About the Basic School
For years, America has been working hard to improve the nation's schools. Reform has been high on the public agenda. As a result, academic standards have been raised, teacher certification requirements have been tightened, and educational innovations have been introduced from coast to coast. Without question, progress has been made.
Today, America's best schools are among the most outstanding in the world. Others are succeeding, often under difficult conditions. But it's also true that far too many schools are only marginal at best, and that some, often those in our most troubled neighborhoods, should hardly be called schools.
The world has changed and schools must change, too. The lives of children who enroll in school today will span a new century. If, in the days ahead, educators cannot help students to become literate and well informed, if the coming generation cannot be helped to see beyond the confines of their own lives, the nation's prospects for the future will be dangerously diminished.
Clearly, the push for school renewal needs a new beginning. This time the focus must be on the early years, on elementary education. Every level of learning is important. No sector should be neglected. But school failure starts very early and if all children do not have a good beginning, if they do not receive the support and encouragement they need during the first years of life, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to compensate fully for the failure later on.
Responding to this challenge, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has proposed a comprehensive plan for elementary schooling called the Basic School, presented in a report entitled The Basic School: A Community for Learning. Following is an introduction to the priorities of the Basic School and answers to most frequently asked questions.
What is a Basic School?
The Basic School is not just another "pilot program" or novel innovation. Rather, it's a comprehensive plan to strengthen elementary education by bringing together, in a single school, the key components of an effective education.
The shared vision of the Basic School is excellence for all. The school affirms, as its central mission, that every child has a right to a quality education, that high academic standards must be set, and that every child can and will succeed in ways that reflect his or her own aptitudes and interests. This vision defines the purpose of the Basic School and becomes, both for teachers and students, the source of daily inspiration.
Why is it called "Basic?"
The school is "basic" for several reasons. First, because it takes the push for school renewal back to the beginning--to the neighborhood school and to the first years of formal learning.Second, it's called "basic" because it gives priority to language and to a core of essential knowledge. Finally, the school is "basic" because it identifies practices that really work and seeks to make them available to every child.
What are the educational priorities of the Basic School?
To achieve excellence for all, the Basic School has four priorities that are considered the essential building blocks of the school. Fitted within these priorities are the components of an effective education.
The First Priority: The School as Community
- A Shared Vision: The Basic School is a place where everyone comes together to promote learning. In the Basic School, the separate classrooms are connected by a clear and vital mission.
- Teachers as Leaders: In the Basic School, teachers are the leaders, with the principal as lead teacher.
- Parents as Partners: In the Basic School, the circle of community extends to embrace parents, who are viewed as the child's first and most important teachers.
The Second Priority: A Curriculum with Coherence
- The Centrality of Language: In the Basic School literacy is the first and most essential goal. All children are expected to become proficient in the written and spoken word, as well as in mathematics and the arts.
- The Core Commonalties: In the Basic School, all students become well informed. They study the various fields of knowledge--history, science, literature, civics, health, for example--which are organized thematically within a framework called "The Core Commonalities." This is not so much a new curriculum as it is a new way to think about the curriculum.
- Measuring Results: The Basic School is accountable to parents, to students, and to the community at large. High academic standards are established in both language achievement and general knowledge. Student progress is periodically evaluated, with assessment always in the service of learning.
The Third Priority: A Climate for Learning
- Patterns to Fit Purpose: In the Basic School, every student is encouraged to become a disciplined, creative, self-motivated learner. Class size is kept small, the teaching schedule is flexible, and student grouping arrangements are varied to promote learning.
- Resources to Enrich: The Basic School makes available to all students rich resources for learning--from building blocks to books. And the school also gives students access to the new electronic tools that connect each classroom to vast networks of knowledge.
- Support Services for Children: The Basic School is committed to serving the whole child. Beyond a solid academic program, the school provides basic health and counseling services and afternoon and summer enrichment programs for students.
The Fourth Priority: A Commitment to Character
- The Core Virtues: The Basic School is concerned with the ethical and moral dimensions of a child's life. Seven core virtues--honesty, respect, responsibility, compassion, self-discipline, perseverance, and giving--are emphasized to guide the Basic School as it promotes excellence in living, as well as in learning.
- Living with Purpose: The core virtues of the Basic School are taught both by word and deed. Through curriculum, school climate, and service, students are encouraged to apply the lessons of the classroom to the world around them.
Does the Basic School have specific educational goals for all students?
Yes, in addition to the larger objective of excellence for all, the Basic School defines five sharply focused educational goals:
- First, to communicate effectively. Language, defined broadly to include not just words, but also mathematics and the arts, is not just another subject; it is the means by which all other subjects are pursued.
- Second, to acquire a core of knowledge. Students become well informed by learning a core of knowledge, while making connections across the disciplines and relating what they learn to life.
- Third, to be a motivated learner. Students remain curious and develop both the desire and skills to study on their own. They learn how to gather information and become problem-solvers.
- Fourth, to feel a sense of well being. Through school support, students become physically healthy, socially competent, and emotionally secure.
- Fifth, to live responsibly. Students learn by word and deed the core virtues that promote good conduct and citizenship.
How is the Basic School different?
First, the school seeks to bring together all the key components of an effective school. Second, the Basic School seeks to build a community in which teachers work together and parents are actively involved. Third, the Basic School gives high priority to a commitment to character and defines core virtues to be taught.
Fourth, the most distinctive feature of the Basic School is its curriculum. Most elementary schools have confusing, fragmented course of study, with teachers often developing lesson plans in isolation and with each grade level disconnected from the others. In the Basic School, the curriculum is organized around eight integrative themes--core commonalities--that spiral upward from kindergarten to the upper grades.
By core commonalities we mean those universal experiences shared by all people. These include: the Life Cycle, the Use of Symbols, Membership in Groups, a Sense of Time and Space, Response to the Aesthetic, Connections to Nature, Producing and Consuming, and Living with Purpose. Within these eight themes, every traditional subject or academic discipline can find a home.
Finally, the Basic School places great importance on fostering children's love of learning. This means that Basic School students are taught in a way that sparks their interest in learning and makes their school a lively, exciting place.
Does the Basic School require more money?
No, not necessarily. Creative schools have found ways to implement almost all of the recommendations of the Basic School within their existing budget. Such critical issues as clarifying goals and building community have to do with ideas and attitudes, not money, and that applies to parent participation and creative teaching, too. Adding technology to the school will require money, of course, but this can be implemented over time. The most important budget issues perhaps relate to providing teacher time and achieving small classes, especially in the lower grades.
Will Basic School students meet district and state standards?
Again, assessment is a critically important part of the Basic School. Language skills will be continuously monitored, since proficiency in language is a key objective of the Basic School. In teaching the curriculum, evaluation is embedded in instruction, so students, teachers, and parents can follow the progress being made. Further, any required state or district tests are administered at the Basic School with the confidence that all students will succeed. Students will have learned a core of essential knowledge in context.
Can any school become a Basic School?
Yes, but it's an ongoing process. Some ideas can be implemented quickly, while others take more time. What's required is a commitment on the part of everyone--the school board, the principal, teachers, and parents--to support the priorities and proposed practices of the Basic School, to evaluate the current program of the school, and to develop together a plan to implement the recommendations. In the end, becoming a Basic School is not a top-down decision; it must be continuously affirmed and sustained at the school level.
Ultimately, the aim of the Basic School is not just to build a better school, but, above all, to build a better world for children. It is our deepest hope that not a single child, let alone a whole generation of children, should pass through the schoolhouse door unprepared for the world that lies before them. There is an urgency to this effort.