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The Importance of Establishing a School Ethic That is Human

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One of the door handles is missing; the metal kick plate is loose at the bottom. The students don't quite look at me. Is it that I'm not one of them, or are they simply insecure themselves? Their laughter echoes on the hard terrazzo floor. I walk by the music room. The clear young voices lift: "In these delightful, pleasant groves ..." Behind windowed doors, teachers stand at the front of five-by-five rows. Some of the students are animated; other rooms are filled with forms slouching in black leather jackets.

After four years as an independent-school teacher and headmaster, I am back in public education. Though some of the kids are a little sloppier, the language is about the same. It is, all in all, not that different from when I was here last, in the 1970's. But when I reflect on education today, I have to wonder what the public is thinking. Would they be suspicious of the apparent normalcy? After all, for 10 years--and especially during the last two--they've heard about low standards, falling scores, and even worse behavior. Across the country, people believe public education is not even good, let alone excellent. And public opinion drives the engine of school reform. The result has been more state-initiated educational change than we have seen in years.

The latest reform movement has had critics, of course. Some have pointed out the problems that occurred in the 1960's, when many people who had to carry out change (which then meant things such as alternative and experimental schools) did not understand it or the need for it. Others argue that simple quantitative reforms will not automatically improve education. Some suggest that our problems stem from larger social changes--family breakups, student attitudes, television--which cannot be controlled with blanket reforms.

In general, the broad forces of educational change are little inclined to reflection or attuned to nuance. Local school districts and state officials exert themselves briskly to clean up the mess and get on with business--thus we've seen the predictable response, which has been accepted uncritically, of requiring more hours, more school days, and more credits.

Because the states are concerned with such a wide range of schools, their initiatives almost have to be broad and imprecise. By their very nature, they are more likely to influence "least common denominators'' than to foster excellence, a flower that seems to bloom where there is individuality and creativity. In fact, if the states and school districts hope to make the leap from adequacy to excellence, they face a dilemma. For as required programs, curricula, reports, and standards proliferate, it is harder to find the uncommon course, the attention to individual relationships, the time for the kind of thinking and talking that foster learning. And as schools become more bureaucratic and regulated, it is harder for individual teachers to use creative judgment.

This would be less of a problem were it not that the quality of these relationships and judgments is precisely what distinguishes merely adequate teachers, classrooms, and schools from ones that are first rate. In short, the more centralized reform becomes, the more antithetical it is to the individual responses that are fundamental to excellent schools. And our elementary and secondary schools are now less in control of their own direction than ever before.

This is not to argue that the states should back away from taking a forceful role in education. However, the challenge is more difficult than many suppose: It is to address a series of issues that are no less important for being relatively intangible and subtle. This task requires that we at the local level determine what characterizes excellent schools, public or independent. If we know that, we can begin to shape policy toward those ends.

Good schools must have a climate in which there are strong academic and behavioral expectations. One thing that impressed me about independent schools is the assumption among students and teachers that the purpose of the place is learning. This is not always the assumption in public schools. Because this is so--and because today's public-school students do not always bring with them a strong sense of the worth of learning--we must begin by building community values. The people in schools need to believe that ideas and learning are important.

Further, to be responsible for their ideas and actions, young people need to feel cared about. Over the past two decades, students in many of our secondary schools have become anonymous. Adults' roles have fragmented. There are now many labels: administrators and faculties, counselors and teachers, "professionals" who teach and "paraprofessionals" responsible for students outside the classroom. Specialization and fragmentation mean that we see students less as whole people, and, as a result, they feel less than whole. To establish a coherent community, we need to talk and work more with each other. My school district, which is different from others in some ways, is similar in that we are faced with problems like these that are common to secondary education throughout the country. In response, we have begun to encourage more human interaction in our schools.

It is important to create a continuing student-faculty discussion about relationships, academic expectations, and other broad school concerns. In schools, as in society, we are less sensitive to others than we ought to be. The problem is often not so much that things are really out of control, but that there is an uneasy sense of slippage, of things not quite being what they should. Seemingly small events set the tone. Kids go to assembly and yell out to their friends on stage. Some times they throw food in the cafeteria. Social groups are exclusive and unkind to each other. Such events bother adults, but they also bother many students, who want to be in places that are welcoming and civil.

In my district, we are interested in an adviser program that will allow reflection on these kinds of issues. Why do students act up in assembly? Well, there is a reasonably good chance that if their main exposure to large groups is a rock concert, they will see little wrong with acting as if they were at one during assembly. Currently, though, many schools lack a vehicle for talking about such things. We believe that a small group of students and a teacher could regularly meet and discuss them productively.

By developing in-school "houses" of 100 to 150 students and several teachers, we hope to sponsor service projects, intramurals, dramatics, and other intellectual pursuits. House plans are not new, but they have usually been used more for administrative purposes than as a way to tell students they have something to contribute and that they are known by their actions, right and wrong.

When problems do occur, teachers in secondary schools too often report that administrators do not support their efforts to do something about them. At the same time, school disciplinarians typically feel overwhelmed by the petty, day-to-day problems they must deal with on top of a hard core of seemingly insoluble difficulties some students have in school and at home. This problem is largely a question of redefining values, especially since our own school bureaucracies often do not have enough time to deal with even the minor frictions that occur in schools each day. We need to define more clearly what is expected of students in school. We know that disciplinary action must be timely and fair but, equally important, there must be a public perception that it is. To achieve both ends, we need to involve more faculty in the process of discipline, in helping students who are in trouble, and in discussing the development of and solution to problems.

If we want students to learn better, they must come to value learning. Teaching a student that ideas make sense and make a difference is anything but a mechanical outcome of more credits or more courses. The issue is even more complex because our enrollments will continue to decline for several more years. With fewer students, we will not be able to support as many courses or as many levels of aptitude grouping. That means we will have to worry not only about how to engage students in learning, but also about how to do that as the range of aptitudes in each class becomes even wider.

Many students fail to believe that what they are learning has value, in part because they are unable to connect the ideas with something they already know. (Try to remember what it was like understanding the ''need" to study English history.) It is important to give students a wide field of vision by unifying and coordinating what they study. Although schools have for years discussed coordinating subjects such as American history and American literature, how many schools do it and do it well? How many of us in education are trying to teach fewer subjects with more individual attention? And how many teachers recognize that some students can learn ideas by starting from concrete experience and moving to the abstract, rather than the other way around? All of us could be doing a lot more to recognize differences in students' learning styles.

For excellence to flower in our schools, we are going to have to recognize the importance of fostering values and individual relationships. In short, beyond assurances that our teachers are properly trained and that students are meeting objective standards, we need to establish a school ethic that is human. This concern must be at the heart of educational reform. At this point, though, the question is whether the current educational debate can rise to that level.

Vol. 04, Issue 36, Page 28

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