Reforming School Reform

Reforming School Reform

Tom Peters

George Bush ran for office as would-be “education president.” Early in
his term he held a summit at the University of Virginia — 49
governors joined him for an all-time “photo op.” Now he stresses the
need to surpass the Koreans in math test scores. In a recent book,
Xerox Chairman David Kearns told us to inject the market into the
educational system; allow parental choice of schools and all will be
well come morning.

Brawn and natural resources are of less and less import to national
competitive advantage. Only the relative development of brains is left
as a distinguishing feature; given the frightful condition of our K-12
system, our long-term economic wellbeing is in jeopardy. But
single-issue solutions (test-score mania, markets/choices) just won’t
make the grade.

In the ’70s and ’80s companies slowly fathomed that progress comes
only when they move beyond the frenetic pursuit of panaceas. Ten-step
“instant culture change” programs proved futile. Landmark
worker-involvement programs at the likes of Ford and Harley Davidson
were built upon respect for the minds of workers and took years to

Business renewal hinges upon the development of worker skills and
worker commitment painstakingly earned by management. Likewise, the
solution to our school crisis rests in respect for the learner and the
process of learning. Sadly, frenzied school reformers sidestep these
core issues.

I venture into this quagmire because I discern exact parallels between
the corporate malaise of 1975-80 and the educational chest-thumping of
1985-90. In this and next week’s column I will suggest an alternative
to the quick fixes that have captured the school reform agenda.

Remember that schools are for individual learning. That’s not
a revolutionary idea, unless you’ve visited a classroom lately. “The
large high school,” says Brown University Professor Ted Sizer, “is a
product of the so-called efficiency movement, the pre-World War I
fantasy that, following [ time and motion expert]Frederick Taylor’s
industrial principles, saw the school as a place where certain rivets
were hammered into the heads of indistinguishable units, each of which
was called a child.”

Create a project orientation. Out with lectures! Don’t allow
textbooks in the classroom! A Chinese proverb says: I hear and I
forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. Projects that
engender student participation in the learning process should dominate
the school day.

Bring the energy of after-school activities to the classroom.
Watch football practice or play rehearsal. The factors that cause
youngsters to be energetic and creative in those settings can
be captured in the classroom — they seldom are.

Lengthen classes. Forty- to 50-minute periods, often
interrupted, are inconsistent with learning.

Stress multidisciplinary teaching. Factory America chokes on
over-specialization. So does classroom America. Real-world problem
solving demands broad understanding. Insist that science, history,
math and English instructors teach mostly in teams.

Make it relevant. Teaching about English kings and queens is
fine (though I remember only the last three, despite having been time-
lined to death 35 years ago). But learning occurs only when students
buy into the reason for addressing a topic. Treat them as intelligent
people, not vats into which facts-on-file are to be poured.

Understand that no two students learn the same way. Learning
is an individualized process. Schools must tolerate — and welcome —

To get discipline promote respect, self-esteem and engagement.
Students who are engaged and respected, whose self-esteem is
high, are spirited but rarely belligerent. “Your expectations of
youngsters largely determine how they behave,” says Seymour Fliegel,
former deputy superintendent of successful Community School District
Four in East Harlem. “They will never let you down. Treat them with
high expectations, treat them with respect, and they will perform.
Show them you expect them to be thugs and they will never disappoint

Emphasize the positive. Learning and engagement stem from
positive reinforcement. Yet most schools overwhelmingly stress the

Destroy fill-in-the-blank tests. Life is not about filling in
the blanks. Neither is learning. Replace such “regurgitation tests”
with essays. Sizer encourages “final exhibitions” of knowledge, along
the lines of university theses.

Get back to basics. (I do not mean memorizing state capitols:
I’ve done okay and I can’t recall a third of them. Sorry, cultural
literacy freaks.) Writing. Questioning. Reading. Listening. Measuring.
Calculating. Speaking. Problem solving. These are the seeds — rarely
central to school curricula — which produce the educated, perpetually
curious adult.

These ideas underscore the need for drastic change in what passes
today for the learning process. Next week we’ll train our sights on
school size, administration and other institutional constraints.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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