Feature

A Defense from the Outside

U.S. schools command the world’s envy for forging common bonds, while falling short in fostering in children a sense of due respect by STEPHEN P. HEYNEMAN


Ihave not worked on education problems within the United States, but for over two decades I was fortunate to work on education problems in 50 other countries situated in Europe, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This international experience lends a unique perspective on America’s public schools.

I have two principal points: one is a compliment, the other a constructive criticism. The first concerns a characteristic of U.S. education that is highly regarded internationally. The second concerns a problem, not one necessarily caused by American schools but rather a problem foisted on the schools by American child-rearing, making the task of education here more difficult than in other countries.

An Unappreciated Gift
No nation is forged from a single sect. No nation is without minorities, without differences between rich and poor, province and capital. Nations that appear as though they have a single population on first glance--Iran, Egypt, Japan, Netherlands, China, Britain, Russia, Brazil--do not. On closer inspection, uniformities decline, while nuances and differences become more evident.

In each nation the first purpose of public schooling remains the same as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries: to provide a common experience across social groups and so contribute to a nation's social cohesion. But providing this common experience in the late 20th century requires something different. It requires diversified, personalized educational delivery. The notion that pedagogy, textbooks, syllabi and administration can be of both high quality and uniform has been discarded everywhere.

In France, diversity among regions is now the norm. Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands have instituted variations of school-based management. In Russia, a plethora of pedagogical specializations exist, along with a wide variety of materials from which schools and students may choose. In Hungary, national performance standards have been introduced that leave schools free to combine different subjects and schedules and to concentrate on different subject matter in whatever way they believe is most effective.

However welcome, these choices pose a new dilemma: how can a nation of multiple interests and heterogeneous social groups diversify decision-making and at the same time provide a common experience?

The Russian Federation provides a good illustration. About half of the 89 regions (roughly analogous to states) have minority populations of sufficient size to generate debate over which language should be used as the medium of instruction. In some regions, speakers of Russian are in the minority, which adds a new dimension to the protection of minority rights. In the USSR, five languages had been permitted (Russian, Tartar, Bashkir, Georgian and Armenian). Now there are four more (Urdmurt, Buriat, Chuvash and Iakut), but there are 87 languages used in other parts of the curriculum.

In the United States, ethnic groups tended to settle in certain regions for reasons of personal preference: Japanese in Hawaii, Swedes in Minnesota, Irish in Boston. They did so, by and large, to seek a better life.

But in other parts of the world, ethnic groups were moved for political reasons without consent. German speakers were relocated to Siberia away from the war front. Koreans were moved to Central Asia. Jews, Tartars, Cossacks, Buriats and many others were forced into distant and unfamiliar territories.

Throughout this century these groups had no genuine political voice or authority over what to teach about their history in schools. Now suddenly they have both voice and authority with few institutions, such as elected school boards, to act as constraints. Now curriculum can be used to right old wrongs.

Unique Virtues
To be sure, tensions exist in American schools--emotional debates over multicultural curriculum, standards for history, bilingual education, sex education, homosexuality, use of prayer and religious symbols in the classroom. And to be sure, extremism still surfaces in American society. Some advocate violence; others claim racial superiority. But however common these extremist views may be in the wider society, they are not the views taught in public schools.

And why not? With 15,000 school districts in the United States, much decentralization and a weak federal role, how is it there is so little extremism taught in the public school curriculum? By comparison to many parts of the world that lack a tradition of building consensus over curriculum or where the schools themselves (such as in Bosnia) are used to escalate an international crisis, the debates in this country appear both reasonable and reasoned.

Many things are more costly to a nation than a cumbersome public school system. However unresponsive it may appear, the American public school system has unique virtues. U.S. schools do not teach sedition against the constitution. They do not teach disrespect toward specific ethnic or religious groups. They do not include in the curriculum materials that amplify political tensions with countries to the north or the south. None of these are issues for U.S. schools, but they are very much a part of the education dilemma for school systems around the world.

However troubled schools in this country may seem, leaders of school systems elsewhere look at the U.S. system and wonder at the beauty of its balance. They wonder how agreement is obtained without the use of terror from Washington, without the use of secret police or informants, without having to resort to prisons or armies. How is it, foreigners ask, that there is so much freedom of expression, that so much authority can reside in the hands of so many different interests and yet so few instances of extremism arise in the official curriculum? This marvelous system that you administer, in many ways, is the marvel of the world.

A Scarce Resource
As someone who has worked on educational issues in other parts of the world, I have discovered that even in countries where schooling is universal, it is treated as a scarce resource and an important obligation for young people. This strikes me as a serious ill of this nation’s educational system. Children do not seem to know their place.

My experience abroad has helped me to see one criterion in life in which discrimination, or unequal status, is morally right and socially mandatory. It is not on the basis of race, or gender, or religion. Rather, it is on the basis of age. The social movements of the late 20th century, which took as their objective the expansion of power to powerless persons, were expanded in the United States without reason or logic to include minors.

Teaching young people to make rational choices by giving them more choices has a limit. Nonadults cannot legally own property, make a will, act as business fiduciaries, hold public office, vote or enter into business partnerships. They cannot be held responsible for debts, the financial or legal obligations accruing from their participation in institutions. These are the responsibilities of adults. Regardless of how much authority adolescents are allowed, it is sponsored authority.

In all parts of the world, a young person is considered successfully educated if he or she understands how to behave, or as some cultures put it, ‘the way to go." To be educated does not mean to have finished school. Rather it means to be civilized. This distinction in the United States is blurred, and this confuses American children.

Unlike students in other countries, American youngsters do not seem to understand or appreciate that their schools exist because of the sacrifices of their parents and the wider community. They do not seem to recognize the value of an education. They do not commonly express thanks for the opportunity to attend school.

Since they do not seem to appreciate the opportunities presented to them, they cannot have a clear perspective on themselves as a group--that because they are children they have an obligation to try hard. The wider community seems quite capable of putting pressure on schools when it concerns special interests--creationism, black history, gender balance. But Americans seem particularly unable to act in the common interest as adults. As such, U.S. schools try to engage students by appealing to their interests. They try new curricula, new technologies, new pedagogies.

Misguided Direction
What do students learn from these efforts? They learn to behave as consumers of material goods. They learn that if they are not sufficiently interested it is the fault of the school and the teacher. Schools try to use economic logic to get students to try hard: Finish school or you will fail to earn a good job.

But suppose students argue they are not interested in their occupational futures. Instead they may be interested in social issues--whether they have enough friends, whether they are well liked or whether they have enough money for clothes or sneakers or recreational drugs. When children decide for themselves they are more interested in their own issues than in sacrificing for their occupational futures, the motivation to work hard in school seems to collapse. And when those reasons collapse, schools get blamed for the result.

This is the essence of the educational problem in America, and I suspect, it is the essence of why, in spite of considerable investment, U.S. schools do not do as well in math and in science as many other schools systems around the world.

In other countries, making an all-out effort in school is considered civilized. It is expected behavior of all children. It is like washing hands before eating. It is like saying, "Thank you, Mrs. Jones. I had a very nice time at the party." It is routine behavior, learned early, so when a child is older it becomes automatic.

But how can respect for education be generated where it is available to everyone and so easily obtained? And what should be the role of the school administrator in helping students better understand their natural obligations?

As a society, the United States has been able to reach a surprising degree of consensus over what have traditionally been highly controversial issues: air pollution, racial equality, littering, smoking, unprotected sexual contact. These changes did not come about in a sudden flash of insight or by accident. They resulted from a set of mutually reinforcing interests, diligently applied, which created a new tradition of respect where before there was none.

If I was asked to alter one thing about schooling in the United States, I would change this. I would suggest that communities teach children to say, "Thank you"--thanks for the schools and the opportunity to learn, thanks for the sacrifices made to provide me with teachers. Schools themselves should help reinforce not only the virtues of individual choice but also the virtues of understanding one's place as a child and as an adolescent. Schools need to teach respect for those who are older, not because they may be more right or more wise but because respect for age is natural and good.

An Early Inculcation
How do other counties accomplish this sense of place? Why is it that students elsewhere, rich and poor alike, consider it normal to try hard? There are many different techniques. Some finance a system of preschools to help youngsters learn this lesson. In 1992, I visited nursery schools located about 40 kilometers from Afghanistan in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic. More than 65 percent of the four-year-olds were enrolled in preschools, higher than in my state of California.

Even today the Russian federation allocates more money for preschools as a percentage of its education budget than any country in the industrialized world. Some 27 percent of the money spent on education is devoted to preschools. The next highest country is France at 11 percent. The United States spends less than 1 percent.

Yet Americans tend to think preschools should prepare children for elementary school by emphasizing how to read. Other countries leave the skills of reading to the elementary school. In other countries, preschools are used to emphasize how to act. The purpose of preschool is to establish the routine in children of trying hard, and it is this routine that makes the difference later.

It cannot be the educator’s job alone to change the behavior of students in school. It is the family's responsibility. It is the job of the church and the many other public and private agencies that come into contact with children and families. It is the duty of advertising, private industry, consumer products and public services.

As school leaders, your role is to point out what is needed for educators to be successful in their work. You can point to what educators have available in other countries--a population of students that accepts the notion that working hard in school is normal and respects adults and the local community for providing an opportunity to learn.

You should point out that motivation comes from sources outside of rational argument and from well beyond the curiosity generated by the latest pedagogy. Adults should not have to argue the logic of putting on a seatbelt each time a child enters a car. So too should it be with trying hard in school.

Stephen Heyneman, an educator for 21 years with the World Bank, is vice president for international operations, International Management and Development, 1729 King St., Alexandria, Va. 22314. E-mail: sh@IMD-net.com