Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Revitalizing the Ecosystem for Youth: A New Perspective for School Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Revitalizing the Ecosystem for Youth: A New Perspective for School Reform

Article excerpt

Community development changes the core identity of schools from isolated, independent agencies to institutions enmeshed with other community agencies in an interconnected landscape of support for the well-being of students and learners, Messrs. Timpane and Reich maintain.

Over the past decade, most people involved in the reform of education have come to espouse a systemic perspective. Some hold out great hopes for improving the schools; others conclude that significant change is improbable at best. But all believe that "everything is related to everything else." Concerns about outcomes beget goals and high standards for all students, which beget curriculum frameworks and assessments, as well as requirements for teacher preparation and performance. Concerns about the limitations of teachers' classroom performance beget new pedagogies and school restructuring strategies, which beget a rethinking of approaches to professional development, as well as calls for autonomy. Concerns about the difficulty of producing sustained and widespread improvements beget critiques of administrators, school boards, and unions, as well as calls for additional research and experimentation.

Finally, Herculean effort has brought into being what have come to be called "alignment strategies," which presume, among other things, a capacity to bring about considerable changes in attitudes and institutional performance through incentives and requirements embedded in new policies. For some, this grand synthesis is the capstone of reform; for others, it is the ultimate indication that the endeavor is doomed and that the system must simply be replaced.

No one who has been involved in these reform efforts has emerged without changed perspectives and understandings. Indeed, a policy revolution has occurred: systemic reform and choice are the two principal alternatives for today's policy addicts.

There are, of course, other possible perspectives. One of the most powerful is that of teachers, who have proclaimed throughout the reform era that the entire process has lacked their participation and has yet to affect what goes on in their classrooms. Another is the perspective of those who entered the lists with good will and high hopes but have since come to believe that the architecture of the reforms grossly overestimates the strengths of the political and educational materials at hand to build them.

We believe that there is yet another perspective, systemic in a different sense, that must be considered if the impulse to improve education is to sustain its momentum into the next century. We must consider the perspective of the young person, the learner.

To the learner, the "system" is the procession of adults and institutions encountered each day: the family, the neighborhood, private associations, churches, peers, youth programs, social service agencies, health workers, mass communications, the criminal justice system, and, of course, teachers and schools. All of these entities shape the young person. "A child's education," as Harold Howe II said in the fall 1995 issue of Daedalus, "is made up of many activities, most of them occurring outside the schools." It can be significant when one or another of these forces in a young person's life is not working smoothly or efficiently, but it can be disastrous for his or her progress to adulthood if some are absent entirely or are working at cross-purposes to the others.

What is more, each of the entities trying to help young people depends heavily on the effective functioning of the others. Just as no young person can succeed alone, neither can any of the institutions involved. Indeed, all share the tasks of fostering each young person's learning and development. And yet, by tradition and often by law, we view each young person through the lens of one narrow problem at a time - according to whether he or she is in a stable family, healthy or not, pregnant, abusing drugs, homeless, doing poorly in school, in trouble with the law, and so on. …

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