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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

Overview / Climate in the Classroom—and in the Community

      Because ASCD has been working with other organizations to find common ground and promote a more civil society (see our April 1996 issue), I've thought a lot lately about the quality of public life in contemporary America. That may be the reason I've come across several new books that make connections between society and public education.
      In Is There a Public for Public Schools, David Mathews (1996) reports research by the Kettering Foundation that shows a steady erosion of support for public schools. He contends that educators cannot restore confidence by "involving" people in plans already made but should take a broader approach with public forums focused on local community needs and purposes.
      Only by helping rebuild a sense of community, he says, can schools avoid the "solution wars" that spawn antagonism and distrust.
      Another aspect of the relationship between schools and the public is highlighted by Laurence Steinberg (1996), professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who with two colleagues has surveyed 20,000 teenagers over the last 10 years. In Beyond the Classroom, Steinberg shows that current school reforms are unlikely to raise achievement because parents and peers, not educators, have the most influence on students' classroom performance. If parents and policymakers followed his sensible recommendations, we would undoubtedly see eventual improvement in student motivation and learning.
      I was so impressed by another book that I visited the author briefly a few weeks ago at his home in Boulder, Colorado. In A House Divided, Mark Gerzon (1996) describes six ideological "states" in what he calls the Divided States of America. He shows how conflicting belief systems produce bitterness and polarization—but he also tells how "new patriots" here and there are reaching out to residents of other "states" in efforts to find common ground.
      Each book bears a different message, but all three make clear that no school is an island; no school stands alone. If we want to improve schools, we must look to the society of which they are a part. If we want to develop a climate for learning, we cannot stop at the schoolhouse walls.
      Of course, educators have special responsibility for what happens within the walls. In this issue of Educational Leadership, Catherine Lewis and her co-authors explain how schools in the Child Development Project create "caring communities" in which students work hard and learn more but also feel liked and accepted. Jerome Freiberg reports that schools in Texas have reduced discipline problems and improved achievement with a research-based classroom management program he developed. Deborah Meier, former director of New York's Central Park East schools, claims that the best way to establish a positive climate is to make schools smaller, with no more than 300-400 students.
      Also featured in this month's issue is a conversation with Daniel Goleman, author of the popular book Emotional Intelligence. Goleman argues that, because "emotional literacy" is prerequisite to everything else schools are trying to teach, the school curriculum should include well-planned programs for teaching social and emotional skills. Asked about public resistance to such programs, he claims that parents want them because they see the need.
      Well, yes; some parents do. Others, though, do not; some are adamantly opposed. Which brings us back to consideration of the social context in which schools thrive or deteriorate.
      David Mathews, Laurence Steinberg, and Mark Gerzon are deeply concerned about the future of a society that has much to be proud of but also has serious problems. They see that the problems are growing worse because so many have withdrawn from the public square and others devote their energies to quarreling and blaming rather than constructive action. Each author proposes a slightly different remedy, but the central message is the same: if we want our children to become constructive problem solvers, we need to show them how it is done.We adults—parents, citizens, teachers, administrators—must demonstrate the restraint, thoughtfulness, and civic responsibility in the broader community that we want students to acquire in school. Actually, of course, the two communities cannot be separated so neatly. The point is that everyone has a role to play in building community—and in creating a climate that supports learning.

      Gerzon, M. (1996). A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul. New York: Putnam.

      Mathews, D. (1996). Is There a Public for Public Schools? Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press.

      Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do. New York: Simon and Schuster.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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