About Partnership

By Fred M. Hechinger

Competition is the American way. Children are brought up on it. Schools are run on it. Politicians extol it.

Only in moments of crisis do we suspend it in favor of cooperation. Today's school reformers, perhaps sensing a state of crisis, actually call for cooperative, rather than merely competitive, learning.

This column considers American education to be in a state of crisis. It believes that one of the remedies is cooperation. Let me try to make my point:

Some years ago, when I was writing for The New York Times, I received a letter from a high school teacher. He had read with interest a page one report about a distinguished professor at a major university who had reinterpreted some Biblical events, such as the parting of the Dead Sea to let the Israelites escape their persecutors, in the light of some natural phenomena­storms, tidal waves, earthquakes and such.

The teacher wrote that he was particularly taken by the story because, several years earlier, his Middle Eastern research had led him to the same conclusions; but nobody­no reporter, no academic press, no commercial publisher­wanted to listen to him, let alone publish his theories. To support his claim, he had enclosed a copy of the story as it appeared in the newspaper of the high school where he taught at the time.

The story did indeed cover much the same ground that had propelled the distinguished professor's theories to prominent display in The Times.

The teacher's conclusion: "Of course, nobody wanted to listen to me. After all, I was only a high school teacher."

I wrote a story about this and, a few days later, got a letter from another teacher who told about some important research of his own that he had difficulty getting published. When it finally did appear in an academic journal, he wrote, he was identified only as a doctoral candidate at a major university­not as a high school teacher.

The two stories seemed to me to tell something about the professional status of school teachers and the relationship between them and the teachers­pardon me, the professors­of higher education. Critics tend to blame the teachers for whatever is wrong with the schools.

University professors often join that chorus. Only at moments of serious concern, as in 1957 when Sputnik raised questions about America's technological muscle, did professors step down from their exalted position to try to help public school teachers to beef up their knowledge. Even Harvard's president, James B. Conant, took a leadership role in reforming the schools.

One recurring problem in past school reforms was that they tended to ignore the school teachers. Some of the instructional packets produced by professors and other experts were advertised as being "teacher-proof," hardly a complimentary message to the men and women who toiled in the classrooms. One foundation-supported action, known as the Midwest Airborne Television Project, used a large aircraft to beam lessons to schools in a six-state area, without first checking with teachers about what they wanted and when they needed it. It went out of business after it had been ridiculed as educational crop dusting.

Yale abandoned that ill-fated tradition of ignoring the school teacher. By creating the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, the university acknowledged the importance of cooperation between its faculty and the public school teachers. At the heart of the concept is that professors and teachers work as colleagues in the same enterprise of improving education. The idea is that teachers will not be viewed as professionals until they are made partners in the professions.

The Yale faculty, through the Institute, has provided a model for school college cooperation that has begun to change relationships between colleges and schools across the nation­not yet in enough places but a crucial beginning nevertheless. Yale's prestige has been a major factor in making this changed relationship respectable.

few years ago, a participating Yale professor said that the collaboration gave him new insights into the problems and the potential of the public schools and that, in addition, it had given him the opportunity to work in his field with mature adults rather than mainly with college students.

The realization of the virtues of partnership­not a top-down relationship­has set a new pattern in educational reform. The promise and the problems of this pattern at Yale and anywhere, will be the theme of this column in the future.


Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1993 Issue of On Common Ground

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