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Education Opinion

Needed: More Educational Conservationists

By David Tyack — June 23, 1999 4 min read
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The word “conservationist” has an honorable ring when citizens struggle to preserve wild nature or fine old buildings. When people work to preserve what is good in education, however, they are often dismissed as traditionalists or stand-patters. When real estate developers propose paving over wetlands, environmental activists protest. But when educational innovators want to transform educational practice, few ask what might be lost in the process. Government requires environmental-impact statements for construction projects, but not student- and teacher-impact reports for educational reforms. Who will be there to defend endangered species of good schools, or good educational programs, from the relentless, if zig-zag, march of educational progress?

Believers in progress through educational reform often want to reinvent schooling. The dead hand of the past has created problems for rational planners to solve in the future. Inspired by the progress syndrome, innovators often exaggerate defects to motivate by alarm, try to wipe the educational slate clean, and then propose a short time frame for their favorite projects, hoping to see results before the next election or job opportunity or grant proposal.

The word progress pops up everywhere, even in the rhetoric of conservatives who want to blame schools for economic problems. During the Reagan administration, the official American report on education for UNESCO was called “Progress of Education in the United States,” while the major tool for measuring achievement bears the name of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The ideology of progress through change obscures what a “conservationist” strategy illuminates: It is at least as important to conserve the good as to invent the new. It is easy to become so obsessed with what is not working--the cacophony of bad schools--that one forgets what makes many schools sing. Good schools are hard to create and nurture, for they require healthy relationships of trust, challenge, and respect, qualities that take time to grow. When teachers, students, parents, and administrators create such learning communities, a conservationist strategy seeks to preserve what makes them work, to sabotage ignorant efforts to fix what ain’t broke, and to share knowledge about how to grow more such places.

It is easy to become so obsessed with what is not working.

As I’ve talked with diverse people across the country, I’ve asked them what was their most positive experience in school. They may have forgotten whatever fad was sweeping education or the teenage culture, but they remembered key relationships, especially with teachers. They spoke, often with great warmth, about teachers who challenged them to use their minds to the full, who kindled enthusiasm for a subject, who honed their skills on the playing field with relentless goodwill, who were there to support them in times of stress or sadness, and who knew and cared for them as individuals.

When teachers were asked what were their greatest satisfactions in their own work, almost nine in 10 said helping students to learn and grow as social beings. It’s a sign of a school worth conserving when the best memories of its former students and the best rewards of its teachers are well-aligned. Such schools have grown not just in favored and prosperous places, but also in economically deprived but culturally strong communities, as Vanessa Siddle-Walker has shown in her studies of Southern black schools.

Conservationist does not simply mean conservative (though it can mean that). Conservationists in education would probably span as wide a political spectrum as those in the ecology movement, who range from radical members of Greenpeace to genteel Republicans active in the Audubon Society. Conservationism is an attitude, a habit of mind, not a political orthodoxy. It analyzes as well as advocates. It seeks to moderate the pendulum swings of policy that decree that schools should be larger (or smaller), that more (or fewer) courses should be elective, or that governance should be more (or less) centralized.

The conservationist cannot look only backwards.

Many different sorts of people could take part in preserving what they find valuable in education. Intrinsic in the work of school board members, for example, is the duty to be trustees of the past as well as planners of the future. Teachers, parents, students, and administrators know first-hand what works in their schools and what they believe should be preserved, though endangered from time to time by fiscal retrenchment or a change in policy climate.

The conservationist cannot look only backwards, for preservation involves planning for the future as well. The work of the educational conservationist, like that of the defender of wild animals, is a challenging one. It takes resources and smarts and political savvy to preserve Mongolian Gazelles or good schools.

David Tyack is a professor of education and history in the school of education at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as Needed: More Educational Conservationists

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