Schooling for the Future

EDWARD B. FISKE spent three years researching the grass-roots revolution going on in schools across the United States. In a recent interview, he spoke about the range of education reforms chronicled in his new book, "Smart Schools, Smart Kids."What is a "smart" school? I use smart schools in terms of a smart machine, meaning that it's adaptable, that it's built to do a variety of things depending on the circumstance.

But you say there is no recipe for a "smart" school, only ingredients.

Even the idea that there would be [a recipe] is part of the problem. We've got to get away from the mentality which says that there's a single magic wand that we can wave ... and that will solve all the problems.

Can you define the ingredients in "smart" schools?

In the book, I try to run through the key elements. One would be decentralizing the system and the schools within the system. You've got to restructure the classroom and the ways you use time. You have to rethink the relationship between the schools and the community; how you measure student performance; accountability. ... No matter where you start you eventually are going to have to start dealing with all these ideas.

Why did you write the good news about education?

I don't think we need any more bashing and blaming. ... Nor do we need any more nostalgia for a golden age that never existed in the first place.

But is there any danger of being too optimistic?

Well, I think people need goals and they need a sense of vision. What I'm trying to do is give people a vision of what's possible. Teachers aren't used to figuring out what other teachers are doing. And schools aren't used to spending a lot of time doing that. There's not a strong tradition of horizontal communication; it's all vertical.

And your book notes that some teachers aren't interested in changing their approach.

It's more a question of inertia. They've been taught, "Leave your brains at the door. Come on in. Here's your textbook, here's your curriculum, here's your classroom. We'll lock you in a room with eight-year-olds for your entire professional life. And just do what you're told." Now we're saying, "Well, we didn't really mean that. Now we want you to actually bring your brains in with you, we need your ideas." The first reaction is: "We've survived teaching machines and we've survived standing kids on their head in the corner. You name the fad; we'll be here longer than the fad will."

As you traveled to these "smart" schools, did you begin to identify some common characteristics among the "educational pioneers" who are making them work?

They care about kids, they understand that we can't get the current system to work any better - that we've got to make fundamental changes... . They have a vision that we could do things differently in a fundamental way. And what I'm trying to do in the book is to enhance that vision.

What do you think of the Bush administration "America 2000" plan and its effect on the grass-roots innovation you write about?

George Bush is trying to do the two most important things that a president can do. One is to define the stake that the country has in a very decentralized system of 16,000 local school districts. And to say it's an urgent national priority. Secondly, he has said we will not solve it with "business as usual." We need some fundamental changes. ... [But] he has not addressed the problems of restructuring the system. It's fine to have some more models. I don't think it's necessary because there are a lot out there, but it's OK.

But would it be more efficient to build on the schools you write about in your book?

Could be. What I'd like to see is more attention to how all this gets tied together... . If the '80s was the decade in which we tried to make the current system work and the '90s is the decade in which we try to redesign and rebuild the public system, if that doesn't work the next decade will be one in which the public gives up on public education and finds an alternative.

Do you think that at the current pace we'll be able to save our public schools?

I think we have a shot at it. The pace, I think, is beginning to pick up. That's the one thing that I hope the book does is accelerate the pace.

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