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Why School Reform Is Not Succeeding

Subtitled "An Economic Strategy for the 90's," Human Capital and America's Future, a collection of 13 essays from experts in a number of fields, examines, in the words of its editors, "a unique historical moment'' in the nation's life when the social and economic agendas "seem to have converged." The excerpt below is taken from a chapter on elementary and secondary education by Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching:

[A]fter years of school reform, this nation is still not preparing students for the world of work. We are simply not developing the human capital required. Where did we go wrong? Why does the United States still seem unable to achieve academic excellence for its schools? Although the problem is enormously complex, there is strong evidence to suggest that we're losing ground for three interlocking reasons:

1. In spite of all the talk about better schools, America is not responding to the school crisis with the sense of urgency required. Reforms are succeeding in schools that are already working fairly well, but our most troubled institutions are standing still or getting worse. The commitment--especially to save urban schools--simply is not there. When hundreds of our students are economically and socially unprepared year after year, the crisis is not met with either outrage or urgent action. There seems to be a feeling that the problem is so complex and the responsibility for action so diffused that action is endlessly deferred.

2. Education in this country continues to fail because our approach to school reform is piecemeal rather than coherent. We have loads of reports but no comprehensive plan. "Magnet schools" and "model schools" are being promoted--all of which is helpful--but what about the other schools? Today's reform movement is not systematic; it is best described as a strategy of "excellence by exception."

3. There is confusion about goals, and in a country where local control has been the preferred tradition, no one is held accountable for results. Since we don't know where we're going, it's impossible to know if progress has been made. Thus, the reform movement is failing not just from lack of overall direction but also from confusion about how to measure the results adequately.

For the reform movement to succeed, we don't need more model schools; we don't need a rash of new reports to describe effective education. What the reform movement does need is a comprehensive strategy for renewal.

Human Capital and America's Future, edited by David W. Hornbeck & Lester M. Salamon. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 701 West 40th St., Baltimore, Md. 21211. 402 pp. $45 cloth, 816.95 paper. (C) 1991 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

Discussion Teaching: Four Fundamentals

A new book from the Harvard Business School Press attempts to uncover the key elements of what is at the heart of all effective teaching: the instructor's ability to share responsibility for learning with students. C. Roland Christensen, developer of the Harvard business school's famous case-study method, describes in the following excerpt from Education for Judgment the difficulties and rewards of teaching by discussion:

The most fundamental observation I can make about discussion teaching is this: however mysterious or elusive the process may seem, it can be learned. Through collaboration and cooperation with friends and colleagues, and through self-observation and reflection, teachers can master both principles and techniques of discussion leadership. But the task is complex.

Discussion teachers' responsibilities are as varied as their rewards. With greater vitality in the classroom, the satisfaction of true intellectual collaboration and synergy, and improved retention on the part of students, the rewards are considerable. The responsibilities may be difficult to appreciate at first.

For example, effective preparation for discussion classes takes more time, because instructors must consider not only what they will teach, but also whom and how. And the classroom encounter consumes a great deal of energy; simultaneous attention to process (the flow of activities that make up a discussion) and content (the material discussed) requires emotional as well as intellectual engagement. Effective discussion leadership requires competency in both areas; it can be achieved only with patience.

The discussion teacher is planner, host, moderator, devil's advocate, fellow-student, and judge--a potentially confusing set of roles. Even the most seasoned group leader must be content with uncertainty, because discussion teaching is the art of managing spontaneity. Nonetheless, a good chart can help a mariner navigate safely even in fog. The premises and associated operational practices described here are my personal chart, tested over years of practice and found dependable in groups that range in size from 20 to 80 or even 100 participants. Four premises seem fundamental:

1. A discussion class is a partnership in which students and instructor share the responsibilities and power of teaching, and the privilege of learning together.

2. A discussion group must evolve from a collection of individuals into a learning community with shared values and common goals.

3. By forging a primary (although not exclusive) alliance with students, the discussion leader can help them gain command of the course material.

4. Discussion teaching requires dual competency: the ability to manage content and process.

Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, & Ann Sweet. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Mass. 02163. 312pp., $29.95 cloth. c 1991 by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, & Ann Sweet. All rights reserved.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Page 34

Published in Print: October 9, 1991, as Books: Readings
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