Rethinking the Schools' 'Human Equation'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

There is much talk these days of the need for "bold leadership" and "fundamental change" in public education. But there is little indication of the direction in which bold leadership should lead, or what kind of fundamental change is needed.

The only proposals for fundamental change getting much public attention are those for vouchers and parental choice. Shifting to a system of parental choice would indeed represent a fundamental change--so fundamental that many people fear it would destroy public education. But if vouchers are the only alternative available, they may well win the day. Those who want to preserve public education cannot fight something with nothing. They must realize that public education in its present form cannot meet the educational needs of today's society, and must be restructured if it is going to survive.

What about all the reforms? Are they not enough to meet the need for change? Surely there have never been so many reform commissions, reports, plans, and programs. And many of them will no doubt do some good. But they nearly all amount to what Alvin Toffler has called "a classic response to a need for fundamental change--the initial tendency is to work the old system harder." More courses, more hours, more services, more pay, and more equipment can improve things marginally, but they do not confront the real problem: the human equation. The people involved in public education are too often not put together in productive relationships. That is why--to cite two recent Commentary writers--"reforms go awry" and programs have "three left feet." That is why reform movements come and go without significantly changing what happens in classrooms or in the learning levels of students. The reforms "work the old system harder," but they seldom deal with the faulty relationships between people.

There is a reason for this. The relationships between people in public education are defined by the basic structure of the system, and, being basic, they are hard to change. Our rhetoric calls for better and more

productive human relationships, parent involvement, students' assumption of more responsibility for their own learning, and more autonomy for teachers (and more responsibility to go with it). But nothing much will come of these noble wishes so long as the basic relationships dictated by the structure of the system pull in the other direction. In this structure, teachers are low-rung functionaries of hierarchical public bureaucracies, accountable to layers of officials "above" them, who in turn are politically accountable to the public through school boards, legislatures, and state boards of education. Parents' primary role is to pay taxes and hold the system accountable. Students are the passive recipients of professional services.

We take all this structure for granted, so we are not aware of how powerfully it influences the relationships of the players. We are trained to see public education as a function delegated to a government agency, and any other model is almost literally inconceivable.

If public education is to survive, however, we must face the fact that our model for public education is obsolete and must be replaced by a new model. I believe such a model is available. It is actually in use in many classrooms and schools where individual teachers and principals, knowing instinctively that the official relationships of the system obstruct rather than facilitate education, build their own quite different relationships that make their efforts far more productive.

I call these relationships and the model they represent "partnership," but the name is not important. The important thing is that where this is the governing model, students, teachers, parents, and community can relate on a very different and much more productive basis. Instead of a teacher trying to pull 30 reluctant students through a curriculum by the "delivery of instructional services" (a favorite phrase of the present model), teachers and students work together to accomplish shared goals of success. Instead of parents knocking vainly on the schoolhouse door for attention (or, more characteristically, displaying the "apathy" that both connotes and causes alienation), they support the work of teachers and work with them to ensure the success of their children. Volunteers, instead of being barred from school or welcomed only marginally, are sought out as valued resources for helping children learn.

Are such characteristics mere pipe dreams? No, they are actually present in many school systems to one degree or another. But they are not in the mainstream of educational policy and practice. They often have to swim against the tide of bureaucratic decisionmaking to survive--which is one of the indications that the mainstream is flowing in the wrong direction.

What can be done? It is hard to shift out of well-entrenched ways of thinking. But it is not impossible. I suggest we will not begin to work seriously at restructuring public education until we recognize that the present model cannot get us where we want to go--that is, until we see the need for restructuring. There are two areas where this need is becoming more self-evident. One regards expectations for student learning; the other regards changes in the teaching profession.

Have we yet grasped fully the implications of the revolution in expectations for student learning? Yesterday we expected everyone to go to school; today we expect everyone to succeed in school. That is indeed a fundamental change, and one that cannot be achieved in a "service delivery" school system with passive students, "employee" teachers, uninvolved parents, and apathetic communities.

Have we yet recognized the implications of "transforming teaching into a 'true profession"'--another recent Commentary topic? The report and studies of the California Commission on the Teaching Profession call for far-reaching changes in the way teachers relate to their work and their supervisors. But is it not clear that this cannot be done unless we rethink the whole concept of management and accountability built into the present structure of public education? Happily, the kinds of restructuring needed to meet the new expectations for student achievement and for transforming the teaching profession are congruent--both goals can be encompassed in a new partnership approach to education.

Last fall, more than 400 people from 38 states gathered in Indianapolis to discuss this approach and to exchange ideas on how to bring teachers, parents, students, and communities together in new relationships.

They spoke of ways in which the voice, choice, and loyalty of people both inside and outside the schools can be woven together into a new and much more successful model of public education. But they were for the most part the converted preaching to the converted, and the meeting attracted little public attention.

It is time for other educators--those who have not yet seen the need for serious restructuring--to realize that right in their own systems they have people who can lead the way to the new approach now needed: principals who have caught on to partnership, volunteer coordinators who have seen the power of resources outside the schools, teachers who have tried cooperative learning, community educators who are skilled in reaching out to the community. These people have too often been kept at the fringes of educational policy and reform. It is time they were brought to center stage and made the heart of building a new model for public education.

Vol. 05, Issue 18, Page 32

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories