Mission Impossible?

Educators confront tough task of rethinking goals.

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On the eve of her 80th birthday, Julia Child, the eminent chef whose television shows have brought French cooking to the American masses, sat down in her kitchen for an interview with a reporter from The Washington Post.

Despite her best efforts over a long career, Ms. Child complained, too many people in today's health-obsessed society are afraid to eat too many things. Many don't even know how to cook, she lamented.

For a solution, Ms. Child turned to a familiar cure-all: the schools. Why couldn't they tackle the problem of culinary ignorance?

"You could do it with a hot plate, a portable oven, and a table,'' she advised. "If we teach the little kiddies how to cook and eat, they can teach their parents.''

However well-intentioned her remarks, Ms. Child's suggestion is symptomatic of the attitude that has historically beset American elementary and secondary education.

Virtually no one in our diverse and fractious society hesitates to offer an opinion about what the schools should be doing--from fielding football teams to raising students' self-esteem. Because everyone has been to school, everyone is an instant expert on the subject.

As Lawrence C. Cremin, the noted educational historian, wrote in 1989, Americans have a "longstanding ... tendency to try to solve social, political, and economic problems through educational means, and in so doing, invest education with all kinds of millennial hopes and expectations.''

Balancing these conflicting and often unrealistic demands, Mr. Cremin argued, is the "real and abiding crisis of popular schooling in the United States.''

Now, many at the forefront of the reform movement have become convinced that this confusion about the aims of public schools could permanently hamper efforts to improve them.

After all, they reason, organizations that don't have a clear and common understanding of what they are expected to accomplish aren't likely to succeed.

A 'Fundamental Shift'

To address this lack of focus, reformers have embarked on an unprecedented push to establish a coherent set of goals and expectations for schools. Their vision takes the form of a national system of standards and assessments--a remarkable development for a country distinguished by a long history of local control of schooling.

Diane S. Ravitch, the former U.S. assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, describes the attempt to establish national standards as "the most fundamental shift in education in decades.''

"Standards identify what your goal is, what the outcome measure is, and say, 'This is what we're trying to accomplish,' '' she says.

That push began with the education summit in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989, and, soon afterward, with the agreement between the nation's governors and then-President Bush to set six national education goals.

"Not only are we going to set national performance goals, which are ambitious,'' then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas said at the summit. "Not only are we going to develop strategies to achieve them, but we stand here before you and tell you we expect to be held personally accountable for the progress we make in moving this country to a brighter future.''

Three and a half years later, we are still standing on the edge of that brighter tomorrow, realizing just how hard it will be to achieve.

Nonetheless, many credit the summit agreement and the subsequent goals-setting effort with focusing educators' attention on the need to develop a clear and common understanding around the two most often-cited missions for public schooling in the United States: preparing an educated citizenry and supplying a productive workforce.

But even as the national education goals themselves make clear, our ability as a nation to meet these twin challenges may be more difficult than ever.

For one thing, our definition of what it takes to be a good worker and what it takes to be a good citizen has expanded dramatically since the turn of the century--from that of an obedient factory hand to an individual who is able to think for a living, analyze problems and their solutions, and work cooperatively in a team.

Second, despite our long-professed belief in universal education, Americans have never really taken the steps needed to insure that every student has the chance to meet the same, high standards. If our mission for public schooling is to be an all-inclusive one, we must do a better job of following through on our stated beliefs.

Finally, we are renewing our commitment to universal education at a time when the diversity of students entering the public schools has never been greater. At the same time, the support that schools and educators have traditionally received from other social institutions is waning.

How to get beyond vague polemics to a workable mission for our nation's schools, how to act on it on behalf of all children in all communities, and how to get individual schools and school districts to elaborate on and embrace that vision may indeed be the abiding challenge for the 21st century.

50 Years of Change Underscore Need for Redefined Mission

Beginning in the late 1970's, the alarming realization that our public schools were failing to accomplish their central academic mission triggered the longest and most intensive school-reform effort in American history.

But the federal commission that helped sound the alarm and most of the policy documents that followed made one fundamental mistake: They largely assumed that the mere act of raising standards would solve the problem of poor academic achievement.

In so doing, they neglected to recognize that the sweeping social, economic, and technological changes of the past 50 years had permanently compromised the ability of the public schools to fulfill their traditional aims.

Schools, laboring with outdated methods and assumptions, and striving to be all things to all people, had become an anachronism, precisely at the time that the expectations for them had reached new heights.

'A Feeling of Futility'

For most of their history, the public schools--sharing responsibility for educating and socializing the next generation with the family, the church, and the community--were able to achieve some degree of balance among their many and conflicting demands.

Since World War II, however, profound demographic and social transformations have eroded the traditional family, diluted the influence of religious institutions, and strained community relationships.

As a result, children increasingly arrive at school ill-prepared for learning and with unmet medical and emotional needs.

An increasing number are from one-parent or even no-parent homes. Violence, drugs, and poverty distort their lives.

Even the luckier ones--those from middle- and working-class families in relatively stable neighborhoods--are shaped as much by the influences of television and the other mass media as they are by school, church, or parents. In the competition for their time and attention, school often comes in second place at best.

As these traditional institutions have faltered, schools have felt called upon to cope with the intractable problems of the larger society and to pay more attention to students' nonacademic needs.

David W. Hornbeck, a prominent educational consultant and the former Maryland superintendent of education, is among the many reformers who repeatedly point out that children can't learn if they are hungry, abused, or sick. "If you don't get into that,'' he says, "you can't accomplish the educational mission.''

The Central Kitsap school district in Silverdale, Wash., for example, has two full-time staff members who work with handicapped preschoolers and two employees who teach young people how to be better parents.

Schools, says Eugene R. Hertzke, the district's superintendent, "have become as much a social agency as an education agency.''

"Whether that's proper or not, I don't know,'' he adds. "It's putting a lot more pressure on us. There is a feeling of futility, almost.''

Mutual Obligations

Given this new role, schools are being asked to assume responsibility for solving some of society's most serious social problems: ranging from teaching children about homosexuality and AIDS to preparing pregnant teenagers for motherhood.

For the past year and a half, for example, the New York City school board has been embroiled in a bitter public debate over sex education, the distribution of condoms in schools, and the use of a multicultural curriculum that teaches youngsters tolerance for homosexuality. The controversy has grown so heated that it has led to speculation that the chancellor's job is on the line.

The complex relationship between schools and society shows that schools alone can't redefine their missions.

As Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, notes, "Schools in the future aren't going to be different unless society is different.''

"I don't believe for a minute,'' he argues, "that you can change the schools without changing society.''

At a minimum, if public schools are ever to achieve the lofty aims that their constituencies have set for them, schools and the community institutions that surround them must work out a new understanding about their mutual obligations to each other and to the children they serve.

For Tomorrow's Students: More Brains Than Brawn

Even if schools could focus more clearly on their central academic mission, the very definition of what it takes to be a good citizen and a productive worker has expanded dramatically as the world has become more complex.

Productivity in the workplace today is more a matter of brains than brawn. And responsible citizenship entails understanding and reacting to a host of problems so complex that 19th-century Americans couldn't have even imagined them.

Once, preparing educated workers meant teaching children the basics--reading, writing, and arithmetic--and instilling the habits of punctuality and respect for authority. Higher levels of learning were reserved for the privileged few.

In 1918, for example, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education argued that the main objectives of education were "1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home-membership. 4. Vocational education. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. [and] 7. Ethical character.''

As Ms. Ravitch notes in her book The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Time, "The academic curriculum, no longer considered appropriate for all students, became a special program for those who intended to go to college. Others, who were heading for the workplace, were directed to more practical pursuits better fitted to their later destination.''

New Knowledge, Skills Needed

In contrast, today's students graduate into a rapidly changing, high-technology world in which those with only a high school diploma are at a permanent economic disadvantage. Everyone is expected to think for a living.

"All students, not just some, now need the knowledge and skills required for middle- and high-skill jobs,'' Sue E. Berryman and Thomas R. Bailey argue in The Double Helix of Education and the Economy.

"[M]ore than in the past,'' they note, "individuals will need to be able to acquire, organize, and interpret information. Workers will also have more direct interaction with their co-workers, and therefore will need more experience in general social skills such as group problem-solving and negotiation. These changes clearly involve more than an accumulation of the type of knowledge traditionally learned in schools.''

In the not-too-distant past, most Americans could also expect to spend a lifetime in one job, earning a decent wage by providing low-level skills that didn't require more than an 8th-grade education.

Children born in today's era of exploding knowledge and swiftly changing circumstances can expect to change jobs a number of times during their working lives. If they are to succeed, they will need an education that allows them to adapt to changing circumstances, to think and respond to challenges they can't even anticipate.

Higher Expectations for All

By the late 1970's, the civil-rights movement and federal legislation that required the education of handicapped children and those whose native language isn't English had also greatly expanded this nation's longstanding pledge to provide universal access to public schooling.

Today, that promise has taken on an even greater urgency, as the nation realizes that it doesn't have a citizen to waste.

"Historically, from the economic point of view--not the moral point of view--we have not needed all the children,'' Mr. Hornbeck observes. "We had the economic luxury of 'throwaway kids.' Now, with our workforce needs and the demography of the country, we no longer have that luxury.''

Previously, Ms. Ravitch notes, the concept of educating all children was linked with the phrase, "to the best of their ability.''

Students with small cups got a little bit of water; those with gallon containers got more.

"Now, we're saying that not everybody will come out at the same point,'' Ms. Ravitch argues, "but that we will set higher expectations across the board.''

Needed: 'A National Vision of Good Schools'

As the article on page 14 by Lynn Olson illustrates, helping all students reach these new, higher standards will require a shift in thinking and approach. The teacher as dispenser of information becomes the teacher as coach and guide; drill and practice and the rote memorization of material are replaced by authentic problem-solving and higher-order thinking; and the emphasis on educational inputs, like the number of books in the library, is supplanted by one on the outcomes of public schooling.

To meet these new challenges, we must rethink the traditional assumptions about education and how it is organized.

"I think it's time to have a national vision of what good schools would be like,'' says George H. Wood, the principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio. "I'm hopeful that the new Administration can put forth a vision of schools as places where there is active work going on, where kids are engaged, and staffs are turned loose to find the best ways to meet the needs of students.''

The movement to set national standards has heartened many who support just such a vision.

A. Graham Down, the executive director of the Council for Basic Education, says the standards debate has had a "palpably intellectual effect on the schools.''

If there were an interdisciplinary, core curriculum for all students, he reasons, "We wouldn't be fighting so much about the edges or the center. We would just agree that English, history, the arts, and sciences are an integral birthright of all Americans and get on with it.''

But the process of developing national standards and assessments is itself fraught with perils.

Since the national education goals were devised, for instance, advocates have protested that some subjects--the arts is perhaps the one most frequently mentioned--were slighted. Even those subjects included in the original goals statement are plagued by deep divisions over what is most important to teach.

A Question of Culture

Furthermore, as Mr. Cremin so aptly noted, America's educational malaise is rooted in deeper societal conditions that won't disappear simply because the country adopts a set of national standards and assessments.

In particular, the United States has always been a nation with a strong anti-intellectual bent, and that isn't likely to change overnight.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, complains that there are no meaningful incentives to prompt the great majority of students to buckle down and work hard in school. The problem, he says, is that nearly everyone can get into college somewhere and that most employers ignore transcripts when hiring workers.

The presence of clear national standards--and authentic assessments that measure how well students are able to meet them--could help create new incentives for students. But only if those standards were widely accepted and acted on by the rest of society.

David Berliner, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, also notes that Americans have a different notion of childhood than do, say, the Asian nations whose school systems have been so widely lauded.

Children in America, Mr. Berliner says, are expected to work, date, participate in sports, and socialize with friends.

American parents, he asserts, want to raise a well-rounded child, not a "Japanese nerdy kid.''

"Our conception of childhood is not designed to produce high levels of math and science and language achievement before the college years,'' Mr. Berliner says. "People don't want to face that.''

Even if Americans sharpen and redefine the mission of public schooling in the United States--through the creation of national standards and assessments--that rethinking will only provide a destination, not a roadmap.

More than a decade of research on effective schooling has amply demonstrated that good schools must devise their own goals and character.

"It is more important that the school has a mission and tries to realize it than what the mission is,'' Mr. Gardner of Harvard argues.

One thing is certain: If such missions are to be meaningful, they can't be handed down from above.

"I don't think the federal government can tell the ... schools in this country what their mission is,'' Ms. Ravitch says. "It can't be mandated.''

A Community Effort

Indeed, one of the central dilemmas of the reform movement over the next few years will be how to marry the development of national standards with the ability of individual schools and school districts to set their own paths.

Throughout the nation, the shelves of superintendents' offices and board members' chambers are stacked with well-intentioned "mission statements'' that have gathered dust since earlier efforts to redefine the vision of schooling.

Many consist of little more than empty slogans and catch phrases that were disregarded soon after they were committed to paper.

In contrast, districts and schools that have taken the time to develop powerful and articulate mission statements of their own soon realize that their goals can't be accomplished by educators alone.

To take root, missions must be developed with the help and advice of entire communities. Only then does it become clear that educating children is everyone's responsibility.

In Houston, for example, the district has worked closely with the business community to set goals for the schools. The next step, Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo says, is to spell out how the community institutions can help.

Otherwise, he fears, schools will be expected to work by themselves to solve such entrenched urban problems as gang activity. "What we are trying to build here,'' he says, "is a culture that suggests there are lots of agencies and groups that are going to have to take some responsibility for, and ownership of, these problems and challenges.''

In Fort Worth, educators, businesspeople, and civic leaders took a hard look at their schools and decided to emphasize putting knowledge into practice. Starting with detailed analyses of the skills needed in real-world jobs, the district and its partners discovered that the skills required for work and college aren't so different: the ability to think, solve problems, and work with others.

"You don't take one track to college and another to vocational education,'' Superintendent Don R. Roberts argues. "Everyone is going to work--Ph.D.'s and M.D.'s work. The key is, you have to have knowledge and know-how to apply that knowledge.''

As a result, the district has enrolled many more students in higher-level mathematics courses. And, in an effort to motivate students to work hard throughout high school, it has launched an extensive program that offers 7th graders the chance to spend time working with local businesses.

'Making a World'

Without a unifying local vision, teachers and principals can easily lose their way.

In the book The World We Created at Hamilton High, Gerald Grant, a professor of the cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University, tells the story of a high school buffeted by social change.

"Teachers began to feel like functionaries in a world that was created elsewhere,'' he says, "and they lost the essence of efficacy and of responsibility for making a world here.''

Such feelings of defeat can be overcome with the right combination of leadership, time for teachers and others to meet, solid information that can be used to chart a new course, and the willingness to face hard facts, diagnose problems, and devise solutions.

First and foremost, though, it requires faith that a school will be allowed to shape its destiny.

When teachers and principals do carve out the time, says Mr. Wood, the Ohio principal, they should start by thinking about what they want their students to look like after they leave school. That moves the discussion from test scores and demerit points to what kinds of neighbors, citizens, and co-workers the students will make. Schools should then work backward to set policies that will help students achieve those goals.

These aren't easy questions, Mr. Wood notes. But when teachers tackle them, he says, "I can't get meetings to end. It gets them back to why they went into teaching--because they believe they can make a difference in the world. And we ought to be talking about what that world should look like.''

Vol. 12, Issue 20

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