AASSA 2006 Keynote Address
AASSA Keynote Address
Thursday, October 19, 2006
WILLIAM G. DURDEN, Ph.D.
President, Dickinson College
I write this preface not before my speech is delivered, but quite unusually, directly after.
I should like to thank personally my good colleagues from AASSA-teachers and administrators-who attended my keynote address, the follow-up workshop on October 20 and engaged me in a variety of private conversations. Your good thoughts and questions about the topic of my deliveries enhanced greatly my grasp of the subject and prompted me to incorporate immediately what I learned from you into the web version of the speech. This for me represents the best type of professional meeting-a place and time where both the attendees and the speaker learn from each other in sustained, productive and critical dialogue.
I also take this "temporal reversal" to mention to those who attended my Friday workshop the book, DON'T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT: KNOW YOUR VALUES AND FRAME THE DEBATE, by George Lakoff (Chelsea Green, 2004). This writing is an excellent explication of the "framing" technique although, as I stated during the workshop, the author brings to the thesis a self-proclaimed "liberal" application. This prejudice does not, however, distort his explication of framing itself.
I also suggest to my AASSA colleagues yet another application of "framing" suitable to their own schools. I suggest that most international schools (as are most U.S. pre-collegiate institutions) are essentially offering their students a LIBERAL ARTS education and yet, they never "frame" it this way. This is regretful since such a gesture would place international schools in a distinguished, centuries' old tradition of learning well beyond their contemporary focus. Of course, the term "liberal arts" suffers from a framing challenge in that it is viewed by many who wish to have instead what they believe to be a more applied, practical and relevant education as simply vagary and "academic softness" ("What can you do with a liberal arts education in the REAL world, anyway??!!"). In this context, I refer my AASSA colleagues to the recent good work of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and its LEAP program. LEAP is taking head-on this framing deficit of the liberal arts and seeking to give it more substance, clarity and "vigorous force" through a 2006 publication entitled, "Making the Case for Liberal Education: Responding to Challenges," by Debra Humpreys (published by AAC&U - www.aacu.org ). Were international schools to explore more rigorously this publication and its concrete suggestions they would in applying them to their own situation not only sharpen and give force to their respective missions, but also, they would both advance their ability to defend against a misguided public the full range of their academic and co-curricular offerings (to include music, art and drama and the useful skills they provide students for a lifetime of accomplishment) and link their identity and objectives in a seamless manner with institutions beyond their sphere of pre-collegiate education-the undergraduate liberal arts education of many colleges and universities worldwide.
Drafted in the air between Asuncion and Buenos Aires , October 20, 2006 (I apologize in advance for any lingering typos!)
I am delighted to be again among old friends-especially AASSA Executive Director Jim Morris-and to meet new ones. I respect highly and profoundly all of you who engage the world by being out in it daily and preparing through your schools and respective communities a next generation-a new, increasingly hopeful generation of young citizens prepared for a life of global awareness and engagement.
Most of you know me as a person who has spent decades studying and advancing special needs students often in this region of the world-especially highly able students (and that includes those with learning challenges). Indeed, AASSA took a lead years ago in this area with its embrace of the Optimal Match and its sponsoring of the first Optimal Match Institutes in the world. About eight years ago, however, I asked myself a fundamental question-"To what use is this high academic talent to be put?" Of course, you might smile at this. My query reveals a distinctively Anglo-American prejudice-that an idea is only as worthy as it can be applied. But to this end, my interests morphed into the study of leadership-leadership for citizenship and societal contribution as a worthy end and application for human talent and high ability. Coincidentally, my pursuit parallels a raging preoccupation with leadership in general. The media and popular press are filled with books on leadership and management-not just good leadership, but as of two years ago, even a genre of books dedicated to bad leadership. Anything apparently sells.
Last year, about 3, 500 books on leadership in business were published in the United States alone. According to the ECONOMIST, leadership studies are now a distinctive genre of intellectual pursuit. But there is a rub. This enthusiasm appears to exist only in the United States . In fact, most other countries-such as the U.K. -find this U. S. obsession bizarre-chiefly because of the U. S. linking of leadership with the personality trait of "charisma" which the Brits think is fleeting and insubstantial not to speak of as "typically America ", they claim. The Brits also distrust anyone who possesses it-this charisma. Additionally, they find the American advancement of leadership for the world to be highly ironic given its obvious (at least to the majority of the British public) challenge to good leadership in its own business world and that of politics. The British people cite Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Iraq as examples of glorious "messes" in leadership.
Leadership is big business. I think of Jim Collin's record-selling book, GOOD TO GREAT and his follow up booklet dedicated to the non-profits or Malcolm Gladwell's TIPPING POINT. That said, I am also convinced that this focus on leadership among the general public, in the world of business and finance, politics and increasingly taught at undergraduate, graduate and professional schools will soon be a recommended, if not required subject at the pre-collegiate level. Leadership is coming your way in international schools. You will feel the pressure to teach it just as you may have felt the pressure to teach whole language, self-esteem, critical thinking, cooperative learning-even gifted and talented education. Leadership will be the new buzzword. You will have many speakers in the future seeking to address you here and at other conferences on the topic and they will all link it, I predict, to another current issue-some say "buzzword"-one with a few years headstart-accountability. Your charge, of course, is to determine how you will react and ultimately, if you will even teach leadership. If you do, however, how you will teach this new area of study? This is a crucial decision. You will either teach it as a separate field in and of itself or you will integrate it into all your existing subjects. You face the same choice you had with, for example, critical thinking and problem solving-stand alone subjects merely self-relating or skills set in more comprehensive academic contexts. Those who know me know my strong prejudice. I prefer the latter option.
This evening, I ask you to think out loud with me about your new subject and to think in a revolutionary manner-to apply it personally-each and every one of you-in altering the course of your current instruction-pursuing change-in three key areas-self-esteem, accountability, either/or thinking. For me, these three areas properly handled would go a long way to restoring professionalism to teaching and setting the basis for leadership among both teachers and administrators. I am going to ask you to take leadership out of the more common context of business, finance, and politics and place it in that of classroom. I shall challenge you to refine your emerging contribution to leadership study by drawing upon your distinction-pre-college education offered within an independent global context, a global commitment. And finally, I ask you as educators to seize leadership for yourselves and your profession because you now need it more than ever before. There is a sense of urgency today for concerned educators to produce and exercise their own leadership that will provide a powerful challenge to leadership readily taken by others-even within education-who are following, I believe, a disastrous course. These pseudo-leaders and experts wish not only to reduce you to being mere mechanics and your students, mere widgets, but also, they would reduce your professionalism and critical judgment to the simplicity of the reductionist choices of partisan politics. Those who know me and have heard me speak, also know that I shall not tonight leave you with "7 easy steps" to take for application in the classroom tomorrow. I find that approach naïve, simplistic and disrespectful to your professionalism and limiting of your opportunity at such a conference to have space away from the classroom to engage the "big picture." I will ask you, however, to engage tonight some complex ideas and challenges in education, to take the discussion into your social and professional settings (at the bar or restaurant following this session, for example), to engage in spirited argument and at some point in the future, determine if there are indeed practical steps you yourself devise and you can apply in the classroom.
Several years ago in a speech before an international schools audience in Vietnam , I also pursued the topic of leadership. At that time, I urged the audience to seek lessons for leadership in places where it is not usually sought but which is under your direct control as classroom teachers-in the acquisition of academic content itself-in my case, in the study of foreign languages and culture. I urge you to refer to this speech which evidently caused quite a debate in the United States and is posted on the Dickinson College website ( www.dickinson.edu ) under the "President's Office-EARCOS Speech." Tonight I take you in yet another direction.
Let us then begin this urgent exploration. I intend as always to be provocative and educationally sacrilegious throughout for we must challenge prevailing paradigms of educational theory and practice or at least examine them so thoroughly that they are then applied with a sense of limitation-and this includes selected applications of the current U.S. educational policy towards pre-collegiate education-"No Child Left Behind." There is much at stake here for us as educators. I look forward to your reaction-good, bad or ugly.
GENERAL LEADERSHIP SKILLS
Throughout my relatively long career, I have been fortunate to have exercised leadership in several domains-often simultaneously, and frequently, in sectors that the pundits believe to be in essence contradictory and mutually exclusive. I have worked in the military, the government, the non-profit college and university world and corporate America . The one unifying insight that I have taken from this service is that leadership at its most sublime is narrative. It involves both the telling of a story and the ability to persuade others to engage that story as fully as if it were their own. Like a finely-crafted novel or poem, the story should appear effortless in telling and conceal the exhaustive energy and toil that are expended in maintaining and advancing it. Leadership is exhausting, but it must not appear so.
The concept of leadership as narrative or storytelling is not without precedent. The Harvard educational theorist, Howard Gardner, in his provocative 1995 book in the collaboration with Emma Laskin, LEADING MINDS: ANATOMY OF LEADERSHIP, states unequivocally that "leaders achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate" (p. 9). Leadership is thus a matter both of composition and communication. However, for Gardner, it is not enough to draft a story and relate it to others-you must also as a leader embody it, you must live the story yourself-through your own actions-with such integrity, passion, and lucidity that your story becomes the others' story, your vision becomes their vision, your plan of action, their plan of action. A good leader most subtly and agreeably changes another person's story to become her story. Additionally, for Gardner any good leadership narrative involves three components-a protagonist, a set of clear goals and a foil. I have found in the course of my professional life that several other elements contribute significantly to leadership. Some are quite obvious; others are more complex.
For example, I have found that it is important for leaders to be able to identify quickly the core challenge in any circumstance and to visualize immediately a way to meet the challenge. There is the need to balance the ability to compose a story that communicates your vision for leadership with a solid knowledge of the more mundane facts of the domain in which you exercise leadership. A leader must temper vision with the practical. A leader is reminded again and again that while a primary focus is upon the strategic, to be totally successful, you must make sure that the details are attended to-often personally. Failure to account for the details, to follow up, often leads to an incomplete, if not unsuccessful mission.
Before one actually leads, a leader must grasp the "big picture" and deal with "big ideas-not just "little" ones. I would provocatively assert, by the way, that in education today, you are usually presented with "little ideas"-procedures and applications such as cooperative learning, ability grouping, phonics, whole language and classroom management-not "big ideas"-those that approach the very meaning of what it is to be an educated, reflective, ethically-receptive person. Big ideas are those that evoke the soul and spirit of people and have a substantive context in the history of ideas. They deal with questions of life, death, aim (purpose), and sensibility in historical context and thus, over the course of time. What I am asking for education is precisely what Mike Chinoy, CNN's former Senior Asia Correspondent, demands in public statements of the media-that it move beyond an understanding of news as mere event to news as a process over time with deep, complex, interrelating roots. That said, I am not naive about those "big ideas" that are captured in the context of radical idealism and presented in all innocence and good intention. They can be powerfully destructive. I think of a passage from Graham Green's QUIET AMERICAN. (It is quite appropriate to refer to Greene here in Asuncion as he traversed this country and found it eminently qualified for the subject of literature. I refer you in particular to TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT). Foster, the seasoned British reporter says of the young, ambitious American Pyle (working with the nascent CIA involvement in Vietnam ) upon first seeing him-"Why does one want to tease the innocent? Perhaps only ten days ago he had been walking back across the Common in Boston , his arms full of the books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China . He didn't even hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined-I learnt that very soon-to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve." We know now, decades later, the devastating effect of that idealism, that "big idea," on the peoples of both the United States and Viet Nam .
A leader understands what leadership is all about in the domain in which skill is to be exercised and anticipates the likely outcomes of such leadership. There should be no surprises when leadership is exercised. A leader is prepared for the chance moment when leadership is required and she is willing to cross all borders in thought and deed to achieve a creative solution to a demanding situation. A leader "envisions the future." A leader, however, must never underestimate, nor prematurely dismiss, potential sources of insight or inspiration, however unlikely they may seem. For example, there is ample evidence that a number of the world's scientific leaders made their discoveries while experimenting in a totally different context than the one projected for results. They were receptive to chance and absorbed readily in the unanticipated context a source of new knowledge. One only has to think of Roentgen's accidental discovery of the x-ray. Additionally, I personally have profited from never underestimating or dismissing aspects of my own life [I relate my chicken story in Los Angeles ]. A leader must be both constantly active-in motion and engaging the world-exposing herself to a variety of experiences that give a new edge to leadership and yet, simultaneously, be thoughtful about the implications of experiences gathered and how they are to be applied to move people and organizations forward. A leader must apply "peripheral vision" to a domain of action and thus create a knowledge base that is deeper and more expansive than that of others. A leader "connects the dots" and sees what others overlook in this frame of reference and thus, leads with distinction. This process of building a large framework of knowledge for leadership is similar to a theory of giftedness proposed by the South African scholar, Ochse. She states that a gifted person possesses a framework of knowledge deeper and broader than most other people and is constantly scanning that base seeking the unexpected, the inconsistent, that which others have not yet discovered. It is a combination of the span of the knowledge base, the constant motion through it and the ability to pick out the remarkable and yet unseen, that makes a person gifted
A leader must have the interpersonal and emotional intelligences to appreciate which approach or voice, which "grammar and syntax" are most likely to influence one person rather than another and to know always to whom one is speaking so that that person can be reached with the leadership story. The effective leader, no matter how acclaimed on the basis of past successes never becomes passive in the face of leadership demand, never confuses the authority of reputation-which is short lived-with the authority of voice-which is daily reinvented. And finally, belonging to any attempt to provide leadership to a group of people are two closely associated elements-urgency and change. A good leader creates a sense of urgency for change. Leadership literature abounds with commentary on the indisputable existence of change as the principal environment in which leaders act. John Kotter of the Harvard Business School is most eloquent on this topic in his book, LEADING CHANGE: "Ask almost anyone over thirty about the difficulty of creating major change in an organization and the answer will probably include the equivalent of 'very, very tough.' Yet most of us still don't get it. We use the right words, but down deep we underestimate the enormity of the task, especially the first step: establishing a sense of urgency..Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. With complacency in organizations high, transformations usually go nowhere because few people are even interested in working on the change problem." (pp. 35-36).
LEADERSHIP AND THREE AREAS FOR CHANGE
With this background in leadership, it is now appropriate to turn attention to those three challenges I mentioned above and get you involved personally. If we accept Gardner 's definition of a leadership story, I suggest that you-the teachers and administrators in this room-are the protagonists in this educational story. It is you who must apply all the manifestations of leadership that I described above. It is you who must embody the story; create the vocabulary of change and communicate it to diverse audiences and people. The goals of the leadership story I offer you tonight are clear. You are to expose three popular educational practices that when embraced in an absolutist manner represent severe danger to learning. You are to replace them with much more rational, effective and commonsensical strategies in your classroom, in the faculty lounge and in conversation with parents and the general public. The foils-those people or ideas whom you must oppose-are also obvious. They are these three practices and those absolutists who advance them. It is against these entities that you must rail daily in a professional, well-informed, yet pointed way.
Beginning in the 1980s, there was a massive, world-wide effort to increase children's and young peoples' self-esteem. According to Professor Jean M. Twenge in her 2006 book, GENERATION ME (to which I shall refer extensively in this section), "the number of psychology and education journal articles devoted to self-esteem doubled between the 1970s and the 1980s. Journal articles increased another 52% during the 1990s, and the number of books on self-esteem doubled over the same time..Magazines, television talk shows, and books all emphasize the importance of self-esteem for children, usually promoting feelings that are a lot closer to narcissism (a more negative trait usually defined as excessive self-importance)." Twenge thus already introduces a considerable negative that grows out of an exclusionary focus among young people on their self-esteem. This obsession will have extreme consequences for what I say this evening.
Of course, once society in general seized upon the self-esteem mantra, the schools were not far behind. They bought into it completely. A veritable "self-esteem curriculum" was introduced in the years following 1980 and its remains pervasive and strong today despite overwhelming evidence that such targeted focus on self-esteem clearly does not yield results that help individuals nor society at large. Again, Twenge on the subject: "Many school districts across the country [the U.S. ] have specific programs designed to increase children's self-esteem, most of which actually build self-importance and narcissism. One program is called 'Self-Science: The Subject Is Me.' [poor grammar, of course] (Why bother with biology? I'M so much more interesting!) Another program, called 'Pumsey in Pursuit of Excellence,' uses a dragon character to encourage children to escape the 'Mud Mind' they experience when feeling bad about themselves. Instead, they should strive to be in the 'Sparkle Mind' and feel good about themselves. The Magic Circle exercise designates one child a day to receive a badge saying 'I'm great.' The other children then say good things about the chosen child, who later receives a written list of all of the praise. At the end of the exercise, the child must then say something good about him- or herself..As John Hewitt points out in THE MYTH OF SELF-ESTEEM, the implicit message is that self-esteem can be taught and should be taught. When self-esteem programs are used, Hewitt notes, children are 'encouraged to believe that it is acceptable and desirable to be preoccupied with oneself [and] praise oneself.' In many cases, he says, it's not just encouraged but required. These exercises make self-importance mandatory, demanding of children that they love themselves. 'The child MUST be taught to like himself or herself..The child MUST take the teacher's attitude himself or herself-'I am somebody!' 'I am capable and loving'-regardless of what the child thinks.'..Most of these programs encourage children to feel good about themselves for no particular reason. In one program, teachers are told to discourage children from saying things like 'I'm a good soccer player' or 'I'm a good singer.' This makes self-esteem contingent on performance, the program authors chide. Instead, 'we want to anchor self-esteem firmly to the child.so that no matter what the performance might be, the self-esteem remains high.' In other words, feeling good about yourself is more important than good performance. Children, the guide says, should be taught 'that it is who they are, not what they do, that is important.'"
Teacher training courses are, of course, affected by this demand to advance at all costs self-esteem through instruction regardless of actual quality of a student's academic performance. And classroom teachers are often instructed by their administrators not to correct students mistakes in class or on homework; if they do so, to use a "pleasant" colored pen (not red; it has a negative connotation built up over the centuries and thus does not build self-confidence!-I kid you not here!). According to Twenge, in 2005 a British teacher even "proposed eliminating the word 'fail' from education; instead of hearing that they have failed, students should hear that they have 'deferred success."
Now one would think that this decades-long demand for self-esteem instruction in schools would yield positive results-that we would graduate young people who were realistically confident, who truly felt good about themselves, who achieved well in school and out of school, who could handle any challenge, who possessed the highest integrity. Well, actually, the very opposite is the case, but that does not at all stop the absolutists, the true believers, in demanding self-esteem instruction in the schools. Today's students in general are emerging from secondary school unable to deal with personal criticism or defeat. They become rude and unfriendly when challenged by anyone about anything. They are unaccepting of anyone asserting more knowledge than they about a subject other than the self-a teacher, a professor, a boss in the workplace-since they have been instructed for years that they get to determine what is true and what is important. They exist absent deep and sustaining commitments to society and other people and, in fact, are more depressed and unhappy with life than any previous generation-including those that experienced in the U.S. such massive events as WWI, WWII and the Great Depression. It seems that their exalted sense of self-worth that they now take for granted because of years of instruction telling them just that, does not hold up to the harsher realities of the wider world and its indifference to their sense of inevitable achievement and reward just for existing as a individual with self-esteem. According to Twenge and citing the most extensive research on the subject (Seligman, Baumeister), self-esteem instruction unquestionably does not lead "to better grades, improved work performance, decreased violence or less cheating. In fact, people with high self-esteem are often more violent and more likely to cheat. 'It is very questionable whether [the few benefits] justify the effort and expense that schools parents, and therapists have put into raising self-esteem,' Baumeister wrote. 'After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.'" Twenge hits it right on the mark when she says, "Self-esteem is an outcome, not a cause. In other words, it doesn't do much good to encourage a child to feel good about himself just to feel good; this doesn't mean anything. Children develop true self-esteem from behaving well and accomplishing things."
My message to you tonight is exactly that of Twenge and Baumeister. It is time to move away from the folly of self-esteem, "feel-good" instruction and advocacy and reclaim a teaching that advances children both though a sustained, supportive and progressive engagement with their variety of abilities-alone and in interaction with others-and by repeated exposure to substantive content and skill well beyond the subject of their self and its value. Indeed, there is no doubt that a child's ego is most thoroughly prepared for interaction with a world beyond the precious confines of school by early and sustained interaction with a variety of challenges they have to figure out how to overcome for survival and high performance. This opportunity, indeed, resides "on the streets" in some pretty tough neighborhoods, and it often-and sadly-attracts more interest in young people than the friendly, overly-nurturing, "hugging, and perpetually smiling environment of contemporary schools-an environment where how an individual child "feels" about something or someone in the learning landscape trumps what is truly known and knowable.
This issue of self-esteem is one that I have taken on personally. Just this past summer I presented a paper along with former first lady Roselyn Carter and the director of the Princeton University Health System on the state of academic and resident (student) life on America 's college and university campuses. In my presentation, I noted that today's undergraduates appear publicly as "confident, assertive and entitled" and yet, they are also the most personally miserable and depressed generation in American history. I then proceeded to develop my argument taking direct aim at the results of the "self-esteem" movement and its related manifestations. This is what I said: "I suggest that this alleged 'depression' among the seemingly "confident" is in part a result of decoupling the academic and student life divisions within colleges and universities. It is unconscionable of us as professors and administrators to blame students and their parents solely for these problems. We have become enablers. We have provided students with a huge, all-absorbing extra-academic world in which they can create a comfortable, but insular niche that at once feeds their inflated sense of self and its need for constant praise and fulfillment. We have removed academic knowledge from the place where they spend the majority of their time among us-residential life. We have left them bereft of substantive encounters beyond this personal, self-indulgent realm. And thus we leave them adrift at a very fundamental human level.
This disturbing development at the undergraduate level has been handily anticipated by several decades of the "self-esteem movement" in pre-collegiate education during which all students are endlessly praised as excellent and "unique" without grounding these claims in actual individual performance. This movement has created a most unhealthy state for a student's honest definition of self by confusing the noble pursuit of equality of opportunity with equality of achievement-disregarding in the process any actual differentiation of performance among students. They truly are unprepared for a "discriminating," highly competitive world that does not yield to their unrealistically high and inaccurate estimations of their own abilities and expectations; they are, in essence, bereft of both authentic self-understanding and a grip on that which lies beyond themselves-a most depressing state of mind. Indeed, a recent Hart Focus Group initiative sponsored by AAC&U reveals that public high school seniors who plan to go to college to pursue a baccalaureate degree went 'so far as to suggest that activities like service learning might distract from the more important work of their own INDIVIDUAL self-development-the primary reason they gave for attending college.'
We have not fulfilled our educative responsibility to open students' minds, to encourage serious inquiry and to develop an understanding of what it means to be a part of a wider, diverse community that is not always cast ultimately in a student's own image and opinion. By simply enabling our students' selfish desires, we have denied them the defining human instinct of genuine sociability and connectivity necessary for continuous learning. Instead, we have fallen prey to the students' own definition of success as we assist them in their quest for personal advancement at the expense of communal progress. The whole notion of a 'useful' education, in other words, has become focused on a personal usefulness as each student asks him or herself, 'How can I get ahead?' The only reasonable remedy for this situation is to aggressively pursue a mutually-beneficial alliance of academic and residential/student life on American campuses."
Again, I invite you to join with me in your educational domain-pre-collegiate education-to bring commonsense, reason and good practice back into teaching and learning. I invite you to work with me to regain professionalism for teachers and professors.
Why did I state in my introduction that now more than at any time in the past, you as teachers and administrators must embrace leadership itself and develop for your school and for your classrooms a strong leadership story and advance it to the public with resolve and tenacity. I say this because your control of what you personally administer and teach is about to be taken away from you-in whole or part. The threat is ACCOUNTABILITY taken to extremes and it comes at you in all innocence. It offers many good measures-principally seeming security and definiteness about good performance versus poor in educational instruction-but exaggerated and turned into an absolute, it possesses the capacity for much harm in education more generously understood.
The paradigm of innocence as destructive is not without precedent, of course. I refer once again to Graham Greene and THE QUIET AMERICAN. When describing meeting Pyle (a freshly-minted, naive CIA agent) for the first time as he, Pyle, ambled towards the bar of the Continental Hotel in Saigon, Foster ironically states, [Pyle] possesses "an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart. With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze he seemed incapable of harm." Again, for Viet Nam and for a generation of Americans, Pyle was anything but harmless and innocent. The contemporary equivalent of Pyle for you-a potentially and seemingly beneficial concept gone awry-is accountability-accountability as translated in the "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Permit me to explain this audacious claim-one that will certainly be immediately evoke protest from certain quarters. I begin by quoting from "Making the Grade" in the September 15, 2003 edition of the NEW YORKER: "The most striking thing about the sweeping federal educational reforms debuting this fall is how much they resemble, in language and philosophy, the industrial-efficiency movement of the early twentieth century. In those years, engineers argued that efficiency and productivity were things that could be measured and managed, and, if you had the right inventory and manufacturing controls in place, no widget would be left behind. Now we have 'No Child Left Behind,' in which Congress has set up a complex apparatus of sanctions and standards designed to compel individual schools toward steady annual improvement, with the goal of making a hundred per cent of American schoolchildren proficient in math and reading by 2014. It is hard to look at the new legislation and not share in its Fordist vision of the classroom as a brightly lit assembly line, in which curriculum standards sail down from Washington through a chute, and freshly-scrubbed, defect-free students come bouncing out the other end. It is an extraordinary vision, particularly at a time when lawmakers seem mostly preoccupied with pointing out all the things that government cannot do. The only problem, of course-and it's not a trivial one-is that children aren't widgets." I might add that learning is not merely a matter of what can be quantitatively assessed by standardized tests and thus directed by an extreme rationality. Such a disposition reflects the radical conviction that inputs must yield anticipated outputs in a predictable and highly efficient manner with cost thereby controlled and penalties exacted for inefficiencies. This disposition, of course, represents a rather crude, macho distortion of a business mentality that defined the 19 th -and early 20 th- century industrial age not that of a 21 st -century entrepreneurialism where informed, yet highly risky and inefficient investment ("risk capital") is engaged with the expectation-but not certainty-of yielding groundbreaking discoveries, technologies and products. You see, this is precisely the problem with "No Child Left Behind" and its current successor at the collegiate level, the U.S. Secretary of Education's Report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, dubbed recently in a New York Times op/ed piece by the former federal education official who directly oversaw the implementation of No Child Left Behind as "No Undergraduate Left Behind." What we have here is a naïve science, indeed, the naive notion that we can find a purely technical solution to a perceived social or educational problem. These reports and similar documents are actually the direct product of a dogmatic Anglo-American sensibility and rationality about knowledge-a markedly incomplete vision resolved that knowledge is only as worthy as it can be measured quantitatively and put to some targeted use and, further, that all instruction to be defensible and publicly supportable must adhere to this paradigm. Its origin is a humanism crafted by the scientific revolution of the 17 th century-in essence, a position that the more we measure, the more accurately we see what things are actually like-quantitative assessment reveals the truth. Its contemporary history emerges most immediately from British empiricism and the American "Metaphysical Club" consisting of Charles Pierce, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James. Yet it was already present in the Scottish Enlightenment and in Benjamin Franklin's singular definition of American character-one that prefers practicality to romanticism and holds that the truth of any proposition, whether it be scientific, moral, theological or a social one, is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.
In education-especially that which treats pre-collegiate education-this turn to pragmatism took place in all earnestness in the early twentieth century. It was John Dewey and fellow progressives who framed the intellectual construct for what became the SATs. This empirical turn was motivated in part by insecurity and a feeling of lack of respect by the public towards educators because learning was not scientifically based. In a world that was increasingly valuing science as the measure of all things, education remained underpowered and undervalued. Well, educators remedied that immediately and satisfied their "science envy." Standardized testing became suddenly an integral part of educational practice and was introduced in a comprehensive manner. And since knowledge to be assessed had to be subject to quantitative scrutiny and efficiency, it increasingly became itself technical-focused on short-term impact (note the similarity here with traditional corporate American and its focus almost exclusively on short-term quarter rather than multi-year results) and partial to "little ideas", facts and procedures, rather than those big, complex ones involving questions of the meaning of life, aesthetics, moral and ethical judgment that are not readily embraced by standardized assessment. Education has been short on those big ideas involving the aims of education. This trend is underscored by the now almost total absence of the philosophy of education as a full course of instruction in graduate schools of education. The results are evident. If you ask today's college and university students-as I have-what "big ideas" influence comprehensively the conduct of their lives, they can come up with none. If you ask them the name of a philosopher or a fictionalist or a poet who influences how they live their lives and define themselves and their actions towards others, they are often clueless.
I urge you then today-I beseech you-to reclaim for your schools and classrooms "big ideas" that extend beyond the quantitatively measurable and thus appear to the misguided as merely trivial, inefficient and without power and effect. I urge you to proudly and defiantly speak up for that which cannot be quantified but which securely belongs to learning and the ultimate definition of an educated person in a complex world. I urge you to reclaim the art of teaching-for today we possess merely the science of teaching and that is inadequate to move forward a total child, much less a people. I urge you to redefine accountability-which is an otherwise worthy pursuit-so that it balances the practical and technical-that which can and should be empirically measured-with that which involves the advancement of spirit, soul, creativity, entrepreneurialism and character of students and which is not so readily subject to general standardization and progressive quantitative assessment-much less to short-term results. I urge you to live both "in the bone" (quantitative testing) and "in the connective tissue" (the worthiness of seemingly ambiguous intent). In fact, I would be so bold today as to urge you to replace accountability as currently understood (after all, facts can readily be manipulated and "spun" as we all learned painfully with the Enron and Worldcom scandals in the United States and teaching can be radically circumscribed to correspond merely to that knowledge required by the tests), with another concept for assessment-TRANSPARENCY. Transparency is here understood as making available regularly to the public all sorts of data-empirical and subjective-and thus bestowing upon the public the trust to analyze and judge as they will of an education. I urge you to consider that students in the United States are already the most "tested" by standardized measurement in the world and yet, we still seem to be in a position of deficit in the actual improvement of what students know and need to know to function productively in society. Is there truly the belief that more standardized testing will lead to improved teaching and learning-that is, are we so convinced that "to test is to learn." Are we so convinced still-historical evidence to the contrary-that more testing will fundamentally change the learning and instructional culture and practice of schools-right into the classrooms where teacher and student meet an idea, a skill, so that these institutions can finally complete their mission for all students? Are we so blind to the fact that despite the massive testing that is already occurring in the United States , the results are seldom if ever used in a diagnostic-prescriptive manner in the classroom to improve the fundamental literacies (verbal, mathematical and scientific) and learning deficits of an individual student? Despite our ideological statements of practicality on all things-to include testing-we are in fact hypocrites as we regularly negate the usefulness of standardized testing to advance the core mission of education-helping a child academically in the classroom on a daily basis. You see, I am not against application of standardized diagnostic testing at the pre-collegiate level to identify verbal, mathematical and scientific competency skills and then guide individual compensatory or advanced instruction so as to deliver "remedial-free" university education.
Are we so blind to the machinations of individual schools and state school systems throughout the nation that find clever ways to insure that standardized testing results are manipulated and deluded to appear more substantive than they really are and in so doing, make a mockery of accountability for improved learning? Are we so blind to the fact that substantive, sustained learning is actually advanced by a shared cultural disposition, a common belief that a substantive, rigorous education advances individual and national accomplishment and absent this most fundamental community disposition and its application in the classroom and throughout society, no "technical" measures (such as standardized testing) will advance learning or a sustained society of knowledge?
I urge you today to assert strongly your own leadership story as teachers and administrators-yes, as classroom teachers-for your respective schools and for your sector-international education. Already alarming Orwellian versions of accountability are a reality in the for-profit realm of higher education and I guarantee, having worked in the for-profit education industry, that a version of these methods is eventually headed your way-in fact, it is already being applied in some proprietary international schools. I am, of course, referring to your total loss of control over what you offer to your students as an institution and what you teach in the classroom in the name of universal empirical accountability to the "consumer." The University of Phoenix , the world's largest university, for example, now commissions a panel of third-party subject area specialists to establish strict curricula for classroom instructors. No deviation from this course of study is permitted by the actual classroom instructors and the tests of this "canned" knowledge are universal across all "campuses." The job then of teachers is merely to deliver and test in a standardized fashion a predetermined course of study. Administrators and teachers are now truly widgets as are the students. All of this is conducted in the name of empirical verification of learning.
EITHER/OR APPROACH TO TEACHING PRACTICE
Dualistic, mutually exclusive thinking permeates pre-collegiate education both in the United States and often internationally. It has done so historically and we can't see to escape this well-imprinted cycle. A mutually-exclusive set of educational either/ors-ability grouping vs. cooperative learning, phonics vs. whole language, "exclusion" vs. inclusion, homogeneous grouping vs. heterogeneous grouping, even quantitative testing vs. qualitative assessment is involved, and the potential harm both to educators and students is immense.
Teachers today are asked repeatedly by theoreticians and their supporters in professional associations and corporate America (education is after all big business and the acceptance of a particular program can mean millions of dollars to certain parties) to make choices between polar opposites. In so doing, you are deprived of a reflective professionalism. Each pole of your choice is championed as a solution for an astonishing and dissimilar array of education problems. Moreover, your decision must be made between dualities in which both of the poles are politicized and ideologically framed, and where often, there appears to be only one "politically-correct" choice.
In essence, choice for you is illusionary and the basis of selecting instructional strategies becomes more of a matter of advocacy than of scholarship. The distinction is not without consequence. You are in this way being asked to be intellectually acquiescent in the face of political and emotional deck-stacking.
Cooperative learning vs. ability grouping is a case in point. Two scholars held in considerable regard by the education-research community have nevertheless characterized ability grouping in their writings as "running against our democratic ideals," in one case, and, in the other, "against our national ideology that all are created equal and our desire to be one nation. The questioning of another's patriotism in this educational context is clearly emotionally-charged power politics and is the moral equivalent of a politician or a politician's assistants claiming that a citizen's honest disagreement with a particular administration's practice and policies is "un-American." It is simply a cheap shot for partisan political reasons. Equally alarming is when advocates of-in this case-non-ability grouping call for the suspension of rational study. For example, a Texas school principal stated in an educational journal that "The ability grouping of educational opportunity in a democratic society is ethically unacceptable....We need not justify this with research for it is a statement of principles, not of science." In a display of the most egregious application of post-modernism to education, it is clear that here "facts don't matter" and that you should give up your rational, scientifically-based professionalism for blind trust. This is simply insulting of you and your profession.
When these kinds of educational dualities are examined philosophically, the poles in each case are organized consistently around differing conceptions of where meaning originates in education and what criteria are brought to bear in judging appropriate instructional format-either upon the most discrete, most differentiated unit or upon the most comprehensive entity, where the demands of the "whole" prevail.
For example, in the phonics/whole language dichotomy, which is really about how one best learns how to read, phonics advances the most discrete, most differentiated unit as the source of all meaning-sound units or phonemes. In whole language, meaning derives from a collection of sounds, that is, the story.
The same conceptual dichotomy holds for ability group vs. cooperative learning. Although the term ability grouping has an array of definitions, in general, it refers to the pairing of students for instruction by differentiated academic status-ability or achievement. Cooperative learning, in the most general sense, simply means that students work together on a school-related task regardless of educational differentiation. Ability grouping, then, represents more than does cooperative learning, a breaking down of a larger group of students into smaller, more discrete units for instructional purpose based on individual difference. Again, such distinction holds for exclusion vs. inclusion and homogeneous grouping vs. heterogeneous grouping.
What ardent advocates of any of these polarities demand from you as teachers is nothing less than an unequivocal decision about the origin of the meaning of education. But there is more to it than that-something that never achieves attention or commentary. Your decision, when so starkly drawn by these specific, mutually-exclusive concepts, also forces you-perhaps unwittingly-to accept a partisan political stance of far-reaching consequence. Selection of the practice that is organized upon the most individualistic unit places you squarely in the politically-conservative camp (at least in the United States ). Individualism and its preservation run deeply in conservative ("right") Republican ideology. Choice of the collective or the group as the basis of orienting instructional approach, places you squarely in the "left" or liberal Democratic side of the political perspective where shared community values-the greatest good for the most people- dominates. Implicitly, you as teachers and administrators are now confronted not just with pedagogical decisions, but also, politically divisive ones.
For pre-collegiate education to regain its intellectual integrity in this politically-charged atmosphere will not be easy. It will take substantive, forceful leadership from precisely you. A possible alternative "leadership story", however, lies before you and it is found, I believe, in an article by Peter Schrag appearing decades ago in the progressive public policy journal THE AMERICAN PROSPECT. In "The New School Wars," Schrag comments: "It's striking how quickly our struggles about curriculum ideas escalate into quasi-religion controversies over social or moral absolutes. The right [political right] sees a conspiracy by the federal government and its secular humanist legions [this was before the Bush administration and, alleged receptivity to religious fundamentalism in government and arguments over creationism vs. evolution] to strip parents of control over their children and inculcate them with relativistic values, witchcraft, and Satanism. The left looks at every parent who walks into a principal's office complaining about a book or school assignment as a tool of religious fanatics. A generation ago people who challenged the absolute primacy of phonics were attacked in school board fights as socialists; now Fair Test [which no longer exists today] regards anyone too devoted to the SATs as, at the very least, an unconscious racist or sexist. In the face of such heat, and in the absence of vigorous CENTRIST FORCES [emphasis added] speaking for parents, it's not surprising that politicians and school bureaucrats tend to capitulate easily."
Mr. Schrag pinpoints in the words "absence of vigorous centrist forces" the plight of educators trying to help children without falling victim to diametrically opposite ideologies-either/ors-masked as innocent instructional strategies. Demanding allegiance through blind faith (science and research are not necessary!) to a particular ideology leads to the loss of honest, professional perspective on what the actual instructional needs of particular children are. Often, a school becomes entrapped by the zealotry of a superintendent, principal or school board member who attends a spirited conference like this and obsessively seizes upon a one-sided and perhaps, unsubstantiated (although charismatically presented) educational technique to such a degree that instructional hegemony emerges back at the school. Of course this happens every year when the administrator hears yet another "wizard" idea for instruction at the next conference. The school declares itself ALL cooperative learning, ALL phonics, ALL individualized learning, ALL inclusion, regardless of the variety of strategies necessary to educate most fully the wide diversity of students requiring instruction. The entire educational community is unreflectively forced to teach or learn according to ever-changing and arbitrarily-imposed ideologies and practices. A "one-size-fits-all" position prevails and teacher dissention is penalized.
Pre-collegiate educators need to reestablish with confidence the "leadership story" that no one instructional strategy fits all students, but rather, that after an enlightened assessment of each child's strengths and weaknesses, an instructional method is applied from among a wide arsenal of possibilities. Indeed, numerous methods will be applied over the course of a single child's education. I urge you here tonight to assert the value of individual difference in a school setting and reclaim for your profession a commonplace that people learn (and achieve) at different rates, in different styles, and at different levels. And the "system" must embrace this "leadership story" organizationally and attitudinally. In essence, the proper role of the administrator and teacher is to take the centrist position and assert that kind of high-level professionalism that restores professional judgment and individual choice to the classroom teacher-that respects your dignity and professionalism-and thus, helps a child receive an appropriate match between educational need and educational service.
The forces in opposition to your move to centrism are formidable. Despite the need for this centrist approach in the classroom and the numerous laments about its absence, it will not so readily be established. The problem lies with centrism as a "force" (much less a "vigorous force") and its being accepted as such by educators and the general public. The simplicity of strongly drawn dualities (the either/ors), the uncomplicated adherence to one pole rather than the other, and the comfort brought by the deceptive promise of one seemingly magical instructional solution for all children are welcome in educational settings that are often characterized, regrettably, by chaos, lack of time, deprivation of resources and underperformance. Either/Ors are equally welcome as simplistic political solutions and "battle" cries-left/right, capitalist/socialist-in a politically, culturally and economically complex world.
Centrism, however, is often viewed in the contemporary United States as a position of indecision and weakness, an amorphous no-man's land possessing no "force" whatsoever. I ask you tonight to move beyond this inherited, limiting and unimaginative notion and begin the exploration and practice of framing centrism in a quite different way-an approach first recommended as distinctive to the United States by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "Self Reliance"-a position that suggests that human cognitive force is actually achieved by an individual entertaining simultaneously a set of multiple, seemingly contradictory positions and applying Each one selectively depending upon the situation at hand-not by "staying the course" with an educationally "conservative" or "liberal" set of practices regardless of changing circumstance. Another way of putting this is that I ask you to entertain a sustained "situational" decisiveness that matches instructional imperatives with a vigorous array of well-defined strategies otherwise held mutually exclusive ideologically and thus devoid of the expansive power a full arsenal of instructional strategies might lend to help an individual student achieve (note the more "forceful" language of this reframed centrism). I am asking you to join with me and destroy the enduring cycle of mutually-exclusive duality in educational practice from which there appears until now to be no escape.
As teachers and administrators in international schools, you are in a distinctive position to get not only accountability (or better, transparency) right for the sake of your current and future students, but also, the two other challenges I presented tonight-self esteem and either/ors. Firstly, you are essentially free of the extremism of accountability as now offered in the United States (pending pressure exerted upon you by various external agencies that have taken up accountability in a big way without being absolutely clear what it is and what they are actually demanding of you!-luckily for you, your regional accrediting agency, SACS, is most reasonable and creative about accountability). Most of you here represent INDEPENDENT institutions and can live up to the full force of that word. You have choices that you can make free of encumbrance. You can stay free of the endless stream of "buzzwords" and ungrounded instructional strategies that bombard educators in your home countries every new academic year. Secondly, you possess a really big idea that can give you as protagonist substantive definition in your collective leadership story-global sensibility-a disposition that other sectors of education greatly need to (and want to) embrace-they are just not sure what it is because they have never fully engaged it. You have. You are living and teaching globally every day. Accompanying global sensibility is an acute appreciation of change since change amidst unpredictability is an integral part of existing daily on a global basis.
What, however, is global sensibility in education? It is the pursuit of all academic and co-curricular activities in a context that takes into account that which is occurring in other nations and among other cultures. It is a fundamental humility that exercises a check upon the imperialism and unilateralism of our own provincial ideas and is based upon the recognition that other nations and cultures possess notions we must gather from afar and integrate into our own pursuit for our own positive advancement. It is respect for the myriad ways of acquiring knowledge that are gained through the mastering of more than one language-not merely English. It is recognition that the English language has limitations and does not deliver all areas of knowledge we need for substantive, creative contribution. It is an obligation-through education and experience-to be comfortable and confident in an ever changing world, a diverse set of communities, regardless of place. This is a sensibility that requires a certain type of educational institution-your type of school-actually defined years ago in general intent by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote, "[These schools] have their indispensable office-to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill but to create; when they gather from afar every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame."
May you lead made passionate by the "flame." Best wishes as you achieve your individual and collective leadership stories. Thank you for inviting me to AASAA and Asuncion, Paraguay-a country named, some believe, for a generosity and diversity of "color"-Paraguay-"a river of feathers" so-called from the variety and brilliancy of its birds-Paraguay-"a variety of colors" evoked from not only its many birds, but its innumerable flowers-Paraguay-"spotted, speckled and multifaceted in display." My best wishes as you lean into the diversity and rich "color" that is also teaching at its most accomplished and useful.