We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

During 25 years as a teacher, union leader and education reporter, I have asked several thousand people for their opinion about what's wrong with our schools. Like Diogenes wandering about with his lantern, I've asked wherever I thought I might hear an honest answer--from students, teachers, administrators, educational theorists, and politicians. The most frequent diagnosis (and a good one) is that the public schools have become paralyzed by competing adult factions. Teachers on one side, administrators on another, legislators on yet another. Taxpayers at large versus parents of children with academic or behavioral problems. The political left versus the political right. Minority leaders against an essentially white-run system.

But as an overall analysis of the problem, the answer that struck me most profoundly came from a teacher on disability leave for a variety of stress-related symptoms. "The problem with the public schools," he said, "is that they are not real places." What he meant by this piece of hard-earned wisdom was that in the public schools the distance between theory and practice has reached mind-bending dimensions. What we say we want from the schools bears only a tangential relation to the true demands we make on the system--and the tools we provide it to do the job. Down at the level of the halls and the classrooms, the gap between our real and our stated agendas creates what this teacher called "a schizophrenic fairyland world." The distinguishing feature of this world, he maintained, is that it is "a place where actions have no consequences."

We say, "Behave or else." But there is no else. Because we also say that everyone is entitled to an equal chance for an education, and one of the real purposes of the public schools is to warehouse children--keep them off the streets and out of our hair--for seven hours a day. Enforcing simple rules of conduct stirs up a number of hornet's nests, including the bugaboo of race. Likewise, a student expelled from school means angry parents, and from an administrator's point of view, that means two fewer votes come the next levy election. The net result is that children have to make a major effort to incur disciplinary consequences, and the lowest common denominator ends up setting the behavioral tone for our public schools.

We say, "Study or else." But that too is an idle gesture. Real academic standards distinguish individuals by talent and effort. But at this point in history they also have a disconcerting and undemocratic tendency to distinguish (at the statistical level) by sex and race. And that's just for openers. Real standards also interfere with a school's athletic and social mission. They cause children to complain and ask their parents for help with homework--cutting into the television-viewing time of parents who were themselves raised on the tube. Real standards threaten marginal teachers. They deny diplomas to some perfectly nice children, and worst of all, they cause borderline students to bail out and spend their days loitering menacingly on street corners. Real standards have consequences, and rather than face them, we dumb down our expectations to the point where any child who warms a chair for 12 years can get a diploma.

The trouble with fairyland, however, is that children are always the first to recognize it. Smoking out adult hypocrisy is indispensible for growing up connected to reality, and as every parent knows, children have a preternatural talent for it. They know, even if we don't, that serious academic and behavioral standards interfere with too many of the real purposes of the public school system.

To take just one example out of numerous possibilities, consider the recent rise and fall of outcome-based education. To educational theorists OBE looked like the holy grail they are always seeking: a magic methodological bullet that would lift student performance without producing any painful political side effects. Let students compete essentially with themselves; remove all those distracting and crippling pressures on self-esteem, and they would just naturally be eager to learn. Turn the key, then stand back and reap the social and academic benefits. The procrastinating student, however, looked at OBE and immediately saw something else: With the progress of a hundred or more pupils to monitor, his teachers would be hard-pressed to tell the case-by-case difference between modest ability and a lack of motivation.

The problems of public education are many and complex, and what follows is an opinionated analysis of the system's failings based to a considerable extent on personal experience. It is also a scatter-gun approach to an issue worthy of an entire encyclopedia. But as an organizing principle and a fixed point of reference, I submit the following for your consideration: The problem with the public schools is that we delude ourselves into thinking that we are the masters of fairyland.

Children are, always. Since they have an agenda just as self-centered as our own, it isn't romanticizing them to say that they know better than we do what we are really up to. Which kid, for instance, has more native smarts: the one who busts his butt to please parents and teachers by getting A's, or the one who figures out that despite all the grown-up huffing and puffing, nothing really bad will happen if he bags trigonometry? Measuring the precise distance between the official proclamations and the actual rules of the adult world is a child's most important maturational job. When children stubbornly refuse to act the way we want them to act and learn what we know they are capable of learning, they are trying to tell us that we don't really mean what we say.

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