E Pluribus ... A Tale of Three Systems

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One can debate whether a straight line can be drawn between the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and the signing of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. But at least in one respect, these two documents are of a piece. Both assert that the United States faces a serious educational problem, and both maintain that the problem needs to be addressed by the nation as a whole.

From one perspective, this stance seems reasonable. With some exceptions, most countries—including those seen as effective in education—adopt a uniform approach to education. At first blush, it follows that the United States should adopt a solution that encompasses the whole country.

More than 20 years of participation and observation have convinced me that the “uniform” solution is misguided at best, and in all probability dead wrong. The United States is a federation of states, some as large as major countries, and most featuring enormous diversity within their borders. The idea that America has a single problem, one subject to a single solution, is untenable. Should you doubt this assertion, I propose that you respond to the “Jesse test”: Could the United States ever come up with an approach to education that would satisfy former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, professional-wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson? The question answers itself.

This does not mean, however, that every state, all 15,000 school districts, all 80,000 public schools should each go its own way. A decade ago, I proposed a solution that I’d adopt if I were the czar of American education. (Recall, however, what happened to the czar!) I’d limit the choices to six to 12 K-12 pathways, available across the land, from which all families involved in public education would choose. Each family would then have genuine choices. Yet—in a way analogous to major air carriers or Internet-service providers—one could attain adequate comparability and accountability.

Writing in 2008, I approach the issue differently. I reflect on the kinds of human beings that I would like to have in our country tomorrow, and how best to nurture them today. Drawing on a dozen years of collaborative research with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon on the GoodWork Project, I call for a system that produces Good Workers and Good Citizens. In using the word “good,” I denote three connotations: “good” in the sense of technically excellent; “good” in the sense of personally engaged; and “good” in the sense of behaving ethically. Thus, in the manner of a triple helix, “Good Work” and “Good Citizenship” embody the three E’s of excellence, engagement, and ethics.

Which brings us to the Tale of Three Systems. Acknowledging the simplification, I think of our country as harboring three quite separate systems, each with its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Each system needs to strengthen one of the E’s. Education for each system, accordingly, should be directed toward the E that needs to be bolstered.

The first system consists of the schools in our inner cities, featuring a population that is diverse and disadvantaged. Many of these students never finish secondary school, and many who do are not fully literate. The problem in system one is excellence in literacy and the disciplines. These schools succeed only if they are blessed with teachers of unusual quality, and human and technical resources well beyond those that are routinely available. The No Child left Behind law was designed with this target audience in mind. Its fatal weakness is that it is using the whole country to repair problems peculiar to inner-city Detroit, Hartford, Los Angeles, and their fellow, all-too-beleaguered metropolises.

The key to quality education in the inner city may lie in bringing students to an excellent level of performance.

The second system consists of the heartland—the large rural areas in the center of the nation, as well as the working-class suburbs that surround the metropolitan areas. Here students do finish secondary school, for the most part, and their literacy, while far from stellar, is at least at the basic level. But the bulk of these students are distinguished by their disengagement from the learning requirements of school and, in all too many cases, from the constructive use of their minds in general. Asked to complete a two-word stem, most would readily respond, “School is … boring.” The challenge to educators in the heartland is to make the “stuff” of school sufficiently intriguing, so that students want to pursue their educations and have the disposition to do so, even when no one is twisting their arms.

Which leaves the third—the system enveloping elites living in suburbs, often attending schools that are or could as well be independent, attending four-year colleges and having ambitious career goals and options. Some of these youngsters—and they are often our youngsters—are impressive in their goals and admirable in their means of achieving them. But as our research in the GoodWork Project has dramatically confirmed, too many of them do not take their ethical obligations seriously. They are quick to assert their rights, in a way that smacks of excess entitlement. But when asked about the responsible thing to do at work or as a citizen, and when their behaviors and actions are monitored, they emerge as a population that has rarely stretched in an ethical direction. All too often, members are engaged in compromised or even sheer bad work.

The challenge with young people in the third system is to strengthen their ethical muscles, so to speak. I freely admit that we do not know just how to do that. Indeed, didactic lessons often have no effect, and some attempts to strengthen ethical fiber may paradoxically encourage defiance or blatant self-serving behavior. Our research suggests that ethical behavior is most likely to emerge when young persons have strong and admired role models at home and at the workplace; when they are surrounded at school and work by ethical peers; and when they are able to draw the proper lessons from publicized events that turn out well or that turn out badly. Needless to say, these conditions are easier to describe than to achieve.

Earlier I proposed an educational goal of nurturing young people who exemplify the three E’s at work and in their roles as citizens. That means that for all three systems, excellence and engagement and ethics should be pursued—“Leave No E Behind.” And yet, if my analysis is cogent, if it holds water, the emphasis in each system needs to be different. That is, the key to quality education in the inner city may lie in bringing students to an excellent level of performance; in the heartland, in catalyzing a greater degree of engagement in learning; and in our affluent urban and suburban areas, in strengthening the ethical musculature of young people. Paraphrasing Plato, we might say that these three paths will help students want to do what they have to do.

I’ve come a long way from a reflection on the national or federal role in education. But perhaps a certain distance constitutes the proper stance at this time. Too much of the talk and action about U.S. education has focused on issues of method—what to do about test scores, vouchers, charters, unions, teacher salaries. While not unimportant, these debates distract us from asking the important questions about the goals of education—and particularly goals that go beyond the instrumental ones of more and more competitiveness in the international marketplace. Historically and contemporaneously, the United States has done quite well as a nation, even without a “one best system.” Before rushing headlong toward uniformity, we ought to spend time debating the goals of education, and considering the various ways of achieving them, in light of the plurality of populations that constitute our land.

Vol. 27, Issue 34, Pages 30-31, 40

Published in Print: April 23, 2008, as E Pluribus ... A Tale of Three Systems
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