Education Opinion

‘The Gap in Our Thinking About Kids’

By Harold Howe II — December 12, 1990 6 min read

When the current school-reform movement was launched by the publication of A Nation at Risk in early 1983, a pattern of thinking about children and youth was simultaneously implanted in the public mind. Its three main assumptions were the following:

  • The United States is engaged in international economic competition with increasing intensity; to prosper in that environment, its businesses need better-educated workers to serve an economy that is increasingly based upon science and technology.
  • American schools are failing to provide the workers our country needs, and must be reformed to produce higher levels of both learning skills and knowledge.
  • The need for these changes is immediate and critical because the demography of the country will provide smaller cohorts of new workers in the years immediately ahead, and because those workers will come increasingly from groups that schools have failed to educate successfully.
  • Based on these assumptions, school reform became a major agenda for governors, state legislators, business leaders, educators, and even the President and the Congress. Urged onward by the immediacy of economic issues, they, in turn, made a broad assumption: We can fix the schools so that the schools can fix the kids no matter what we do to damage children and youth in our families and communities.

    Under this banner, they tried to “legislate learning” through more requirements of all kinds-subject matter, testing, promotion standards, and teacher preparation. They tended to ignore two major factors-the motivation of learners, on the one hand, and the needs and problems of children in American society on the other. To support their “legislated learning, " they called on comparisons between Japanese and American schools, without adequate recognition of the great cultural and historical differences between these two societies.

    The first few years of school reform based on these assumptions brought many changes in U.S. schools, but produced, in my judgment, more turmoil than progress. As the reform movement has progressed, some fresh thinking has offered hope.

    The notion that the best way to encourage learning is the fear of failure has been seriously challenged, and more attention is being given to positive motivation. Particularly for youngsters whose lives are haunted by failure and insecurity in realms outside the school, this is an important shift of emphasis.

    Helping teachers rethink their teaching practices in light of the needs of their students has also become a useful addition to the reform agenda, as has the policy of giving individual schools more discretion over their own routines and practices. The latter carries an important message to teachers: “We trust you. " The earlier message had been, “You’re no good, and we’re going to fix you along with the kids. " And, of course, a major positive move has been the effort to enlist parents more directly in the affairs of schools.

    But, although these recent directions offer the chance for motivating both teachers and students, and add the potential of home support for the schools’ objectives, they do not attack the problem of the basically erroneous assumption of most school-reform initiatives: the belief that schools can repair all the damage done by inadequate family attention and limited community services. To understand this gap in our thinking about kids, we need to consider the difference between education and schooling.

    One of America’s greatest educators spent most of his working life trying to persuade us that education is much broader than schooling. I refer to Lawrence A. Cremin, whose recent, tragic death deprives us of a presence our thinking about children and youth sorely needs. For Larry Cremin, families and communities, and a variety of other sources of learning, were as important as schools in educating the young, maybe more important. His three-volume history of American education documents this view.

    The assumption that the school can do it all is simply wrong, and we continue to hold it at our peril. I am not saying that schools can’t do better. They can and they should. But the recent erosion of family capacity to nourish adequately the minds, emotions, physical health, and social growth of children will require direct interest and action over and above what schools can do. This is a very large subject that cannot be fully ventilated in one essay. But a few points may illustrate its dimensions.

    The steady growth of poverty among children and youth in this country in recent years has been, in large part, a growth of poverty in young families. And although some poor families provide strong support for their children, many cannot. Poverty erodes the capacity of a family to provide for the needs of the young.

    Nevertheless, there are numerous reasonably well-tested strategies for helping families deal with these problems. They were recently examined by the Domestic Policy Council of the White House, which agreed on the social gains that might be made by implementing them, but balked on costs and the fact that positive results would take time to emerge.

    Even among more fortunate families, there is a growing gap between adults and children. The need for both parents to work in order for a family to stay in the middle class has been a major cause of this change, and it is simplistic to believe such a trend can be reversed. Ways must be found in families and communities to provide children and youth with the care and attention from adults they need to mature.

    Again, useful and promising models abound for dealing with this issue, mainly at state and local levels. Among them are youth-service programs, mentoring projects, and efforts to give our young people real responsibilities that are valued by adults.

    Two further observations on the family as educator, the first being that by far the greatest contrast between education in Japan and in the United States is in the amount of support for it provided by families. While I am not proposing the Japanese family as a model for direct transfer to our shores, it would make sense for us to think more deeply than we have about how the educational role of the family can be reawakened in modern circumstances, or how means of effective substitution for it can be devised.

    Secondly, American educators must awaken to the possibilities of the Family Support Act of 1988. A major component of this federal welfare-reform legislation that is now taking effect provides educational opportunities for poor parents to help them become employable. But this hope-giving legislation is mired in the mud of anti-tax attitudes in both the states and the federal government. Most educators would fail a test on how it works, and political leaders are ignoring its promise.

    Unless our country can add more efforts for surmounting poverty to its agenda for children, youth, and young families, success with school reform will be limited. The Committee on Economic Development, a business-supported organization, has accepted this general argument, and strongly advocates national programs for maternal and child health and expanded preschool opportunities. Their effort is a major step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

    Our national policies and programs to help poor families gain self-sufficiency do not provide them with support that could legitimately be called “a safety net. " We have been far more generous with our aged population than we have with our children, youth, and young families. Compared with most nations whose economic competition we fear, our provisions for health services, housing, and community support get low marks, and leave unanswered a major question: Does America really care about the society on which its future depends?

    A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘The Gap in Our Thinking About Kids’