No Panacea

In 1789, the French dreamed of creating Utopia. After storming the Bastille and eventually beheading King Louis XVI, they declared a republic of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Viva la naivete! You see, in this imperfect, messy world of ours, liberty with equality is unattainable. Pure equality, for example, can be achieved only at the expense of personal freedoms, as the communists demonstrated. Similarly, unbridled liberty invariably leads to a terribly unequal distribution of wealth, as we capitalists have discovered. In other words, in politics and economics, we can't both have our cake and eat it too.

Unfortunately the same proves true for most educational issues. The controversy surrounding Basic Skills and Higher Ordered Thinking (Phonics verses Whole Language) provides an apt example. Both extremes have led us to disaster. Hopefully we've learned from our mistakes, and will now pursue a blended approach.

There are innumerable instances of such difficult dilemmas. Some people demand that their neighborhood control their local school. The problem is this engenders outrageous disparities between rich and poor schools--an injustice many state supreme courts have declared unconstitutional. California's did in 1976. Now every school in California has at least a basic minimum of funding. Unfortunately, every school is burdened with massive state bureaucracy as well. Either way we lose.

How about tracking or heterogeneous grouping? When we tried sorting kids according to ability--into reading groups like the bluebirds, the redbirds, and the crows--we ended up inadvertently dividing youngsters according to their socio-economic backgrounds. Poor students, too often kids of color, found themselves placed with the crows, a lower track from which they never escaped.

Oh, we're wiser now, and keep most kids together. Nonetheless, with one child in a class reading on a 4th grade level, and another who's ready for high school texts, it's often an overwhelming challenge indeed to meet their individual needs.

Then there's “site-based management,” a current educational buzzword which posits that each school should be left alone to make its own decisions. Locally, Fremont schools come closest to approximating this. The price? (There's always one hidden somewhere, you know!) Encouraging every school to march to the beat of a different drummer is not usually the most efficient use of resources. In addition, schools invariably become so different that parents fight to get their kids into the one perceived to be best.

New Haven, on the other hand, has made equity its watchword, regimenting it with strict, top-down centrally-controlled cadences. As a result, the district is financially sound, but (Here comes the price.) for many years the creativity and initiative at its various schools were stifled.

So, what's the answer? Should I have my kids study individually or in teams? Should I plan active projects or make a real attempt at completing the curriculum? Teach Western Civilization or embrace Multiculturalism? Foster self-esteem or enforce strict discipline? Aaagh!

Education abounds with such dilemmas, tough choices between apparently desirable but mutually exclusive goals. The best we can do is finally stop the pendulums from swinging erratically from one extreme to another, strive for some uneasy balance, and then reconcile ourselves to feeling still dissatisfied.

Perhaps, though, once we accept that there can be no Utopia, we'll stop shouting at each other, begin to compromise, and maybe even achieve that last of French ideals, Fraternity.