Public Schools Can't Be Reformed From the Top Down

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The Paideia Proposal is a radical manifesto. It urges a thorough redefinition of what students should study and how they should be taught; quite rightly, it is being widely debated by educators. This spring, the so-called Paideia Group--the authors of the plan--will recommend ways to put the new curriculum into practice. I strongly urge the group to work closely with classroom teachers in this crucial second phase, because the Paideia Proposal itself reflects a serious misunderstanding of how schools really work on a day-to-day basis. Without a sense of what can work, there is little likelihood that meaningful reform--regardless of its merits--will be achieved.

Perhaps the proposal's shortcomings are linked to the skewed composition of the Paideia Group. There is not one primary or secondary teacher among the group's 22 members. Surely, as the front-line troops in this nation's education army, teachers would provide valuable insights into the feasibility of the suggested changes. There are only two principals, one of a public high school in Oakland, Calif., and the other a former headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Two of the members are school superintendents. The majority of the group is composed of college presidents, foundation officers, and other nonteachers. There are only three women on the panel.

The Paideia Group contends that schools must attract more academically able people into teaching positions, and this, the group reasons, calls for a thorough "de-bureaucratization" of the schools. But the group has seemingly failed to recognize that schools are political institutions, for it has recommended that an atmosphere more conducive to learning rather than paper pushing is best achieved by giving principals increased power to hire, fire, and promote teachers.

Principals--like superintendents and school-board members--play a political role in their communities and are thus acutely susceptible to public sentiment. Ignoring angry constituents will probably cause them more trouble in the short run than will tolerating less-than-perfect educational policies; failure in the educational arena may lead to their replacement, but failures in the political arena will catch up with them much sooner.

The surest method of survival in such a political bureaucracy is to demand from teachers accurate documentation of minutia that may not relate at all to the quality of instruction that students receive. In such an environment, it is nave to expect principals to commit themselves to limiting the bureaucracy in their schools simply because they have increased authority to hire and fire teachers.

Teachers are part of the same political system, and are thus also evaluated on more than whether they help students to learn. A teacher will survive much longer if he or she is mediocre in the classroom but is prompt with paperwork than if he or she is brilliant with students yet tardy in tending to forms. Teachers have learned that it is necessary to fill out forms to cover themselves and to cover their superiors. So it is hard to see how the amount of paperwork they do can be easily reduced, either.

Though the Paideia Group claims that one of its goals is to provide high-quality public education without an increase in taxes, most of their proposals would indeed cost more money.

Led by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, the group recommends that all students be taught the same subjects in the same depth; individual coaching and remedial work will help the quick and the slow. But school systems surely cannot afford to implement such an idea. Most teachers would like to develop different plans for different kinds of learners; they do not do so at this time because their teaching loads are too great. Instead, they choose the best single technique for the greatest number of students. Admittedly, students at the high and low ends of the spectrum of ability are often not adequately served. But to do otherwise necessarily involves spending more money, and that is not available.

The group also urges teachers to use the Socratic method to promote their students' understanding of ideas and values. In fact, many teachers, in spite of overcrowded classrooms, do eschew the traditional 35-desks-in-rows arrangement and engage in Socratic dialogues with students. However, most teachers do this only when their stamina allows. Such techniques are not pursued collectively by teachers and are not considered high priorities by school administrators. On the contrary, schools, forced by budget cuts to increase teacher loads, have largely sacrificed the teaching of more sophisticated skills such as reasoning and have concentrated instead on teaching students simply to remember as much information as possible.

The Paideia goal of offering a choice of "French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and possibly others" at different levels is also a very expensive proposition. Such an innovation would require a highly trained and dedicated teaching staff. Until now, school boards have dealt with teacher shortages by lowering qualifications rather than by increasing teaching salaries. How can a new breed of teacher be lured into the profession if not by the promise of a good salary and decent working conditions (which are ultimately cost items)?

The Paideia Group has also made several assumptions that fly in the face of practical classroom wisdom. Its members have greatly underestimated not only the inertia of schools as institutions, but also the degree to which societal pressures determine student behavior and performance. The group expresses the belief that students will learn because, as human beings, they are naturally curious. All human beings may be curious, but only once academic skills have been mastered can they be fully enjoyed.

Many tasks, such as poring over the Federalist Papers (to choose a Paideia example) are dry and inherently boring. Only retrospectively, once links with other pieces of knowledge are made, does the exercise seem worthwhile. It is purely an act of faith for a student to defer gratification until understanding can be achieved. Unfortunately, not all students are brought up to feel they must endure the drudgery of school work if they are, say, to get good grades, be accepted to a selective college, or get a high-paying job in a favored occupation. Schools have failed to find ways to motivate students who, because they lack such things as role models, do not have the motivation to learn built into their upbringing.

The answer, according to the Paideia Proposal, is to ensure that such students receive a rigorous education. This, in turn, is accomplished by the elimination of elective courses. But such a move may be self defeating.

Granted, too many schools allow students to take easy courses of questionable value. On the other hand, electives may "seduce" some otherwise unmotivated students into more serious academic endeavors. Rather than doing away with electives completely, it might be a better idea to more closely monitor the electives taken by particular students in an attempt to guide a student into an educationally sound program.

The Paideia Group also proposes to do away with lax and undisciplined student behavior. Once again, this is an admirable goal, but there are no hints as to how this goal might be realized. What is to be done with students who misbehave? Are they to be dismissed, suspended, expelled, and if so, what becomes of the democratic goal of education as a right for all?

Increasingly, other institutions in our society--police, courts, and local politicians--intervene in this area, often complicating the job of school officials. The Paideia Group grossly underestimates the difficulty of solving the discipline problem, one of the knottiest in public education.

It is gratifying that The Paideia Proposal has brought the question of curriculum reform into the center of national debate. Its goal--to deliver a high-quality education to everyone--is humane and democratic. But the Paideia Group's solutions are likely to be less than effective. If meaningful reform is to be accomplished, the panel would be advised to seek the counsel of those who know and work in the schools.

Vol. 02, Issue 23, Page 24

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