The Learning Individual

MY hometown in Massachusetts voted to override the state ban on more spending for education. Good - even though it will just pay for a new boiler and boys' locker room in the high school. And spending for other worthy items - personnel services, and town pond cleanup - was rejected. It's not wise to cheap it on education. Cheapness depresses aspiration and energy; it signals community decline.

Still, tight spending is not the chief problem with public education.

In a given school, with spending equal throughout, achievement varies among classrooms and within classrooms, depending on student and teacher performance.

A University of Rochester study found little relation between achievement and spending for such ``excellence'' categories as smaller classes, teacher pay, teacher training, and better facilities. Only a small portion of larger outlays - 2 percent of the state education spending growth between 1983 and 1987 - goes to ``reform.'' Most new spending adds to the weight of the status quo, not to new technology and methods.

The majority of US high school graduates today are less prepared for work than were most school dropouts in our parents' day, according to a Hudson Institute study. Increasingly, new jobs demand skills beyond those gained by graduates: Most workers will need constant retraining during their work lives. The jobs disappearing fastest are those that require the least skill - the tradesman jobs that a generation ago enabled even school dropouts to enter the middle class. In today's ``knowledge age'' economy, skill demands continually evolve.

Management analysts see organizations undergoing similar pressure for perpetual change. The ``learning organization,'' like the learning individual, is the new model. Jobs are designed around persons, to help them advance, rather than trying to fit a person to a prescribed job. People move among functions; hierarchy is subverted by a search for inventive outlets.

To this discussion I would offer a new concept for competence, both for education and organization. Skills should be seen as the occasion for demonstrating an effective learning or work mentality. The task should be seen as secondary to the approach. The properly functioning consciousness should be flexible, alert to others' ideas and to new experience, and not overly channeled by one's own willfulness, predilections, and opinions. New combinations, not the safety of routine, should be sought.

Demogoguery and charisma should be avoided in the classroom and in organizations; they work against the open atmosphere which invites universal participation by students or staff.

An equanimity that rides above emotional upheaval, an eye held to worthy goals, a readiness to resolve conflicts quickly as learning experiences rather than as occasions for confrontation, a selflessness that allows the best ideas to hold center stage regardless of their author, a curiosity about how things work - these are among the qualities that help people adapt in the classroom or on the job.

An organization can be said to approximate either a dysfunctional consciousness that tends toward confusion, or a functional consciousness that invites greater clarity, order, and satisfaction.

Students should be encouraged to think for themselves - to free themselves of the classroom or peer obsessions that would seize their thought. Organizations should foster an environment of truthfulness, so that new competitive realities become occasions for growth.

This is no argument for fiscal conservatism.

But spending alone will not give students, workers, and organizations the educational advantage desired. Cultivation of a healthy mental approach rather than a set of skills - an attitude enriched by caring, fairness, humor, attention to detail - should become the objective of educational reform.

Such reform needs no town override of state policy.

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