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Child-Centered School Reform

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A populist notion that frequently goes unchallenged is that education requires "radical'' reform. We are now being warned that a stampede of reform is forming and unless we lead it we are likely to be trampled under by it. And, indeed, self-proclaimed experts (usually self-serving politicians) are vociferous with their "solutions.''

Not surprisingly, however, the most highly touted of these "solutions'' are at best superficial, and at worst spurious. Quite simply, these political reforms will fail at reform because they fail to focus the public debate and the political maneuvering on the one seminal idea that must be the nucleus of meaningful, long-lasting educational reform: child-centeredness. None of the familiar litany of educational-reform proposals focuses any new attention on developing child-centered programs or schools.

Vouchers and privatization, for example, are not the panaceas promised by their proponents, as was brought home clearly in a study for the Boston-based Pioneer Institute of Public Policy Research: "Choice advocates erroneously assume that popular schools will be quality schools,'' it said, "that is unlikely to be the case. Sound educational ideas and effective leadership, not consumer taste, are ... the key to good results.''

Having longer school years and longer school days ignores the fact that students who are being bored into virtually refusing to learn irrelevant instruction delivered with antiquated methods will not benefit from more of the same. Brain researchers have insisted that, as the book Making Connections states succinctly, "one of the fundamental reasons schools fail is that they impose on learners a single state of unrelieved boredom.''

State and national curriculum suggestions simply reinforce the subject-centered educational fallacies we now emphasize. State and national testing proponents disregard the U.S. Labor Department's own report that examinations in our nation's schools are a "nearly overwhelming burden'' yet "doing little to advance the cause of learning.''

Site-based teacher decisionmaking, another popular reform proposal, will not help students if those teacher decisions are based on teacher convenience rather than child-benefit. Phillip Schlechty has correctly noted that, without changing the context to focus on how students will benefit, site-based-management plans may merely lead to "more people happier with dumb decisions.''

To paraphrase the last annual theme of the Institute for Development of Educational Activities [IDEA], we need to invent our futures now or resign ourselves (or should it be brace ourselves) to government's doing it for us. Happily, we need not reinvent the wheel in order to create reformed, restructured, successful child-centered schools. Every restructuring tool we need has already been researched and is successfully working somewhere in this country. We do not lack programs or models for meaningful educational reform; we simply need to identify them, introduce them into our systems systematically with staff members (not to staff members), and coordinate them.

Specifically, I propose the following as a list of school programs and organizational elements essential in a child-centered school. Child-centered school reform consists of successfully introducing, integrating, and maintaining programs with these basic tenets:

  • Every decision will be made solely on the basis of how and to what extent it will positively influence student learning. The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's school strategic-improvement plan, for example, maintains a focus on student learning by stressing improved student outcomes. The laboratory's model includes strategic planning, professional collaboration at all levels, and a research-based, data-driven process.
  • Cooperative-learning models will be found in abundance. Literally hundreds of studies have shown that cooperative learning enhances student achievement, and the results have held for all age levels, all subject areas, and all typical classroom tasks and assignments. Other studies confirm that cooperative learning creates both pro-academic and pro-social norms among students.
  • Promoting positive student self-concepts will be a major institutional theme. According to the educational researcher James Beane, "Every nook and cranny in [a] school has the potential to enhance or debilitate self-esteem.'' The schools that enhance self-esteem are characterized by humanistic climates, positive expectations, collaborative teacher-student planning, cooperative learning, and thematic instruction that emphasizes personal and social meanings, student self-evaluation, multicultural content, community-service projects, and hands-on learning activities.
  • Theme-based, interdisciplinary teaching will be the norm. The latest brain research suggests that the most effective teaching involves learners' being able to create meaningful and personally relevant patterns. This teaching model is most clearly achieved in thematic teaching. Susan Kovalik, in Teachers Make a Difference, describes thematic instruction as "brain-compatible'' learning that supports and makes use of cooperative-learning models, student discovery, and parent involvement.
  • Students will be grouped into nongraded classroom teams. Nongraded classrooms offer many advantages for students and for the child-centered school itself. For instance, nongraded classrooms promote teacher teams as well as teacher autonomy and flexibility, both considered at the core of "personalized learning.'' Nongraded classrooms naturally support and advance cooperative-learning models, improved social climates, multi-year teacher-student relationships, individualized attention, and a sense of community. They are, of course, ideal for peer tutoring.
  • Long-term student-teacher relationships will be established. Parents do not send their child to a new pediatrician each year. Rather, as much as possible, they arrange for a single pediatrician to monitor their child's growth from year to year and from one stage of development to the next. Child-centered schools will do likewise. Researchers in school effectiveness have illustrated that long-term student-teacher relationships improve school productivity, encourage more positive approaches to classroom management, enhance teachers' sense of professional efficacy, and promote more positive teacher-parent relationships and teacher collegiality.
  • Students and staff will feel they are valued members of a caring community. Schools can, should, and currently do exist in which every student is assigned a nurturing advisor, in which all students are viewed as citizens, and in which students are encouraged and assisted in finding a meaningful role in the school community. Equally important, teachers who work in these kinds of personalized school environments have reported that among the most satisfying aspects of their teaching are personal contact with students and the ability to get to know students. In addition, research has found a strong relationship between the extent of teachers' knowledge of their students and their sense of professional effectiveness.
  • Teachers will work eight hours a day, 11 months a year. As unpopular as this idea is likely to be to teacher associations, effective-schools analysis clearly reveals that teachers desperately need more time to think, plan, and collaborate than is currently available in most school systems. Students in child-centered schools can continue to attend from six to seven hours per day and 10 months per year, with all remaining time strictly devoted to site-determined teacher development, instructional preparation, and collaborative planning. Additionally, and of crucial importance, child-centered schools will relieve teachers of virtually all noninstructional clerical duties. Child-centered schools will recruit, train, support, and cherish an army of parent and community volunteers to meet these necessary needs.
  • Teachers will work as a part of a team of teachers who engage in collaborative decisionmaking. Much as cooperative learning promotes student success, adult collaboration promotes adult success. Cooperation among adults has been found to promote achievement, positive interpersonal relationships, social support, and self-esteem. Healthy school organizations that provide a more rewarding workplace for teachers promote more child-centered adult decisions, which offer a more rewarding learning place for students.
  • Site-based management will focus on the decisions crucial to advancing academic progress for all students. Research has identified these tasks as ones teachers consider most important and from which they derive the most professional satisfaction: (1) serving as a role model for students, (2) meeting student needs, and (3) controlling the logistics of their day. In other words, psychological rewards are crucial for teachers because they enhance their sense of efficacy--the expectation that they can help students learn. The site-based management model in child-centered schools thus benefits both teachers and students; teachers are positively motivated by making significant decisions that directly affect the academic and social needs of students, and students are the beneficiaries of the collaboratively developed child-centered decisions.

Child-centeredness is inherent within the nucleus of education. By reforming our schools through coordinated organizational mosaics composed of the best programs and instructional models we now have, education can produce successful, optimistic students in nurturing, child-centered schools. The sooner we start, the better for all.

Daniel L. Burke is an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Antioch, Ill.

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