By Mark Reutter
This year's prescription for the ills of public education -- knee socks, neckties and discipline -- is yet another quick-fix remedy that obscures the challenges facing America's schools, a UI educator says.
With polls showing that many parents are worried about raising their kids, "tough-love" approaches to children and schools have become a staple in the fall presidential race, says Daniel J. Walsh, a UI professor of education.
President Clinton has backed proposals to require students to wear uniforms in public schools, while Republican challenger Bob Dole has decried "permissive" school standards and called for a federal crackdown on gang membership.
"What's behind the rhetoric is the idea that in order to become demanding intellectually, schools must become more rigid and authoritarian," Walsh says.
But in his new book, "High-Risk Children in Schools" (Routledge), Walsh points out that the opposite may be true -- that too much rigid discipline invites children to reject schools, and schools to stifle "open, flexible, integrated whole systems that wrap children and sustain them."
The solution "does not lie in massive restructuring of schools," writes Walsh and co-author Robert C. Pianta, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. "More important than how schools look is how educators look at the children who enter the schools each day and how educators see their roles in those children's lives."
Walsh criticizes the model of school organization that pigeonholes so-called at-risk students with every type of specialist, thereby splitting up the child's day with "too many transitions, too many teachers and too much adult surveillance."
"What's largely unappreciated is that schools have become less flexible over the last 20 years," he said. "Kids lead increasingly rigid lives. Their day can begin at 7 a.m. with before-school programs and last until 6 at night with day-care and after-school programs. And every step of the way they are told what to do by adults."
The UI educator calls for a holistic approach that allows students to develop deeper relationships with teachers and balances academic studies with sports and club activities.
Japan's public elementary schools are an example of this approach. "The myth is that Japanese children do better than American children because they are in school longer and Japanese schools are more authoritarian," Walsh said. "In fact, the opposite is true. There is a huge emphasis on physical education, especially in elementary schools. There are long recesses between classes. There are a lot of clubs, which are run mostly by the children. The school year is longer, but there are many sports and club days."