Turning Critics Into Partners

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Editorial pages are filled these days with attacks on the quality of public schools. My local paper, The Oregonian, in Portland, Ore., published last August a column by journalist Debra J. Saunders called "Education Needs More Civilian Control." It argued that education-reform efforts have been misguided and ineffective, and that the solution to the ills of public schools is to hire noneducators to lead them. The author criticized such practices as "whole language, new-new math, inventive spelling, and self-esteem classes," suggesting that these are responsible for students' failure to learn. At the close of her essay, she surmised that one hoped-for redeemer in our region--retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Henry Stanford, recently hired to lead Seattle's schools--had perhaps succumbed to what she called the "educrat body-snatchers" because he is fond of citing as his goal for Seattle schools "to teach people to think for themselves and think responsibly."

While there's no question that many of our schools need help, I find several things about such editorials disturbing. First is the failure of the writers to recognize that schools today face enormous challenges that cannot be addressed by schools alone. Educators, no matter how diligent, cannot respond singlehandedly to the challenges of modern society. The range of social, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds of students has increased dramatically during recent decades--and at a time when parental supervision, parent-child interaction at home, and community involvement in schools has been dramatically declining. One of every four children in our nation now lives in poverty, and the majority of these children live with just one parent.

Our urban schools and communities face not only these challenges but also diminished economic resources and fewer job opportunities for future graduates. The media and entertainment worlds have glamorized violence, greed, and depersonalized sex while many overburdened and disengaged adults have been taking leave from engagement in meaningful alternatives to such mindless mass clutter with their children. (Reading, conversation, storytelling, playing music, recreation, and family work projects, whether at home or in the community, come to mind.)

Does acknowledging these challenges mean that schools should be excused from setting high standards for achievement or that they should ignore instruction in basic communication skills and content areas? Of course not. But are the "back to basics" movements and the assault on whole-language classrooms on target? Good teachers know that no single instructional method works for all students, that learning to read, write, compute, reason, and solve problems requires a variety of approaches, including the teaching of phonics, spelling, history, and multiplication.

Whole-language teaching is not a technique; it is a set of beliefs about how children develop language and learn in all subjects with language at the core of the whole educational experience. The goal of whole-language and thematic approaches to instruction is excellence in all areas of communication and knowledge. Learning is designed in a manner appropriate to children's capacities and relevant to their experience--both present and future.

When infants and toddlers are first learning language, we don't insist that they pronounce each word correctly and in appropriate grammatical phrases. Rather, we respond with joy and encouragement to the sounds of the language they are trying out for the first time. We join their experiments in speech with delight. Similarly, when children are learning to write, we find that encouraging them to write freely, writing words down as they imagine they might be spelled, enables them to write with more imagination and maturity of expression than if they were constrained to write only those words they know how to spell.

Children in these classrooms read the stories they write to their peers in "writers' workshops," asking for editorial and other suggestions. They write, illustrate, and bind their own books. And they grow to love reading and writing with a passion that can only be believed by visiting such a classroom. Spelling words and correct grammatical structures are introduced largely from their own written and spoken stories, rather than relying primarily on workbooks or lists or words that often bear no relation to the child's everyday language and experience.

Students in elementary classrooms using whole-language and literature-based approaches often read as many as 50 books a year. And contrary to the impression of editorial writers like Ms. Saunders, their performance on measures of school success is not compromised.

Criticizing schools for offering fewer academic courses in favor of classes in self-esteem, decisionmaking, and living skills is not original to my columnist. Her sentiments are echoed hundreds of times a year in the popular press. But while academic standards in schools need to be high, the public also needs to recognize that schools today are caught on the horns of a dilemma: As families and communities become more fragmented and less stable, more children arrive at school without good social or problem-solving skills, making it more difficult for them to learn and thrive in our classrooms.

Competent teachers and school leaders recognize that we are not forced to choose between academic excellence on the one hand and education for character and social skills on the other. They view each as important for a democratic society. While social skills, character, and decisionmaking need not be taught as separate courses, they surely must be considered as part of what it means to be an educated and responsible person. The highly touted program at Central Park East Secondary School in New York City's East Harlem is but one example among many of a school designed to cultivate habits of mind, work, and heart in its students.

The Greeks understood that this is what education means, and that families and communities share in the responsibility to educate the young. These are basics we can't do without. They also understood, as did our Constitution's framers and the new superintendent of the Seattle schools, the importance of learning to think independently and responsibly. Democracy cannot survive without such a citizenry.

What we need to improve the quality of public education is commitment from our families and communities that they will put the care and education of children first in their priorities and that they will be partners with their schools in the education of their children. The oft-cited African proverb "It takes a whole village to raise a child" conveys a deep truth. Perhaps most of all, we need to create something like a "geography of hope"--a phrase borrowed from Wallace Stegner.

Journalists like Ms. Saunders and teachers and writers like me should commit ourselves to visiting and writing about all the schools and classrooms that are doing an exceptional job of teaching our nation's youths. We could do this until the day we die and have thousands of schools and classrooms left to visit--schools that have succeeded in the face of very great challenges as the result of close connections with their communities and outstanding leadership from administrators and teachers alike. Informing citizens of these schools and what makes them work might be the greatest contribution to our educational system that journalists and TV producers could make.

As for Ms. Saunders, I will send her a copy of 1st- to 3rd-grade teacher Jill Ostrow's recent book, Room With a Different View, which brings to life in rich portraiture whole language and learning practices in a primary classroom in Wilsonville, Ore. Students in her class and those in countless other classrooms across the country love school, love reading real books, write skillfully and creatively, attend faithfully, and perform well on tests. They keep portfolios of their work, tackle real-world problems using basic skills and research methods, evaluate the quality of their own work, and are active participants in parent-teacher conferences. It is the stories of these classrooms that will do most to improve education in our country.

Let's invite the critics of our schools to spend a few weeks observing and participating in elementary classrooms committed to whole language and literature-based instruction. Let's suggest that they talk to the teachers, the children, the principal. Or better yet, that they volunteer a few hours per week to work in one such classroom. Participation is a great cure for cynicism. It's an opportunity to learn about how children learn. It could serve as a springboard for restoring the connections between schools and communities.

Ms. Saunders had it only half right: Education needs more from noneducators. We need their partnership, their investment, and their involvement.

Vol. 15, Issue 20, Pages 43, 45

Published in Print: February 7, 1996, as Turning Critics Into Partners
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