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School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Paideia Movement: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

By Terry Roberts — February 26, 1997 8 min read
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In Mentor, Ohio, the parents of Brentmoor Elementary School children meet on a February evening to participate in a seminar on the music and lyrics of “The Phantom of the Opera.” They come out on this cold, snowy night because the school emphasizes the importance of adults modeling learning for children. In Pueblo, Colo., high school students at the K-12 Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences, a 2-year-old charter school, will attend all their academic courses on the campus of Southern Colorado University next year, where they will soak up the university atmosphere and introduce the campus to a particular brand of teaching and learning. In Guilford County, N.C., students attending a network of schools based on rigorous academics with real-world byproducts engage in coached intellectual projects as a regular part of their classwork.

What do all of these programs have in common? They and a dozen more like them are based on the Paideia reform model, and they have all sprung up in the last three years.

Although the Paideia program was introduced in 1982 by philosopher Mortimer J. Adler and the original Paideia Group, it did not at first have an impact on the real world of public schooling. True, it captured the enthusiasm of educators like Theodore R. Sizer, who incorporated many of the Paideia ideas into the Coalition of Essential Schools’ principles, and Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, who told a reporter that he thought Paideia education would “dominate educational reform for the next decade.” But by 1984, Dennis Gray was asking rhetorically, “Whatever Became of Paideia?” In a prescient article, he questioned whether the Paideia Group had delivered “an idea whose time [had] not yet come,” and he predicted a 10-year implementation process. This was because, he said, Paideia reform is about “learning to act differently, not just talk differently” about schooling.

Mr. Gray was right: It was 10 years before Paideia reform became a widely accepted blueprint for practical change. Even with the establishment of the National Paideia Center at the University of North Carolina in 1988, the program did not spawn a network of Paideia schools until very recently. Since 1992, when a new center staff tried a novel approach, the Paideia landscape has been reshaped: 40 schools in 13 states, and the list grows by the month.

The question that lurks at the heart of this brief history is why did a program that seemed to have fallen into a decade of dormancy suddenly spring back to life. There are, I believe, at least four reasons for the recent renaissance of interest in Paideia reform, all of which are compelling.

The first is that the original Paideia principles were in 1982 and remain today an elegant condensation of the best thinking we have about public education. In language that is spare and powerful, the original Paideia group captured both the urgency of school reform and its profound connection to America as a functional democracy. The Paideia Proposal stated boldly for the first time a litany of principles that have become all but schoolhouse verities, headed by “All children can learn” (and therefore deserve the same quality, not just quantity, of education). It is important to remember that the “proposal” predated A Nation at Risk by only a few months and so profoundly affected the heated debates that A Nation at Risk precipitated. Even 14 years later, it is difficult to name a leading educational reform program that has not been influenced by Paideia principles, and local educators from across the country now openly consider what in 1982 seemed radical ideas.

This brings us to the second reason why interest in Paideia has grown so rapidly over the past few years. The Paideia principles involve the successful marriage of a fundamentally conservative idea--the beneficial rigors of a classical education--and a fundamentally liberal one--progressive teaching and learning practices. Nel Noddings, Diane Ravitch, and others have pointed out that what Mortimer J. Adler prescribes in the Paideia program is a synthesis of E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s call for a return to classical education and John Dewey’s progressivist ideas about learning. These seemingly contradictory ideas--intellectual rigor and equal access to a quality education--have become the bedrock upon which successful Paideia schools are built.

As education reform has become more politicized, parents and teachers have discovered in Paideia a comprehensive and apolitical design.

This synthesis of conservative and liberal is important because as education reform has become more intensely politicized over the past decade, parents and teachers have discovered in Paideia a comprehensive and apolitical design. We advocate well-defined and rigorous standards in a core curriculum, and we work hard at helping local educators adapt a classical model to their needs. At the same time, we stress the absolute necessity for democratizing American public education through more heterogeneous grouping, creative scheduling, and teaching practices that engage the interests and abilities of all students.

One of the unfortunate and inaccurate stereotypes that has haunted Paideia reform is that it is the exclusive property of the intellectual elite. Mr. Adler and other members of the original Paideia Group have argued vehemently that the future of American democracy depends not just on establishing a common core curriculum of the highest quality but also on the enlightened teaching that will deliver that curriculum successfully to all students.

When Oakhurst Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., was awarded magnet status in 1994 and renamed itself the Paideia Academy at Oakhurst, system administrators began planning to remove the large population of severely handicapped students that came to Oakhurst from a large attendance area. The school’s principal and faculty argued that these students were a legitimate and valuable part of the Oakhurst family and were responding successfully to Paideia teaching strategies. Significantly, the principal and her teachers won the argument, and the students stayed.

To apply what happened at Oakhurst to a current debate, high academic standards are not in and of themselves sufficient to improve student learning; we must also redesign our schools so that the vast majority of our students rise to those standards. The Paideia movement’s primary focus on the Paideia seminar and intellectual coaching in the classroom have proven to be eminently practical answers to this problem.

Early in my tenure at the National Paideia center, it became obvious that philosophical answers to the difficult questions posed us by teachers, parents, and principals were no longer enough. We had to provide concrete guidance. Fortunately, the decade between 1982 and 1992 gave us some of those answers in the form of calendar and scheduling reform, research on the physiology and function of the brain, progress on coordinating community support networks for at-risk school families, and more.

In Murfreesboro, Tenn., the K-8 Cason Lane Academy is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days a week, on a year-round calendar that offers up to 255 days of formal instruction per year in a system that requires only 180. In addition to having identified a common core course of study for all students through the 8th grade, Cason Lane offers an exciting array of academic, life-skills, arts, and recreation classes before and after the standard school day. The reason why this vastly expanded schedule embraces the original Paideia principles is that it means all students can be kept on course year by year through a common, demanding core curriculum. The extra 75 days of instruction give ample opportunity for acceleration and enrichment.

To borrow a phrase from the study of algebra, we believe in holding learning a constant and making every other aspect of schooling a variable.

The third reason why I believe that the Paideia program’s time has come is also a matter of creating practical answers to hard questions. Unlike some reform networks that depend on national training academies or inexperienced local leadership, we decided early on that we would “scale up” only as fast as we could guarantee high-quality results. Because of this devotion to effective staff development, we focus our training efforts on whole school communities, sending experienced staff members (always a former or practicing teacher or principal) into the local community to train all the teachers and administrators as well as interested parents from a school. We then facilitate the creation of a support network within the school community consisting often of one or more school-based committees as well as a peer-coaching program for classroom teachers. In addition, our staff returns to the school regularly throughout the first three to four years of implementation, doing follow-up training, model teaching, classroom coaching of teacher as well as student skills, and curriculum planning and alignment. Ultimately, we measure our success in terms of how much we have improved the learning lives of children in an individual school.

The focus on learning as a primary measure of success is at the heart of the fourth reason for Paideia’s recent growth. At the very beginning of our school partnerships, we focus on the teaching and learning relationship of adult and child by instituting the seminar as a learning event in every classroom. This focus on improving teacher practice and, as a result, student knowledge, skill, and understanding continues through every stage of implementation.

The improvements that we suggest in the areas of governance, scheduling, discipline, assessment, and community relations are all intended to insulate and support the best teaching possible in every classroom every day. To borrow a phrase from the study of algebra, we believe in holding learning a constant and making every other aspect of schooling a variable.

This emphasis on radically reforming any element of schooling that gets in the way of learning is, I believe, the only practical way to achieve in reality the ideas that so many in education originally found so exciting about Paideia. Thus, in every school community we work with, we rebuild the bridge between the ideals of Paideia and the reality of classroom life. The principles themselves are timeless; as for their successful, real-world application, we believe the time is now.

Read the counterpart to this article: Horizon Alternative School: Why Promising Reforms Disappear

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A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1997 edition of Education Week as Looking Back for the Future: The Paideia Movement: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

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