On April 27, 1983, a little-known federal commission published a gloomy assessment of American education that launched the most sustained effort in history to improve public schooling. During the ensuing 10 years, the reform movement spawned by A Nation at Risk has evolved from a determination to solve the problem by doing more of the same, only better, into a concerted effort to overhaul the entire system of American education.
Systemic reform involves changing every part of the educational enterprise—teacher preparation and professional development, the use of time and space, the content and organization of the curriculum, student assessment, and the roles and relationships of educators and students— essentially at the same time.
That is, to say the least, a formidable challenge. And although we are still closer to the starting line than to the finishing line, a new and exciting vision of schooling is emerging. The special section beginning on page 27 outlines that vision. In the first article, Lynn Olson offers a portrait of the school of the future. It may not yet exist in one building, but one or more of the essential elements are in place in hundreds of schools across the land. And the ideas and innovations are spreading.
Those committed to this new vision of schooling hope that one day soon a critical mass will be reached and the small but growing number of restructured schools will achieve a kind of educational fission that will transform the entire system. For that to occur, however, two of the most enduring features of the public school must change substantially: the curriculum and the way time and space are used. Debra Viadero describes on page 32 one state’s effort to develop a coherent curriculum. And Meg Sommerfeld, in a story on page 36, shows how some schools and districts are radically restructuring the school day.
Perhaps the most parsimonious definition of the school of the future is that it will be a place where thoughtful practitioners encourage students to become more thoughtful. Nancie Atwell, the subject of this month’s cover story on page 20 by Elizabeth Schulz, epitomizes the thoughtful practitioner.
After college, Atwell decided to get certified and teach until she could figure out what she wanted to do with her life. “I discovered I loved it,” she says. “I had never done anything that I loved as much as teaching.”
In her 23 years as teacher, researcher, and author, Atwell has been the constant learner, the constant questioner of her practice. Her struggle to understand how students learn and why they behave as they do led her to write her first book, In The Middle. Later, in her second book—a collection of essays on “teaching to learn” called Side By Side—Atwell describes the thoughtful practitioner (and, in the process, herself):
“When teachers ask questions about students’ learning, observe in their classrooms, and make sense of their observations, schools become more thoughtful places. When teachers change in light of their discoveries, when their teaching becomes more patient, more responsive, and more useful to students, schools become more thoughtful places. When teachers invite students to become partners in inquiry, to collaborate with them in wondering about what and how students are learning, schools become thoughtful places. And when teachers act as scholars, closely reading, heatedly debating, and generously attributing the published work in their field, schools become more thoughtful places. In short, the most thoughtful practitioner is the teacher who acts as a researcher.”
On Sept. 12, 1990, Atwell opened her own school—the Center for Teaching and Learning—in Edgecomb, Maine. Her primary objective was to create a demonstration school where carefully selected visiting teachers would see practical models of good classroom practice—what she calls “primary sources”—and go back to their schools and be agents for change.
The AT&T Foundation has made it possible for this issue of Teacher Magazine to be sent to some 50,000 newly minted college graduates who will leave the campus in a few weeks to begin their careers as teachers. If they are fortunate, they will find themselves in schools that are working to become thoughtful places. If they are courageous enough and committed enough, perhaps they can help make their schools thoughtful places. In that regard, we can think of no better role model to offer them than Nancie Atwell
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1984 edition of Education Week as Connections