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Kernels of hope for better schools

By Theodore R. Sizer / March 18, 1985

Seeds: Some Good Ways to Improve Our Schools, by Cynthia Parsons. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Woodbridge Press. 224 pp. $15.95. Good grief. She would have school principals learn foreign languages while they labored at their jobs. (Hey, I might fail! What about my dignity?)

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She would arrange to have each student in school have an assigned chore there. (What will the custodians say?) She would start school with dancing. (What will the parking lot look like now?) All prospective teachers would have to pass a college physics course as a requirement for state certification. (But I could never do science!) She wants every student to be rewarded for whatever good work he or she performs -- and the school should make ``good work'' happen. (Aren't there any bad boys and bad girls anymore?)

She wants teachers who don't read much to be required to read books which they then would discuss publicly. (Now that's the basis for a juicy grievance!) She goes further, asserting that those adults who work in the school and don't write much or well be asked to do so, with the results monitored, and rewriting following.

It all sounds very tough, very much the boot camp, indeed very in tune with these Crack Down times.

``Seeds'' is a book about a demanding process, and it makes stiff demands on young folks and the older folks who act as their teachers and/or their parents.

And yet one looks for the sign for the Marine boot camp at Parris Island and does not find it. Indeed the new book by Cynthia Parsons -- ``Seeds: Some Good Ways to Improve Our Schools'' -- is friendly, drenched with sunlight, and filled with flowers. Here is a charming (and, paradoxically, both naive and practical) set of suggestions for keeping school, a set which starts from the assumptions that people are good, that hard work can be joyful, and that honesty is liberating.

Cynthia Parsons, long the education editor of The Christian Science Monitor until her retirement in 1982, is an unabashed Progressive, one with a clear debt to John Dewey and an understanding of the Deweyan in Mortimer Alder (whom many so inaccurately dismiss as an ``essentialist.'') Her book is divided into seven chapters, each about how to improve one aspect of schooling. She starts with ``Ethos,'' with the setting of school, the climate and tone and energies which one must find in any sensible and effective learning community. (Again, how like Dewey.) Next comes the chapter on improving teachers, and then on to principals. Discipline, the curriculum, the budget, and parents complete the list.

Miss Parsons' style reflects her newspaper tradition. There are strings of short essays, almost op-ed pieces, which zig and zag over a topic, often pell-mell, but equally often in an obvious sequence. Each one of these short pieces makes a single point, bluntly presenting some truism about schooling, very often using a specific example. As a result, ``Seeds'' can be as fruitfully read at random as it can from front to back. A suggestion here and a suggestion there can be plucked with as much ease as a coherent argument can be elicited from a sequence of ``seeds,'' these suggestions for improving practice.

Parsons wants her teachers to be inquirers themselves, to be unabashed students as well as purveyors of information. She wants them to be sensitive to the differences among students, whatever the causes of those differences may be. (Her sarcasm about the idiocy of age-grading is classic.) She ever accentuates the positive, implying, for example, that the causes of student ill-discipline are far more often than not caused by adults in schools rather than by the apparent miscreant himself or herself.