Less Heat, More Light

October 01, 1993 3 min read

To ordinary teachers, students, and parents, the debate over school reform, which is conducted mostly among policy wonks, must often seem very academic and remote. Issues such as standards and assessments, accountability, governance, outcomes, and site-based management seem vague and distant from the school and classroom. But, in truth, as the two feature articles and the book excerpt in this issue show, these seemingly abstract policy issues have real consequences for real people every day.

At first glance, Adele Jones (“The High Price Of Failure,’' page 34) is just another hard-nosed algebra teacher who flunked too many of her students, aroused the ire of her principal, and got fired. But, in fact, Jones’ story raises, in a very human and personal way, some of the central questions of the school reform movement.

By setting high standards for her students, assessing their progress, and attaching high stakes to their performance, Jones did in her classroom what most policymakers and reformers would like to do for all students. Her principal accused her of destroying students’ self-esteem and suggested that she should attend to how her students feel and cheer them on. He held her accountable for their performance. But Jones believed that self-esteem must be earned through accomplishment and cannot be conferred on students by teachers who reward them for not working. They, too, must be accountable.

The primary question is not whether Jones is a good or poor teacher. The question is what should we expect of our schools. The thrust of the reform movement is that schools should be stimulating and hospitable places, where students understand clearly what skills and knowledge they are expected to master and are encouraged to take responsibility for their own education under the guidance of caring and thoughtful teachers.

Unfortunately, there are too many educators who talk the talk and walk the walk of school reformers without really understanding the jargon and the ideas they’ve adopted. How else could Jones’ principal subscribe to Ted Sizer’s ideas but at the same time urge Jones to make Horace’s Compromise? How else could he simultaneously embrace the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools and those of Madeline Hunter?

Peg Luksik has also been at the center of a controversy in education. The story of her battles with Pennsylvania education officials (“Rebel Mom,’' page 24) is also about the central issues of school reform. Moreover, it demonstrates the deep distrust that many parents--especially conservatives and fundamentalist Christians--express about the quality of public schools and the people who run them.

Ironically, Pennsylvania officials got into trouble for trying to do in their state what Adele Jones did in her classroom: set standards and demand that students meet them. With boldness and vision, they launched the first statewide outcome-based education plan in the nation.

Many opponents of outcome-based education lump it with Satanism, child abuse, and abortion. They suspect a sinister conspiracy to control children’s minds and corrupt their morals. But an outcome-based system is simply one that focuses on results or outcomes (what students actually know and can do) rather than on inputs (time in school, money spent, credits earned). To work, such a system must clearly define the outcomes it expects. In addition to academic goals, Pennsylvania officials listed a variety of outcomes related to personal growth, character, and self-esteem. And that’s where they gave Luksik and friends the ammunition they needed for their rebellion.

Luksik’s primary concern seems to be that outcomes such as these are values, and the state has no business defining values. But as one of her adversaries says: “There is no way we are going to keep values out of the education process. Choosing a curriculum is a value choice. Compulsory attendance is a value choice. [Luksik and her allies] confused civic values with religious values.’'

The ongoing effort to improve education is vitally important to the nation. But, as Luksik’s and Jones’ stories demonstrate, it is imperiled by confusion and misunderstanding. During the next several years, Americans must decide what it is we want from our schools. In the process, we desperately need less jargon and more common sense, less heat and more light.--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Less Heat, More Light