Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference

By Roland S. Barth

Jossey-Bass. 190 pp. $20.95


By Lawrence A. Cremin

Harper & Row. 134 pp. $17.95

ROLAND BARTH, the author of Improving Schools From Within, once knew a principal who kept a diary for his own amusement. In it was one middle schooler's description of the human body: "The body is composed of three parts: the brainium, the borax, and the abominable cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the lungs, the liver, and the other living things, the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five: A, E, I, O, and U."

Some might point to the child's conflation of vowels, detergent and various malapropisms as proof of American education's sad state. For Barth, it is a delightful insight into how children's minds often work, and an example of what he says more educators should find in their jobs, i.e. humor.

Barth's latest book about schools has its amusements. Yet it is also a serious look at American schools, the way they work, why they are often deficient, and how to improve them. It is a warm book full of homespun observations born of Barth's own experiences as principal and teacher, as well as a sometime apple orchard grower.

By contrast, Lawrence A. Cremin's Popular Education and Its Discontents delivers philosophical answers to the questions of how American schools became what they are today and why.

A collection of three lectures delivered a year ago at Harvard by the Pulitzer Prize-winning educational historian, this slim book examines the political and philosophical bedrock of American education from whence today's flawed schools spring.

Taken together, the two books offer rich observations, from widely divergent viewpoints about American education. What neither does is to offer universally useful prescriptions for improvement. Cremin, the scholar, falls back on the need to apply more "research" as a cure for school problems. Barth, the former principal, wants teachers and principals to strive toward mutual trust and develop a "community of learners" in every school.

"If there is a crisis in American schooling, it is not the crisis of putative mediocrity and decline charged by the recent reports but rather the crisis inherent in balancing this tremendous variety of demands Americans have made on their schools and colleges," writes Cremin.

"There is no quick fix," he concedes, but he argues aginst limiting the roles of or the access to American education.

Cremin also recognizes that education does not occur solely inside schools. Since World War II, the changes in the American family, the workplace and in the ways information is spread -- mostly via telecommunications -- have radically affected the "ecology" of education. There is now, he says, "a cacaphony of teaching" going on, via television, computers, socialization in day care centers, etc., as well as in the classrooms. The effects are very hard to measure.

What is not so obscure, writes Cremin, is the effect of politics on education. From Jefferson to John Dewey, those thinkers who imbued schooling with the role of reforming mankind and providing democracy's underpinnings, have made schools the inevitable battleground for interest groups warring with each other in the name of just about everything from racial equality to evolutionary theory.

"Education is rarely a sufficient instrument for achieving political goals, though it is almost always a necessary condition for achieving political goals," Cremin writes.

He concludes his lectures on an apprehensive note, wondering how schools will cope with the projected influx of minorities and foreign-born children, who have traditionally not been so well served by public education.

For answers, Cremin turns to educational research: "basic research, applied research, and policy research from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives." In addition to funding more research, we must, he says, get the research into the hands and classrooms of those who need it.

It seems a worthy ideal but one that skirts a number of real problems in real schools today. One wonders if Cremin spends much time in actual classrooms, in hallways, talking to teachers and principals, parents and, of course, children.

By contrast, Barth's account of American schooling is tethered closely to everyday experience and common sense rather than research.

He spends a portion of his book attacking the incessant list-making that so-called "effective schools" research has foisted off on teachers and principals. So fixated have principals become on the "characteristics" of good schools as defined by research, that many have lost the wherewithal to lead. The tonic, he says, is not more research but a good dose of "learning" for everyone, not just students.

"Principals, preoccupied with expected outcomes, desperately want teachers to breathe in new ideas, yet do not themselves engage in visible, serious learning. Teachers badly want their students to learn to perform at grade level, yet seldom reveal themselves to children as learners. It is small wonder that anyone learns anything in schools," writes Barth.

In the ideal Barth school, teachers would be full of intellectual curiosity and daring to inject their own ideas into the curriculum instead of relying solely on text books. Principals would be self-confident, sure of their own abilities and their staffs. They would welcome innovation.

It sounds idyllic, and no doubt worthy of attempting. Indeed it may be attempted as school systems decentralize and allow principals and teachers more autonomy under the latest fad in public education -- school-based management.

Ever the optimist, Barth too is guilty of skirting some of the intractable issues of schooling today. But he's such a likable chap, we tend to forgive him and hope that somehow our own children will go to schools with principals and teachers just as idealistic.

Alice Digilio covers education on the Metropolitan staff of The Washington Post.