Options Are Needed To Spark Reform, Says Author of Free To Teach

By Nancy Paulu — February 15, 1984 8 min read

Minneapolis--When Joe Nathan was a 13-year-old in Wichita, he read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. The book, he recalls, left him with many unanswered questions about the plight of American blacks.

So when Mr. Griffin came to town for a speaking engagement, Mr. Nathan asked to be excused from class at his junior high school to attend. School officials told him no; absences, they said, were allowed only for medical or religious reasons.

“I remember sitting in my first-hour government class, which I would have had to miss to hear Griffin,” Mr. Nathan said in a recent interview, some 22 years after the incident. “I was reading a chapter on freedom of speech and answering the questions at the end of the chapter, and it occurred to me that sometimes school got in the way of learning.”

Thus began the Minnesota educator’s interest in school reform--a topic that has continued to hold his attention, he said. The latest expression of that interest has been a book, Free to Teach: Achieving Equity and Excellence in Schools, published by The Pilgrim Press.

In the months since the book’s publication, the proposals it contains for changing schools have attracted considerable attention from public officials in Minnesota and elsewhere in the country. U.S. Senator David Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican, has distributed copies of the book to his Senate colleagues in the hope that some of Mr. Nathan’s suggestions eventually will become law. Subsequently, the author says, he received letters from several senators requesting more specific information on some of his proposals.

The man behind the book has a history of working for change and of supporting his beliefs with action. He was a student-government leader at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., during the activist period of the late 1960’s (although he says that his arguments against sit-ins led his classmates to brand him a moderate) and worked with Saul Alinsky, the late political activist and author, in Chicago. As a conscientious objector to the military draft, Mr. Nathan put in two years of alternate service after college.

Today, he describes himself as a social progressive. “My goal is to try to have a positive impact,” Mr. Nathan says. “We do too much finger pointing in this country about all the awful things happening in schools. One of the things I do is try to find ways we could join hands to improve the schools, to find what could be, what is in fact happening in a few places.”

Since the fall of 1983, Mr. Nathan has been associated with Public School Incentives, a nonprofit corporation that is seeking ways to make structural changes in schools by refocusing their incentives. Supported by foundations and businesses, Public School Incentives was founded in 1981.

Mr. Nathan is also working with Minnesota legislators on several bills involving schools, speaks frequently to education groups and others, and has been a guest on radio and TV talk shows--one unanticipated, but interesting, outcome of his new status as an author, he says.

Taken singly, none of Mr. Nathan’s ideas is new. But in combination, they suggest a point of view that makes him difficult to typecast. Underlying his proposals, however, are three basic premises:

“First, teachers, parents, and students ought to have more choices, he says. “Second, we ought to help people have an impact6on the world. Choices are not just a value in themselves, they also help people to learn they can have an impact. And third, young people need a variety of skills to have that positive impact.” There is not one answer to improving schools, he suggests, there are many.

Vouchers, Not Tax Credits

The establishment of a voucher system would increase the number of choices for parents, students, and teachers, he says, and would expand educational opportunities for low-income students.

But he opposes tuition tax credits for parents who enroll their children in nonpublic schools because he thinks such a system would help middle- and upper-income parents remove their children from public schools.

“First of all, it seems to me that vouchers would provide opportunities for many talented educators to create programs they think make sense and be judged on the basis of their skill rather than their seniority,” Mr. Nathan says. “I think many teachers are legitimately concerned about large central-office bureaucracies and about restrictions put upon them by central-office administrators or principals. Some principals are frustrated about the same things.”

Hence, he argues, the first rationale for vouchers is that they would allow schools to create programs that “would be judged on the basis of whether people really wanted to go with them.”

Vouchers also make sense from the point of view of parents, he argues. “I think in both rural and urban areas this would allow more choices and more high-quality choices. As I’ve traveled around the country talking with people, I have found that there are a number of frustrated people in rural areas. One often finds the tyranny of the majority far more in rural areas.”

In one small town in Minnesota, he says, a group of parents had repeatedly tried to get school officials to set up some open classrooms as one option for students. The officials refused to do so.

“These parents have finally, in frustration, set up a private school, not because they are opposed to public education but because public education has not been responsive to their needs,” he says. “Voucher programs would stimulate public schools to respond to concerns or allow parents and teachers to set up private schools.”

By allowing schools to establish more imaginative programs, vouchers would also attract more imaginative, “entrepreneurial, risk taking” people to the field of teaching, Mr. Nathan says.

But vouchers are unlikely to be a cure-all for public schools’ problems, he cautions. “I frankly think the strongest proponents and opponents of vouchers are exaggerating both the benefits and the drawbacks,’' he says. “It would be valuable, but I don’t think it would by itself produce extraordinary schools or destroy the public schools.”

That conclusion, he notes, is based on his observation of what has happened in Vermont, British Columbia, and Minnesota, each of which have had some form of tax credits or vouchers.

Options for Integration

Creating options is also an important part of addressing the question of racial integration in the schools, in Mr. Nathan’s view. Mandatory busing may have been needed in the 1970’s, he says, but now it is self-defeating to assign students to schools they do not want to attend.

Magnet programs, he argues, are a better way to promote racially diverse schools--but they are not the only way. “I’m a proponent of a number of things, of magnet schools, of cross-district opportunities. Part-day programs based on students’ interests make a great deal of sense. I do not agree with President Reagan that the only thing to do about integration is to set up magnets. We ought to have other options.”

“There are a lot of black people who arefed up with having their kids being bused to a school that isn’t any better than the one in their neighborhood,” he says. “What I have heard overwhelmingly from such people is that they want schools where their kids are going to learn. Many are fed up with the notion that they can’t get an appropriate education unless they’re sitting next to a white kid. Many, not all, would rather have more money spent on effective instruction, on computers, on other things. That’s why I think we ought to have choices. There are also people who want their kids bused 20 miles.”

Similarly, he supports the idea of “open schools,” but his advocacy is tempered, again, by his experience--open schools are not for everyone. Nor does he regard open-school programs as incompatible with the use of competency tests and other measures of progress.

During the eight years he spent as a teacher and administrator in the St. Paul (Minn.) Open School, he angered some parents who supported the school by saying he favored competency tests for students. There, school officials developed and used a competency-based graduation test that requires the mastery of paper-and-pencil and real-world skills prior to graduation.

Open-school situations, he says, are valuable under some circumstances for some students. “We found that some kids did very well there for three or four years, then it was appropriate for them to go to a traditional school,” he says. Other students did well for longer periods of time; some stayed in the open school for their whole school career.

Other Student Options

Mr. Nathan is also a strong supporter of the notion that classroom work should be combined with community service, although not at the expense of academic competence. “I’m not saying that kids ought to go out to fight pollution or interview senior citizens,” he says. “It is every bit as important for them to practice writing letters, to learn to construct grammatical sentences, and to learn to compute.”

“That’s one of the themes of the book,” he says. “There is an incredible amount of energy and idealism in young people, and schools ought to use that to make the world a better place.”

As examples of programs combining academic and service skills, Mr. Nathan describes projects he set up in which students helped resolve consumer complaints, designed a playground, and successfully got several companies to reduce their air pollution.

He also suggests that, rather than emphasizing programming, educators should encourage students to use computers to help solve community problems. Students in one Minnesota town, he notes, use their computers to aid farmers’ planning; others in Pennsylvania conduct energy audits of community buildings and homes.

To further stimulate and vary the academic lives of students, he proposes, districts could allow some to enroll in two-year classes or to try an “interim model,” used in some colleges, that permits the students to focus all of their energies on one subject for a period of a few weeks or months.

But above and beyond whatever innovations they attempt to encourage student learning, educators must remember, Mr. Nathan asserts, that children acquire knowledge in many different ways and have equally diverse educational needs. Respect for this diversity is essential, he concludes--and “blanket reform” is not the answer.

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 1984 edition of Education Week as Options Are Needed To Spark Reform, Says Author of Free To Teach