Educating for Democracy: Programs That Teach, Not Drill

I have, I'm afraid too often, been a critic of the "educational reform" programs that have attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to improve student learning in this country. Whether closing down schools, "co-locating" district with charter schools, using vouchers, giving bonuses to teachers who can "raise the scores" on standardized tests, punishing teachers who don't turn their classrooms into "test prep" factories, I have not seen any evidence that these so-called "innovations" have done very much that can be considered positive in advancing the way students learn. In fact, if I may use a metaphor, the "educational reform" movements of the last decade have been as effective in improving schools as pouring wet cement on a newly seeded garden enables it to flourish.

It is, then, with some satisfaction, that I recently attended a conference of students, teachers and other facilitators of the WISE program, held at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, New York. The WISE Individualized Senior Experience program gives teenage students the kind of intellectually challenging projects that enable them to develop a sense of independence in deciding on and executing their own ideas, getting the experience of interning, practicing collaborative learning, and presenting the results of their research and experience to their peers, teachers and families.

Pioneered over 30 years ago by Andy Courtney, Toni Abramson-Matthews and Vic Leviatin, three teachers at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, N.Y., the program was their approach to remedying the "senioritis" burn out that last-semester seniors often experience prior to graduation. Leviatin, who co-hosted the conference I attended, is a youthful, bearded 73-year-old who has the energy and optimism of a large elf. He introduced students, participating faculty, and mentors who encourage, monitor and facilitate the projects from their conception to completion. The program is hosted by 60 participating high schools throughout the country, some as far away as Cypress Bay, Florida and Ithaca High School near where I taught at Cortland in Upstate New York.

The keynote speaker, Vinnie Bagwell, an eminent sculptor who was among the early WISE participants, explained the development of her own work and the significant role that this program played in her life. A legally blind student revealed how her project was to develop teaching techniques for the visually impaired. And many of the other students attending the conference expressed their enthusiasm for their projects that involve such skills as marketing, sophisticated uses of websites, and other technological innovations that make these students ready for college or a higher-paying job.

Laura Walker, a veteran mentor, explained how the program worked. Students had to be in good standing for eligibility. In exchange for time taken from their English and economics classes, for instance, they were expected to complete a project that involved those two subjects, creating and marketing a website, for example. Students were responsible for keeping a daily journal, reporting frequently to mentors about their problems and progress, being part of a collaborative team of two or three students, and using resources of the community as well as their school to bring the project to a successful conclusion. All participating students would be required to give a presentation to their peers, teachers and mentors at the end of the semester on the results of the project. More information on the program can be found at

The most important elements in this program, and I am sure that there are others that are similar in high schools throughout the country, are the development of independent and critical thinking, collaborative learning, mentoring, and a sense of what in educational circles is called "ownership" in which students take pride in what they have initiated themselves as a learning experience instead of having it dictated to them by teachers. This kind of program means that the school has to be willing to give up the control of the way students learn and rely on their own judgment to develop -- with careful mentoring -- the best strategies that suit them in order to provide a positive and enduring learning experience. I hardly need point out that all of the objectives that WISE aims at are in opposition to the patterns of standardization and the "business model" of education that seems to have become the emerging pattern of "school reform" throughout the country. I regret that as knowledgeable as I have become over the years as a teacher and student of educational innovation, until recently I had not heard of WISE.

I am hopeful that given this program as an example, one that was established at about the time that the "Nation at Risk" report was issued during the Reagan Administration, true education reformers will wrest control of the nation's schools from the hedge fund brand of educational entrepreneurship and the test prep mania that adds little if anything to our knowledge of what a child learns and find in the WISE program the guidance and example needed not only for seniors, but a model that can be offered to all young learners in what I would call "programs that teach, not drill."