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Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Staying Power


Staying Power

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Through schools we undertake with each generation the vital work of renewing the understandings and commitments that make our democratic institutions secure.

Two themes provide a clumsy counterpoint in the current focus on public schools. The one—often claiming the center of the political stage—asserts that schools are generally failing academically. Even good ones aren't good enough, and the poorest performers embarrass and even shock. The other, deep in our culture but lost in the anguish about academic achievement, is the belief that much of our success as a nation rests on the shared experience of going to public school. For many young people, it is at school—as much as (and for some more than) through family, church, or popular culture—that their beliefs in common principles of self-government, equality, personal achievement, and interdependence are shaped, updated, and connected with daily experience.

If the schools are that important, then any time they fail they betray a child's potential. But the issue of school performance is not simply between failure and success. Rather, the issue is how to combine understanding of learning, teaching, and children with the public commitment to invest in each generation what is required for its members to take effective charge of their individual and collective lives. A failure to do so puts, as has been said many times since 1983, the nation at risk. The risk is not just to the practical effectiveness of governing or the economic machinery. It is also to the vitality and sustainability of the nation's principles regarding opportunity, fairness, liberty, the rule of law, and social obligation.

The public schools not only teach about these matters, they provide a model. Schooling is an academic encounter with the great ideas that give skills meaning and the skills that give those ideas life. It is also an extended practicum in living and working together. When it succeeds, personal, economic, civic, and social capacities are established. When it falls short, it establishes instead chronic, generation-long deficits and may even imperil social coherence and political stability.

Because our educational system is a great laboratory of shared responsibility, we entrust both our children and our principles to it. Through schools we undertake with each generation the vital work of renewing the understandings and commitments that make our democratic institutions secure. Schools, moreover, are incubators of ambition, of obligation, of a belief system that avers that the future can and should be better. The public schools, in short, are a key clause in our social contract with each other.

The challenge of contracts, social and otherwise, is living up to them. Breaking them, on purpose or inadvertently, produces sanctions. The sanctions in the case of social contracts are substantially more severe than in mere economic transactions in which damages can be awarded and the parties can get on with their lives. When the sanction is the diminished intellectual, social, and civic capacity of the next generation, a nation that risks it seems foolhardy in the extreme. School reform is fundamentally about living up to that social contract.

Different times have summoned varied kinds of priorities in public education. Staying power is our imperative.

School reform is also about taking on a hugely complex enterprise. First, there is the issue of control. Control is widely distributed among the public, the teaching profession, and those taught; between an older generation and a younger one; between those with formal and official responsibilities and those ordinary citizens who by the act of engaging or turning away can deeply affect the potential of public education. A second issue is the sheer complexity of work that depends on alignments of resources and attitudes, on relationships of trust and respect, on the learning and skill of teachers, and the readiness and appetite of students for building their own learning and skill. Finally, there is the issue of time. No such institution can be changed quickly. Indeed, change, in the sense of moving from one status to another, misses a vital distinction. Change in education needs to be continuous, rooted not in fixed conceptions but grounded in what research and scholarship confirm, teachers and students need, and the public expects. The complex and difficult work of any reform initiative, such as assuring that all 3rd graders are fluent and comprehending readers, that 9th graders can understand and use algebra, and that all students feel cared for and learn to care about each other, requires a time scale measured in multiples of years.

Improving schools is difficult but not mysterious work. We nevertheless regularly contract amnesia. We forget what we know about why schools resist change and chase instead simple, partial, direct, and quick fixes. These reliably disappoint. So, too, do the ferociously sterile arguments that pit methods or perspectives against one another, hoping to erase the good teacher's repertoire of diverse methods in favor of a single "guaranteed" approach. The blunt instrument (for example, the high-stakes graduation exam) is mistaken for the strong one (a comprehensive accountability system), often leaving a dent rather than moving the enterprise forward. The key element—good teaching—is identified, but we seek to mandate it rather than cultivate it and provide the conditions in which it can flourish. We make well-intended pronouncements about the importance of diversity. But we fail to model and cultivate inclusive schools where race, class, and gender differences correlate with vitality in learning rather than gaps in achievement.

If we are to reform public education, we have to accept its complexity and have the patience and determination—indeed, the collective courage—to analyze, understand, and respond to that complexity. With Albert Einstein, we should seek to "make things as simple as possible but not simpler." Once that "simple as possible" threshhold has been reached, we need to stop the search for doctrines, ideologies, and formulas and push forward with the methodical work of establishing teaching as the profession it needs to be, organizing districts and schools to be high-performing institutions, and meeting students where they are and moving each, in all his or her personal complexity, as far as possible.

To assure that school reform rebuilds the social contract and enables the public schools to regain public confidence and affection as central instruments in a healthy democracy, we must continue the work of the last 15 years, and especially of the last five. It will be the determination to persevere that tells the story of whether we will meet our obligations to the nation's children and youths. Different times have summoned varied kinds of priorities in public education. Staying power is our imperative.

When fully considered, public education is a concept of great, indeed breathtaking, grandeur that manifests itself in the intimate scale of schools, classrooms, and individual relationships between teachers and students. When done poorly, it diminishes us all. When done well, it is a work of art, of science, of passion and aspiration that has hugely to do with who we—as individuals and as a nation—will become.

Raymond F. Bacchetti is a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Page 41

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