Unless and until the American public comes to know much more than it now does about the institution of education, I fear for any attempts at school reform. We may make some gains here and there, but substantive and systemic changes will not occur. People simply do not know enough about the problems facing schools or about possible solutions to them. They don’t know about alternatives to present practice, which, in most places, differs little from the kind of schooling they encountered years or even decades ago.
As a remedy to this deficiency, I propose a high school course in education, required of all.
We educators seem to accept almost as an article of faith that most adult Americans, having gone to school for 12 years, know a lot about schooling. In fact, they do not. They recall special teachers and classes, football games, the excitement of chemistry lab, the fear of the detention room. They may remember certain local and divisive issues--desegregation suits, alcohol and drug busts at Friday night dances, dress codes. They may even be aware of some of the funding problems in their school days and how these exerted an influence on what went on.
But think about what these adult Americans do not know about schools. How many, for example, have more than the vaguest notion of school finance or of the relationships among local, state, and national allocations for education? Do they understand how members of the board of education are selected in their district, how teachers and administrators are chosen, how policies are determined and enacted at the local school and at the district level, how curricular decisions are made and by whom? Can they name the major players in the educational drama, the school superintendent, the president of the board of education, the principal of the local school (even if their own children go there)?
My hunch is that no matter how poorly informed in general, most Americans probably can speak more confidently about their knowledge of events in the the Persian Gulf war, the downfall of the Soviet Union, the Olympic Games, the Presidential elections, than about local or national school issues. Occasional television specials, usually in September, focus on education, and books about education now and again get some attention in book-review pages, but, for most adults, what they know about education is a mix of what they themselves experienced and what their own children are experiencing. And this is not enough. It is too local, too subject to fading memories, too rooted in the past or in the often biased reports of children--simply too little no matter how accurate. If our schools are to be improved, Americans must know more about them.
A required course in high school would be a good beginning. And I am advocating a year-long course, not just a semester or a unit in some social-studies elective. What would such a course attempt to achieve? What would be its direction, its activities?
We might begin, as many teachers do when arranging a course, with text materials. I recommend, in addition to other periodicals in the field, the very newspaper you are reading. If all students in the course read, discussed, and wrote about just a portion of the news printed here each week, think of how knowledgeable they might become during that year.
Many of the current books about education--and there are a lot of good ones--would be on reading lists and available in school libraries. Theodore Sizer’s Horace books could be handled by high-school students, and his notion of “exhibitions’’ of student learning might be food for thought for students accustomed to multiple-choice tests at the end of each semester. Edward Fiske’s Smart Kids, Smart Schools would make students in Podunk Center aware that some places have pretty good schools, very different perhaps from the one they attend, and might suggest to them ways to try to improve their own. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities might anger today’s suburban youths--tomorrow’s adult movers and shakers--about the conditions in the nation’s inner-city schools. William Glasser’s The Quality School, Chester E. Finn Jr.'s We Must Take Charge, Ernest Boyer’s High School, Emily Sachar’s Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach!--the list could go on and on. Various educational journals would also be available in the school or, ideally, the classroom library and these would be part of the text materials of the course.
The projects possible in such a course would be limitless. Individually or in small groups, students could explore all manner of subjects related to education--the history of schooling in their community and how it has (and has not) changed over the years; the selection, evaluation, and retention of teachers and administrators in the school or the district; how purposes are established for the school and courses and activities designed to meet them; the methods the school uses to assess its achievements; broader issues like changing demographics or the voucher system or international comparisons in testing; the likely effects of innovations such as whole language and S.A.T. II. Groups of students could become qualitative researchers and interview their peers, teachers and administrators, and members of the local adult population about matters like the relative importance of, say, basketball and advanced-placement classes in a time of financial stringency; about the omnipresent tax and lottery proposals to fund schools; about such divisive issues as “no pass, no play’’ and “English only’’ and cross-district busing and condom distribution.
Students would be free to examine questions about their own school practices and personnel. How much are teachers paid? Should there be merit pay, career ladders? How could beginning teachers be eased into the system instead of becoming victims of the common practice of having the toughest assignment in their first year? What about year-round schools, longer school days? How are the discipline policies here at Central High determined and how might they be changed? What should WE STUDENTS do to improve this place? What can we do? Valuable student projects might emerge, from policing the school grounds and the cafeteria to adopting a nearby elementary school and working in it as teacher aides.
Selecting teachers for such a course should be little problem. To my knowledge there is no state certification anywhere in “education,’' so virtually any teacher in the high school who wanted to--and I think many would want to--could teach the course. But guest speakers would be frequent. The principal might visit the class often, with her own agenda or for a question-and-answer session. Students who regularly read the educational press might have some challenging questions and responses for her. The superintendent ought to be there, too, as well as the school-board president and some members of the board. Think of how valuable it might be if school-board members spent an entire day talking to classes of savvy high-school students about education; imagine the learning that could take place on both sides of the podium. A beginning teacher could talk about why he went into teaching, or about how the real world differs from the teacher-education portrait of it he got in college. The teacher might be followed by the dean of education from a nearby college, who could share information on what is new in teacher education: five-year programs, extended internships, professional-development schools, for starters.
The long-term benefits of such a course seem pretty obvious: a citizenry far more enlightened about educational practices and issues than our present one, able to make intelligent and imaginative decisions when faced with debates about schooling, able to place sophisticated yet reasonable demands on politicians who glibly label themselves education Presidents or governors, able to converse with their own children about what constitutes their daily “work.’' Another potential benefit might be that students begin to view teaching as an attractive career choice.
There could also be substantial immediate results in schools. Students familiar with Frank Smith’s Insult to Intelligence might question the daily “drill and kill’’ lessons of their English teacher. Students who had read about the new curriculum recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics might argue for adoption of that curriculum in their classes. Wouldn’t a teacher attempting to earn the advanced certification offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards profit from having students who knew what that program is all about? And how about schoolhouse discipline? Would students who had heard a teaching intern talk about how difficult she found the field because of student non-attention or disruption be better behaved?
I think students could come to love such a course. It is, after all, about their world, much more apparently so than ancient history or geometry or machine shop. Adolescent psychology could be a part of the course, with forays into the study of sibling rivalry or dysfunctional families and how school performance can be affected by such conditions. Students could focus on collaborative learning as a subject as well as a method. They could look at the putative advantages and disadvantages of grouping schemes. They could get to know the principal better and the superintendent and board members at least a little. Best of all, they could attempt to shape their schooling even as they studied it.
In sum, I believe a required course in education could be exciting for teachers and for students, and could benefit society in general and schooling in particular in truly significant ways. It is hard to explain why such an obvious course is so rarely a part of the secondary-school curriculum. But it easily could be--and should be.