Schools of Thought

By Phil Schlechty

Five years ago I wrote a paper about NCLB entitled “No Child Left Behind: Noble Sentiment and Poor Design.” You can find it on our website at, if you haven’t had a chance to see it. My concerns at that time were many, but they can probably be summed up in the overall idea that federal mandates (funded or not!) aren’t always as helpful as they might be to leaders at the local level who are determined to shape their schools in ways that will be best going forward for kids, parents, teachers, and communities.

I know we’ve all noticed that the reauthorization of NCLB continues to be subject to background wrangling in Congress while the stimulus package takes center stage for the moment. But I believe that the reauthorization process has also become bogged down by the presence of several competing “schools of thought” about schools—what’s currently wrong with them, and how should we fix them? Perhaps more importantly, what purposes should they serve in this day and age, and how should we account for what they accomplish?

Over the years, three major views have emerged, views that tend to wind up at loggerheads in the public arena—and whose proponents have become ever more vocal and insistent over time. Perhaps reflecting the sort of un-civil “discourse” that now commonly takes place over the airwaves, proponents seem more interested in being heard than in hearing one another—to everyone’s detriment. This is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

Here’s my surface-level take on the three views:

  1. The first holds that the schools produce too many students who cannot demonstrate the ability to master basic academic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics (the basic skills and standardized testing argument).
  2. The second holds that the schools produce too few students who have the capacity to create, solve problems, work productively in groups, and think critically (the 21st century skills and global competitiveness argument).
  3. The third holds that schools produce too few students who know what they need to know about the core academic subjects to be considered reasonably well-educated (the cultural literacy argument).

Each of these arguments contains values worth our consideration. I don’t believe, however, that this is a matter of “either/or.” Our children need and deserve the opportunity to develop themselves in ways that take all three views into account. Why should they not? And I also believe that it’s possible for public schools, rightly conceived and oriented, to be quite successful at helping young people develop such competencies. But it worries me that we do our communities a disservice if we allow argument about these important issues at the local level to descend into acrimony, for such issues really provide an opportunity to engage citizens in some of the most important dialogue that we might have about our communities and our democracy.

Why should we be waiting for word from Washington when we might instead engage our public in the kinds of dialogue that we’ve let fall into disrepair? Is it not the responsibility of public school leaders to engage the public in conversations regarding all three of these views and ways to reconcile them in service to the common good?

I expect to be writing extensively on this topic in the near future, and I would be glad to have your thoughts on these matters to inform my thinking. Is one or another of these arguments dominant in your community? Why is that the case? Are you having a Tower of Babel experience? What degree of success are you having in either moderating the arguments or in facilitating genuine, productive dialogue? Why is that the case?

I look forward to your thoughts in response to this, our first blog…

9 Responses to “Schools of Thought”

  1. John Doughney says:

    An interesting proposition! It seems to me that the number one reason school leaders do not engage the public in conversation around these three issues is that these conversations would first require an admission that schools are not successfully meeting these challenges. We spend an incredible amount of time working the numbers so we can report to our public what they want to hear – that the schools their children attend are succeeding while thousands of others throughout the state and nation are not.

    Perhaps we need to heed the advice of Jeff Jarvis in What Would Google Do? – provide customers control. Jarvis suggests that companies are much better off when they cede control to their customers. The Schlechty Center has been a proponent of public schools being centers of civic life, forums where the future of communities is discussed and worked out, and the focal point of community pride. If we overlay the business model that Jarvis proposes onto public schools, do we not have what the Schlechty Center has been advocating for years?

    Maybe the greatest barrier to achieving this is the concept of turning over control to the public we serve. Jarvis suggests looking at constituents, customers, community – even competitors – and asking how you can bring them elegant organization. Perhaps by engaging our customers in conversations around the three issues proposed and admitting where we are failing, we can begin building the elegant organizations necessary to serve the common good.

  2. Lori Fuller says:

    I really believe the blog and reply make good points. I feel the community I live is strongly influenced by the 1st 2 schools of thought equally. In my opinion, they are the same argument. If you grasp the basics, you can use that knowledge as power to be creative and problem solving. But Mr. Doughney brings up a great concern about community involvement. How many people turn out for school board elections? How many parents are at Open House or even just drop by throughout the year? We can fill stadiums and gymnasiums, but then why do parents not come to art shows, concerts and plays, especially when their children are not in the show?

    If we are going to cede control to a community, should it not be as engaged in the school as much as the students need to be engaged in the classroom? We need parent and community support, otherwise I fear many teachers and administrators will see the inclusion of community as an invasion.

  3. stephen Hurley says:

    This is a fascinating thread of conversation, and I appreciate the opportunity to add some of my own thoughts.

    Kieran Egan, out of Simon Fraser University, has given us something “similar” when he suggests that education (schooling), at its core, is contentious because it is grounded in three flawed and mutually exclusive ideas: the idea that schools should be about (a) socialization, (b) academic discipline and success, and (c) nurturing individual potential.

    One question that emerges from reading the blog entry and the comments is whether or not there is one of the aims of education that will, if done really well, result in meeting the other two. Lori suggests that in her opening comments.

    My own thinking is that the second educational idea, relating to 21st century goals, could emerge as the “leader” in terms of potential for transforming our schools.

    The second thread–the one that deals with how best to engage the public (and educational leaders) in the conversation is important in that public education must remain in the hands of the public. It is our one remaining common trust and the public must regain a sense of active participation. I’m not sure that I agree with referring to the public as customers. The relationship is, and must be, deeper!

    I look forward to future comments and conversation.

  4. Nancy Driscoll says:

    We had an interesting discussion on LinkedIn’s Metacognitive Group about the new Bloom’s Taxonomy. It shows a matrix of processes: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create with types of knowledge: factual, concepts, procedures, meta knowledge. I posed the question “Can students be expected to, e.g. analyze concepts if they can’t remember basic factual knowledge. Using the three schools of thought from this blog the question could be: “Can our students develop 21st century skills for cultural literacy without adequate basic skills?”

    As a school psychologist (from the program at UNC while Dr. Schlechty was there!) I see students every day with average ability (or higher) and very little learned information - math facts, decoding, what does compel mean, who was president during the civil war? These students (with credit for algebra) can’t divide without a calculator and seem surprised to be expected to remember previously learned information!

    I also agree with Hirsch who argues that reading comprehension requires at least some factual knowledge. How do you understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create meaning on global warming if you don’t have some factual knowledge of science starting in elementary school?

    We are faced yearly with statistics that show students don’t have adequate basic skills. How can we even evaluate their 21st century skills and cultural literacy (no standardized test for teamwork or cultural sensitivity!). What a challenge for all of us who work in the “business of education”.

  5. David Corona says:

    The three views that you note in the blog present, in my opinion, what we need to accomplish in our parish to improve the quality of life for our children in years to come. To be totally honest, I would much rather work to 1) create an environment in our classrooms that allows for students to gain literacy and numeracy skills so that they can read, comprehend, write and problem solve, 2) create an environment in our classrooms that allows for higher ordered thinking to take place and challenge all of our learners to be better learners, and 3) provide our students with a variety of experiences that allows for a culturally rich education.

    While I agree that the public as a whole is an important key to what education should be about, I think that we already know how to provide what is needed to successfully educate our children. The problem is doing it. It takes focus, faithfulness, fidelity, and the true belief by every educator in our system (professional and para professional alike) that all children can and will learn if we provide them with challenging work.

    All I can say is this. I have been a Superintendent for 5 complete years. I have been goal oriented all of my life. The three thoughts mentioned, to me, are the goals for our children. In those three are what parents want for their children. We are making progress in providing those experiences for our children. We are doing a better job of accomplishing #1 than we are #2. We find ourselves at this point in time, getting more kids “over the hump,” that is to say that we have more kids becoming proficient in reading, communicating, comprehending and problem solving, than ever before. We are falling short in challenging our average to above average children to become even better learners. Within those two sentences, we find good news. We note positive progress, and we know exactly what we need to do to get better. While it sounds like I am falling into the accountability trap, I find it hard to get away from measuring our progress, or lack of it, then developing a plan to get better. It all leads toward working to achieve better academic outcomes for our children, and the root to it all is challenging, enriching, engaging experiences in our classrooms everyday.

    One of my many shortcomings is, I would much prefer working with our students and educators to produce richer academic outcomes for them, than to get overly involved with other adults who generally have a wide range of thoughts and a personal bias about school. We are all experts about school, after all, we all went to one.

  6. Stephen Hurley says:

    I’ve appreciated the comments made to this point. The frustration that I experience in my own school community could not really be called a Tower of Babel. In fact, as a teacher, I am having trouble getting the conversation going. Oh, we are focused on achievement, results, and test scores. We are, technically, making progress in this regard, but conversations around how to make schools a more richly engaging experience for students and teachers is slow to begin.

    There are likely quite a few reasons for this. On the one hand, the community has been led to believe (and their faith is well-placed on many levels) that their school is doing a good job.

    On the other hand, many parents have become caught up with the day-to-day of providing for their children. It is difficult to get parents to the school unless there is (a) a problem or (b) a spectacle of some sort. I’m not sure that this has changed much over the years.

    For the past three years, I have been working to design and implement an arts-based alternative program for grade seven and eight students. We’re just finishing up the pilot of the program and each year I have invited parents to come and hear about the program and how it is different than what their children have been involved with in previous years. Attendance has been very high…almost perfect, in fact. When I attempt to engage them in discussions about the program, ask them to question and challenge what they have heard, there isn’t much response. One parent responded a couple of weeks ago, “We trust your experience and the work that you are doing.”

    I would love to hear about others experiences in attempts to engage community/parents in conversations about what is happening in our schools. I still believe that parents and the wider community are an important part of school success. I may be wrong, but I can’t help but think that our schools will continue to improve at a faster rate and in a more sustainable way if rich, mediated conversation were to occur.

  7. Cynthia Elsberry says:

    There is an attendance area in my district with slightly declining enrollment. The school community consists of the wealthy and low income non-English speakers; there is no middle class. A representative group of parents and community representatives met recently to brainstorm ideas/concepts/themes for the attendance area schools and I was truly surprised. Even after hearing from a Harvard admissions officer about the characteristics they seek in candidates, the group took an unexpected path.

    Instead of asking for an IB program or a STEM school or even a magnet of some type such as a foreign language academy, they began listing characteristics they wanted to be taught. They named things such as ethics, leadership, responsibility, and values. This was a clear message that communities still expect schools to develop the hearts and minds of children and that they are not most interested in test scores and external measures in which they are not invested.

  8. Suzanne Freeman says:

    I remember reading this paper when you first wrote it and since then have used this as a lens to view NCLB. I worry that we are using a one size fits all and yet our schools and communities are different. I worry about a top-down, standardized approach for all public schools. Like you, I believe citizens must have influence and ownership over their schools and understand how public schools impact democracy. You, David Mathew, and others have influenced my thinking on this topic.
    Our local conversations in Trussville, Alabama have really been about the difference between superficial learning and profound learning. We have showcased great lesson designs for difficult to teach/hard to learn concepts and then showed parents (through short homemade videos) what this looks like in the classroom. In many instances, our students are talking about what they are doing and learning in school with their parents (dinner table conversations) and parents are really beginning to understand our focus on profound learning. We are not “there” yet, but have started with simple conversations that start with what our students are learning and not with National Standards. I think this is better approach –starting the conversation about what children are learning (bottom up), rather than a top down (National Standards). I don’t have this completely figured out, but you have you have challenged me to think about them even more.

  9. Linda Schiller says:

    Thinking critically in the 21st century is the single most important skill needed by students today because it encompasses (or at the very least implies) the ever-more needed technology skills. We need to prepare our students for jobs and careers that do not exist yet. Standards should be created for entrepreneurship, innovation, and creative technology skills.

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