Special Report
Education Opinion

Pushing Back for the Center

By Eric Schaps — January 22, 1997 6 min read

The movie “Network” gave birth in the late 1970s to that all-purpose American expression, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”


These days, those of us who subscribe to holistic, learner-centered visions of education are taking a beating. Those of us who believe worthwhile change is inescapably local, slow, and difficult have been shouldered out of the national debate. We have been pushed aside in favor of solutions that are simplistic, naive, and sometimes arrogant.

It is time to push back. It is time for those of us who care about the broader purposes of public schools--better meeting the needs of children as well as the needs of society--to reclaim the center.

We have no choice if we want to change the nature of the debate. We have no choice if we actually want to see the kind of educational changes that result in students who are well developed academically, socially, and ethically.

These are hard times for public schools and educators. We continue to see wave after wave of criticism of public education; how it is wasteful, inefficient, moribund. Report after report is published about how poorly American kids are doing in relation to students in other countries or to our own past generations.

The 1996 presidential candidates wrapped themselves in the cloak of schools, although both said precious little about them. Corporate leaders and the nation’s governors push standards and “accountability” at summits from which educators are purposely excluded.

The drumbeat has produced a rhythmic reaction. Today’s national surveys show that the American public says their No. 1 concern is improving education. But teachers and other educators are feeling increasingly under siege. Underappreciated understates it.

If you look carefully at historical data, much of the criticism of schools is unwarranted. The reality is that schools are doing as well as they have throughout this century. They are doing it with a steadily needier, poorer, more mobile, and more diverse student population. The good and bad news: Schools haven’t really changed all that much.

But--and here is the common ground for most of us--it is absolutely true that we now need our schools to accomplish much more than they ever have. We need our schools to educate a much higher proportion of students to much higher levels of cognitive accomplishment and capacity. Why? One major reason is the increased demands of modern workplaces--caused, in part, by marked improvements in the schools of other industrialized countries with which we compete.

There is another goal, which for us is equally compelling--for public schools to take a stronger role in fostering the ethical and social development of children. Why? Because of the decline in effectiveness of American families and communities to prepare them to be adults in a just and democratic society.

Paradoxically, at the same time that we need schools to do more, the goals that educational policymakers are setting for public schools are actually getting narrower, more utilitarian, less ambitious. One goal now seems well on its way to dominating: Teaching basic academic skills and knowledge. The means by which many policymakers would have us measure the effectiveness of schools are the multiple-choice, norm-referenced tests that gauge a far narrower and shallower slice of intellectual attainment than most of us really care about.

To be sure, policymakers still pay some lip service to “citizenship” and “character” as other worthy goals of education, but in truth, these have become very much secondary for them. Our leaders and policymakers don’t care enough about citizenship and character to ever assess schools’ effectiveness in fostering them. Indeed, even while they are pushing ever more academic assessments, they shy away from measuring character out of fear that they will be attacked for usurping the legitimate role of families.

Some of these leaders appear to consider citizenship and social development a potential distraction instead of a worthy goal. When prominent business leaders wanted to add “character” as an agenda item to last spring’s education summit, IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. bluntly refused. After all, it was his summit.

Even more peripheral these days in policy circles is the notion that schools should prepare young people to lead a considered and cultured life. In the current climate, such goals are regarded as irrelevant, anachronistic, frivolous. But for most of our history, public education’s avowed central purpose was to ennoble our young, to help them become discerning and principled.

The pollsters who delve into American thinking tell us it is not just hard-nosed policymakers and right-wingers who hold utilitarian views of education’s purposes. They tell us that parents and the general public are fast losing confidence in schools, that they want schools to focus on safety, order, and basic skills. One of our consultants insists that the place to begin a conversation with parents is over whether their children have books for their classes and bathrooms that work and that they feel safe entering.

This may be the right starting point. But it is up to us to make sure the conversation moves beyond schools as preparation for work and toward what it means to be a fully educated person in today’s society. For my organization, the Developmental Studies Center, and those who are joining with us around the country, that means the school conversation needs to focus on how we make learning more broadly relevant to the lives of students, and not just to the jobs they might get after they graduate. We believe student learning should connect to the issues that matter to students, such as why something is worth learning, what it means to do your best, how to be a good friend, how to play both hard and fair, how to be both nice and honest, how to be accepting of others.

This is a conversation that connects with parents, students, and teachers. We also have done the careful research to learn that focusing on these kinds of issues makes schools more conducive to students learning the academic content that we all care so deeply about. Most educators and parents recognize what the research confirms: Intellectual, ethical, and social development are interconnected and interdependent.

Most of us share much common ground about broad goals and sensible methods for public schooling. For example, most of us want schools to be both challenging and caring for the full range of students they serve. We should recognize this common ground and begin systematically taking advantage of the new educational insights and innovations--tempered, of course, by cycles of careful implementation, testing, and refinement.

But there is less agreement on the need to adopt a longer time frame for putting solid changes into effect. Stop pulling the carrot up to see if it is growing. If we aren’t realistic about this, if we keep demanding that it all be done in a few years, little real progress will ever happen. Only shoddy, hyped versions of what we really need will materialize.

We cannot afford to abandon public schooling or to take a narrow view of public education’s purposes. Our democratic institutions require that we raise every generation to take over not just our workplaces but our society.

For those of us in education who hold these values at the center of what we do, the time has come to “push back,” to help our leaders, our policymakers, and the business community seek and support the kind of caring schools that will make us all stronger. For those of us who value “caring communities of learners,” it is time to push our way back into a debate too often dominated by people whose tunnel vision has blinded them to the broader purpose of public education.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1997 edition of Education Week