Principal Of Change

February 01, 1999 4 min read

As a high school English teacher in the 1980s, I learned firsthand the veracity of Wood’s statement. Study-skills tutorials, threats and inducements, compulsory after-school homework sessions--I tried them all again and again, but nothing so blatantly coercive worked on resistant students. In the end, I discovered the power of what Wood aptly terms “loyalty to teachers” and “the appeal of the material.” Lackadaisical, low-achieving students can turn things around, but only if they are able to forge a close relationship with their teachers or with what they are being taught.

When Wood first arrived at Federal Hocking High, the institution was ill-equipped to accomplish either of these things. Students, moving from class to class in a conveyor-like fashion, didn’t know their teachers well enough to forge loyalties. And the academic material came at them in a random, haphazard fashion; what they learned in second- period English had no connection to what they learned in third-period history. Some students had as many as eight classes a day.

Wood’s first task was to dismantle the old accounting system based on the Carnegie unit, which, he writes, tells students that “what they learn is not nearly as important as the credits they earn.” To reduce the fragmentation of the school day, Wood cut the number of class periods in half and doubled their length. He also grouped teams of teachers with teams of students, which promoted closer student-teacher relationships and laid the groundwork for a curriculum that branched out across the disciplines. Additionally, Wood implemented a portfolio system that required seniors to demonstrate certain proficiencies to graduate.

These are somewhat familiar reform strategies, but they are part of Wood’s vision of high school as “democracy’s finishing school.” Wood wants to de- institutionalize high school and transform it into a place shaped less by official policies than by student-citizen participation. He seems to have succeeded at Federal Hocking. Students there do everything from interviewing candidates for teaching positions to scheduling athletic events.

In A Time To Learn, Wood reminds us that getting students to do difficult, important work will take more than drafting rigorous academic standards and accountability measures. It will also require organic change in a strongly entrenched American institution.

For the past century, corporate executives have talked about the importance of keeping politics out of the schools. But in reality, Gelberg’s fascinating book shows us, these industrial leaders have not wanted to limit all political influences, only those they find distasteful, namely anything smacking of “messy” progressivism. Their own political views, those that promote production and efficiency, have been just fine for the schools.

As Gelberg sees it, the business perspective had won out by the 1920s. By then, most schools were structured along the rigid hierarchical lines of the corporate world. And yet--irony of ironies--everything began to change when the economic slump of the 1980s forced American businesses to restructure. Almost overnight, the chief officers of such corporate giants as IBM and Xerox were preaching to educators the gospel of teamwork and constant innovation, claiming that the old top-down approach no longer worked.

Overall, this is a good thing, and yet Gelberg, a classroom teacher in Ithaca, New York, argues that the old business model still holds great sway in our schools. In Rochester, New York, for example, a radical reform movement has been stymied in part by administrators who are afraid of losing power. In addition, Gelberg adroitly points out that while business now has a different notion of how schools should operate, it still has the same narrow vision of school as a place that should prepare kids not for democracy but the workforce.

LIBERAL ANXIETIES AND LIBERAL EDUCATION, by Alan Ryan. (Hill and Wang, $22.) Alan Ryan, an Oxford professor well-known within education circles for his studies of John Dewey, here examines the age-old battle between conservatives who want schooling to be about teaching the basics and liberals who see the basics as but “the first step on the road to spiritual emancipation.” Though Ryan believes that the three R’s should have priority, he does not want to give up on the liberals’ goals, and so he strives in this volume to strike a balance between the two.

His search leads him back to Dewey, who thought that the classic distinction between vocational and liberal education--and between the basics and higher-order thinking--was artificial and unnecessary. Dewey believed that children working in groups could come up with cooperative solutions to complex problems that require a grasp of fundamentals as well as creative and theoretical capacities.

Though Ryan promotes many of Dewey’s ideas, he questions the power of education to remake difficult lives. He looks at the American landscape and recognizes that in devastated communities even good schooling can hardly compensate for such things as poverty and drug abuse.

--David Ruenzel