No Excuse for the Narrow Focus of Our Schools

Originally posted on Open Salon on October 2, 2011:

            I have been a teacher now for over twenty years, and I have split my career between the middle- and high-school levels.  Five years ago, I decided to pursue a second master’s degree, this one in school administration, and I attended the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.  I finished my coursework and an internship within three years, and I promptly received my principal’s certificate.  Because of my studies at Rutgers, I understand all the more the crucial difference that a good—or bad—administrator can make.

             In the course of my studies, I learned that the very difficulties that plague our public schools today were predicted nearly a century ago by educators and civic leaders.  In 1918, the National Education Association appointed a commission to set priorities for secondary education nationwide.  The report, entitled the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, laid out seven points of emphasis and explained a rationale and strategies for addressing them.  In the following decades, a wide body of research emerged to demonstrate the practicality and benefits of educating students with respect to the Cardinal Principles.

             Simply put, the seven Cardinal Principles are these: health, command of fundamental processes (essentially, content-area learning), worthy home membership (i.e., being a positive and contributing member of a family), vocation, civic education, worthy use of leisure time, and ethical character.  Clearly, these seven points do not receive equal degrees of attention in our schools—and some of these principles are neglected entirely.

             Perhaps our society’s emphasis on data can explain this.  The data we emphasize today are mostly quantitative and derived from outcomes that we can measure.  In fact, many researchers, school leaders, and policymakers believe almost exclusively in that metrical, quantitative paradigm.  Two problems arise from this.  First, measurable outcomes are not always meaningful ones, and if they are, they are seldom comprehensive enough to provide a complete picture of what we are trying to evaluate.  From this, we see the second problem—that we virtually ignore a vast sea of considerations that we cannot put into numeric form.

             So, returning to those seven principles, government is demanding accountability in the form of test data in order to ensure that students are learning the fundamental processes.  As for the remaining principles, we have no coherent or meaningful understanding of how effectively we are educating our children.  In terms of public policy, the solution to this conundrum will require years of reasoned discussion among various stakeholders.  In the meantime, school leaders have to show some initiative if they genuinely care whether another generation of Americans is deprived of a comprehensive education.

             First, administrators and school boards need to understand that the seven Cardinal Principles are as salient today as they were 93 years ago.  This is especially true of health, worthy home membership, and worthy use of leisure time.  With students increasingly ill due to poor diet and too little rest, with children who talk to their parents in a tone of voice that no competent teacher or administrator would ever tolerate, and with increasing numbers of young people devoting hours a day to idle mass-media entertainment and social networking, our youth are in desperate need of some force to restore balance to their lives.

             Next, the leaders of our schools must recognize the interdependence of the seven principles.  Given the concerns mentioned above with respect to health, home membership, and leisure time, we can hardly expect all students to devote adequate degrees of care and attention to learning in school.  Understanding the importance of students’ social and civic formation to an effective learning environment, we know that removing one stone can cause the entire structure to fall.

             Additionally, administrators must lead teachers toward a shared vision of how the Cardinal Principles are to be reflected in what transpires at school.  No one should dictate that vision; rather, a good leader will influence and guide people in a collective effort to create the optimum environment for learning.  Teachers should all agree on standards for themselves and for students.  They must consciously distinguish between the letter and the spirit of expectations, and they must live up to both.  Also, they must communicate that ethos explicitly to students.

             Finally, all who show leadership in our schools must promote a self-sustaining culture that reinforces the Cardinal Principles.  Everyone must genuinely believe they have a stake in what goes on in school—teachers, students, and parents alike.  All must feel that they are important participants and that they have contributed to the culture of the school.  All must feel threatened by anything that could erode or compromise the integrity of the school’s mission.

             All of this may be easier said than done, to be sure. But true education is not easy, nor is it convenient, nor is it quantifiable, nor is it merely the sum of its measurable parts, nor is it achieved in the same manner in all contexts.  Genuine learning and meaningful growth occur as the result of human interaction on a variety of scales.  All of this defies policy prescription from afar and confounds any narrow system of evaluative metrics.

             I often tell my students that the easy way is the hard way, and the hard way is the easy way.  In this instance, it means that our educational system’s simple-minded emphasis on academic test scores belies the importance of a rich social and institutional context in which such achievement can take place.  Any attempt to emphasize one of the Cardinal Principles while neglecting others is an exercise in futility.

             In short, the best school leaders apply their resources to the real work of our schools. When that happens, the test scores take care of themselves.  So now it is time to allow the bureaucrats to have their data, and to see to it that our students can do more than fill in the correct ovals on their exams.

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