From Universal Access to Universal Proficiency

Five experts, in a roundtable Q&A, on the demands of new leadership for old values by ANNE C. LEWIS
These are heady times for American public education. The churning taking place can be frustrating for school leaders, but it also may be a necessary process for making sense ultimately of the immense change in demands upon the public schools.

For 50 years, education leadership, policies and practices were focused on providing universal access to public education. The Brown decision of 1954 set in motion decades of attention to making American public education truly universal.

At first, the effort focused on racial and ethnic minorities, then broadened to include children with disabilities, those whose home language is not English and gender issues. Migrant children, the homeless and preschoolers all were embraced as part of the American goal of providing educational opportunity. Now that agenda basically is finished.

While universality was still actively pursued, however, another agenda began to develop. The business community had become concerned that our students’ skill levels were not competitive. Advocates for the newly enfranchised in public education turned to ensuring that all students had access to a quality education. Comparisons of student performance internationally alerted policymakers to the impact of the lack of standards and accountability in American schooling traditionally addressed by local efforts.

Gradually these issues built up in various state and federal initiatives until they reached a crescendo in No Child Left Behind. Its message is that the new agenda is universal proficiency, something American education has never provided. Every facet of education is now focused on developing the skills to attain universal proficiency effectively.

In making this wrenching transition, the largest challenge to school leaders is to determine what values of American public education are worth keeping. How can they protect those values while moving this enormous change agenda? What skills do they need to do this?

The School Administrator asked a panel of five prominent authorities—Elliot Eisner, John Goodlad, Patricia Graham, Phillip Schlechty and Warren Simmons—to talk about the strengths of American education that are essential to maintain as everyone moves toward the goal of universal proficiency. We asked whether the reformers are making the right decisions to attain universal proficiency. We also wanted to know what they would do if they were in leadership roles today.

Their backgrounds and interests are diverse—researchers, scholars, urban school reformers, an artist, a change agent for local schools—and all prolific writers. Despite their different perspectives, they hold common beliefs about what is happening to public education and, as readers will see, a unanimous opinion about what school leaders need to do.

Q: We have had two decades of very active school reforms that are now embedded in No Child Left Behind. Have we asked the right questions about what needs to change? Do we have the right answers?

Elliot Eisner: No. We need to question many of the assumptions on which schools are built, but instead we jumped on the old bandwagon, which is not going very far. We haven’t looked at the ways in which traditional activities and policies have a negative influence on learning. For example, we continue to say every child in every grade should be at the same place. Then we design testing systems based on this idea. Instead, we should want to increase the variance among children so that those whose aptitudes in math or in language arts can go farther faster. And we don’t recognize that the academic differences among children increase as they get older. They get better at what they are good at. If youngsters could recognize their talents and move ahead, this would be good for society.

Phillip Schlechty: I would also say we haven’t asked the right questions. We use questions that only bring about sustaining disruptions, those that use new programs or products to shake up the system. No Child Left Behind is predicated on the idea that there are products that work in the present system. But the only innovations that are going to make a difference are disruptive ones, those that change whole systems. I once studied why very good curriculum materials from the National Science Foundation in the 1970s did not take hold, and it was because they didn’t fit with and didn’t change the current school structure. You have to change that first.

Patricia Albjerg Graham: I think we have asked the right questions about the academic achievement we want for all students, but we came up with the wrong answers. We are saying that standardized test scores reveal all we need to know about the education of children. We should want to know whether children can demonstrate ingenuity, a capacity for hard work, the ability to work on a long-term project rather than a short-term fix, a commitment to the obligations of citizenship, and if they can maintain decent relationships with others. We are not even getting the information we need on academics.

Can children understand new material and use it to solve a problem? Can they write materials that others find useful and use math to solve fundamental problems, such as those involving statistics? Do they demonstrate an interest in arts and in science and have knowledge of the past and how society works? I’m not against tests, but we need many more indicators than a standardized test. In the 19th century, all 8th graders presented an exhibition to the community to demonstrate what they had learned in school. We should be using a broader set of indices than tests. They are a simplistic explanation for the very complex phenomenon of learning. To be honest, the work of schools has been hijacked by the political agenda.

Warren Simmons: In my opinion, we haven’t been asking all the right questions together. Standards-based education reform has been very robust at the national level with lots of involvement, reports, summits and a fairly sustained conversation about the same issues. Three successive presidents, Congress and state legislatures, unions and the business leadership have maintained some semblance of an agenda.

At local levels, the conversation has been just as intense but not as sustained nor tied into the national one. It’s been more about such issues as fiscal equity, multicultural education, school integration and effective schools. And it’s been episodic and disjointed. Locally, there isn’t the same coalition of partners as at the national level. So, it’s been up to individual superintendents to bring a vision and sustain it, but that strategy is very vulnerable to shifts in political fortunes.

John Goodlad: We haven’t been raising good questions at all. “A Nation at Risk” and what followed it, as Ted Sizer has pointed out, practically cut off dialogue about schooling because those efforts presumed that the answers were in testing and accountability. If we are not asking basic questions about what schools are for, how can we be getting the right answers?

Q: One reason for the constant push on schools to change is because the context for growing up in the United States has changed so dramatically. Are we asking the right questions about what society needs to do to support student success?

Graham: Actually, the biggest change has been in the nature of adolescence itself. It begins earlier and lasts longer and comes at a time when two other things of deep interest to young people are growing—sexual activity and earning their own money. It is difficult for them to adjust to issues at school. Unlike in the past or in other countries today, adolescents are not under the management of parents, although they can put off being responsible well into their 20s by living at home. There is a powerful coalition of fast-food employers and producers of goods teen-agers want, and parents are complicit. They think it’s good for a young person to work 20 hours a week, but in the long run taking calculus would count more for success.

Schools are only one educating institution—families and communities are more important—but they are the only institution whose primary purpose is to educate. Still the various institutions are similar in some ways. I’m struck by the research on the need for trust in schools (by Anthony Bryk at the University of Chicago). Trust is not the first thing you think about (in relation to) schools, but the research makes a good case that without trust, other activities will be imperiled.

Goodlad: Finding the uniqueness of schools is right. In his last interview, Ralph Tyler (pioneering education psychologist) said schools do educationally what the rest of society is not doing. That’s a very profound statement. Schooling is deliberately intended learning. If it weren’t so, there would be no need for schools. But education writ large is not necessarily intended and could be good or bad. Given that education surrounds children and young people all the time through the rest of society, especially the media, we need to decide what specifically schools should be doing that does not duplicate what society is doing.

Simmons: It does take a city (née village) to raise a child, as Paul Hill (a professor at University of Washington) points out. Although they are in the midst of struggles, the school systems in New York City and Oakland (Calif.) are designing schools with common goals that are aligned with revitalized communities. In New York City, they are looking at resources across a regional area and seeing how they might be organized around schools.

Q: Is the job of educating all children too big for schools, or is that a cop-out question?

Schlechty: In a sense, that’s a cop out. Sure, it’s too big for schools alone, but that doesn’t mean the schools can’t work to make it not so big. Once school leaders were community leaders, but they lost their power. They were high-status people. Now they’re thought of as government functionaries. Superintendents need to reassert the moral authority of the chief educator in the community.

Simmons: Schools can’t dodge what they should be doing. My office is an example. In the 1970s, my secretary worked on a typewriter, and I did most of the filing myself. Today, my executive assistant must be comfortable with getting information from the Web and synthesizing it and be literate enough to do some copyediting. I have trouble finding someone with only a high school diploma who can do that. Needed skills have transformed dramatically, but the education young people get in high school has not changed.

Goodlad: We must have a society that wants schools to make our children wise. We have never had a more ignorant society because we can’t keep up, so we treat outer space as if it were fiction and have lost knowledge about where necessities come from. It’s a big job to decide on the most important domains of learning that all students need to know. That depends on conventional wisdom, but right now we don’t make decisions on the basis on what the most informed people know, but on what politicians think people want.

Q: So the mission of public education has changed?

Eisner: No, the mission hasn’t changed that much. And there are schools that are sticking with the mission and not adopting the No Child Left Behind thrust. They care about the imaginative lives of children. They know that what really matters is what students choose intrinsically to do when they are not in school.

Schlechty: The mission has been lost, but not changed. Early in the last century, few educators were bashful about saying the purpose of schools was to educate immigrants and assimilate them with Protestant values and Republican sentiments. But after 1950, the melting pot became unglued, and we haven’t found a new metaphor. We’re into talking about subcultures, but you can only value diversity when you have a strong sense of commonality.

Graham: I see the mission of public schools as a rainbow. All the colors are there, but at times one color may be more salient than the others. In the first part of the last century, the major purpose of schools was to assimilate immigrant children, like Phil said, then it became to help children make social adjustments (progressives). After 1950, the primary purpose became access, and since the 1980s it has been to educate all children to high achievement.

That is an utterly radical idea and very different from the other colors. It is particularly difficult to pull off because adults do not agree. In a single community, the children of the rich are not working in fast-food places 20 hours a week, but lots of other young people are. Communities that allow teen-agers to do that are not taking academic achievement seriously. Teachers who work in those communities are torn by competing ideas.

Goodlad: The public sees the mission of schools as everything. They want it all—academics, vocational, social development. School principals will tell you there is no agreement on purpose, but parents will seek out schools that give them all. Now they are being told that if they go for high test scores, then they will have it all.

Q: But polls indicate the public definitely favors ideas that are counter to some of the values we have discussed, like national and/or frequent standardized testing. Are educators out of touch or is the public uninformed?

Schlechty: Polls mean we have a credibility problem. We use such audits when we don’t trust people to do the work. The rise in testing is because the public doesn’t believe educators. They are going to testers instead of to teachers. We’ve said, for example, that these children can read, and they can’t. Testing is necessary but not sufficient, but now it drives everything, whether kids learn anything or not. Those who do not have children in schools need test data more than parents do. However, poor parents favor more testing because they really don’t trust the schools, especially to show respect to their children.

Goodlad: Polls are the most primitive research I have seen. They show that we have two school systems in this country—one is schooling (the bureaucracy, the authoritarian agency that is highly influenced by politically driven reform) and the other is the local school, which the public consistently rates highly.

False polls—those that don’t use forced choice—create divisions between educators and parents, but when they come together and talk, they generally agree. Those who use polls to justify privatization deep down fear the real teachings of democracy because they disavow racial discrimination. And busy politicians find polls useful because they don’t have time to dig deeply into issues.

Simmons: If public polls misread what is happening in schools, it is because education reform and accountability are not very transparent. People don’t understand what districts are, and the people in schools don’t identify with their districts. There are so many players—unions, agencies, states, feds—that people grasp onto the most visible means of trying to understand it all, teachers’ grades and standardized tests.

Eisner: That’s so true, but the public also does not understand the complexity of testing. It looks like a straightforward fix, something General Motors can do. We live in a competitive society, and parents want to know where their child stands regarding other children, but it becomes a horse race. But look at how athletic coaches work. They pay a lot of attention to each play on the field. We should all pay more attention to the processes of learning in classrooms. Coming into a school one day in April with a battery of tests is not a good way to get at what is happening in schools.

Q: If you were a school leader, how would you respond to the shifts in demands on your leadership? What would you need to know and be able to do?

Schlechty: I would get myself an inside person to run the day-to-day operations of the district because my job would be to work in the community. I would have a 30-second talk that would be a teaser: “I want a school district in which …” It would paint a compelling picture. A three-minute talk would ask: “How can you contribute?”

And then a 30-minute speech would capitalize on people’s need to have a sense of community to build social capital and civic capacity through the schools. This is a message beyond parents. It is for senior citizens, for parents of parochial school students, for all those who want to celebrate community. The superintendent has to become a powerful symbol of not just schools but of community.

Simmons: I would let the community know that I am a steward, not the only leader. I certainly would articulate a set of standards that needs to be addressed, but then I would work with the community to present and monitor an agenda with respect to standards, values, long-range goals. Just as we have community votes on a bond referendum, we need to mobilize community accountability for reform. Holding an individual superintendent accountable while leaving all other players off the hook will not get you where you want to be. If a superintendent fails, aren’t the school board, the mayor, the unions and community leadership also complicit in that failure?

Goodlad: I would be talking to the community from day one of my appointment. I would want an ongoing dialogue on everything we were doing. When I was director of a low-income school in Englewood, Fla., years ago, we held meetings to show the community what we were doing, such as teaching reading and we packed the room for every meeting.

The superintendent should be out in the community explaining the resources that are needed, telling how the schools are supporting every child. I grow lots of vegetables in the clay soil of my garden in the San Juan Islands, but it is not possible for the federal government to tell me how to garden. New bugs show up all the time. The feds also cannot tell the people on the island how best to run their schools. Instead of management stuff, the school leader needs to be a wise person who educates the community.

Graham: The bedrock value of our schools is that these are the institutions in which we learn to become citizens. As we have believed since Thomas Jefferson, we cannot have a democratic society without an educated society. I would take the message to the community that we must have public education to have a free society and that the schools and the community must be aligned on the values we hold for children. I would make sure that we had trust between adults and children, then press very hard for genuine academic achievement of youngsters measured in a variety of ways.

Eisner: We all agree. As a superintendent, I would deepen the conversation about education in my community. I would try to help them understand that the deep aim of education is to help children become the architects of their own education, a process that involves curriculum, opportunities to learn, the quality of teaching and assessment practices that reflect our complex expectations of children. These are the issues I would explore with people in my community. Ultimately, education is a political act.

Anne Lewis is a free-lance education writer based in Washington, D.C. E-mail: anneclewis@earthlink.net