Do We Care Enough?
The missing ingrediants in our quest of better schools may be commitment and passion.
I found a magazine article recently titled "What the U.S. Thinks About Its Schools." Here are some salient quotes from it:
- "Most Americans today can, only with sweat and tears, read anything more difficult than a tabloid newspaper or a comic strip."
- "In a day of specialization, schools are called on, more and more, to prepare young people not so much for life, citizenship, or democracy as for particular tasks and competencies."
- "Authorities estimate that about 15 percent of the nation's schools ought to be condemned out of hand."
- "We need to get our standards straight and clear."
And in a section called "Who's Teaching the Teachers?," there was this: "Most schoolteachers are underpaid. Ambitious young people in our society commonly want to enter more lucrative fields than teaching. ... Our teachers colleges are appallingly ill-equipped to do the job."
Education bashing is a popular pastime today, so no doubt we are familiar with these allegations. But the magazine in which I found this article is not from today. It was an issue of Life magazine, dated Oct. 16, 1950. That's more than half a century ago. Yet its comments are the same ones we hear today—perhaps different in some of the specifics, but dealing essentially with the same problems: crowded schools, dilapidated facilities, insufficient funding, and inadequate teacher preparation.
Fast-forward to today, to a new study by the Brookings Institution. It notes that nearly half our nation's largest cities are home to more blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities than to whites. Reporting on the study, The New York Times noted that "the shifting ethnic and racial balance of urban populations may force cities to rethink how they structure and deliver health care, general municipal services, and public education." Thus, to all those classic problems that education has perennially faced, we now must add the increasing gap between the achievement of minority children and those of the basically non-Hispanic white population.
But the long-running problems are still with us. Why is this so? Why does it seem, by and large, that time has stood still? Why has nothing really changed?
I heard one answer some years ago, when I had the pleasure of working with a deputy chancellor of schools for New York City named Ron Edmonds. He summed it up by saying, "We know enough about how to change schools. It really depends on how much we care."
We possess a storehouse of information on effective schools, the result of 30 years of research studies. Further, there are more and more effective schools each year, with their programs reported by the American Association of School Administrators, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the American Educational Research Association, as well as the entire panoply of professional education organizations. Business Week magazine, which is published by my own employer, the McGraw-Hill Cos., works each year with leading educational associations to ask teachers and schools across the country to report on their best practices. The magazine reports on the "best of the best," and presents awards to them.
Such programs are inspiring. And there are many more that go unnoticed. Nevertheless, together they form a drop in the bucket—and the bucket seems to be leaking worse than ever.
All of the blueprints for developing effective schools point to just a handful of success factors—factors that were validated yet again in a recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools, as well as in a landmark ruling in January by a New York state judge. In the latter instance, a suit first filed against New York state in 1993 by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity charged that the state for years had underfunded New York City's schools, and, as a result, had denied the city's students their constitutional right to "a sound basic education." Justice Leland DeGrasse, in his January decision, found for the plaintiffs. But what was particularly noteworthy was how the judge defined "a sound basic education." He stated that, as mandated by the education article of the state constitution, it "consists of the foundational skills that students need to become productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment."
Justice DeGrasse noted that, in order for students to acquire such skills, they should have access to a minimum of seven key educational resources. These include the following:
1. Sufficient numbers of qualified teachers, principals, and other personnel.
2. Appropriate class sizes.
3. Adequate and accessible school buildings with sufficient space to ensure appropriate class size and implementation of a sound curriculum.
4. Sufficient and up-to-date books, supplies, libraries, educational technology, and laboratories.
5. Suitable curricula, including an expanded platform of programs to help at-risk students by giving them "more time on task."
6. Adequate resources for students with extraordinary needs.
7. A safe, orderly environment.
Familiar? You can find these elements in my 50-year-old Life magazine.
To repeat Ron Edmonds, the solution "depends on how much we care." If we don't really care, nothing is going to happen on a systemic level. If it doesn't bother us that kids are pushed through schools and are coming out ill-prepared for today's increasingly high-tech and information-based world, nothing will happen. If it doesn't bother us that too many of the schools themselves are not producing quality education, nothing will happen. We need to care enough to make sure that success replaces failure.
Clearly, the state of our nation's education has not kept pace with our children's needs. This has been going on for at least half a century; we have allowed it to go on, and it is still going on. That is the issue. The solution is the caring and then doing something about it:
- Caring that forces us to say that we need to have more effective professional development for our teachers, principals, and superintendents.
- Caring that says we want to have our teachers come out of schools of education better prepared to teach—not only in what is taught, but also in how it is taught.
- Caring that says that our teachers, principals, and superintendents need to have an ongoing way to identify what works out there, and how to adapt it or adopt it, and transfer it to their own systems. We need our educational professionals to have the kind of thinking skills, learning skills, working-together skills to develop a learning climate in the school and the community.
- Caring that says we must think about how we can help parents want to come and connect with the schools.
It is the caring—the passion—that is the motivation for success.
These are issues that we have had for a long time, issues that have gone on, and on, and on. It's time to say it's time to stop. It's time to care and get moving, and to bring our nation's education to a point where schools can serve their time-honored purpose: to help all young people make their way in our democracy and contribute to it.
Wouldn't it be nice, 50 years from now, if there were another issue of Life focusing on education, and if those readers could look back on us and say that this generation of educators was successful in bringing lasting progress for all students?
Charlotte K. Frank is the vice president for research and development for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City and serves as a member of the New York state board of regents. She was honored in May as a medalist by the New York Academy of Public Education. This essay is adapted from her acceptance remarks.
Vol. 21, Issue 3, Pages 44,47