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Expert sees new roles for students, teachers in 21st century


Neatness hardly rates as an emphasis for Robert E. Slavin, one of the country's leading education reformers, in his incredibly cluttered office across from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood tennis courts.

"The house was owned by a physician who had his practice on the first floor and lived upstairs," says Dr. Slavin, 43, of Roland Park. "I think it's probably appropriate that my office used to be the nursery."

With a reputation of eschewing fads and emphasizing research, he's been reforming since the 1970s -- as a leading proponent of now widely used cooperative learning "strategies," followed in the 1980s by his development with others of "Success for All," a reading program that began in a Baltimore school and now is in 19 states.

From the old brick house, Dr. Slavin, author or co-author of a dozen books on reform, directs the elementary program of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

"Roots and Wings," his latest project, builds on the first two. It's designed merely to restructure the traditional elementary school as we know it. The five-year pilot project, funded by a grant from the nonprofit New American Schools Development Corp., is in its second year at four St. Mary's County schools. He's project director of a 23-member team; his wife, Nancy Madden, is co-director.

Q: What's the goal with your latest program?

A: We've been working for a long time on many different aspects of school organization and classroom curriculum and instruction. For this one, we're using everything we know how to do and a lot of things we don't know how to do.

This is the time to put in everything. This is not a scientific study trying to keep some pure variable; it's a demonstration of what a school in the 21st century might look like.

Q: What do you foresee for students in the 21st century?

A: The idea that you can open up a kid's head and pour in learning is gone.

Research over the last decade has shown so clearly that kids have to be very much involved in their own learning for learning to stick. That means kids need to do more with each other, to do more finding information for themselves, structuring learning for themselves.

This doesn't mean a return to the open classroom and anything goes. We're still talking about a great deal of structure and very clear connection to outcomes and objectives.

Q: So the teacher will take on a whole new role?

A: Absolutely. A lot of people put it that the teacher's role goes from a sage on the stage to a guide on the side.

I didn't make that up, but I wish I had. There still will be instruction and times when a teacher still will be a sage on the stage, but not as much as in the past.

Q: What's the meaning of the "Roots and Wings" title?

A: Roots involves making sure every child has the grounding of basic skills from the very beginning, no matter what it takes. But that's not enough. Wings, the newest part of all this, involves problem-solving, discovery and so on.

There's a part of our program called WorldLab, an integrated approach to social studies and science. WorldLab simulates a reality for the kids. They cover all the normal curriculum, but they use the knowledge in the way they would in the real world. They're learning for a reason that has meaning in their daily lives.

Q: "Success for All" began as a program in urban schools. Why was rural St. Mary's County chosen for Roots and Wings?

A: Diversity. In Baltimore City, you don't have as much diversity within the same school as you often do in a rural area.

In these schools, about 30 percent of these children overall qualify for free lunches. Three of the four schools are very near Patuxent Naval Air Center, so there are kids of parents at every rank in the military. There are kids of parents in high-tech industries, kids of farmers, kids of watermen, kids of the unemployed, kids of the doctor, lawyer, teacher -- all in the same school. Also, we're in a partnership in development of this proposal with the Maryland State Department of Education.

They had a strong interest in family support and integrated services and in early childhood programs. They thought St. Mary's County was one area in the state where a lot already had been done along those lines, that we'd be starting with a receptive kind of place.

Q: How important is such community involvement in schools?

A: It's essential. It communicates something very important to the kids, that school is not just a place you go for six hours a day and the rest of the world forgets about you while you're in there.

You get all kinds of political things going sometimes where people are suspicious about what is going on in those school buildings. When you have community people in the school, they know what is going on. Typically, they're much more likely to support and defend what the school is doing out in the community.

Q: How do you feel about American education?

A: I'm enormously optimistic about the possibilities. Very, very good things are happening in education right now, real potential for fundamental change -- in curriculum, in instruction, in assessment, in many areas that are all to the good.

It's there in a way that it hasn't been for a long while.

Q: Why now?

A: There's just very broad agreement at every level that we're in deep trouble and we can't just keep doing what we've been doing. We're not getting the results we want; there's no question about that.

So, we've got to do something different -- not innovation for the sake of innovation, but innovation that's closely tied to the things that work for kids.

American educators always like to talk about change, always like to appear to be innovative, but there's a big difference in talking about it and actually getting it down to where teachers and kids interact.

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