David S. Seeley cut right through the arguments over technique and curriculum, salary and desegregation, and offered a truth so plain that his audience sat waiting for him to finish the thought.
He did elaborate for his audience of teachers, administrators and parents, here for a two-day workshop in parental involvement in the schools, but the heart of his thought had already been uttered:
"If a student wants to learn and is taught completely, the results are virtually bound to be successful, regardless of almost any other factors."
That didn't answer everything that was in the minds of the more than 400 visitors from some 35 states who came here for a federally financed conference on Methods of Achieving Parent Partnerships (MAPP), but at least it helped them get the questions right. Parental participation, like any other educational nostrum, works only if it addresses one or the other of Seeley's prerequisites for learning: motivating students or improving the competence of teachers.
A major segment of the conference schedule was devoted to how- to workshops, but (for me, at least) it was so much sauce on Seeley's homey pudding. As he did in his 1981 book, "Education Through Partnership" (Ballinger, Cambridge), he exposed the fallacy of research proving the ineffectiveness of "school factors" -- age of building, number of teachers with master's degrees, etc. -- in improving academic achievement.
The main problem with so many of these studies, said Seeley, a former assistant U.S. commissioner of education now living in Staten Island, is that they treat home and school as independent variables. "This has obscured what successful educators have always known and what sensitive analysis again confirms: the crucial issue in successful learning is not home or school -- teacher or student -- but the relationship between them."
That simple point reduces to so much silliness the jockeying for power between parents and educators. It underlines the point that even the best teachers cannot teach unmotivated children, and that parents tend to be the most effective motivators of their children.
I sometimes wonder if that isn't the essence of the secret the Japanese (of whom Americans are in such awe) have learned about education: not the uniform curriculum and academic goals, not the lock-step rote learning, but the atmosphere for learning that is created when good teachers engage motivated and disciplined children.
American observers are amazed, delighted and almost always envious when they see the confident competency of Japanese teachers and the no-nonsense attitude with which Japanese children approach their school work (although they may be as exuberant as any other youngsters in their play).
But there are a couple of other things about Japanese education that aren't so obvious. First, Japanese teachers are, by law, paid 10 percent more than top civil servants, boosting educators into the top tenth of wage-earners in the country.
Second, as one Japanese educator told an American reporter during a recent international conference in Tokyo, "By the time we get (the children), when they are 3 years old, they've already learned everything about discipline they need to know."
But even if Americans aren't quite ready to grant huge pay increases to teachers, and even if American youngsters display much less self-discipline than their Japanese counterparts, what David Seeley says remains true: that a good deal can be done to improve the school-home partnership so that children are better motivated and teachers better respected, and learning becomes all but inevitable.