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Communication & Media

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The Wizard of Education: Howard Good


Reprinted from the Kingston Freeman

By Bonnie Langston

Anyone who thinks the educational system needs to be revamped may want to take a jaunt down the metaphorical yellow brick road of "The Theory of Oz: Rediscovering the Aims of Education." The book is written by Howard Good, professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz and former president of the Highland School Board.

Not surprisingly, "The Theory of Oz," published by Rowman & Littlefield Education, includes chapters titled "Brains," "Heart," "Courage" and "Home," elements that Good expounds upon as critical to a complete education.

He uses anecdotes from his experiences as a parent, teacher and former school-board member as well as known and little-known aspects of "The Wizard of Oz," both the movie classic and the book, to illustrate his ideas.

Good is the author of nine other books, including the critically acclaimed "Educated Guess: A School Board Member Reflects," published in 2003 by ScarecrowEducation. "Guess Again: An Ex-School Board Member Reflects," and "Gathering Fuel in Vacant Lots: Stories of Miseducation," will be published in the future.

In addition, Good is a frequent contributor to the American School Board Journal and Education Week.

The following interview was conducted by e-mail.

Q: What, more than anything else, moved you to write a book about reassessing the aims of education? Was it President Bush's signing into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which, among other things, mandates the testing in reading and math of students grades three through eight beginning this year?

A: I agree with the ostensible goals of NCLB - that is, to improve the educational achievement of children - but I find its methods highly suspect.

The law mandates yearly tests in a variety of subjects and threatens schools with heavy penalties if their students don't show sufficient progress. I don't see how tests and threats can do much to improve education. Testing isn't teaching, and threats don't contribute to a culture of learning. And, anyway, haven't schools always tested students? Doesn't the NCLB merely order schools to do what they were already doing, but just to do it harder and more often?

I doubt this makes for better schools. Testing and the kind of rote instruction that goes with it have never proven in the past to be a cure for what ails our education. That's not about to change now just because politicians order it.

But as much as NCLB provoked "The Theory of Oz" into existence, so did certain personal experiences. I served on the Highland School Board for six years, three as president, and saw firsthand how difficult it is to bring about substantial change in the education system. It sometimes seems everyone is pushing and pulling in opposite directions - parents, teachers, administrators, board members, state "educrats," Washington politicians. In all this pushing and pulling, children can get torn apart.

My wife, Barbara, and I have four children, each different from the other in terms of talents and interests, but all of them with good hearts and promising minds. School served them very unevenly. There were times when, in fact, school mis-served them. I don't think that should happen to any kid, but it happens to many of them. They're underappreciated and overlooked. They're herded and prodded. They're categorized and standardized. I fear the testing regimen imposed by the NCLB is just going to make that worse.

Q: The framework of the classic film "The Wizard of Oz" works perfectly for the points you make about education reform. Would you talk about your choice of this metaphor?

I asked myself, What makes someone educated? Is it getting a certain score on a standardized test? Is it passing through a prescribed curriculum? Is it landing a job after high school or being admitted to the college of your choice? It struck me that you could answer yes to any or all of these questions and still not reach the essence of what it means to be an educated person.

One day - I think I was in the shower, where I do best my thinking (and singing!) - "The Wizard of Oz" popped into my head. This wonderful old movie, which I've seen, like everyone else, a zillion times, suddenly seemed to me to be a kind of educational fable. I realized that if you add together what Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Dorothy want - brains, a heart, courage and a home, respectively - you end up with a well-rounded education.

My book argues that we shouldn't be teaching to the test; we should be teaching to the child. Further, it argues that teaching to the child means teaching to the whole child - not just the head, but also the heart; not just for individual success, but also for compassion and connection.

Q: Of the Oz theory components, brain, heart, courage and home, which do you think is most lacking in the school system, and why?

A: Aristotle said, "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." I agree with that. We don't have to choose between mind and heart. We have to educate both and with equal attention and commitment. A person who has a sharp mind but a dull heart is a person capable of ingenious cruelties. That's not the sort of person any of us want our schools to be turning out. Schools should deepen the heart even as they broaden the mind. I don't think empathy, the ability to feel with or for others, is any less necessary a skill in our world today than the ability to do math proofs or interpret "Beowulf." (an Old English folk epic).

Q: What recommendations would you make to rectify this situation?

A: Teachers and other adults in schools need to model empathy and other traits and values - intellectual curiosity, civic involvement - that we want students to learn. According to a vast and growing body of research, educators can preach the importance of this or that behavior all they want, but unless they model the behavior themselves, students aren't going to learn it. Adults in general - and teachers in particular - must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

This begins in their relationships with students. Students who are scolded learn how to scold. Students who are ridiculed learn how to ridicule. Students who are humiliated learn how to humiliate. But, by the same token, students who are cared for learn how to care.

Q: In your book's chapter, "Brains," you say nearly one-third of high school graduates who go on to college require remedial courses. How can teachers - and parents - get emotionally beyond that bleak statistic and others to make the positive changes needed?

A: As a culture, we need to value education more. We give education a lot of lip service, but not much actual support. Why aren't there more - or any - parents at school board meetings? How come people know the names of the contestants competing on "American Idol," but not what their kids have for homework? We have to get our cultural priorities straight.

But students themselves need to become more involved in their own education. They would, I believe, if schools were less like warehouses and more like actual communities where students had a significant role and stake in how they operated. This can mean everything from allowing first-graders to vote on which books to read at story time to encouraging older students to express their opinions about school policies and rules and to formulate solutions for school problems. The point is, students will do better in school if school is a place that reflects at least some of their interests and concerns. School, then, wouldn't be just something they suffer through, but something they helped develop, which, in turn, helps develop them.