What We Talk About When We Talk About School

A Journey of Personal Discovery

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From the summer of 1991 to just before Christmas of 1994, I traveled across the United States, visiting good public school classrooms, from preschool to 12th grade, urban and rural, Industrial Northeast to Deep South to California border town. I was trying to fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, I believed, had gone terribly sour.

We have been flooded for a decade-and-a-half with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy. While it is surely necessary for a citizenry to assess the performance of its public institutions, this national discourse about schooling had shifted from critique to assault and dismissal, to a ready store of commonplaces about how awful our schools had become. Such talk felt dangerous to me. It was contributing to broad generalization, to retreat, to a sense of failure and fear--and it was shutting down our civic imagination. So I set out to document excellence: to fashion a kind of travelogue of good American classrooms and to use the vignettes in the journey as occasions to reflect on what public education should be in a democracy. I wanted to generate a language of educational possibility. The result was a book called Possible Lives.

It has been one year now since the book was published. Looking back over its reception--the reviews, the talk shows and other public events, the wide range of conversations it allowed me to have--I think I'm coming to understand a little more clearly some things about the way we talk about schools.

Let me begin with an early recognition. The book had just come out, and I was a guest on a talk-radio show in central California. The host asked me to reconcile the examples of effective schooling in the book with the widely published claims that by most any measure public schools are doing a bad job. It's a question I would continue to be asked. For me, it's a complicated one. There are many students, poor and minority in particular, who, historically, have been ill-served by our schools. And we are bedeviled by a host of ongoing problems: from school politics and funding to curricular faddism. But it is also true that many of the reports of failure rely on flawed studies, statistics taken out of context, inappropriate generalizations, and so on. These limitations and misrepresentations have been well-documented by researchers at places like RAND and the Sandia National Laboratories, and recently summarized in David Berliner and Bruce Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis. So when asked that question about test scores and school failure, I began by admitting the problems with public education, but moved on to discuss, as well, the problems with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures. I suggested that we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.

Four calls followed. One was from a teacher who supported my argument. But three callers weren't buying it. The disagreement wasn't surprising, but what did catch me was the vehemence of the response. It was angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset. One male caller was furious. He dismissed RAND as being utterly uncredible. He said it was "patently absurd" to say the schools were doing anything right. He claimed that he "didn't know one 17-year-old who could make change."

In Possible Lives I write that our country is "in the grip of a nasty reactive politics," and I had tapped it. What has stayed with me from that call--for it was instructive--was the quality of the anger, the rush and the snap of it, and its sweep. It had a tremendous energy to it--it felt assaultive, a bludgeon--and it did not, in any way, invite engagement. For all its passion, it was somehow sealed off from life outside of it. It was different, for example, from the anger of community people I've known seeking to improve a local school gone to seed, an anger fueled by human connection and a vision of possibility.

David Cohen and Barbara Neufield have observed that "schools are a great theater in which we play out [the] conflicts of the culture." The anger of these callers was focused on schools, but, I kept thinking, on more than the schools: on a generation, perhaps, on public institutions, maybe, on the direction of the country. To ask for a reconsideration of its premises or architecture--of the test scores or images of schooling that comprised it--was to ask for the destabilizing of a view of the world. And that, I realized as those calls--and others like them--unfolded, would be harder than I thought to change.

But if there is among some Americans a generalized anger about the schools--and possibly much else about the social order that the schools symbolize for them--there is among others a deep, if sometimes unarticulated, dissatisfaction with the nature of our public discussion of schools, and of our other major social institutions and social problems.

As I've traveled over this last year, I've heard again and again of a weariness with the kind of assaultive language I just described--and with the equally harsh responses that assault can trigger. The result is a divisive and demonizing public discourse that seems to many like a civic dead end.

In addition, many express dissatisfaction with the very way we have come to define our big issues, a sense that our traditional discussions of race relations, the welfare state, our national identity, the public vs. private sphere, and more--that these discussions have become stale, have lost their power to capture the imagination and spark new thought. This dissatisfaction is beginning to find powerful public voice: Lani Guinier calling for a new public conversation on race; Geoffrey Canada urging a more comprehensive understanding of youth violence; Cornel West criticizing our "very limited ... debate about multiculturalism and Eurocentrism."

Nowhere is this need for an enriched public conversation clearer than with education.

For a generation now, mainstream discourse about education has been framed in terms of decline and embattlement ("If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," reads A Nation at Risk, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war"); economic competitiveness ("We all know that a strong and growing economy depends on an educated workforce," says IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr.); and standards ("Standards drive excellence," observes Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, "whether it be in business, athletics, or education"). The diction and imagery are drawn primarily from business, sports, and the military. And much of our thinking about reform is framed in such language.

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and the economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create safe public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects--the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space--this should be our public vocabulary of schooling--for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in a democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings.

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom--that miniature civic space--to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

Vol. 16, Issue 04, Pages 38, 42

Published in Print: September 25, 1996, as What We Talk About When We Talk About School
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