Boyer Unveils Blueprint for ‘Basic School’

By Laura Miller — April 12, 1995 5 min read
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The president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was set to release a blueprint this week that he said will provide a realistic vision of what elementary education in America should look like.

Ernest L. Boyer also planned to announce that a core group of 13 elementary schools in 12 states has begun modeling the plan described in the foundation’s report, “The Basic School: A Community for Learning.”

Mr. Boyer was scheduled to unveil the concept at the annual meeting of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in San Diego.

In a recent interview, Mr. Boyer said the foundation’s plan for elementary school renewal is not a “magical alternative.”

It is, he said, the culmination of years of investigation, in which the Princeton, N.J.-based organization examined relevant research, conducted national and international surveys, visited schools across the country, and met with state superintendents to determine how the plan would fit into the current political framework.

“The methods that are promoted by the Basic School program are proven methods of how to educate children,” said Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the N.A.E.S.P. “I think what Ernie Boyer is trying to do is focus our attention on these priorities, rather than try and reinvent the wheel every other year.”

The report follows several others by the Carnegie Foundation over the past two decades that observers say have helped set the course of education reform in the United States. The previous one, “Ready To Learn: A Mandate for the Nation,” released in 1991, outlined the country’s obligation to prepare all children to enter school.

‘An Affirming Model’

The new report carries the goals of that earlier work a step further. “If all children are to be ready for school,” Mr. Boyer writes in the preface, “surely all schools must be ready for the children.”

The Basic School plan emphasizes four central elements: the school as community, a curriculum with coherence, a climate for learning, and a commitment to character.

Meeting the priorities of the Basic School is a reasonable goal for all elementary schools, Mr. Boyer argued.

“All are doing some of what’s being discussed. This is not a replacement model, it’s an affirming model,” he said. “It’s really saying, here are the priorities for an acceptable school.”

First, the report says, a school must have a vital and clear mission. It should be a place where everyone comes together to promote learning, where teachers are empowered and parents are partners in the mission.

Schools that are true learning “communities” have principals who guide staff members by inspiration rather than by authority, teachers who work together in teams, and students who serve as mentors to younger children.

Such institutions, the report says, should be colorful, friendly, and small enough for everyone to know one another by name--perhaps with 300 to 500 children.

In outlining such objectives, Mr. Boyer cites results from his research and lists methods found in schools across the country that could be used to achieve them.

To involve parents, for example, he suggests that schools take a parent-interest inventory to find out what skills and talents parents might want to volunteer. The report tells of parents in Westlake, Ohio, who operate a publishing center where they bind, each month, as many as 1,000 books written and illustrated by students of Dover Elementary School.

Priorities in Action

The 13-school group that has begun putting the Basic School concepts into practice was established by the Carnegie Foundation in partnership with the N.A.E.S.P., the American College Testing program, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo. The Kauffman Foundation has pledged $1.5 million to the project over three years.

The 525-student Jackson-Keller Elementary School in San Antonio is one of the schools involved. Since Mr. Boyer approached educators there three years ago, said Principal Alicia Thomas, Jackson-Keller has evolved significantly.

The school has set a “covenant” for learning affirmed by all of its students, teachers, and parents. It has integrated its curriculum units; made partnerships with the local university, art museum, health department, and Y.M.C.A.; increased its technology resources; and transformed a neighborhood of isolated apartment complexes into a genuine community, according to Ms. Thomas.

To do so, the school has pulled students from local middle and high schools to work in its classrooms, and has lured parents through such activities as a “come and dance with your children” rodeo night.

Last week, the school was preparing for Family Fun Day. Those ideas, said Ms. Thomas, came out of a parent-teacher planning committee.

The Basic School concept, she said, “just makes sense.”

Literacy Comes First

In the Basic School, “literacy is the first and most essential goal,” Mr. Boyer’s report declares. Students concentrate on the basics of reading and writing.

When children study different disciplines, they approach them not as isolated subjects but as parts of larger themes, such as “the use of symbols,” “producing and consuming,” or “living with purpose.” Such themes help students see academic material in the larger context of the world.

Students are evaluated through written examinations, teacher observations, their own products and performances, and parent information.

The Basic School also evaluates itself. To promote “a climate for learning,” the report addresses class size, teaching schedules, student grouping, and resources. It also emphasizes the importance of services such as counseling.

“Many children have fears older people hardly understand,” the report says, citing a recent survey of 3rd graders that found that 71 percent worry about “doing well on tests.”

Lastly, the Basic School does not skirt the issue of character, outlining core values all children should learn. The report says schools should heed the advice of the educator Horace Mann, who in 1837 said to “teach virtue before knowledge.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Boyer Unveils Blueprint for ‘Basic School’


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