I AM GRATEFUL TO THESE two voices of optimism for helping moderate the prevailing climate of despair surrounding American public education. To one who still believes in the future of public schools, both these books suggest that the daily, depressing descriptions and predictions about schooling may constitute a premature obituary.
Paul Brandwein offers us the benefit of the long view-- a kind of journal of a distinguished curriculum developer and science educator who for 30 years has seen formal education overreact to society's preoccupation with perfecting itself through its schools. He suggests that education is now of age and should assert its maturity by acting rather than reacting to "pendulations" which have swung from deschooling to back to basics, and from open classrooms to mastery learning. His remedy is to view education and schooling through separate lenses.
Education is a lifelong environment where the parent is the first teacher and the home the earliest educational setting. Beyond the family Brandwein calls for a "vast offensive" to develop an educational system which will achieve good health, decent relationships with neighbors and satisfying work. Given such an "ecological" view, it is unnecessary, he argues, to get trapped into choosing, for example, between schooling or work, basics or the arts, values or content.
Schools must have much narrower aims with more accountability for achieving them. Brandwein's focus is upon curriculum, instruction, and evaluation, and it is here that I find his thinking best stated and most useful. Effective schools are the result of "ecologies of achievement" in which administrators, teachers, and parents, "have merged . . . to attack common problems." In contrast, ineffective schools are more often characterized by a condition where failure of any part causes failure of the whole. Brandwein would direct the precious, dwindling energies of school people into restructuring schooling into discreet purposes, logical curricula, and related evaluation, rather than have effort bubble off in self-consuming heat.
Assessment and accountability of both program and personnel becomes realistic when the curriculum is confined to selections from the universe of alternatives, rather than broadened to encompass all the aims and problems of modern society. Brandwein is a rationalist; we can do much better if we're more organized, if we develop a step by step, systems-approach to school improvement. We have been through it all, he argues, and little should be new to us anymore. What we need is to articulate the implicit knowledge gained from practice, which can inform our sense of purpose and the means for moving toward it.
Brandwein offers a compendium of attractive notions. Occasionally his optimism is blunted by a distant, weary tone. His gentlemanly style takes care not to offend. He selects no particular target to shoot at nor audience to appeal to, which may account for some diffusion of impact. Throughout, his wisdom is evident. Yet, I am left wanting to know more about his own journey, his own history in the schools which constitutes such an important part of the accumulated history of practice he would have us mold into school renewal.
Herbert Kohl in Basic Skills writes a treatise on progressive education. There is no question of what Kohl means. His history is selective and his biases clear. He argues that it is the business of schools to help students develop six "basic skills": "The ability to use language well and thoughtfully," with emphasis on conversation, questions, content and meaning rather than deciphering, recitation, information and answers; "the ability to think through problems and experiment with solutions," overcoming fear of the new, understanding assumptions, identifying conflicts, organizing without tentativeness; "the ability to understand scientific and technical ideas and use tools," to use hands as well as heads, to have knowledge of others' work and control over one's own life; "the ability to use imagination and to participate in and appreciate personal and group expression"; "the ability to understand how people function in groups," incorporating controversial subjects such as economics, poverty and the social and cultural histories of local constituencies; "learning how to learn throughout life and to contribute to the nurturance of others," emphasizing play, cooperation and renewal over acquisition, competition and convenience. A comprehensive, telling list.
Kohl comes from a briefer tour of duty than Brandwein, but his involvement has been closer to the primary source material--embedded in the rocky alternative school movement as teacher, administrator and staff developer. From a position inside he has accumulated his share of insight and wisdom along with his wounds. He has much to say. His language tends to be less tolerant, more contemptuous than Brandwein's, especially on the subject of bad teachers and teaching. (In examining the advantages of small class size, for instance, he observes that "an ineffectual teacher can have a worse influence on members of a small class than on a big class.")
Like Brandwein, Kohl wants school people to direct their energies to what is important. Unlike Brandwein, he feels we should continue to address and try to solve the world's problems through schools. In fact the world's problems provide the occasion, the content, the energy and dedication around which the "six basics" can be developed. While Kohllacknowledges that "the ideas presented here might seem utopian, unobtainable in the immediate future, . . . that is no reason to give up on them." I suspect Paul Brandwein would respond that these kinds of ambitious purposes formulated by a single individual are precisely why the history of American education has become a junkyard of abandoned ideologies, objectives, and attempts to improve schools. Each one works a little, for a while, but only so long as the owner is there to nurture it along. A more rational, structural approach to good education would reduce the discards and the need to recycle them.
Curiously these two reformers, each from a different generation, often come down in the same place. They insist, for instance, that schooling is for all children; together they support the need for students' active participation in learning; each espouses a curriculum based upon evocative concepts such as "man," "poverty," "nation," "energy," while rejecting conventional topics as the organizing principle--e.g. "neighborhood helpers." They share a commitment to independent learning, to the linkage between effective learning and effective teaching, and the location of major decision-making at the individual school site. Both are opposed to standardized testing.
A major arena of difference is their approach to conflict. Finding it disruptive, wasteful and amateurish, Brandwein attempts to eliminate it from schools and by narrowing schooling to purposes more susceptible to community consensus. Kohl, on the other hand, welcomes conflict--even generates it--and seeks to make deliberate use of it as a powerful learning opportunity.
The educational agenda is beginning to shift from the depressing, decade-old question, "Do schools really make any difference?" to a more optimistic and for me more exciting question, "What about schools, what particular characteristics are associated with their effectiveness for students?" These books offer two very different educators' experience-based prescriptions for reform. As such they constitute an important addition to the now burgeoning "effective schools" literature.
For my part, I would go to Herbert Kohl for inspiration in thinking about social justice, the culture of schools, and insights about how adults and children learn in schools. And then I would take my new ideas to Paul Brandwein for advice about how to incorporate them into a framework which might relate them to other important ideas leading in turn to successful implementation in the schools.