41 Years Later…

For nearly all of the 41 years I have been covering public education, the people in charge have been focused on competition, most often with other nations. Of course, educational competitiveness didn’t start when I began reporting in 1974; In 1957 the Soviet space satellite Sputnik got America’s juices flowing and led to the National Defense Education Act. It hasn’t stopped {{1}}; ever since, most of our leaders have pushed schools, teachers and students to try to outperform the rest of the world.

Think ‘A Nation at Risk {{2}}’ in 1983, or President George H.W. Bush’s “Education Summit” in 1989 that spawned Goals 2000 and a drive to make us ‘First in the World’ in math and science. {{3}} IBM’s Chairman Louis V. Gerstner convened two more Education Summits in the years that followed. The Glenn Commission on Math and Science Teaching issued a dire warning at the turn of the century.

The Clinton administration and George W. Bush’s presidency upped the ante, and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top,” fueled by our fear that we are losing to Finland, South Korea and a host of other nations, has raised the stakes even more.

The people in charge have for years been challenging students and their teachers, asking in effect “How intelligent are you? Prove it by doing better than X and Y and Z.” And many in leadership positions have also been roundly criticizing the system for its perceived failures.

Has our obsession with beating others worked? Is it working now? Have years and years of “education reform” produced the kinds of schools and students that we are proud of?

Well, we are still ‘losing’ to Finland, South Korea, Singapore and a host of other nations; we are falling behind in college graduation rates, and so on. High school graduation rates have climbed, but record numbers of those graduates end up in remedial classes when they get to college. Not a great scorecard, but our leaders seem to determined to keep criticizing our schools and teachers until they shape up, which undoubtedly brings to mind that cartoon about how “the whipping will continue until morale improves.”

41 years later, I see a nation of people who don’t trust their government, who don’t vote, and who don’t even speak to people who hold different points of view. The adjectives ‘angry’ and ‘disillusioned’ describe a lot of the people I meet. How much of this is a result of their having attended schools that were organized to designate a few of them as ‘winners’ and most of them as ‘losers’ from Day One?

The question we need to ask is pretty basic: is beating someone else the best way to motivate students to learn? Does the competitive approach help develop competent adults who can be happy, productive citizens able to adapt to a fast-changing world?

What if our schools were designed to ask “How are you intelligent?” of each child? What if schools and classrooms were structured to encourage both individual growth and teamwork? What if we focused on the child, not the world?

You may remember the parable of the father and child. The kid wants to play catch in the backyard, but Dad wants to read his magazine. Tired of being pestered, Dad tears a page from his magazine and shows it to his child. On the page is a map of the world. The father tears the page into small pieces, hands the kid the pieces, and says, “We’ll play catch as soon as you can put this page back together.” Then he resumes reading, confident that he’s bought himself an hour of peace.

But the kid is back within minutes, the page scotch-taped together perfectly. “How did you do that,” the father demands? “It was easy. On the other side there was a picture of a child. I just put the child together, and the world took care of itself.”

OK, it’s a hokey parable, but you get the point: focus on the child.

If we did, our schools would provide more intensive attention in the first few grades, but those smaller classes would be replaced by larger classes in which older students were engaged in group projects and self-directed learning. Technology will allow them to collaborate beyond the walls of their classrooms, and so fewer teachers will work with more students, on projects that have real meaning for the kids.  New forms of assessment will also emerge over time, and these will, I believe, be integrated seamlessly into the learning loop.

This approach will be more effective, I believe. It seems certain that it will, in the long run,also be cheaper. (That got your attention, didn’t it!)

Face it: Our competitive ‘teach and test’ approach is expensive. School systems spend billions of dollars every year on textbooks, test-prep materials, testing, test grading and reporting. School systems also pay many more millions to people whose job is to watch the teachers (because teachers aren’t trusted and have to be watched).

We can realize a lot of savings there.

We have to find ways to cut costs. Teachers are already the largest single part of the American labor force, and their numbers are growing at a rate far faster than the student population’s rate of increase. Yes, we have more students…but, fueled by demands in special education and English language learners, schools are hiring many more teachers.

Despite the high rate of churn that keeps bringing young people into the field, education’s labor and unfunded pension costs are spiraling out of control {{4}}. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania follows these trends closely, and he told me recently, “It’s a ticking time bomb. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see how employee numbers can go up at a couple times the rate of the client base.”

The job of school is to help grow adults. All three words matter: ‘Help’ because education is a team sport involving families and the larger community. ‘Grow’ because it’s a process of fits and starts that cannot be measured or judged on one moment’s performance (i.e., a test score). And ‘Adults’ because that’s the end game, not a test score.

Right now we have a prohibitively expensive approach to schooling that doesn’t work very well. Shall we keep on tinkering? What do you think?

[[1]]1. There have been occasional lulls when we directed our attention away from international competition, like the pause that led to The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.[[1]]
[[2]]2. That spawned the inevitable “A Nation STILL at Risk” reports down the road, of course, like this one from the right: https://www.edreform.com/edreform-university/resource/a-nation-still-at-risk-1998/ [[2]]
[[3]]3. In 2002 Learning Matters and I produced a program for Frontline called “Testing Our Schools” Here’s a pretty good summary of those years, and the film as well: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/schools/standards/bp.html[[3]]
[[4]]4. http://www.governing.com/gov-data/state-pension-funds-retirement-systems-unfunded-liabilities-obligations-data.html
http://www.statebudgetsolutions.org/publications/detail/promises-made-promises-broken-2014-unfunded-liabilities-hit-47-trillion [[4]]

20 thoughts on “41 Years Later…

  1. Bravo, John! It would make a big difference of the values you defend here became more central in US schooling.


  2. About eight years ago I worked with a Media Matters project, the Verified Resume, and Arnold Packer, installing the verified resume “soft skills” as categories for ePortfolios for 12th grade students in Somerville, Massachusetts. In the course of the program, summer students produced short videos to show their skills online and to colleges and potential employers. Packer’s premise was that “soft skills” like – inquiry, cross-cultural communication, creativity, collaboration, responsibility, etc. – could be “verified” by summer employers to generate “credit” for student achievements. (https://sites.google.com/site/shseportfolio/)

    I’m terrible with names, so, rather than sit on the side and “score” students’ skills (from 1 to 5, bad to good), I asked them to score themselves. They had no reservations admitting weakness and celebrating strengths. Further, they used their scores to create media teams – “you’re good about time, I’m good about questions,” etc. – which “verified” both the skills and their ability to assess themselves and each other.

    They also, after a summer six week program, reflected on what they’d learned with far more cogent and useful analysis than a test or test taker. So much so that their teachers, looking at the portfolios after the program, were regularly astounded at the quality and insights their students showed.

    So, in shifting to a student focus, don’t hesitate to shift the test focus as well. I was surprised that they were as honest and forthright about strength and weaknesses, but the collegiality of the group as well as the utility of the skills themselves made both students and their measures much, much more useful to both teachers, jobs, parents, colleges, and the kids themselves.


    • I’m a fan of the verified resume, and I am proud to say that I worked with Arnie on the concept, when Learning Matters had its “Listen Up!” youth media project. Thanks for sharing that information


  3. Of course you’re right, John. Though you might have added that the people sounding dire warnings accompanying Sputnik and “Nation at Risk” were all crying wolf. The Russians didn’t win the Cold War; the Germans and the Japanese didn’t beat our economic brains out. Nor are the schools or the teachers the biggest problem. You could make a long list: poverty; health care; the paucity of good pre-school programs; our historic anti-intellectualism. And the idea of comparing ourselves (by whatever measure) with Finland or Singapore or Taiwan is absurd on its face. And of course, none of it keeps people like Scott Walker from trying to tear into one of the country’s great educational institutions or from Sam Brownback from loading yet more tax cuts for the rich on the backs of the school kids of Kansas. And, as Will Rogers supposedly declared, our schools were never as good as they used to be.


  4. I think that the reduction of thinking about education to simple outcome measures like standardized test scores and the dominant assumption that schools are responsible for those test scores and can change them dramatically without changing anything else in the society are two fatal steps in educational thinking. Schools are about much more than that both for the children and the nation. They were supposed to help make disparate peoples into a nation, prepare citizens for a democracy, put young people in contact with the great ideas of literature and history, give everyone a reasonable and fair opportunity to success, to help them understand nature and society, to acquaint them with culture and the arts, and many other important goals. Schools have important but limited impact on outcomes in a society where children have dramatically different experiences and opportunities before schooling begins and in the great majority of their time they spend outside of schools. The fact that we are a profoundly unequal society, polarized by race and class matters greatly and when we forget that and blame the schools for everything we almost always move toward stupid and counterproductive policies which often punish those who most want to achieve the broader goals. I don’t think it is bad to compare ourselves with other countries or to try to be better but it is stupid when we do nothing to actually understand the roots of the inequality and simply crack down more on the schools, especially harming the schools that serve the children most harmed by the lack of family policy, urban equity policies, income policies , civil rights policies, etc. We need an intelligent discussion about what our schools are for, about the relationship between opportunity outside the schools and success inside them, and about policies that give children who start way behind access to the truly good opportunities, not to the remnants assigned to the schools that serve nonwhite and poor kids.


  5. John – Your work has mightily informed mine. Thanks much. Meanwhile, mine focuses these days – in a fashion I think you’d approve, on what I think of as the crucial intersection of civic capacity (familial, grassroots, and also elite), and professional capacity (the know-how of teachers and other leaders). On your question about the efficacy of tinkering, I would argue that there is no way this intersection of civic and professional capacity can be productive except through tinkering. And like natural selection, tinkering can produce big results over time from initially small changes.


  6. Over the past 19 years I have worked in 6 schools in 5 districts in two states and DC. During the same period I have completed an MAT in Social Studies and reached ABD in Educational Policy and Supervision with a dissertation half-completed before deciding instead to get my National Board Certification. Along the way I have read a lot of material on education, participated in conferences, written a lot on education (including chapters in several books and co-authoring a monograph), and reviewed several dozen books on education (including one or two by someone named Merrow).

    I am not a fan of sweeping national policies. They ignore too many local considerations. Just as I am not a fan of national grade level standards, whether they be the CCSS or the efforts of E. D. Hirsch. They tend to ignore developmental differences, which can lead to children being labeled as “deficient” when in fact they are just developing differentially than peers, either overall or in certain domains.

    When people insisted on smaller class size across all grades, I immediately raised two questions. 1: where are you going to get the qualified teacher? 2: Where are you going to get the classrooms? I think those two issues are still relevant. We have even at the elementary level, where I do not disagree with your observation that smaller class sizes and more personal attention are necessary, a huge investment in infrastructure that does not necessarily lend itself to smaller class sizes.

    When people argue for block scheduling in order to squeeze more subjects in, or perhaps to theoretically lesson the amount of homework each night for students (only 4 instead of 8 classes), how do they address issues of continuity for students who need it, and what do they do with interruptions for weather? Having taught in block schedules, if I have two classes in the same prep but one is on A day and the other is on B day, what do I do when 7 of 10 snow days are B days? For me this is not a theoretical question.

    Similarly about pacing guides (never mind even the question of scripted lessons): what is the point of moving forward if students are struggling, and why should I be required to spend time on something when students already get it in much less than the prescribed time?

    I once told Jay Mathews that I would not object to having part of my evaluation include some element of how my students do on external tests, but if you dictate what I teach in what order and when, then you are the one responsible, because you have removed from me my professional judgment and my ability to modify my instruction for the benefit of my students.

    There is much worth rethinking about how we do education. Including the voices of thoughtful educators and students would be a part of it. Except for many teachers they are so overburdened they have trouble even finding the time to reflect upon their own work, when reflective practice should be an essential element of any educator’s tool kit.

    I am now 69. I can no longer commute 45 miles each way to teach, so I have been looking closer to home. As an older white male in a field with a glut of candidates (secondary Social Studies) I have to realize that I may not necessarily get another teaching position for the forthcoming year, even though I am still a highly effective teacher according to my latest annual review. Some are afraid of me because of how outspoken I am on educational topics – anyone who does due diligence and checks me out outline will quickly find that out.

    I have stepped back some from my own participation in educational policy debates, in part because of my wife’s health, which requires some continuing effort on my part even as her disease is now in remission, in part because I want to ensure I keep time for my own reflective practice. Nevertheless I see some possibly exciting things happening, not as a matter of national or state-wide policies being imposed from the top down, but as a result of pushback from the bottom up – by students, parents, educators, superintendents, local school boards, etc.

    If it is not already too late – as it may be in places like New Orleans – we may see a reclaiming of public education as a public good, with meaningful community input to how it is shaped.

    If we do not, then we will continue to see an erosion of democracy and the privatizing of what should be public goods for the benefit of the few, the already rich and greedy, the powerful who become their toadies in order to have their money to obtain or retain positions of power.

    When more people listen to Bill Gates or Eli Broad on educational matters than to a National Teacher of the Year like Anthony Mullen, something is wrong.

    John, you taught briefly. You have never forgotten that experience, and while not all may agree with your approach to how you report, that experience has informed much of the journalistic work you have done, including the questions you ask.

    One problem is that too many who write about education lack understanding of what the task of teaching is, how it changes in settings of high poverty (I have taught in a school with 94% free and reduced meals) or large numbers of English Language Learners, or high transient populations.

    Far too many of those dictating or opining about public education have little understanding of the reality of education. For example, many of the provisions of NCLB totally ignored the fact that roughly 20% of our public school students were in rural schools where transfer to a higher performing school was not an option, nor were there likely to be providers of supplemental educational services because there was not enough of a concentration of a possible market for such services.

    I agree with Joe McDonald that we would be better off “tinkering.” Allow me to quote very much out of context a thinker from a very different culture: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Mao Tse-Tung was not writing about public schools, but the idea is applicable. That was Al Shanker’s original intent in proposing charter schools, to empower EDUCATORS to try different approaches. We have seen that it can work effectively. I look at the schools Deb Meier helped to found in NY and Boston. I think of the performance consortium in NYC. Lori Nazareno and others have had teacher run schools. In Arlington VA where I live Ray Anderson taught every single year he ran HB Woodlawn alternative program. In Fairfax County George C. Marshall is experimenting with different ways of evaluating students and teachers within the framework of the IB program, while most of the rest of Fairfax high schools are following the AP approach.

    If you fully retire from writing, we will miss your voice, and just as much your willingness to engage with others as you do here, demonstrating a willingness to learn.

    And now, at shortly after 3 AM, I must reflect on what I do with this last full A day to prepare my students for a totally unnecessary county final in government that begins the next A day. Why totally unnecessary? A few weeks ago they had to sit for the state test in the same subject. Please tell me why we need both? Of course the state test will not be fully graded in time to include for report cards. But it could be. When I was growing up we had NY State Regents exams that were graded in school and used in lieu of separate final exams.

    Ted Sizer once proposed that students do a final mastery project before they graduate from high school. Would not such a performance task show a far better application of critical skills than mass-produced test that promote in their selective response items convergent thinking? I wonder.

    And now? Back to preparing for classes that being at 7:45.



  7. John — Francis (Frank) Keppel, U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Johnson administration, was also sensitive to the competitive perspective of education policy makers. He characterized American education as being understood by policy makers to be in continual crisis for one reason or another, and used the analogy of a 1914 film serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” to describe the phenomenon.


  8. For those of us for whom education is not a match-set-point, you are all speaking to the choir. One of my preferred analogies for what is happening in the American school system is what often happens in a war: The rulers/politicians determine the objective—to contest some country—and declare war. The generals recommend and implement the strategies for winning that war. Then, they send in the ground troops—inadequately numbered, resourced, and prepared for the unchartered and unexpected terrain, often fighting unanticipated obstacles (e.g., geography, weather, pissed off citizens in addition to “the enemy” they expected, etc.). So, if the war is lost, do we blame the frontline soldiers (who had no voice in the matter from the beginning) or those who thought it was such a good idea in the first place? I could go on, but my point is that those who should be held accountable somehow do not get factored into the impact their incompetence had on the whole plan. All of you have added cherries on top of the dollop of thoughtful discourse Merrow (and Mr. Bernstein, up all night) has attempted. We are singing to the choir, but I hope this song opens the minds and hearts of those who don’t see it our way. (By the way, I’ve used that war metaphor as a way to engage those with the opposing view, and it’s interesting how I can use it to at least get them to see the complexity behind the simplistic perspective they’ve been fed. Let me know if you have any other ways of breaking that barrier.)


    • Not up all night Denise. Woke up at 2:20 because a cat wanted to be fed and was rested enough that I did not see point of going back to sleep when I would be getting up at 4 AM anyhow.


      • John & Commenters:

        Going into my sixth decade of involvement with ed reform, I applaud your generating this dialogue about what it should mean to us. Many of you make excellent points, but there are several thoughts that could help us see the big picture.

        First, I’m not sure you’re right that actual ed reform (as opposed to commissions and media reports) has mostly been motivated by competition with other nations. That has certainly motivated national commissions and Congress (you can even add the Voc Ed Act of 1917), but people in charge of local schools, and even state legislators have mostly been affected by too many children reaching adulthood without the needed levels of academic and civic competence. The comparisons just add the important thought that the richest nation in the history of mankind should be able to do better.

        Second, while as many have pointed out, it is idiotic and unfair to blame school employees for our shortfalls. It’s like blaming sailors and carriagemen for going too slow when it came time to shift to steam ships and trucks. But it’s not idiotic to see that system we’ve been trying to drive faster is obsolete and not capable of reaching the levels of education that developed in the 20th century. Our present school system was established in the 19th century at a time when fewer than 10% of the population was graduating from high school. It was set up as a winners and losers operation, with the C, D, and F students going off to work in our farms and factories. At the end of the 19th century its managers chose the bureaucratic organization of the much admired mass production corporations. The high schools adopted an academic track so the growing number going on the college could meet entrance requirements, but as the 20th century developed there was no real change in the bureaucratic school systems that were adequate for the 19th century.

        To skip many years and details, it has been evident for some decades that any community that is expected to produce competent 21 century adults has to have not just a school system, but an education system that starts at birth (or before) and assures the supports and relationships both in and out of school that are finally being seen as necessary for success. This has to be done on a collaborative rather than a bureaucratic basis.

        Preposterous some might say. Where’s it going to come from? Well, for sure it’s not going to come from just tinkering with our present schools—few better teaching methods over here, some computers over there (maybe in somebody’s closet), etc. What many kids need, as many of you have pointed out is relationships and experiences that the present system tends not to provide; bureaucracies are not good at those things. It will take a lot of invention and trial and error, but we’re not really working on it, because everyone is just focusing on (and fighting over) how to improve schools. More people have to see the vision of what is needed.

        Again, since my time for this is running out, let me end on a positive note: I believe this vision is already beginning to emerge. I see it most evidently in the Community Schools Movement, if properly defined. It has been adopted by the de Blasio Administration in NYC as the framework for its future reforms. If it is defined only as adding some services to schools, it will not really create the system we need, but it has shown the capacity for working with all sorts of community resources to create collaborative communities to support children’s successful development. That’s what is needed. It won’t be easy, but I think people will find that it is far more productive to work together for children’s success rather than blaming each other for their failure.


      • Let’s hear it again and again for the Community Schools movement, sparked and spearheaded by the Institute for Educational Leadership in DC (full disclosure: IEL was my first employer and I am now on its Board).


      • I started a community fully public school in 1995. Not only did kids and parents walk to school but our teachers walked to the homes to support all students.

        My favorite part of our community school was that the community became the classroom. It started at the front door of the school, when they mapped the community, it was their community that they were mapping. When we partnered with local businesses it was businesses they were familiar with as well as new ones connected to the neighborhood.

        Our school was the Milwaukee Village School, a full Milwaukee (WI) Public School.

        This video shows how it really was, with the neighborhood students in the lead. http://savingstudents-caplee.blogspot.com/2014/01/get-out-of-my-classroom-and-dont-come.html


  9. Once we focus on the agenda of children, the answers become easy. When it’s about winning, we have losers, when it’s about learning, we have winners!


    • Maybe not so easy. If we keep assuming (as most ed reforms today do) that the only learning we can deal with is school learning, we will continue to have many losers. Maybe we make this assumption quite understandably because non-school learning is not the responsibility of schools. But we have been devoting billions of dollars, endless efforts, and ever-hotter blame-placing to this “schools alone” approach for over half a century, and it’s not working.

      I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop trying to improve schools in every way we can—including more focus on successful student engagement in learning—what a novel idea! What I am suggesting—no, urgently urging—is that we include our school improvement efforts within a broader agenda of helping local communities (including their schools) to organize themselves to provide maximum support for their children’s successful development, starting with their conception (e.g. ensuring the mother’s health and child’s successful mental development even while in the womb).

      Such a shift in focus is indeed not so easy. It’s not that the basic idea is so strange or difficult to understand. It’s truly not complicated rocket science. It is stated in the slogan made famous by Hillary Clinton and the Children’s Defense Fund decades ago; It takes a village to raise a child. It’s almost common sense that the schools can’t do this job alone. In the 19th century, when our present public school system was established, it was assumed that the “village” part of the job was being done well enough to get less than 10% of the kids through high school. Now we need much higher levels of education for a much broader range of the population, and the traditional “village” educational process is functioning less well than it was a century or two ago. But it’s very hard to shift away from the schools alone approach.

      I was Assistant Commissioner for Equal Educational Opportunities in the Johnson Administration when he was putting together his War on Poverty in the 1960s. Although Congress had killed almost every federal aid to education bill up to that point, Johnson was determined to include funding for poor children’s education as part of his comprehensive plan. However, there was some strong feeling within the Administration that this funding should not be given to local school systems, which even then were seen as not doing well with poor children. Local school boards tend to be dominated by middle and upper class people, with little or no representation from poor families. Some of those involved with planning for the War on Poverty therefore urged that funding be provided for community organizing and empowerment so that poor families could become more engaged in ensuring their children’s successful education.

      Ultimately, while some funding was provided for community organizing under the Model Cities and other poverty programs, it was determined that Congress would provide the bulk of the education money only to local school systems, and only if there was no hint of any federal control over the methods used to improve poor children’s education. Hence Title I, that did indeed help some students but was not used for any serious change in the system that was failing poor children.

      Is it possible that we might be in a much better place today if we had taken a more comprenhensive approach ever since the 1960s? Well, maybe we have a chance to move in that direction now? What is emerging from today’s demonstrations over policing but that our whole society is suffering from the neglect (or ineffective dealing with) our neighborhoods of concentrated poverty? This clearly needs a comprehensive strategy, but couldn’t one of the most positive components of such a strategy be to get people working together to help ensure children’s successful development and education? This can be done on a completely non-partisan basis. Everyone can help–policemen, teachers, grandmothers, teenagers, conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, transsexuals, etc. And they can even keep fighting about all those other issues they like to fight about, but let’s join together at the local level to help our children get off to a good start. Furthermore, such an approach is needed in many, even most communities, with their problems over drugs. sex, depression, suicide, lack of civic responsibility, etc.

      Many details can be discussed on this, but that’s enough for this posting.


  10. Allow my to quote my colleague Dr. Angela Dye

    ” Traditional school outcomes as level “B” achievement can occur in the absence of learning how to work and learn independently; (“A” level learning includes) learning how to synthesize, transfer, and apply knowledge to the world beyond the classroom; learning how to value self as subjects not as objects; and learning how to engage in and share power in democratic spaces.”

    The emphasis is on “value self as subjects not as objects.

    Now I will quote that great Irish philosopher George Carlin:

    “They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. That’s against their interest. They want obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork and just dumb enough to passively accept it”

    Enough said?


  11. John, here’s a link to a Ed Week commentary I wrote in 1990 – 25 years ago, urging that we focus on helping young people learn to be active, constructive citizens.
    I think it made sense then, and it makes sense now. School is not just about helping people become adults. Schools is about helping young people become active, constructive citizens.

    One of the most satisfying things about being an educator has been to listen to & learn from former students who using some of the lessons learned in various classes and projects to do what is suggested in the column below.

    Toward a Vision of Students as ‘Citizens’
    By Joe Nathan

    Whenever the conversation turns to “restructuring” schools, I think of my former student David, an angry, violent teenager from a troubled inner-city family. Our public schools are encountering more and more young people like him. And unless plans for change include a new and more positive view of them–a concept of these youngsters as involved citizens–reforms will have much less impact.
    For quite a while, it was not easy to like David. He had transferred to the school where I taught after being expelled from a large, traditional high school.
    David’s final problems at his former school began when a teacher told him to remove the hat he was wearing in the hall. Smiling, David replied that his girlfriend had given him the hat for his birthday and that he was “just trying to get to class on time, like you always tell me.” The teacher reminded David of the rule against hats and insisted he remove it. When David ignored the teacher, the latter walked to his side and said, “Take that hat off or I’ll knock it off.” David smiled. The teacher pushed off the hat, and David slammed him to the floor.
    David was suspended, found guilty of assault, sentenced to several hundred hours of community service, and told to find another school in the district.
    He picked ours–a K-12 alternative school where the faculty didn’t care if he wore a hat. We were more concerned about the fact that he was 15 and could barely read or write. David learned that it did not matter how many classes he took: He wouldn’t graduate until he could demonstrate specified skills and knowledge.
    Graduation requirements also included service to the school and community. David enrolled in a course where students learned about consumer rights and responsibilities, and worked on problems referred to them by adults. Over several years, they tackled approximately 500 cases and successfully resolved over 80 percent of them.
    Education, we felt, should not be aimed merely at preparing young people to find jobs. Dissatisfied with the commonly accepted metaphor of students as “workers,” we based our efforts on a vision of them as ”citizens” who should be able to serve their community actively and responsibly. If current calls for reform are to succeed, they must build in the premise that, while part of good citizenship is holding a job, learning the skills one needs to produce a more just world and believing that one can make a difference are equally important elements.
    The course David took was inspired by experience with and research about the value of combining classroom work and community service. Learning by doing, of course, is not a new idea. John Dewey, for example, urged such an approach. In this generation, the Georgia educator Eliot Wigginton has shown how it can be done in his Foxfire program and in his extraordinary book, Sometimes a Shining Moment.
    This progressive tradition begins with certain assumptions: Young people learn more when they are actively involved; they can influence the lives of other people positively; they should be viewed as resources for, rather than simply recipients of service. We also believed that youngsters would learn to be good citizens the same way they learned to add numbers or shoot a basketball–by practicing.
    Community service did not mean merely collecting cans for a food shelf at Christmas, or assisting at a day-care center. We tried to link schoolwork and service so that youngsters saw connections between academics and the world beyond school.
    Activities such as the following were typical:
    Elementary students designed and built a playground for the school. Among their committees was one that made 26 phone calls before locating a company that would donate sand. Former students still remember the day, more than 15 years ago, when 6 trucks arrived with sand.
    Science students studied principles of ecology and tried to reduce smelly emissions from factories near the school. In what became a three-year project, they conducted research, testified at a state legislative hearing, and dealt with reporters and pollution-control officials. Ultimately, they were successful.
    English students analyzed ways television commercials tried to sell products, and then wrote a students’ guide to advertising.
    Youngsters in peer-counseling classes helped address the needs of several potentially suicidal students and dramatically reduced fighting by showing their classmates better ways to resolve disagreements.
    Other schools have created similar courses–where service is a part of the academic curriculum, not just an after-school or student-council project.
    When teachers who offer such courses get together, however, as they did recently at the Wingspread Conference Center, they realize that, in most cases, they were not taught this approach in college. Many learned to design these courses on their own or from other gifted teachers.
    Most colleges make opportunities for service available to their students. But how many colleges actually model this way of learning? How many offer courses in which students not only–for example–read American history but also conduct research and publish books or magazines, as the Foxfire students do? How many prepare or encourage prospective teachers to combine academics and service?
    In a recent research summary on the impact of youth-service programs, the investigators Dan Conrad and Diane Hedin found that more than 70 percent of students in such courses preferred them to traditional classes. Participating students also had stronger problem-solving skills than a control group.
    The most effective programs share five characteristics:
    Projects address a real need.
    Students’ work is integrated into a course, so that they also improve academic skills; their project helps strengthen reading, writing, research, and other elements of the discipline in which they are working.
    They have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned; they learn to analyze problems, consider possible solutions, try one of them, evaluate the results, and then try again.
    Educators have a collaborative relationship with students. This doesn’t mean students run the class; teachers have a clear idea of the course’s goals and most of the strategies to be used. But they encourage students to produce solutions to problems.
    The project has a tangible product–for example, a booklet, videotape, or filmstrip–that students can look at, take away, and come back to years later as a reminder of what they accomplished.
    With the Congress discussing proposals for national service programs and President Bush including young people in his “thousand points of light,” youth-service efforts are in the news these days. And many observers are concerned about the attitudes of American young people. A survey conducted last year by the civil-liberties organization People for the American Way asked 1,000 teenagers to rank important life goals. Seventy-one percent named a satisfying career and 68 percent a good family life as very important goals. But only 24 percent rated community service so highly.
    Well-designed programs can transform these attitudes. David was not a good citizen when he entered our school. But he was an active member of our consumer-action course, and he had many ideas about how to solve problems–some sneaky, some illegal, some both creative and legitimate. Gradually, he learned how to use small-claims courts and other legal strategies. His reading, writing, and math improved significantly.
    Six months after David entered the school, a local newspaper did a story about the class. David was one of the students selected by his peers to be interviewed and photographed.
    Weeks later, David came to me. “I often thought that I might have my name in the newspaper,” he said.
    “I even thought I might have my picture in the paper. But I never thought it would be for something good.”

    Joe Nathan, a former public-school teacher and administrator, is senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He coordinated the National Governors’ Association project, Time for Results.


    • Hello, Joe Nathan — too long not heard from. That’s a great posting — and indeed it is at least as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. But I guess that’s one of the main points of my two postings on this blog. We’ve somehow been missing the boat on many excellent calls for approaches such as yours for several decades at least, and I’m guessing that a major reason is our society’s unconscious commitment to our 19th and 20th century bureaucratic model of school systems, that might seem to provide “accountability” up through a chain of command, but in the process blocks out more productive relationships with students and their families and communities and more engaging learning experiences between teachers and students. My cynical friends believe that was even the intention of those running our society–in order to produce stultifying education that would keep the masses stupid and unquestioning as they slave at mindless jobs to make them money without complaining. Even if that was not their intention, it has been the result with all too many students.

      I’m trying to think how we can break out of this dismal result, which has to be seen by nearly everyone by now as unacceptable. I’m seeing the Community Schools Movement as having at least the potential for allowing communities to develop a vision that can unite people and get them collaborating on the kind of things you’re talking about, instead of just fighting over an endless lot of polarized issues that don’t seem to get us anywhere. Do you have any views on that–or on other ways to be more politically successful in producing really effective public education for ALL children? (I heard Al Shanker once admit that our present approach really succeeds with only about 20% of the kids.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s