Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: Problems and Promise of School Today

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Harvard Professor and writer Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot studies what makes some schools good and some teachers memorable. In this 1988 episode of World of Ideas, she discussed philosophies of education: “Schooling is what happens inside the walls of a school; some of it is educational. Education happens everywhere, and it happens the moment a child is born, and some people say before, until a person dies.”

She also talked about her mother, the child psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Lawrence, a pioneer who trained at the then all-white and largely male Columbia Psychoanalytic Clinic, and whose story is related in Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book Balm in Gilead. You can watch the entire episode on the archived Bill Moyers Journal website.



“I think it’s useful to think about the difference between schooling and education. Schooling is what happens inside the walls of a school; some of it is educational. Education happens everywhere, and it happens the moment a child is born…” — Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. It started in 1983 with a special report called “A Nation at Risk,” a scathing criticism of the rising tide of mediocrity in America’s schools. That set off its own rising tide of more books and reports full of more bad news. Our children, they said, are learning too little about history, geography, and math; too much about violence, drugs, racism, and decay. But tonight’s lesson plan is a little different, as we explore what’s good about school, or what can be. Join me for a conversation with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Part of the process of education is beginning to, in some sense, expand one’s ways of being in the world.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot knows the importance of telling stories. In her writings and her classes at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, she teaches by example and from experience. Her newest book, Balm in Gilead, tells of her mother’s extraordinary personal and educational journey to a career as a child psychoanalyst. And in The Good High School, through stories of real people at six American high schools visited often by Professor Lightfoot, she describes what makes some schools good and some teachers memorable. At her home in Boston, we talked about the problems and promise of school today.

You talk about good schools, but every time I mention the word high school, I can see people’s eyes reflecting back to me truancy, dropouts, violence, alcohol and drug addiction, illiteracy, racial conflict. The image of schools today in the mind of the public, I think, is very negative. Do you think. it is?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: There are too many schools that look like the school that you are describing, with all of those terrible things going on inside. But there are many more good schools, it seems to me, than we imagine, many more good teachers than we imagine. And part of it has to do, once again, with looking for it, looking for those oases, looking for the places where things are happening, looking for the teachers who are particularly good.

Part of what I want to do in my work is to begin to describe things that work, and not merely describe things that don’t work. Not merely focus on the pathological, focus on the fragile and weak, but really try to find examples of education at its best and begin to document that in all of its subtlety, in all of its complexity, in all of its generosity, and be able to convey that portrait so that others might feel inspired to do similar sorts of things. More importantly, others might see themselves in the stories I tell, and be able to make up their own story of goodness.

BILL MOYERS: Are there certain things that good schools have in common?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think good schools have a sense of mission that kids and adults can all articulate. We know what we’re about. They have an identity. You can characterize them, they have a character, a quality that’s their own, I think.

BILL MOYERS: You mean an ideology, a set of values?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, a set of values. If you walk down the hall, kids will kind of say in their own language, this is what this school is about, this is who we are, and adults will echo those same kinds of values and notions. I do call it, in my book, ideology. I mean, there is a kind of ideological stance that brings coherence to the school.

BILL MOYERS: What else?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Good schools tend to be a chemistry of extraordinary teachers, relatively good teachers and mediocre teachers. I mean, we can’t expect in any profession that we’ll have goodness throughout, but there has to be this chemistry of wonderful people who are rewarded for being wonderful-rather than denigrated for being wonderful good people who continue to be good, and relatively mediocre folks who are inspired or nudged or supported into becoming better, in some sense. I also think that good schools are disciplined places, and I don’t mean by that just behavioral discipline, but a place
where people set goals and set standards and hold each other to them.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck by the fact that in The Good High School all the schools you visited required a lot of the students —


BILL MOYERS: Required, expected them to maintain a certain code of behavior, expected a strong respect for law and order. There was swift punishment for acts of violence.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: But that is against a backdrop of love and respect. In other words, that doesn’t come down hard as just punitive, it comes down hard as, “I expect a great deal of you, you arc someone.” And that’s a very, very different message than just policing a school and coming down hard on kids who are disruptive.

BILL MOYERS: What about the role of the leader, the principal? Do all of these schools have a certain kind of leader?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: In all of these schools it happened that the six principals were male. All of them in various ways described the feminine sides of their natures when they talked about leadership in schools.

BILL MOYERS: And those qualities are?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Listening, building a sense of community, sustaining relationships, supporting people through failure, all of those.

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with the general lament that our schools are in crisis, that they’re not producing a literate and civilized population, that they’re failing our expectations of them, that they’re not ending inequalities, that they’re not encouraging innovation and discovery and creativity?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: My feeling is that we have expected far too much of schools, that we have had very high aspirations for the ways in which schools will in some sense solve all of our cultural and social crises, and economic crises, laid on schools just an extraordinary set of agendas. And because schools have never lived up to our hopes and dreams. I mean, as far back as John Dewey or Horace Mann with their great hopes for the ways schools would reconstruct American society and make it more cohesive and make it more healthy, to now, there has been this lament that schools are in crisis. So it’s an old and enduring and chronic lament about an institution that probably has been given too much weighty responsibility, and part of what we have to look at is the sort of broad ecology of education, the other institutions that educate, and have a more sort of realistic view of the roles that schools can play, and a more discrete view of the roles that schools can play in our society. I mean, it isn’t only up to schools to undo racism, to undo social privilege for some and poverty for others. It is very much a part of their responsibilities, but other institutions have to participate in that process as well.

BILL MOYERS: Teachers can’t in six hours be parents, they can’t be churches, preachers.


BILL MOYERS: I know a lot of teachers, and they say, “I’m expected to play every role.”

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: In some sense schools have been our most visible and vulnerable institution in society. I mean, in other words, they are the stage on which a lot of cultural crises get played out, and so we see in schools most vividly the inequities, most vividly the hypocrisy. It’s right there in front of you as you go in schools, and it’s very, very troubling and very enraging. And we tend to blame the teachers, the primary adult actors there, or the system, if we don’t want to blame individuals, rather than in some sense seeing the ways schools are connected to other institutions of learning and development, and also without sort of recognizing what might we ask realistically of schools, and hold them accountable for. This is not a back-to-basics sermon. I mean, I am not saying that schools need to not do things like art and theater and physical education, that kind of back-to-basics movement, and just really focus on math and reading. But I think. there is a way in which we have to more realistically appraise what it is that schools can do.

BILL MOYERS: And you say they should be held accountable; there are certain things professionally that they ought to do.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I really do think that anyone who graduates from high school should be literate. I don’t think that students graduating from high school should not be able to read and write, and should not be able to reason, and should not be able to, to some extent, think analytically. And I think that that’s a very basic accountability that we must hold schools to. I don’t think we can hold schools to in some sense assuring that all students feel good about themselves, for example, or making sure that kids don’t smoke or don’t get pregnant. I think that those responsibilities are broader than school responsibilities.

BILL MOYERS: We blame the schools when you’re not the only teachers. Michael Dukakis and George Bush are teaching as much about politics as the civics teacher in the high schools today.


BILL MOYERS: Mike Tyson is teaching as much about personal behavior as any teacher in school today. In other words, culture is teaching these kids all the time. I suspect they’re learning more from culture, from television, politics, sports, athletes, business people; I suspect Drexel Burnham has taught more kids about capitalism than any economics teacher in high school.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: The learning is going on all the time. I mean, I think it’s useful to think about the difference between schooling and education. Schooling is what happens inside the walls of a school; some of it is educational. Education happens everywhere, and it happens the moment a child is born, and some people say before, until a person dies, and it’s a far more complicated, over-arching process than can ever be handled inside the walls of a school. And part of what teachers become knowledgeable about, those good teachers, is the various ways in which children are educated outside of the school, and what their particular responsibilities are inside of the school.

BILL MOYERS: There are bad teachers.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: There are bad teachers.

BILL MOYERS: What do we do about them?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I really am very disturbed about the whole tenure situation, the fact that it takes a very, very short time in public schooling for people to be tenured, and the fact that the standards tend to be so low, so that most people who, if they’re not absolutely pernicious and malignant inside a setting, will get tenure. And once having gotten tenure, many people, particularly the poor teachers, relax into getting worse. There’s something very wrong with a system that encourages that, that allows that. I think there is a need for re-evaluation of teachers, for trying to understand, are they doing a good job now, a systematic way of re-evaluating their performance in schools.

BILL MOYERS: And that would include, I guess, a lot of peer judgment.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes. Teaching is a very, very, I mean, at best, autonomous experience, but the other flip side of that is the loneliness and isolation that goes on for teachers, that it is a human enterprise of an adult with lots of children, and that teachers tend to miss other adult company: colleagueship, relationship, criticism, camaraderie, support, intellectual stimulation. There have got to be ways, time, space in school days, in school years, for teachers to come together, to support one another, to respond critically to one another, and to develop plans together.

BILL MOYERS: What is it that makes a good teacher?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think one thing is that teachers who are good do regard themselves as thinkers, do regard themselves as intellectuals, and I don’t mean anything fancy, but I mean that they think of themselves as existing in the world of ideas. This is true for a nursery schoolteacher and a professor in the most distinguished university. It seems to me that the currency is one of ideas, ideas as conveyed through relationships.

BILL MOYERS: I think it was John Henry Newman that said we can get information from books, but real knowledge must come from those in whom it lives. And that is a teacher. The idea has to be incarnate, the word made flesh.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: That’s just so central to good teaching; so that you not only have to have the knowledge, but want to communicate it and convey it. You have to feel deeply about that, that you want those people to know it. And who are those people makes a great difference. In schools where teachers do not see their own destinies in the eyes of their children, it’s unlikely to be good teaching going on. In some sense, you have to see yourself reflected in the eyes of those you teach, or at least see your destiny reflected in that.

BILL MOYERS: Your destiny, meaning your … ?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Your future after you’re long gone. Part of what you’re doing in this process is handing it over, is sharing what it is you know and how you perceive the world and your angle of vision on it. What we might call the most pernicious discriminatory behavior on the part of teachers, which is often expressed quite passively, is it seems to me, when teachers can’t imagine themselves in their students at all, when there is no sort of reflection back and forth.

BILL MOYERS: When does that happen?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Oh, it happens often, in a lot of schools where kids are very poor, in a lot of schools that are predominantly minority, in a lot of schools where kids speak another language and people can’t connect.

BILL MOYERS: These are the kids who look around and see outside the school the devastation and the poverty, there are few chances and few rewards, not many opportunities, not many examples of people who’ve gotten out. So they don’t think there’s much ahead for them, do they?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: And the teachers don’t see their futures as part of this civilization, as counting in this world, in a very profound sense.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, you talk, I think you talk in your book about how a school takes on the personality of its community.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes. It’s terribly important to recognize that there is a culture alive and throbbing in a school. And it takes on, really, the character and color and vitality of those who live inside, students and teachers. And — or it should, at best, it does that; and when it doesn’t do that, when it doesn’t have that kind of reflection of who’s inside, then there’s something askew, it seems to me.

BILL MOYERS: What does this mean in terms of those schools that are located in these bleak wastelands of the inner city?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: There are all kinds of suggestions for school reform that I absolutely agree with. I mean, we need to make schools smaller, we need to give teachers much more of a say in developing curriculum and in seeing themselves as major educational actors in the school and in the community. We have to find ways of engaging parents or caretakers who are there in the work of the school, building bridges between families and schools and so forth. But I think what we’re talking about here is even more subtle, and that is, somehow we’ve got to find people to live inside these schools, adults, teachers, who in fact see that this work. is valuable and valued work, and that these children are very much wrapped up in their own future, in the teachers’ own future. We see people come to the doors of schools, and we think that each of them carries their own special and unique gift.

BILL MOYERS: I never heard it put that way, that the child brings a gift, too.


BILL MOYERS: Not just coming as an empty vessel to receive, but the child brings a gift.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: That’s right, that’s right. The kid brings himself or herself quite full of experience and history and preoccupations, and dreams and hopes, and concerns and fears. And the teacher comes with her or his own set of those, and there is a dynamic there that’s negotiated every day and throughout the year, and it changes over time.

BILL MOYERS: But so many of those gifts, particularly on the part of the children, get parked at the door.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: That’s right. Many teachers hope that the great variation and the rich diversity will in some sense fade out as school goes on throughout the year, and that they will see a group forming. It’s this problem that’s much broader than school classrooms, that when we drew together people into a group or a collective or a community, we think that’s oppositional to individuality.

BILL MOYERS: That you can’t become a member of the community without giving up your own individuality, what makes you particular.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: That’s right, your own gifts, right?

BILL MOYERS: Your own gifts.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: As a matter of fact, if we would let some of those gifts thrive and get expressed, it seems to me there would be more possibility for a rich collective community.

BILL MOYERS: How do we encourage children to recognize what they have to give in school?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think that they just need to be praised for individual expression, praised in some sense for idiosyncrasy, praised for the ways in which they are different from others and not always the ways that they are like others. Teachers at their best are wonderful with this process of trying to get kids both to recognize what it is that’s very special about them, and to tune into something that’s different about them, but also begin to corral kids into thinking about each other, into being empathetic with one another, into recognizing that this life here is group life in school, it’s different from home life, it’s different from play life outside. School life is group life, and part of what we’re learning in school is learning to effectively live in a group.

BILL MOYERS: How do you teach a teacher to go into a classroom and compensate for broken homes, for alcoholic parents, for a social structure that has collapsed, isn’t working, for all the expectations that a child from that kind of neighborhood brings into that classroom. How do you teach a teacher to do that?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Part of what I try to do with teachers is sort of to sketch out the landscape within which they’re working, and talk a little bit about the origins of some of that deterioration that they experience around them, both within the school and in the community, to be better able in some sense, to understand what it is that’s motivating kids, what it is that might motivate them to tune into school more fully. My whole interest is in trying to get people to understand more fully how to look at communities, how to look at school culture, and how to understand it better so that one can be a more effective actor in it. It’s in some ways a sense of gaining perspective and a wide angle on it.

BILL MOYERS: Do you find a lot of burnout in teachers today, or is that a cliche?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I would call it boredom. I would call it the need for, in some sense, renewal, change, inspiration, rewards. And when I say rewards, I think that it isn’t only higher salaries, although I think that’s terribly important, I think it’s just appreciation, it’s respect, it’s dignity, it’s the recognition that this is a terribly, terribly important role in society, that this is very, very precious work. And it seems to me that the pressure of the negative imagery, cultural imagery that is now attached to teaching makes it very, very hard to go in there every single day and do work.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think there a really is a negative attachment to teaching today?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Oh, absolutely. For the most part I think teachers are denigrated mean, that given a chance, women who now have the choice of what they want to do are unlikely — I mean, who are highly educated, who have high status, who are privileged, are unlikely now to go into teaching. For example, they are choosing business or law or medicine or any of those now opening up fields that used to be the province solely of males.

BILL MOYERS: I just cut out from the newspaper this morning a new survey by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching which says that, “most teachers say they are excluded from the most critical decisions on school policy, that they feel like front row spectators in a reform movement in which the signals are being called by governors, legislators, state education officials,” everybody but the teacher on the ground.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think when teachers burn out, they’re saying, in some sense, I haven’t had the opportunity to participate fully in this enterprise. It is the kind of spectator, monotonous role, rather than the engaged role. When people talk about teacher voice, there are a number of ways of thinking about that, but when teachers talk about their voice being heard, some of them are speaking about the politics of that: we want more control over our lives in this school. And some of them are making an even more subtle point. They’re talking about voice as knowledge. They’re saying we know things about this enterprise that researchers can never know, that policy makers can never know. We have engaged in this intimate experience, this complicated experience, in a way, and we have things to tell you if you’d only learn how to ask and if you’d only learn how to listen. So sort of voice as knowledge, voice as insight, and voice as control and power, I think that teachers are asking for that in their work.

BILL MOYERS: Why don’t they get it? Why doesn’t anybody listen?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: It’s this highly bureaucratized system, society and system, very hierarchical, with people at the top far away from the action making the decisions about what should go on, and people at the bottom engaged in the enterprise, supposedly being the empty vessels through which those decisions get transmitted, and having no intellectual or moral fiber or critical eye in which to comment on that message which is supposed to travel through them. When I go out and speak to teachers and I talk about this image of teachers as empty vessels, you can just hear moans of recognition and sadness and poignancy in the room, because that’s how they have felt. Something about not, in some sense, participating in making the decisions about what it is you do every day, which obviously makes you feel powerless.

BILL MOYERS: If President-elect Bush or President-elect Dukakis called you and said, “Professor Lightfoot, how in my inaugural address should I address the school crisis?” What would you tell him?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think I would really ask them to focus on leaching and learning, I mean, really on the essence of the enterprise, rather than on how to restructure the institution, although that’s my business. I worry about that, and I understand that, but somehow the American public has to get back to the great richness and mystery of learning, where we began, the playfulness and the seriousness of learning, and how that can be nurtured and supported in schools by teachers in classrooms. So I would really hope that they would focus on, first of all, how do we begin to attract good people back into this profession, who have these commitments, who have these values, who can develop these skills; and how can we continue to support them once they have entered the profession, how can we support them so that they can sustain themselves at times of adversity, you know, which are always there, even in the best of schools.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Boston, this has been a conversation with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 29, 2015.

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