On Common Ground: Challenges and Responses

By Thomas R. Whitaker

One reader of On Common Ground, responding to our invitation in Number 5 for an expression of your views, has asked that the periodical become "more gutsy." Number 6 may be a step in that direction. In previous numbers we have often emphasized the accomplishments of partnerships. In this number, though not ignoring important accomplishments, we put the main focus on some unsolved problems. We have invited several people to offer their challenges­and perhaps their responses­in the difficult area of educational organization and change.

The Essays: Some Connections

We begin with one who has been a citizen of two cultures. Roland S. Barth sketches the unfulfilled dream of close partnership, notes the impediments that can transform the dream into a nightmare, and concludes that universities as well as K­12 schools are desperately in need of "restructuring." He would encourage changes in reward systems, the creation of more dual citizenships, and efforts to bridge the gap between research and practice. But these, in his view, are just patches on leaky tires. He therefore concludes with a bold vision of a single culture, a "community of learners" which is also a "community of leaders"­for he believes that collegiality has not been recognized as either part of the problem or part of the solution. Some writers in this issue will disagree with Barth on that question­and indeed we must add that "collegiality" has been central to the efforts of the Yale­New Haven Teachers Institute that we described in Number 5.

We turn then to some university administrators, who take rather different approaches. Arthur Levine tells us that heads of institutions and foundations and an assortment of journalists are the "leaders" in the current partnership movement, which he finds to be without coherent focus or staying­power. He urges that we develop a "more clearly defined agenda for cooperative action." We should note here that the Yale­New Haven Teachers Institute, which has always relied heavily upon teachers themselves as part of the leadership, now has an endowment that will guarantee its permanency. We would be interested in hearing from other partnerships that are working toward that goal.

For a variety of specific suggestions for cooperative action, we may turn to Sherry H. Penney, writing with William Dandridge. Schools, she says, must be viewed as places where new knowledge is created. University faculty and school­based practitioners must share the responsibility, risks, and rewards of working together on behalf of children. Schools of education and arts and sciences must reconsider their curricula. Universities must create support structures and philosophical contexts for their school initiatives. University reward systems must be reordered, and better indicators must be developed to help universities gauge the benefits of their investment in partnerships. The challenge, she thinks, can be met.

Rev. Edmund G. Ryan finds that both reward systems and the increasing fragmentation of curricula and structures are obstacles to partnership. He also urges that we hear more fully from those who will employ the graduates of our school systems. School­university partnerships must reach out to include those from the world of work. Father Ryan here continues a topic that had been engaged by Thomas Furtado in Number 2, and by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Edward C. Kisailus, Thomas E. Persing, and Thomas Furtado in Number 3. And in this number, Foster B. Gibbs provides an instance of such a successful partnership, the Saginaw River Project.

What about the role of professional schools other than education? Gene I. Maeroff suggests that high schools and professional schools have much in common, and that improvements in both might result from their partnership. In medical and architecture schools experiential education forms a foundation for constructing knowledge, off campus learning should be important, and performance­based assessment is crucial. Maeroff suggests, however, that rigid departmental structures have hindered discourse between such schools and those in pre­collegiate education. For an interesting effort in this direction, we would refer our readers to Kent C. Bloomer's account in Number 5 of his architecture seminar in the Yale­New Haven Teachers Institute.

Next we hear from a university professor who has been active for many years in school­university collaboration, and who has found the "human element" to be the most important contribution that the collaborative movement can make to educational reform. Jay L. Robinson offers a forceful argument for the view that people are finally more important than structures­though of course they require enabling structures in order to make effective contributions­and that "collegiality" has indeed been recognized in some places as the key to successful school­university relationships.

We turn then to perspectives from within the schools. In this number we inaugurate a "Superintendents' and Principals' Forum," which will complement our continuing forum, "Voices from the Classroom." Thomas E. Persing here sounds a clarion call for all superintendents to exercise their leadership in developing partnerships with colleges and universities. Charles Serns speaks from a principal's position of ways in which school­university partnerships can improve the instructional climate in a school, and can help the school to establish its own leaders.

In a related article from a superintendent, Foster B. Gibbs offers a detailed account of how education in the Saginaw school district has been transformed by collaborative initiatives undertaken with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Saginaw Valley State University. Gibbs offers a set of guiding principles for staff development that can inform such collaboration. In different ways, Persing, Serns, and Gibbs all understand "collegiality" to be a major part of the solution.

In "Voices from the Classroom," Carol Keck, Linda Tripp, and Ann Claunch offer a case for collaboration based upon their own experience in the Albuquerque Public Schools/University of New Mexico Career Development Program. They allow us to see how apprentice teachers, mentor teachers, and university supervisors can relate to each other in an atmosphere of trust, openness, respect and reflection. It is just that atmosphere, they argue, that makes possible growth through collaboration. They here seem in strong agreement with Jay Robinson's perspective from the university.

But what about the student perspective? Suzanne SooHoo argues that students should participate in our dialogue about the restructuring of education. They should be regularly consulted, or at least informed. And she offers an interesting account of how the Alternative Assessment Project at Irvine moved in that direction, seeking student advice and learning from it.

We conclude this array of challenges and responses by printing three pieces that are sharply critical of the current situation. Sophie Sa, Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation, deplores the emphasis on the professional development of individual teachers. She admits to a suspicion that "perhaps the people in our teaching force simply do not have the capacity to improve." The solution, she argues, is the integration of professional development into­overall improvement plans for the school. In her view, providers in universities and foundations should require participation by school teams, and allow their participation only if they can show how the workshops or courses will fit into a plan for the whole school. (We should add here that the Yale­New Haven Teachers Institute, which for almost twenty years has successfully placed major emphasis on the professional development of individual teachers, is now working more extensively with "school teams" and is helping individual schools to establish Centers for Professional and Curricular Development.)

Deborah Meier, Co­Director of the Coalition Campus Project in New York, directs her criticism to an entire "ladder of disrespect"­but especially to the universities. We need, she says, environments in which teachers are engaged in thoughtful intellectual effort, in which students witness the play of ideas and have reason to join in such play. It follows that the "universities' first task, on behalf of school reform, is to reform themselves"­for the university must become what, in Meier's view, it has not been, "a place that takes the life of the mind seriously,...engages in respectful public activity,...treats all ideas with respect including naive ideas." Most of our readers will no doubt concur with Meier's goals. But those who read carefully Jay Robinson's or Foster Gibbs' essays in this number of On Common Ground­or, for that matter, the accounts of collaboration in Number 5­will surely find some reasons to disagree with the sweeping nature of her charges.

Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust at the American Association for Higher Education, is pessimistic about the results of confining attention to "handfuls of teachers here and there," and she too believes that further progress in school reform will require radical change in higher education. She argues for a comprehensive K­16 reform, with communities creating umbrella­type structures to oversee the work. And she points with some satisfaction to the cities now participating in the Education Trust's initiatives­six in "Community Compacts" and twenty in "K­16." It will be interesting to see how such comprehensive programs engage the complex details of teaching and learning in individual schools­and the difficult problems of funding and management of school districts.

We end on a firmly positive note, with pages celebrating the lives of two men without whose dedication, personal presence, and professional accomplishments American education­and the collaborative movement in particular­would be much poorer. Fred Hechinger and Ernest Boyer both passed away this winter. They were both strong friends of the Yale­New Haven Teachers Institute. We have been grateful indeed for their contributions to On Common Ground. But it is of the first importance, we think, that those who work in American education not lose touch with the values they both affirmed in every essay, book, and funding decision. Ernest Boyer sums them up well in his eulogy of Fred Hechinger: a public love of children, a reaffirmation of the nation' s schools, and the struggle to achieve excellence for all children, not just the most advantaged.

We hope that this number of On Common Ground will leave you with some important questions: Will changes in educational structures really mean better teaching and better learning? Or should we concentrate with increased fervor upon assisting and developing the persons who teach and who learn? Or may we somehow pursue both of those directions at once? In the 12 May 1996 issue of The New York Times, Albert Shanker offers a favorable and pertinent review of an upcoming article by Stanley Pogrow, a professor at the University of Arizona, "Reforming the Wannabe Reformers" (Phi Delta Kappa, June 1996). According to Pogrow, the low success rate among education reforms results from the fact that those reforms seldom attempt to deal with the details of classroom instruction. As Shanker puts it, they are "strong on philosophical principles and advocacy but weak on figuring out how to put their ideas into the classroom." We at On Common Ground vigorously endorse the emphasis that Pogrow and Shanker provide. Without real engagement with classroom instruction, and therefore with teachers and their students, educational "reform" will accomplish little.

The Images: Some Perspectives

E. L. Henry's Kept In seems to us an apt and poignant, if necessarily limited, image for both the history of American education and its present predicament. We are caught, as Roland Barth puts it, between bad dreams and good dreams. But we may have faith in the creativity and determination evident in the young woman who is Henry's subject, and manifest in Henry's own accomplishment.

We select therefore as a complementary image Romare Bearden's The Lamp, one of the remarkable works that this printmaker (a friend of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray) produced as he interrogated his own memories, from childhood on to the present. Though retrospective, this lithograph speaks to the future: it captures the love and concern that are necessary parts of any act of teaching that is worthy of the name.

With the pieces by Arthur Levine and Sherry Penney, which emphasize some of the challenges and opportunities in building permanent structures, we include Lewis Hine's photograph of the "connecters," who, in constructing the Empire State Building, bolt the beams as they have swung into place. This picture is drawn from Hine's Men at Work, a book of photographic studies designed for children, which Alan Trachtenberg has justly called (in Reading American Photographs) "a teaching tool."

In connection with Gene I. Maeroff's piece on the ideal relations between professional schools and secondary schools, we include Diego Rivera's The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. In this self­reflective fresco (Rivera himself being the heavily seated figure on the scaffold in the central tier), the artist depicts the actual making of a fresco devoted to the building of a city. Rivera has captured here what seems to us a crucial and complex relationship between the arts and the community.

To accompany our newly inaugurated Superintendents' and Principals' Forum­ with contributors that span the distance from East to West­we return to a motif that we highlighted in On Common Ground, Number 1, with Joseph Stella's The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme. Georgia O'Keefe's Brooklyn Bridge, painted nine years later, gives special emphasis to the echoing and responsive forms that Hart Crane (in his great poem The Bridge) and Stella (in a number of versions) had celebrated. This picture was painted just before O'Keefe left New York, where she had lived part of each of the last thirty years, and moved permanently to Abiquiu, New Mexico. For her, as for us, it may therefore be an image of bridging the continent as well as the East River.

Suzanne SooHoo writes of "The Loud Silence." We include with her essay a painting by Allan Rohan Crite, School's Out, which Regenia A. Perry has called "a classic example of the approach that earned Crite the title of 'artist­reporter' in his Roxbury, Massachusetts neighborhood during the 1930s and 1940s." Perry finds a "joyous, carnival­like atmosphere" in this scene of young children emerging from a redbrick schoolhouse surrounded by an iron fence. Indeed, Crite's design and coloring do suggest an animated and festive occasion. But look closely at those faces. Can you find any smiles? Surely there is a "loud silence" here that needs to be heard.

On our back cover, we carry the magisterial image by George Bellows, The Big Dory. It may remind us that bridges between shores, or institutions, or communities are never just static monuments. Every act of bridging requires a risky effort, a venturing into untested and possibly adverse waters, a difficult voyage. We have been privileged in the collaborative movement to have had Fred M. Hechinger and Ernest L. Boyer, along with many others, as part of the crew.


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