Education Opinion

Plotting a ‘Thematic’ Third Stage of Reform

By Frank Riessman — June 05, 1991 6 min read

We must consider the rights of these children to an equal education ahead of the subsidiary concern for the maintenance of different languages in the home. It is a matter of priorities. Many things can be done by our public schools but they cannot all be done at the same time, nor is it desirable that they should be. Families themselves can promote the continued use of their home language in a number of ways: enrolling their children in two-way bilingual programs, which are growing in popu3larity across the country; starting after-school native-language classes in a local school or community center; requesting that secondary schools provide a language class for students who can speak their native tongue but want to learn to read and write it; and, most important of all, making it a strict rule that the language is spoken in the home.

What is lacking, however, is a coherent approach built around a theme. In fact, a major current problem might be described as overload or overkill, with little recognition that more can be less. Hence, the schools are invaded by a tremendous variety of demands and new programs, resulting in teachers’ frequently feeling overwhelmed.

Recognizing that schools have produced as yet no significant breakthroughs as a result of education reform, the following are some proposed objectives for a new third stage of the movement:

  • B.B.B.--Break the Boring Barrier that affects children from all classes and backgrounds.

  • Strive for a qualitative improvement in learning--a leap.
  • Individualize.
  • Build intrinsic motivation and make motivation central--engage the students.
  • Be attentive to cost-effectiveness--avoid special, expensive innovations.
  • To begin work toward these objectives, I propose two major thematic shifts, a power shift and a culture shift, both having forerunners on a small scale in stage two of reform.

    In the past decade, there has been a call for a shift in power in the school system, and small shifts are in fact taking place (note, though, that the idea is far ahead of the practice). Two main shifts have been called for. One is from management to teachers, or perhaps from central administration to the local school in the form of school-based management. The other has involved the expansion of parental and community power vis-a-vis administration. (Dade County, Fla., is the model for the first shift, Chicago for the second.)

    Both of these are important trends for democratizing the school system. Neither, however, comes near any shift of power to the schools’ primary constituents, who are not the parents, but the students themselves.

    A power shift to the student can be expressed in two separate ways: (1) Empowerment derived from student involvement related to governance and control. A number of alternative high schools involve peers, together with faculty, in significant decisionmaking with regard to suspensions, the admission of new students, and many other policy issues. (2) Empowerment derived from involvement in various forms of student-centered learning and student-centered participating in the school’s helping processes. Included here are: peer tutoring, peer mentoring, cooperative learning, peer education, peer counseling, community service. In this model the student becomes a “prosumer"--a worker or producer who also consumes his or her own production.

    There have also been in recent years some positive developments in the area of school culture. But, again, these are more at the idea level and in alternative schools than in mainstream practice. So we have such developments as multicultural curricula, a learning-styles movement, magnet schools, programs such as New York’s City Kids that bring an artistic dimension to campus, schools that invite community representatives to participate in the teaching function, use of role-model mentors from different backgrounds, an awareness of the importance of peer culture, “schools without walls” merging city and school, and a general recognition that self-esteem is related to the inclusion of non-white cultural elements: history, heroes, holidays, learning styles, etc.

    These emphases, however, tend to be piecemeal rather than thematically integrated, and most schools remain quite traditional, with a great accent on rules, procedures, requirements.

    The kind of culture shift I propose needs to integrate many of the small, isolated, positive developments--expanded learning styles, a broadened cultural inclusion, a powerful role for television (perhaps beginning with the recent Civil War series from the Public Broadcasting Service), more life-like learning, new forms of evaluation, a powerful role for the arts, strengthening of peer culture, de-bureaucratization--and have them all contributing to a new school ethos.

    Research has demonstrated distinct improvements in learning from such developments, but the positive results from test sites have not carried over to the everyday classroom. Typically, in the research setting the intervention is zeroed in on very carefully with great commitment and intensity. In the everyday classroom, the same intervention may be mixed in with a variety of other themes. There is often loose quality control; that is, the actual administration of the intervention may be done poorly with less preparation, less attention to detail. Thus, we obtain a highly watered-down version of the test-positive intervention.

    In addition, various organizational issues frequently not considered in the original research may become operative in the classroom. For example, an intervention such as cross-age peer tutoring requires considerable management of logistics, such as the pairing of teachers, allotment of classroom space, allowance for building in tolerance of increased noise level, and so forth. It should as well require the restructuring of the teacher’s role to include monitoring, coaching, and training of student tutors. All of these produce pressure on practitioners--the teachers and school administrators--who are applying the intervention. Such organizational issues are not usually operative in the original research design, where the intervention receives highly focused attention and support.

    The implications of all this are fairly obvious: If we want an intervention to work in everyday practice, we will have to make it a major theme and administer it as far as possible in the fashion in which it was researched. And, we will have to take into account the special organizational conditions related to the school setting in which the intervention is to become part of the everyday practice.

    In essence, for research findings to be replicated on a large scale in everyday practice, the following are necessary:

    • A clear theme; for example, the use of learning styles.
  • Concentration on the theme, running like a thread throughout practice.
  • Careful attention to quality control to ensure that the intervention operates in practice as it did in the research setting.
  • Attention to organizational issues, such as the possible resistance of key players and the setting in which the intervention is to be put into play.
  • If the positive directions that are on the horizon are to become more than oases in the desert, it will be essential to develop thematic concentrations predicated on immersion, where practically everything a school or district does is consciously connected to a major theme, and where the organizational-resistance issues are carefully taken into account.

    And, last but not least, the theme must diligently include the in-depth involvement of the neglected primary constituency of schools, the students.

    A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Plotting a ‘Thematic’ Third Stage of Reform