Filet of School Reform, Sauce Diable

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Education's failure to make progress in comparison to the advances of other enterprises has caused much commentary in the last decade. Rampant, perseverating Taylorism seems to be the current favorite explanation. I submit there is another reason: a pathological failure to adopt good practice. I call it the pathology of envy.

This idea came to me over a dinner in Cleveland and because of it. The linking of supper and schools in my head is not as surprising as some might think: I have written many more articles about food, wine, and restaurants in the last decade than about education. Education and edibles are often intertwined in my thoughts (causing indigestion on occasion).

The revelatory meal in question was served in a chain hotel and consisted of lobster ravioli in a herbed cream sauce followed by medallions of lamb "Wellington'': four noisettes, each coated with Stilton cheese and spinach, then wrapped in pastry. Around the edge of the plate lay red potatoes cut in the shape of mushroom halves; in the center, cauliflower and broccoli florettes surrounded a carrot puree. The entire ensemble was floated on a thick sauce poivrade. The concoction represented an interesting mix of classic and nouvelle influences.

In a regular-sized beef Wellington, it is easy to render the pastry flaky while leaving the meat rare, but to accomplish that with this miniature rendition posed the chef quite a challenge. He/she did not rise to it fully, choosing to leave the dough a little limp in order to preserve some redness in the meat.

What struck me about this dish, though, was not that a number of kitchens in our culinary capitals could have executed it better, although that is certainly true, but that 25 years ago, probably no more than a dozen establishments in the entire country could have brought it off in the first place. Twenty-five years ago, I figure, probably La Bourgogne, Ernie's, and the Blue Fox in San Francisco and La Cote Basque, La Caravelle, Lafayette, and La Grenouille in New York City could have done it.

Consider that in 1968, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was only two years old (trivia challenge: name the other two authors). In 1968, Harry Reasoner dined with the New York Times's restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne, on "60 Minutes'' and asked how Mr. Claiborne knew that the veal they were munching was top notch. Mr. Claiborne disclosed the deep secret that good veal cooks up white while mediocre veal turns grey. What a revelation. In 1968, "hotel food'' was an oxymoron.

Now, a quarter of a century later, alta cucina and haute cuisine in the heart of our meat-and-potatoes Rust Belt is routine. A classroom of 1993, we are told, though, still looks like a classroom of 1968. How come?

Well, consider this incident. In September 1991, the cover of N.E.A. Today carried a picture of Indianapolis's Key School and the question "Is this the best elementary school in the country?'' A few weeks later, I called Pat Bolanos, the principal of the Key School whom I have known since 1986, and asked her what the reaction had been to the article. "Not as bad as I had expected,'' she said.

Not as bad as I had expected? If a new restaurant gets raves everyone beats a path to its door--including other chefs. The best cooks are always checking out others' creations and techniques. Some leading restaurateurs I've known would take their whole kitchens to visit places of repute, then hold seminars on what they had found. My favorite chef in Denver annually jets to either France or Italy to see what's new and to study with a peer. This emulation writ large has changed us overnight from a nation of pot roasts to one of polpettone.

But when it comes to adopting good pedagogical practice, school folk exhibit a pathology of envy. It takes several forms. The most common may be stated as "If you have a new idea, I'd better get one, too, but it can't be yours.'' This leads to a hypercompetition among schools, especially among elementary principals, but not to a search for best practice--only for something new to do. Or appear to do.

It also takes the form "If you've got a good idea, keep it to yourself. Otherwise, I'll look bad.'' Some negative reactions to the N.E.A. Today article on the Key School occurred precisely because the magazine was making a good idea more public.

The Key School, a magnet school to which students are admitted by lottery and who match the ethnic mix of the city as a whole, is organized mostly around the notions of multiple intelligences laid out by Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind. Everyone learns a foreign language, everyone learns a musical instrument (daily instruction in both). Instruction emphasizes fine arts and computers. The teachers follow a theme-based curriculum that they develop and also teach subjects that interest them outside of school (for instance, pottery making or Victorian architecture). A "flow center'' developed from Mihaly Csikszentmihali's concept of flow helps determine what really turns kids on. On Wednesday afternoons, the teachers gather for a planning meeting while the students congregate in the gym/auditorium and listen to and ask questions of some group from the community (paramedics, symphony musicians, etc.). Most children find most elementary schools hospitable, but the Key School's students seem even happier to be there than at most other places I have visited.

The Key School has received adoring attention from the press, the networks, and PBS. One would think, therefore, that other educators would stampede to adopt and adapt its principles and practices. This is not, after all, a hothouse experiment operating under some visionary's unique set of notions in a no-fail, affluent neighborhood. It is a public school in a working-class setting developed by a group of public school teachers that Mr. Gardner once referred to as "plain vanilla.'' It ought to be possible to make a Key School anywhere and people ought to be building Key Schools around the country.

Not so. Indeed, one year when I visited the school, I met teachers who were interested in making a Key middle school. At least, they were interested now. "Before we actually came to the Key School, we had all kinds of misinformation about it,'' said one. "I thought it was a school for gifted and talented students,'' said another. "I thought it got results only because of its extra planning periods,'' said a third. "I hated the Key School,'' said yet another.

Hated the Key School? Had all kinds of misinformation about it? Why isn't the district getting the word out to other buildings? I don't know, but offhand, I also don't know of any district that has a mechanism for such dissemination.

It would be nice if we could write off the ignoring of the Key School as an exception. Alas, it is the rule. Deborah Meier of the much-lauded Central Park East Secondary School in New York City reports similar disinterest. If interest in model practice were high, Edward Fiske's Smart Kids, Smart Schools would have climbed the best-seller charts.

Ironically, programs that are developed by persons external to any public school have a much easier time gaining wide access. Entrepreneurial educational ventures sweep across the land quickly, although they often disappear as the next fad looms on the horizon--or when the data about their efficacy actually begin to arrive. But a program or an idea developed by school people and used in a real school has little chance of affecting even its most immediate neighbors. Or, perhaps we should say, especially its most immediate neighbors.

As long as this pathology of envy endures, it is not likely that all the frenzy of "restructuring'' and "empowerment'' and site-based management is going to accomplish nearly as much as it might if the empowered, restructured sites adopted good models of what to teach, how, when, and to whom. The principal of each school ought to take his whole staff out to a good restaurant and cogitate on this problem over a creme brulee and cognac.

Vol. 12, Issue 38, Page 28

Published in Print: June 16, 1993, as Filet of School Reform, Sauce Diable
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