Education Opinion

Schooling as Seen From an International Angle

By Charles L. Glenn Jr. — February 05, 1986 6 min read

How should educational quality be defined, and do industrialized nations differ in what they expect of their schools? At what levels--the school, the local community, the state, the nation--should different forms of educational leadership be exercised? What outside interventions, what forms of support, can increase the effectiveness of schools?

Representatives of 22 nations (essentially the “first world” of democracies with advanced economies) met in Paris last month to explore these questions. The “International Conference on School Leadership and the Quality of Schooling” was organized by the center for educational research and innovation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

As two of the American delegates to this conference (the others were Franklin Walter, superintendent of public instruction for Ohio, and Richard Miller, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators), we came away from the formal sessions and informal discussions with a new perspective on the policy debates taking place within American education. We also gained a new appreciation of the vigor and diversity of our system of public education, and a sense of how that is related to its highly uneven quality and results.

Some of the topics we explored with our European colleagues include:

• Education and national unity. Most of the nations of Western Europe are grappling, as we are, with the challenge of defining the essential elements of their national cultures-those traditions and convictions that should be offered without apology to I children of diverse backgrounds who will share citizenship tomorrow.

The cover story of a leading French newsweekly during the conference reinforced with posters across Paris-was on immigration, which 7 out of 10 Frenchmen consider one of the key issues in the national elections in March. Elsewhere, outbreaks of anti-immigrant hostility have hocked the liberal Dutch and Danes in recent months.

Altogether, the highly developed nations of Western Europe are now home to some 12 million immigrants—Turks, Algerians, Moroccans, sub-Saharan Africans-most of whom will not return to their native lands. There is now a second and even a third generation of such immigrants who know no other home than France or West Germany, yet are poorly assimilated and at the economic margins of society.

In one critical respect, this situation is not comparable to that created by the migrations of the past: The cultural and social milieu into which newcomers must be absorbed has itself lost its self-evident quality.

For example, many of the assumptions upon which the preservation of French culture and values has always rested were shaken by the cultural revolution of 1968 and its aftermath. French educators, upon whom the burden of integrating the children of immigrants into society primarily falls, are thus faced with the major task of developing working definitions of the culture’s essential content. Without such definitions, the educational process itself-for all students-threatens to become incoherent.

We were struck by the parallel between this concern and the effort of Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to stimulate debate about the essential content of American education. So much cannot be, and should not be, taken for granted anymore. The development of a national consensus on the content of schooling-a consensus that treats our cultural diversity with respect---could help restore a sense of confident purpose to our schools.

• Educating the whole student. In our discussions of the indicators of quality in schooling, we were impressed by the insistence, especially by British delegates, on including those goals that go beyond information and skills to include character and citizenship. British representatives spoke of a concern for the quality of school life, of a stress on viewing students and teachers as responsible human beings with “ownership” of the educational process.

Americans may have grown a little jaded with this theme because of the sheer silliness with which it has often been associated in our experience, but this international perspective reminded us that it is one of the essentials of all good schooling. We came away with a sense that we need to learn more from one another about how schools can become coherent moral communities within which the whole student can develop- while still respecting the pluralism of our societies.

• Expanding educational choice. Because our societies are pluralistic democracies, because (as delegates from Belgium and Italy stressed) they are founded upon respect for minority cultures and for the different goals that parents have for the education of their children, we need to learn more about how school choice can function within an overarching system committed to equity and to certain common goals.

Most of the nations represented at the Paris conference have made provision, in one way or another, for parental choice reflecting religious convictions, and some (such as the Netherlands) permit diversity on the basis of essentially any theme that is important to a sufficient number of parents.

It became clear in the discussions that a distinction must be made between choices that reflect approaches to the learning process or the beliefs and values underlying a school’s mission and choices that reflect social class and lead to elite and inferior opportunities.

The second kind of choice--of particular concern at the moment in Germany--is seen by many as a potential danger associated with promoting choice in the United States. We came away sharply aware of the need to define “choice” to include “equity” as its essential concomitant.

Our comments should make it clear that we found much to learn from the current efforts of the 21 other nations represented at the conference. In one essential respect, however, we came away with enhanced respect for an insufficiently appreciated strength of the American educational system: its “can-do,” pragmatic, problem-solving spirit. Our tradition of local control and local accountability, with superintendents serving at the pleasure of lay boards, seems to encourage this spirit.

And, as we were asked about “American schools,” we realized that true statements about them must always be specific to a particular school or system. One of the invited experts, Superintendent Richard Wallace of Pittsburgh, made a deep impression with his step-by-step account of how an entire urban system responded to educational leadership. European systems are greatly concerned with the allocation--and limitation--of formal authority from its center down to the classroom. They have little experience with the sort of effective mobilization of informal power for school improvement that is characteristic of the effective superintendent or principal in the United States.

The “down” side of this strength, of course, is that in too many cases the radical decentralization of responsibility for American schools results in pockets of mediocrity, or worse.

The challenge we face, then, is to take advantage of the American spirit of enterprise, through which a gifted leader accepts the freedom to translate a vision of excellent education into the reality of an effective school. The challenge is to make good schooling the universal norm, without sacrificing the local accountability and decisionmaking that make the best schooling possible.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1986 edition of Education Week