In the Press Column

May 16, 1990 7 min read

“Education is too important to be left to the educators. It’s everyone’s problem,” comments Lou Gerstner, chief executive officer of rjr Nabisco, in a special edition of Fortune magazine on the theme “Saving Our Schools.”

The 108-page issue, published this week’, evaluates current efforts of business to improve education and calls for an increase in corporate involvement.

In addition to financial support, successful corporate contributions to school improvement include tutoring and mentoring programs, according to the magazine. An article reviewing efforts already in place also cites business’ backing for such reforms of curriculum and management as those advocated by the Brown University-based Coalition of Essential Schools.

In another story, Fortune names its “top 10 education governors": John Ashcroft of Missouri, Terry Branstad of Iowa, Carroll Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, Garrey Carruthers of New Mexico, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Booth Gardner of Washington, Madeleine Kunin of Vermont, Ray Mabus of Mississippi, Rudy Perpich of Minnesota, and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

The magazine also includes articles on the involvement of parents, the standing of American schools in comparison to those of other nations, the federal role in education, technology in the classroom, and other topics.

“We aren’t befuddled about how to teach science. We know perfectly well what to do. We’re just not doing it,” writes Newsweek in an April 9 cover story on science education.

Citing the familiar litany of poor test results and predictions for a shortage of trained scientists and engineers, the magazine observes that a “mighty coalition of teachers, business leaders, and public officials” has elevated the dismal state of science education to the “nation’s list of unmet crises.”

Some “apostates,” such as Morris Shamos, an emeritus professor of physics at New York University, question whether the shortages will be as severe as some commentators warn. And other observers point out that scientific illiteracy has not been a barrier to the white-collar work force, and that other disciplines are equally important for an understanding of public policy.

Nevertheless, the magazine says, “since we can’t know what’s in every black box science sends our way, some critical perspective is important. Whether we gain that perspective via physics or philosophy is of little consequence. But gain it we must.”

An accompanying story, examining some of the national science-education reform efforts under way, highlights successful programs at an elementary school in Indianapolis, a high school in Downers Grove, Ill., and Syracuse University.

These programs, which emphasize hands-on learning rather than textbooks and lectures, and which help develop teachers’ scientific literacy, address the “only two problems in science education: what is taught and how,” the article continues.

A third consideration--"call it the nerd factor"--is perhaps a more insidious barrier to success, suggests Newsweek. But all other problems pale beside the question of whether the nation has the will to improve science education, the magazine concludes.

“Yes, there are signs of hope,” the story notes. “But there have been so many demonstration projects over the years, so many wonderfully innovative curricula, so many teaching kits that never made it into mainstream education.”

Americans regard the English language as part of their national identity, and policies designed to benefit minorities must affirm this view if they are to gain widespread public support, contends Jack Citrin, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, in the spring issue of The Public Interest.

Examining popular opinion about “official English” laws as measured in polls and referendum results, Mr. Citrin concludes that backing for such a policy is too strong to be attributed merely to prejudice against minorities or fear of the economic impact of immigrants.

He suggests as an alternative explanation that “the popular conception of national identity equates being American with speaking English.’'

Bilingualism becomes “a symbol of division and dissent” when it challenges the special status of English as “a defining element of a vulnerable civic identity,” Mr. Citrin argues.

If language policy is to achieve social comity, he asserts, its goals should be “improving access to English” as the nation’s public language and “ensuring tolerance for the use of other languages in the private realm.”

The author calls for the abandonment of efforts to pass official-English measures and for the strengthening of bilingual education in the public schools--whose purpose, he writes, should be “to teach English as rapidly and effectively as possible.”

The maintenance of ethnic identity should be left to the home and communal institutions, he suggests.

Since the influx of linguistic minorities is largely a result of federal actions, says Mr. Citrin, the federal government should help pay for programs designed to improve the English proficiency of these groups.

And the ethos of the melting pot--"the process of cultural assimilation that yields a people to whom America has a common meaning"--should be revitalized, he writes.

While solid funding for schools is important, “it’s hardly a cure-all,” according to an article in the May issue of Money magazine, which identifies “guidelines for excellence that citizens and taxpayers can bring to any school system.”

To discover which elements really foster excellence in education, Money examined two school systems “that were similar by all standard measures except for scholastic achievement.”

The districts it chose, Geneva, Ill., and Delran, N.J., resemble one another in demographics, median household income, and per-pupil spending.

But when compared with their counterparts in Delran, Geneva’s students scored significantly higher on a college-entrance examination, and more went on to four-year colleges, the magazine discovered.

The article isolates six “crucial factors” that contribute to Geneva’s success:

  • Sending students the message that academic standards take priority over athletics.
  • Encouraging community members to become involved with the schools at the classroom level.
  • Mandating a carefully circumscribed curriculum.
  • “Educating teachers to educate” by requiring them to take college courses or serve on educational committees.
  • Maintaining adequate facilities.
  • Creating a “shared vision” for education among administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

"[I]f educators invested a fraction of the energy they now spend trying to transmit information in trying to stimulate the students’ enjoyment of learning, we could achieve much better results” in promoting literacy, writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the spring issue of Daedalus.

“It is not that students cannot learn; it is that they do not wish to,” the University of Chicago professor of psychology and education observes.

While universal literacy has become the expectation of even the least developed countries, he notes, new methods of instruction and teaching technologies have made “few inroads into the inertia of learning.”

Part of the problem, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi suggests, is a shortage of “extrinsic” rewards for literacy; “despite the endless rhetoric about how the jobs of the year 2000 will need employees with much higher levels of literacy,” the greatest future demand appears to be for relatively unspecialized workers.

But if educators, “instead of treating literacy as a tool, focused on the rewards intrinsic to literacy, they might get students interested enough in exploring the various domains of learning for the sake of what they can find there,” he postulates.

In an analysis of the inherent rewards of enjoyable activities, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi identifies characteristics of what he calls “flow experiences": “a matching of challenges and skills, clear goals, and immediate feedback, resulting in a deep concentration that prevents worry and the intrusion of unwanted thoughts into consciousness, and in a transcendence of the self.”

Yet formal education “thrives on external controls, evaluation, competition, and self-consciousness,” he writes, making it “difficult for children to be motivated to learn spontaneously for the sake of learning.”

But “many teachers intuitively know that the best way to achieve their goals is to enlist students’ interest on their side,” he says.

“They do this,” he suggests, “by being sensitive to students’ goals and desires. They empower students to take control of their learning; they provide clear feedback to the students’ efforts without threatening their egos and without making them self-conscious. They help students concentrate and get immersed in the symbolic world of the subject matter.”

“As a result,” Mr. Csikszentmihalyi concludes, “good teachers still turn out children who enjoy learning, and who will continue to face the world with curiosity and interest.”

The same issue of Daedalus--devoted to the theme “Literacy in America"--also includes essays by such educators and researchers as Leon Botstein, Howard Gardner, and John U. Ogbu.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1990 edition of Education Week as In the Press Column