Called School was published at the same time as many of these reports, but it’s as if his work doesn’t exist; it’s as if certain common-sense notions about how schools are organized-that students, for example, can’t engage their minds very well in 35- minute snippets of time, or that smaller classes allow for more individual attention – play no role whatsoever in many of the state reforms. I think the responsibility for this serious oversight rests primarily at the doors of our universities.

DOWN: H. Ross Perot-a man, I may say, of less self-doubt than any other human being I’ve ever met – declared to me rather heatedly the other day that all teachers colleges ought to be torched. Although that seems rather too strong a statement, I do think the present general practice of requiring aspiring teachers to go directly from a liberal arts college to a teachers college may be wrong. Perhaps a system in which teachers go through a clinical experience in a school, as doctors do in a hospital, and only then return to a teachers college, would be a better way to equip them with the skills they need to teach.

KRAKOWSKY: Americans teach pretty much the same way they did twenty-five years ago. But our student population has changed radically. Everybody goes to high school today, not just those who feel a strong motivation to go. In 1940, 24 percent of Americans over twenty-five had high school diplomas; in 1984, more than 73 percent did. That’s a huge difference.

Meanwhile, the culture has changed enormously. We talk about developments in peda- gogy: What about developments in sex? The sexual revolution has profoundly altered how young people think and behave, their expectations about school and about becoming adults. Walk into a high school and look at the way kids relate to one another in the halls; kids are standing outside classrooms grinding their hips together. What goes on in the halls must affect what goes on in the classroom.

BOYER: Kids are less willing to be institutionalized, to conform to certain specified behaviors, unless they are given what they consider acceptable reasons why. Through the influence of television and other media, students have become much more sophisticated, if not wiser. They are more skeptical and more distracted, less reverential and less willing to take direction. The problem is not only what to teach but also how to engage these young people.

One way to begin is to recognize the central- ity of the teacher, to give more recognition and empowerment to the people who have to do the actual work. All of the regulatory mandates come to precisely nothing if we refuse to recognize that teachers matter most. Many high school teachers see 150 different students every day.

DOWN: Teachers often have no support services of any kind-no assistants, secretarial help, or private offices. Because they are the victims of everyone else’s sense of priority, they are constantly interrupted during their classes. American schooling has become a sort of kaleidoscope of activities – announcements blasted over the public address system, constant messages from the administration, and of course the chaotic change in classes every hour – in which the psychology, not to say sanity, of the teacher is challenged at every turn.

KARP: But how did we get these horrifyingly bad conditions? We are the richest country in the world, yet we have very large classes. Goodlad’s study shows that in the first three grades, the average class size is 27 students; in high school, it’s 35. That’s a national disgrace. We also have enormous schools. I went to one, and I’ll never forget what it was like to be one of 5,000 students: gongs ringing, announcements blaring, guards at either end of a mobbed hallway. It was a prison. Citizens should not have to spend their youth becoming accustomed to prison life.

SIZER: The large high school is a product of the so-called efficiency movement, the pre-World War I fantasy that, following Frederick Taylor’s industrial principles, saw the school as a place where certain rivets were hammered into the heads of indistinguishable units, each of which was called a child.

SHANKER: And since then, many dissertations and studies have been written “proving” that small classes make no academic difference. Publishing such studies used to be one way to get ahead in educational administration. Of course, common sense says that it makes a great deal of difference: kids will learn to write better, to organize their thoughts better, and to think more critically, if they get more personal attention.

KARP: One would suppose class size to be absolutely fundamental in making teaching more bearable, in transforming custodialism into true instruction, in helping to encourage struggling students to think for themselves, giving them a chance to talk in class, to answer questions, and so on. Yet it is hardly mentioned in the recent reports.

SHANKER: It is a basic money issue. In any large American city, reducing class size by one or two students means spending tens of millions of dollars. That’s why school boards would rather pay for reports saying that class size is irrelevant than put up the money to make classes smaller.

And where are the extra teachers going to come from? We are going to have to replace 1.1 million teachers during the next eight years. To begin to reduce class size, we might need 1.4 or 1.5 million. Hiring 1.5 million new teachers would mean that 55 percent of all students graduating from college in the top half of their classes would have to become teachers. The teaching profession would find itself competing directly with law and medicine to attract applicants.

Raising teachers’ pay will not be enough to attract these people; the salaries will rise anyway because of market forces. We can no longer take advantage of a pool of female graduates and minorities who are forced into teaching because they can’t get jobs elsewhere. Even reducing class size and eliminating some of teachers’ more onerous burdens is not enough. Educated people today simply do not want to work in the kind of factory the traditional school has become, especially when they’re treated like hired hands.

KARP: Among the things that will never happen as long as schools are considered instruments of economic growth is that the teacher will attain some kind of dignity. It is a simple fact that 90 percent of Americans have shitty jobs, and if you say that your profession is teaching people how to get low-life, terrible jobs, it is unlikely that the public will ever see true dignity in it.

SHANKER: Well, 90 percent of the people don’t think they have shitty jobs, which is why I have such trouble unionizing them!

KARP: Perhaps the federal government should com- mission a report with an appropriately inflammatory title; they could call it A Nation at Risk. The subject would be the dehumanization and regimentation of students, the cynicism bred in the schools by the mobs pushing down the halls, the authoritarianism built into those commands barked over public address systems. Suppose the real A Nation at Risk had pointed to the desperate necessity for a humane education, that it had emphasized the need for smaller classes, smaller schools, fewer interruptions, more teachers. Don’t you think all the complicated factors you described that now prevent reform might be swept away?

SIZER: I think we have to figure out a way to reallocate priorities, both financial and human, within the existing school system. That means simplifying the schools in order to get that personalization, which in turn means engagirig in the politics of subtraction a most difficult exercise and one the public schools have not often had to confront in this century.

Two ways to begin reducing student-teacher ratios within existing budgets are: first, simplifying administration, thus reducing the number of administrators; and, second, refocusing the curriculum around a core of essential intellectual skills and areas of study, and restricting programs that don’t directly contribute to this core.

The Rudiments of Teacher Education

“That’s your little mob in there,” said Grimes; “you let them out at eleven.”

“But what am I to teach them?” said Paul in sudden panic.

“Oh, I shouldn’t try to teach them anything, not just yet, anyway. Just keep them quiet.”

“Now that’s a thing I’ve never learned to do,” sighed Mr. Prendergast.

Paul watched him amble into his class room at the end of the passage, where a burst of applause greeted his arrival. Dumb with terror, he went into his own classroom.

Ten boys sat before him, their hands folded, their eyes bright with expectation. “Good morning, sir,” said the one nearest him.

“Good morning,” said Paul.
“Good morning, sir,” said the next.
“Good morning,” said Paul.
“Good morning, sir,” said the next.
“Oh, shut up,” said Paul.

At this the boy took out a handkerchief and began to cry quietly.
“Oh, sir,” came a chorus of reproach, “you’ve hurt his feelings. He’s very sensitive; it’s his Welsh blood, you know: it makes people very emotional. Say ‘Good morning’ to him, sir, or he won’t be happy all day. After all, it is a good morning, isn’t it, sir?”

“Silence!” shouted Paul above the uproar, and for a few moments things were quieter. . . . “I suppose the first thing I ought to do is to get your names clear.

What is your name?” he asked, turning to the first boy.
“Tangent, sir.”
“And yours?”
“Tangent, sir,” said the next boy. Paul’s heart sank.

“But you can’t both be called Tangent.” “No, sir, I’m Tangent. He’s just trying to be funny.”

“I like that. Me trying to be funny! Please, sir, I’m Tangent, sir; really I am.”
“If it comes to thai:” said Clutterbuck from the back of the room, “there is only one Tan- gent here, and that is me. Anyone else can jolly well go to blazes.”
Paul felt desperate.

“Well, is there anyone who isn’t Tangent?” Four or five voices instantly arose.

“I’m not, sir; I’m not Tangent. I wouldn’t be called Tangent, not on the end of a barge pole.” In a few seconds the room had become divided into two parties: those who were Tangent and those who were not. Blows were already being exchanged, when the door opened and Grimes came in. There was a slight hush.
“I thought you might want this,” he said, handing Paul a walking stick. “And if you take my advice, you’ll set them something to do.” He went out; and Paul, firmly grasping the walking stick, faced his form.

“Listen,” he said. “I don’t care a damn what any of you are called, but if there’s another word from anyone I shail keep you all in this afternoon.”

“You can’t keep me in,” said Ciutterbuck; “I’m going for a walk with Captain Grimes.”

“Then I shall very nearly kill you with this stick. Meanwhile you will all write an essay on ‘Self-indulgence.’ There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit.”

From then onward all was silence until break. Paul, still holding the stick, gazed despondently out of the window. . . . By the time the bell rang Clutterbuck had covered sixteen pages, and was awarded the half crown.

-from Decline and Fall (1928), by Evelyn Waugh

MCKENZIE: But can we guarantee that smaller classes would give us higher achievement – students who’d be able to think and articulate more effectively? In Japan, high school classes have about fifty students, yet learning goes on and there is little disorder.

BOYER: The Japanese have a very narrow, “content-managed” view of education. Some tasks can be accomplished quite well in large classes; introducing certain subjects, for example. But one might argue that the best way to help human beings learn to use their minds critically is not to pack fifty children into a room and talk at them without letting them speak. I have grandchildren in Japanese schools, and they literally go days on end without opening their mouths. They’re in school to cover the material and then put it back on paper.

To produce individuals who are critical, you need to encourage involvement and irreverence. That needn’t always mean more teachers. After ten years in school, studerits should be able to work in groups without the teacher always hovering over them. School could increasingly become a student-controlled environment where older children, for example, could work with younger ones. I imagine a school where the teacher plays more the part of a mentor.

Of course, this conflicts directly with the school’s custodial function, which demands that the teacher and student be together in the classroom every minute. If that’s the mentality, the number of teachers has to be increased if we are going to reduce class size. But that system makes kids dependent.

MCKENZIE: The teacher makes students dependent. It’s partly the way we teach, the way we organize. We want dependency. In order to change it, we’d have to change the way teachers and principals – and parents – think.

LITTKY: I think that can be changed. A good principal can make a school an exciting place, and there are a lot of good principals. What too often happens is that no one is able to imagine other options. We have to stop worrying about where the kids are every minute and start thinking about how to design new ways of learning, how to mix things up, how to change schedules around.

SHANKER: Imagine that we had no schools, that the United States was a very poor country that for centuries had been sending its kids off to work in the mines or the fields at the age of three. All of a sudden we discover great wealth and are about to design a school system. What if somebody said: Let’s build huge buildings and

divide them into classrooms that seat thirty-five or forty children apiece. Let’s bring those kids in at 8:30 in the morning and make them sit in those seats until 3:00 in the afternoon, and during that time an adult will stand in front of them and talk. Well, someone else might reasonably ask: What makes you think these kids would sit still and keep quiet? And why would any adult in his right mind want to be locked up with them under such conditions?

We have this pervasive notion that even though those thirty-five kids are sitting in that classroom, bored, dozing, thinking about something else, this is nonetheless the way in which education has to take place.

LlTTKY: We can overcome that notion. At Thayer teachers and administrators spent about eight months discussing goals, getting down on paper what seemed important. We decided that we wanted our students to demonstrate a broader understanding of problem solving, speaking, writing, and economics; as for specific content, we wanted to instill an appreciation for the humanities, comparative cultures, and geography. Then we asked ourselves: how can we accomplish these goals?

First, students were asked for their views on rules, evaluations, and their own educational needs. The idea was to involve students from the beginning in how they would’learn, and thus to improve the general climate for learning. Then we looked at the goals we had set and the resources we had, and tried to design new structures to maximize learning.

Two tactics we found to be effective were team-teaching, which allowed colleagues to think, plan, and work together; and integrating subjects. For example, a foreign language teacher and an English teacher have been working together to teach kids about the centrality of language. A social studies teacher and an English teacher are recreating a town that otlce stood in the area by beginning an archaeological dig and by studying local town records.

Meanwhile, we increased the personal attention each student receives. Every Thayer faculty member acts as adviser to fifteen students, meeting with each once a month to discuss his or her progress in school. In addition, we’ve just begun a “mentor program” whereby seniors act as advisers to incoming seventh graders, helping them develop an involvement with learning. Older kids are playing an increasing role in educating our younger kids.

If we lack the resources to accomplish a particular task within the school, we look outside, placing students as apprentices in the local bank, hospital, and auto-body shop. They don’t just learn practical skills. We also give their supervisors our list of goals. We ask them, for example: “While they’re working here at the bank, can you try to help them with their oral communication skilis?” This is not just vocational training; it’s another place to teach kids.

Recently, I’ve been meeting with parents, giving them our list, and saying: “OK, you’ve got to help us help your kids learn these skills. If they begin to learn them at home, great; it makes our job a whole lot easier.”

BOYER: I’m intrigued by the idea of having students discover that as they become more educated, they become capable of transmitting information, asking good questions, helping others understand ideas.

KRAKOWSKY: Aren’t these the kinds of innovations that were put forward during the 1960s?

SHANKER: During the 1960s, the assumption was that every student would automatically find the right educational diet without any strong help or advice. Standards were “self-set.” But at Thayer the teachers worked out a clear set of goals.

SIZER: At Thayer, the amount of time served -“seat time,” as it’s called – is delightfully irrelevant in awarding a diploma. What is relevant is whether a student can use these skills in imaginative ways. That’s very un-sixties.

KRAKOWSKY: But look at the assumptions underlying the recent reform movements. First, the amount of time students spend doing schoolwork directly affects how much they achieve. Second, there’s a certain necessary component of arduousness in the learning process. Third, people tend to respond to short-term needs and discomforts rather than to long-term advantages.

To convince the body politic that encouraging greater student participation and human- izing the school system would be more effective, the following questions must be confronted. How do you get kids to work harder when they prefer to work less hard? How do you convince them that in the long run hard work in school will give them a sense of well-being when in the short run they’d much rather hang out in the local mall than do geometry homework?

SHANKER: You get kids to work harder by rewarding hard work and failing the goof-offs, and by getting them involved in the learning process instead of lecturing to them all the time.

Many regents and state boards may feel that the 1960s proved the bankruptcy of academic pluralism. But the pluralism being advanced in this discussion is quite different; no one says that since everyone has an opinion about what’s worth doing, we should let students do what they want. We’re saying that in order to achieve certain difficult goals, judgment has to be exercised at the level where the learning is actually done. We are asking only for a reasonable exercise of professional judgment, like that found in other professions. Fifteen lawyers might analyze the same case and all do a brilliant job, yet do it quite differently. In a field that depends for its results on the uncertain behavior of adults and children, room must be made for the exercise of professional judgment.

MCKENZIE: Empowerment – Ernie’s word keeps coming back to me. We must empower students within the school, yes, but first we must empower teachers. So often folks like me find ourselves telling principals and teachers what to do rather than capitalizing on their tremendous intelligence and talent. My struggle is, first, to persuade principals to work with teachers, to talk about the curriculum and discuss broader goals; and, second, to encourage teachers to interact with students, to talk about what is supposed to happen in that classroom, to be unafraid to show enthusiasm for the subject they’re teaching. We’ve got to unleash the tremendous energy of the people who work in our schools.

SIZER: That involves a great leap of faith. There has to be trust on the part of the superintendent and the principal. And there also has to be trust on the part of the local school board. In many cities, alas, there doesn’t seem to be much trust.

SHANKER: The usual pattern is. that school boards become uptight about any little jnnovation and they scream at the superintendent; the superintendent wants to make damn sure the school board doesn’t make noise at the next meeting, so the rules and regulations are duly passed out.

An obvious tension exists between order and Innovation. You can have order and have the closest thing to death. Eyery time a principal or teacher tries to do something that is a little different, he or she is taking a chance. If school boards are always afraid that the kids are going to get Out of hand or the teachers are going to change something or the principal is going to try a new program, we’ll never get changes.

DOWN: What is the appropriate role of school boards in a world where people who serve on them do so for their own “pragmatic” purposes, certainly not usually as advocates for children?

MCKENZIE: Even in my fifth year in the job, I believe a superintendent must educate the school board, sometimes at the risk of his or her tenure. In general, if you’ve had some successes you can afford to take some risks. And above all you must be sensitive to the media, because they often write policy as effectively as the school board. The Washington Post is sometimes more effective than the school board.

Most of all, you want to make sure you always have room for thoughtful discussion instead of constantly reacting; you want to hold back that tide of opinion pushing you to react immediately, and to act when you understand better what the effects of a given reform will be. Remember, school board members generally are scared; they’re under heavy criticism. In fact, many of them are delighted to see state legislatures tak- ing steps they wouldn’t have had the guts to take at the local level.

SIZER: But state boards of education and legislatures are even going so far as to specify the actual substance of some subjects. One of the darkest sides of this regulatory movement is the states’ power to choose what ideas are appropriate for our youngsters. What astonishes me is the silence of the academic community about the states’ easy assumption of power over ideas. In New York State the regulations apparently now require one approved sequence of mathematics courses and one history sequence. Where are the voices for intellectual pluralism in the schools when we need them the most?

KARP: Where are the voices of academics? List five wise comments about schooling and one stUpid comment, and it is the stupid one that will invariably be picked up and used to justify “reforms.” John Dewey said that a democratic education should teach every child to perceive the essential interdependence of an industrial society. So where was the first supposedly “Deweyite” school system established? In Gary, Indiana, a town formed a year earlier by the U.S. Steel Corporation. One of the early social studies projects assigned to kids in this huge smokestack community was “The City: A Healthful Place in Which to Live.” The wise give us their smorgasbords of suggestions; the powerful pick and choose.

BOYER: The failure of academics to influence these reforms would be most ironic if they turned out to be “successful”; that is, if all students successfully completed the new requirements. People will take comfort in another unit of English – which could mean anything from Shakespeare to creative conversation-and kid themselves that the schools have been “fixed.” The students will have remained ignorant; they will not be more responsible citizens; they will not be more creative; and therefore their own lives and their nation’s future will be blighted because we’ve chosen the wrong response to the right challenge.

SIZER: At least some people in authority at the state level are having second thoughts. The difference between the debate in California three years ago and the recently issued report of that state’s Commission on the Future of the Teaching Profession is instructive. The new report is sophisticated; it accepts complexity; it takes into account some of what we know about teaching and learning.

SHANKER: In California they’re talking about “education policy trust agreements,” in which a faculty that develops a program designed to achieve the same goals as the state legislation will be permitted to ignore some regulations. This sort of change could be revolutionary.

BOYER: It may be one way to get the human dimension back into the reform movement, which represents the essential issue for the rest of the decade. Otherwise, in ten years we’ll find ourselves looking back at one more rather intense but abortive effort to improve a system that should be humane. One could make an interesting comparison with the corporate renewal movement, the central theme of which is that to increase productivity, managers must discover the people who do the work; they can’t man- date it from the board room. Business leaders are discovering that if they don’t find a way to engage their employees, their companies won’t be competitive. Is it too much,to expect people in education to accept the same message?

SHANKER: We should realize that throughout most of its history the United States was populated by uneducated people who had a high regard for teachers and schools. I remember growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City in the 1930s. No one had gone to college; one or two people might have completed high school. During the summer people would sit in front of their apartment houses and parents would ask their kids to write a letter for them or read out loud the postcards they received. The schools were very highly regarded as local intellectual and cultural institutions.

Many of the problems we’ve discussed today – low regard for schools and teachers, in particular – are a product of our own success. We’ve simply educated everybody; that gap between the overwhelming majority of citizens and teachers is gone. Schools must mean something different to a society in which most people are educated. We’re in the process of figuring out what. But we shouldn’t forget that there are worse positions to be in.