Nancy's Columns

Improving Education

Under topic: administrators

The National Governors Association held its meeting in New Jersey this year. The theme of the meeting was Attaining The President's six National Education Goals. A large number of well-intentioned people gave a great deal of time and thought to the production of three reports: Every Child Ready for School, Keys to Changing the System, Enhancing Skills for a Competitive World.

In these reports, the governors indicated what needs to be done and what is presently being done in their states. At first glance it seems as if the governors have it under control and the goals will be attained by the year 2000. At the final plenary session, however, the governors chose as their invited speakers, Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and Christopher Whittle of the Edison Project.

After listening to these speakers one was left with the impression that maybe not much is going to change in public education by the year 2000 and the governors know it. In his speech, Albert Shanker, who is for public education, noted that public education only works for a certain group of students. He said that now we select only those students who can succeed as schools are now structured. This structure resists change and there is no incentive, he feels, for students and teachers to fight to change it. In the same vein, the governors' report on Keys to Changing the System, noted that parents do not want the structure to change either. The fact that their children are not getting the best education possible is not as important to them as not rocking the boat. If the education they received was good enough for them, it's good enough for their children. To get a sense of how much the education system has NOT changed, one only has to review what public education was like fifty years ago and compare those practices with today's.

After listening to these speakers one was left with the impression that maybe not much is going to change in public education by the year 2000 and the governors know it.

The following is a list developed by Julian Weissglass of the National Research Council on educational practices forty and fifty years ago: The teacher was in front of the class most of the time and the students sat at desks in rows.

  • Almost all talking was done by the teacher and students were not permitted to talk to each other.
  • Most of the time there was one adult and 25 to 35 children in one classroom
  • Teachers yelled at individual children and at the whole class.
  • At certain periods students were anxious and worked feverishly. Often this was accompanied by filling in blanks on a sheet of paper.
  • Considerable time was spent memorizing or doing computations. 
We all know this list is not exhaustive and that these practices are still in vogue today in many of our schools. In addition to the fact that neither the teachers nor the parents want the public schools to change, the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the system stand guard to further ensure that the status quo is not disturbed. Which brings us to other invited speaker, Mr. Whittle.

Mr. Whittle is the chairman of Whittle Communications. He has just recruited Yale University president, Benno Schmidt, to head his Edison Project.

The mission of this project is to design and build 1,000 private schools. In other words to invent and build a new American school system. The consensus seems to be that Mr. Whittle and Dr. Schmidt have more of a chance for success than any attempts to change the public school system by well- intentioned governors for two reasons: First, they can start from scratch and train and hire their own staff.

Second, they will not have to deal with an entrenched bureaucracy. It would seem that Mr. Whittle has the endorsement of the governors.

Perhaps that is because the governors, in their attempt to reach the president's educational goals in the year 2000, realized that, given the present public school system, it is an impossible task. Too bad. The public school system is about to blow it. While there are notable exceptions, all of our children are not being served in the present system.

Our children deserve better.

Perhaps the Edison Project is the answer.

Or perhaps the public school system will rise to the challenge, change, and give the Edison Project a run for its money by the year 2000. Let us hope so.

Miracles have been known to happen.

First published in 1992