It's hard to improve schools and make them more receptive to the needs of each student, but it is not impossible. Unlike finding a cure for cancer, there are things we know about creating more productive contexts for learning. Ted Sizer knows how. Deborah Meier knows how. Herb Kohl, Howard Gardner, and Seymour Papert know how. Dennis Littky, the "comeback kid," who has led successful school innovation for decades, demonstrates in this issue that he knows how. Best of all, these folks have written books sharing their wisdom and experience with anyone willing to read. Plus, nearly every community has a brilliant educator or 12 who know how to make things better for kids.
There is no excuse to not learn from such innovators and do something. Inaction is a sign of retarded professional growth and a symptom of neglect. One of my students just reported that she could not do an assignment the "right" way. I replied that if you can't do it right, do it wrong. In the words of that great philosopher Nike, "Just do it!"
Now what is it? Schools are incredibly complex organisms, where would I start?
How Not to Reduce Class Sizes
Most educational leaders, and even some enemies of public education, agree that class size matters. The importance of class size is inextricably linked to the need for students to have complex intimate relationships with adults. Whether you call this mentoring, apprenticeship, internship, parenting, teaching or living in a community, it should be our primary objective and first step along the road to progress.
The Pete Wilson approach to class size reduction is not what I have in mind. Decreeing smaller class sizes from on high without adequate personnel, resources or physical space is mischievous. Smaller class sizes crammed into broom closets with under-qualified teachers delivering the same old curriculum does not represent improvement.
Our students cannot wait for us to reduce class size by producing three times the number of certified teachers and building tens of thousands of new schools. We need to do it now, but how?
Dennis Littky's Big Picture schools have solved this dilemma. You reduce class size by increasing the number of adults interacting with children. The Big Picture schools view the world and its inhabitants as experts whose students may learn from. Occasionally, these experts mentor students in traditional school subjects, but more often they open a much wider world of knowledge--skills, experiences, concepts and perspectives--for their interns. If you cannot imagine letting students learn outside of the classroom two days each week, let Littky's success suspend your disbelief.
If you cannot arrange for outside internships for every student, you still need to reduce class size and increase access to expertise. This is accomplished by opening the doors to your classrooms to competent committed members of your community. Volunteers may work as teacher's aides, but can offer so much more. They can share their passion, skills and life's work with interested students. They can ask good questions of children engaged in project work. At the very least, classroom visitors make an invaluable contribution to your students by listening and engaging in conversation.
Every child has the right to spend quality time with as many adults as possible. Schools need to rebuild such relationships lost over the past few decades.
There are countless ways you may identify adults to "co-learn" in your classrooms, but you need to keep your eyes open and your head above paperwork. I recently had the privilege of leading a workshop for a group of principals from "troubled" schools. One principal told me that he was from a school that shared a name with a famous university. I asked if his school did anything with the university, he said, "No." How can you complain about a lack of resources, class size and an expertise shortage if your school is next to a university?
If we are serious about parental involvement, we need to involve them-perhaps on their terms to share what they love. Parental involvement has reduced parents to ATM machines or homework police in way too many cases.
We cannot afford to insulate our students from the world and the adults in our world from our students. Let's open the doors to our schools today.
Gary Stager, email@example.com, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.