If education breaks, progress stops

From unruly classrooms to failure to learn, everybody agrees that public education is in trouble. Turning it around is urgent not just for the present but the future

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Desks at an elementary school in Roxbury, Mass.

There are few things as satisfying as a turnaround tale.

From “This Old House” to “The Biggest Loser” to chef Gordon Ramsay grabbing a lazy restaurateur by the lapels and telling him to shape up, Pygmalion projects pervade pop culture.

Turnarounds can be superficial, artificial, and short-lived. The best, however, don’t change the underlying essence. They bring out qualities that were always there behind the fake paneling, self-doubt, and undercooked seafood.

Most of what we do during our waking hours involves renovation. We build on what came before, working with the materials at hand, tweaking and refining along the way. Today’s success stories are plowed under to create tomorrow’s innovations. So it’s natural that humans are keen to reform, improve, and renew.

But renovation is also crucial to society itself. Education is one big process of trying to make the next generation better than the current one. To do that requires the systematic and effective transfer of knowledge to young people. This is progressivism at its best.

(I’d like to propose, by the way, that we recapture the word “progressive” as meaning we want tomorrow to be better than today, not that we favor a particular ideology. To be progressive should mean that we support and celebrate humanity’s improvements, which include both liberal and conservative notions.)

In a progressive society, every generation builds on what has gone before it. That is why there is so much concern about the schools. Something has gone badly wrong when chaotic classrooms, the threat of physical harm, and failure to learn are prevalent. Teachers, administrators, parents, educational specialists, and political leaders have spent huge amounts of time trying to fix the problem over the years.

The latest approach (as detailed in this special report) is the turnaround school movement, a controversial attempt to remake failing schools in a fundamental way. Among other things, turnaround schools sometimes fire all the teachers, require school uniforms, and introduce a strong disciplinary code. Will that fix the problem? It is too early to tell. I have a little bit of personal knowledge of some of the techniques that turnaround schools use.

I wore a uniform during my elementary years. Discipline was strict. Parents heard immediately if we were falling behind in a subject. I was turned around from a C in spelling on one report card to an A on the next by dint of teacher alarm and cut-the-nonsense parental intervention.

No, I don’t know if this works for everyone, but I do know that removing distractions, strictly monitoring performance, and concentrating on learning is helpful. In my school, there still was a lot of energetic play at recess, some refreshing moments of rebellion, and plenty of occasion for friendships, crushes, and other formative social experiences.

The uniforms helped dampen the excesses of fashion-forward students, though there were still plenty of small style statements, from scarves to shoes. The discipline kept everyone focused on learning.

The creation of a culture of learning doesn’t start or stop with the schools. And schools cannot be fixed, as the Monitor special report notes, by simply plugging in some magic formula. What works in one location may not in another.

Every teacher, student, parent, and administrator plays a role.

There’s a scene that illustrates this in the film version of Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451,” which is about a society where books are burned to discourage free thinking. A small band of gray-haired literature lovers takes to the woods. Each has memorized a book. Each is helping a young person, in turn, memorize the words. It is fiction, of course, but it is touchingly describes the generation to generation compact necessary for society’s progress.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor

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