The Last Word January 2012

By Mary Broderick

One November morning, a radio host interviewed me about NSBA’s “Students on Board” program. I stressed the importance of board members talking with students about school climate, including them in considering the root causes of bullying, and in generating solutions.

Juxtapose this interview with our local board meeting that night: Our relatively new administration had decided to use breathalyzers randomly as high school students arrived for the homecoming dance. We all want what’s best for students, and everyone brings different perspectives to discussions, but I wonder what lessons students learned here. I’m witnessing a culture shift in my own community that worries me.

My point in the interview was that we can impose solutions all we want, but we never solve the problem unless we engage students in sorting out the issue. I talked about our local efforts to involve students in their governance. Starting in kindergarten, our students generate rules that guide their classrooms. Through morning meetings, they develop empathy toward peers as they discuss what’s happening in their lives. They learn to welcome newcomers.

At one of my first board meetings 22 years ago, the high school principal told us about a cafeteria food fight. Asked whether students had played a role in generating rules that governed their behavior, the principal said no. From then on, students actively helped develop the rules. We have not had any more food fights, and our high school is routinely commended for remarkably good behavior as 1,400 students eat at the same time.

A few students may come to dances after drinking, and that’s a problem. However, jumping to a “solution” such as breathalyzers without asking students to wrestle first with this issue deprives them of important learning through real-life problem solving. At best, we demonstrate a lack of respect, potentially violating personal liberties and assuming the worst. We may inadvertently encourage students to become oppositional. We put in jeopardy a culture of mutual respect and ownership of behavior that has taken a long time to build.

Discussing the pros and cons of the breathalyzer solution, a couple of board members suggested this “simply is the way it is these days.” That resignation terrifies me. Are we so ready to accept strategies that remove student freedoms and can generate alienation and disconnect?

This social issue parallels what’s happening in students’ academic lives. At NBC’s Education Nation summit in September, I saw a video of a toddler wrestling with a complex puzzle. He was happy to use trial and error to solve the puzzle, but lost interest as soon as he was told the solution. Given an overloaded curriculum, we don’t take time to allow children to consider problems, find solutions themselves, and generate a depth of understanding. Pressure to perform prevents students from having room to explore.

William Butler Yeats often is credited with saying, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” “Filling a pail” deprives children of exploration that holds their interest. However, when we ask their opinions and tap their experience and ideas, we credit them with competence and recognize that they make valuable contributions. They feel worthy of respect, and, in turn, they respect their peers and adults.

The lack of growth in the nation’s NAEP results over the past decade suggests the “filling of a pail” is not working very well. We never have and likely never will surpass some nations on rote learning. Americans are not compliant, docile people. The world comes to us to learn how to engender creativity.

Let’s not squander our nation’s competitive edge! Rather than focusing on narrow, rote measures, let’s respect, engage, motivate, and ignite a love of learning. Let’s draw out their innate gifts. Let’s empower them to be creative problem solvers. Let’s honor the spirit that drives excellence.

I would like your thoughts as I write an open letter to President Obama to be published in ASBJ’s March issue. Many board members, superintendents, administrators, teachers, other staff, and community members are frustrated with our current national education policy. We must be heard. E-mail me your perspectives on how we can ensure public education thrives over the next decade. I will do my best to review, synthesize, and articulate our common concerns. 

Mary Broderick ( is the 2011-12 president of NSBA and a member of Connecticut’s East Lyme Board of Education.