Can any child learn? Can every student achieve? Conrad Briner thinks so - and he has seen trouble in education at its worst. Where American schools have been in deep difficulty, there he has been, quietly working in the middle of it, for 25 years.
To more than 100 districts - in New York City, Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles - but to smaller districts, too, and also to educational departments in developing African countries. Professor Briner has traveled: as chief or as a member of task forces, as adviser and consultant, as counselor to legislative committees.
Although he conceded dire trends, he hopefully sketches an outline of institutional reform already taking shape. He also declares:
''We've come to believe - and to be committed to the principle - that in the main, any child and any student can achieve.
''That's based upon experimental work, primarily: Bruno Bettelheim and his Orthogenic School in Chicago. You understand that to be admitted to that school, you had to have been turned down by any and all other public or private agencies as uneducable.''
The structural functioning of the school as Bettelheim founded it is the opposite of the typical big-school bureaucracy, where teachers are pressured to teach subjects only to students and to minimize personal relationships, leaving human concerns to counselors, whose case load is in the hundreds.
Briner admits, ''We're sliding downhill. Some of us in education, local government, hospital administration, and leadership types identified with those institutions - are recognizing this. So we're going to have to make dramatic moves. And nothing is sacrosanct.''
Along with the sociologist and authority on management Peter Drucker, Briner participates in an executive management program at Claremont Graduate School and University Center here. They work with more than 100 career executives each year from both the public and private sectors, including education. Professor Briner is also head of the Claremont Graduate School department of education.
''If you want to hear tenure will be here forever - I wouldn't bet on that,'' he says. Yet he does not foresee head rolling, or a policy of wholesale dismissals.
''What I would bet on is some kind of renewed qualifying, retraining, periodic demonstration of qualifications (like the renewal of a license).
''We have increasingly cared about civil rights, human feelings, and human conditions. So the reality of this is what we're investing in: staff development , human development.
''In management and policy terms, we're seeing - in dollar value - percentages of total budget in some cases up 10 to 15, toward 20 percent, going into staff development. Now 10 to 15 years ago if you could find half of 1 percent of the local budget earmarked for staff development, you'd be lucky.''
Overall, says Briner, ''We're not sure of the answer, except that we know there are multiple answers. So more and more organizations are picking up on statistics providing not just reporting, but means of analysis that can represent the question, 'How good a program is that?'
''More and more school systems are bringing in a mix of people who understand data systems, and others who make a much more heterogeneous and understanding staff.''
Spreading the tidings of achievements by means of effective information is a step toward reform of bureaucratic structure: ''We're finding that we don't need certain kinds of offices, reports, and staff.''
Where are the successful schools? ''You pick your city, rural area, suburban area - and we'll show you,'' says Briner.
''You give me the right kind of principal (working under the right kind of superintendent): an entrepreneurial principal who knows human development, particularly in relation to teaching and learning -
''You give me a staff that can identify not only with those topics but with the principal, and regard him or her as being capable of instruction, direction, and even demand, but in the context of having a fix on leading that school somewhere -
''And I'll show you motivated students in the main regardless of socioeconomic status -
''I'll show you students achieving (comparison to grade-level norms here or there makes no difference) -
''I'll show you students whose self-concept is one of worth, of being optimistic about the future.
''The one trick to motivating a child is (his or her) respecting a teacher as being fair, as knowing what she or he is about as a human being, drawing students into discussion by reading and study.
''Some of the great, marvelous examples are teachers who set aside assigned texts in favor of developing and acquiring instructional materials on their own, often at their own expense.'' And, Professor Briner conceded, they sometimes run risks, ''depending on how rigid the rules are, which vary from district to district.''
Lay supporters of the public schools are needed, too, and the nucleus is there - ''an element of people of the more affluent class, of a cross-section of ethnic and racial characteristics, who are committed to the continued improvement of teaching and student achievement in public education. In the city schools, the rationale behind this has been, for years, attempts to save the cities.''
To Conrad Briner, the key to better American schools is a variety of committed people who aren't afraid of change and are not afraid to change.