In education, a lack of response to basic demand

I started writing this blog entry on a flight to California from New York; I’m headed there for another book party and a meeting of the Learning Matters board.

For the last 30 minutes or so, I have been listening to a father talk about his two young children, ages 7 and 10.  He’s an older Dad with at least one adult child, and he radiates child-like enthusiasm about what amounts to a second go-round of childrearing. He’s been telling me about their endless curiosity; they always are asking “why?” and “how does this work?” and so on.

As I listened, a dark cloud flickered across my eyes and I wondered: what would their schools do to their spark?

Nurture it, tolerate it, or extinguish it?

If you’ve read my new book The Influence of Teachers, you know my concern that most schools remain obsolete “answer factories” in a time when our kids need help formulating questions and guidance sifting through the flood of information that engulfs them, 24/7.  Schools and teachers can help turn information into knowledge, help kids separate wheat from chaff (and choose the wheat).

Now, I wasn’t about to pitch my book or go into a spiel, so I asked him what his kids’ school is like. His face lit up. “It’s an International Baccalaureate school,” he said, “and my wife and I love it almost as much as the kids do.”

Merrow Book Party
John Merrow and daughter Kelsey at the first book party for The Influence of Teachers, held on March 7, 2011 at Glucksman Ireland House in New York.

I learned that it’s a public school (in Stamford, Connecticut, by the way) that apparently has to choose students by lottery because so many families want their children to go there.

“We got lucky,” he said, “and won the lottery for our son.”  Win for one, win for all, because once one child is enrolled, siblings automatically get to go.

Because he works in the food business, I asked him if he could imagine many restaurants doing business by lottery.  Would the typical restaurant turn away most customers and let only a lucky few eat there?

“No way,” he said.  The natural thing to do would be to expand somehow, to meet the demand, he told me.  And if lots of people were lining up to go to one restaurant, you can bet that other establishments would try to find out why — and maybe copy what they saw working.

But school systems don’t do that, for some bizarre reason. Responding to demand is something else that most educators don’t seem to get, perhaps because they have grown accustomed to their monopoly.  The first basic truth they ignore is this: humans are a curious species from birth, eager to master our environment.  The second truth: most parents want the very best for their children and will enthusiastically support good schools.

Speaking of enthusiasm, on Monday night the first of several book parties for The Influence of Teachers took place in New York City. About 150 people came to celebrate, schmooze, and get all wonky about education.  Among them were legendary financier John Whitehead, Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, AFT President Randi Weingarten, former Chancellor Joel Klein, Scholastic President Dick Robinson, Faith Popcorn, Vartan Gregorian, Dick Beattie, journalists from the New Yorker, the New York Times, USA Today, WNYC and Gotham Schools, as well as some colleagues from the old days at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.  Joe and Mary Lou Quinlan hosted the event at the (wonderful) Glucksman Ireland House at NYU.

For the occasion, Jim Lehrer graciously taped a faux NewsHour newscast in which the ONLY story is that his education correspondent has written a book. Somehow Jim manages to stretch this ‘news’ out for three minutes!

Book parties are a new experience for me, but I appreciate the opportunity to get the book’s ideas into circulation and to make some new friends for Learning Matters.

As I hope you all know, the royalties all go to Learning Matters, and that brings me to the writer’s first rule for readers: If you like the book, do NOT lend your copy to others — make them buy their own!!!

One thought on “In education, a lack of response to basic demand

  1. John, you might get communications with your “most parents want good …” – which of course hinges on the interpretation of the word “most.” I as have you and most others have had conversations with teachers who feel really burned out because of lack of parental support and encouragement of their children’s learning. Many have been able to leave; unfortunately others want to but can’t leave.

    One solution could be local education communities (teachers, administrators, students, parents/ families, local experts, local organization representatives, and interested citizens) as I’ve been calling them. The communities whose members of course need to be interested and willing to engage AND must accept the notion that community activities will likely identify opportunities to better facilitate effective learning than any opportunity any participant was championing before community engagement. This BETTER ALTERNATIVE that Stephen Covey believes always exists (as do I) comes from the community and cannot be prescribed.

    I believe two things will happen as a result. First, the opportunities will Include important options for situations such as lack of parental engagement. AND SECOND, the successes of the community opportunities will lead to increased parental involvement, enabling the individual and overall successes to be even greater!


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