A Final Thought

Seek Solutions

In its obituary for Dr. John Goodlad, who died in late November, the New York Times identified him as, “an influential educator whose study of more than 27,000 students, teachers and administrators in the late 1970s and early ‘80s documented the problems plaguing American public schools….”

That’s true, but my own memory of Goodlad was not so much that he documented problems, but that he sought solutions — most of which were based on helping children and teachers break away from instructional techniques that might have been okay 50 years earlier, but no longer worked. My first contact with Goodlad came when he proposed the non-graded primary school. The idea was that rigid grade levels would be abolished and children would learn at their own pace within a multi-graded classroom. The average child would move through the equivalent of grades one through three in three years, but others might complete the work in less time, and some might need four years or more. When a student accomplished what was necessary, he or she moved on to new work. There was no grading, no failure, no repeating grades, but a continuous path that would take a student as far as he or she could go. It was not a new concept, but Goodlad showed that it could be done. Many schools did adopt non-grading.

Goodlad also recognized that teaching in a non-graded situation was more difficult for teachers who would have to prepare lessons at varying levels. He suggested a system of experienced master teachers who would work with new teachers in the classroom, helping them, guiding them and bringing their own teaching skills forward. The idea was to establish a path that did not take great teachers out of the classroom and make them administrators, but would pay and honor them for being master teachers.

Goodlad believed that teachers had to do more than fill their students with facts and figures. He believed that teaching involved preparing students to live in a democratic society — to take social responsibility, to think and to question and speak out.

The educational system that Goodlad supported stands in stark contrast to the test, test, test mentality of people who now try to speak as educational leaders. He was looking for ways to break the lockstep system that was already 100 years old and served an America that used public education to prepare citizens to work in factories doing repetitive jobs. He recognized that the ability to think and solve problems would be increasingly important in the world into which children were growing.

There are many things still wrong with our public schools — for one, too few have adopted and really put into practice the ideas for educational change that Goodlad and many others advocated — but more testing and longer hours doing the same old things will not solve America’s educational problems.

Fact or fiction?

It is an accepted “fact” that our public schools are failing, but a recent study in Education Week suggests that what is failing is our ability to understand what schools do and how effective they are.

The study was conducted by the Horace Mann League, “a nonprofit advocacy and research group dedicated to public education.” It looked beyond the oft-reported test scores that show students falling behind those in other industrialized nations and focused on what it called the “long-term outcomes of education”, such as having a high proportion of educated adults. On that score, the United States, it appears, comes out well above other nations.

It also looked at the “social stress” of education systems in various nations. A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting a school for the arts in Shanghai and spoke with the mother of a five or six-year old who was being interviewed to see if he was good enough to enter the program. The mother was frantic that her child might not make the cut and, therefore, would be deprived of a musical education and the opportunities offered. If her child failed this test, his future path, she told us, would be blocked.

What a contrast to our schools, where a child has multiple opportunities to try, to explore, to find a path, to make mistakes, even fail. If having schools that offer that opportunity is “failure,” then maybe we should hope that our children continue to fail “the test” while moving through a system that prepares them to become educated adults who make decisions and change their minds and/or professions. That’s a system that Dr. Goodlad would certainly support.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."