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By Jabari Asim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 1999

Interaction between teachers and students is dicey enough these days, with educators struggling to cope with pupils who are frequently distracted and resistant to authority. Add parents to the mix and the situation becomes even dicier. The uneasy, often problematic relationship between teachers and parents is often caused by parents feeling forced to the margins of discussions about education – at least so say Anne Wescott Dodd and Jean L. Konzal, the authors of Making Our High Schools Better: How Parents and Teachers Can Work Together (St. Martin's, $26.95). The veteran educators based their book on case studies of two small-town New England high schools, but they contend that the issues encountered there are ones that all schools face.

Dodd and Konzal found that the current educational climate – particularly what they say is the fragility of public schools – requires more parental activism than ever before. At the same time, teachers, frequently at the bottom of the educational bureaucracy, are demanding a greater say in how schools are run. The authors cite published reports that "the gap between parent and professional views about education is indeed wide and growing."

For Dodd and Konzal, closing that gap is the first step toward improving American high schools. To build trust, they argue, parents and teachers must address several areas of concern, including how students should be taught (e.g., in large groups vs. small groups) and how they should be evaluated (e.g., report cards vs. achievement tests). At the heart of these efforts, the authors suggest, is the recognition that successful public schools require participation and cooperation of the community at large. "Public high schools are the public's schools," they write, "and to serve any community well, every school should work to involve all stakeholders."

Frederick Bennett, author of Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education (Faben Inc., $25), agrees that the public schools are in danger. Like Dodd and Konzal, he worries that the rise of charter schools and vouchers for private schools will hurt public schools, making them the last refuge of "the poorest students, whose education will be even worse" than the schooling they are receiving now.

But Bennett's prescription for improving our schools is far different from that suggested by Dodd and Konzal. Bennett wants to minimize the role teachers play. He calls for the nation to truly embrace computerized education, which he defines as allowing computers "to teach students without a human in the intermediary position between the child and the computer." In Bennett's view, sticky issues involving relationships between teachers and parents would vanish overnight – although teachers would be allowed to hang around and work as glorified classroom aides. With the elimination of their traditional duties (lecturing, preparing daily lesson plans, devising and correcting tests), teachers would be free to develop "feeling, sensitive, human students."

To bolster his arguments, Bennett frequently cites the success of a Florida program for at-risk students that emphasizes computer education. However, he talked to very few teachers and parents when assembling his modest proposal, and most readers will likely remain unconvinced by his repetitive arguments. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bennett has little if any experience teaching in public schools, although his bio mentions his wife's "background in education."

Judy Logan, on the other hand, spent more than 30 years as a classroom teacher, all of them "knee deep in adolescence" in various public middle schools in San Francisco. Her Teaching Stories (Kodansha International, $11 paperback), a collection of reminiscences and observations, identifies Logan as a proponent of student-centered learning. "I believe that a good teacher is passionately on the side of her students," she writes. "If the family is the cathedral, I am the flying buttress, digging in my heels, leaning forward, stretching my arms out to the stone walls and throwing all my weight into helping the family reach for the skies." Logan's stories are quite readable, and she comes across as a warm, dedicated and engaging instructor, the kind most parents dream of for their children. But Logan's memories aren't all rose-colored. She includes tales of hostile parents, clueless administrators and frustrating regulations.

She would probably dismiss most of Bennett's computer-driven proposals. The role he envisions for future instructors sounds similar to the resource teachers in Logan's book, who spend most of their days helping classroom teachers with various tasks. Logan doesn't believe in resource teachers. "I believe that the heart of the educational process is in the daily classroom connection that is woven between teacher and students. Education is not something that you can separate from this day-to-day process. It builds on itself, and the hundreds of insights that a teacher gains from this daily process are the warp through which the threads of education must be woven."

Jabari Asim is a senior editor of Book World.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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