My favorite statement on school accountability comes from a ten-year-old, a recollection by poet May Sarton published in her book, I Knew a Phoenix. Sarton tells the story of a Cambridge classmate bouncing down a sidewalk past president Charles W. Eliot of Harvard. Amused by her jaunty gait, the distinguished old man asks, "What school do you attend?"
Without pause, she replied, "The best school in the world." Her tone was neither pretentious nor flippant. As far as the girl was concerned, it was the obvious answer to Mr. Eliot — whoever he was. Nor was she referring to school rankings in U.S. News and World Report or admissions statistics or standardized test scores. She was referring to how her school made her feel about herself.
Every child deserves to be able to make this claim — with the same zeal. Everyone should attend "the best school in the world."
Sarton's retrospective description of her school is similarly vigorous. "We children must have seemed a primitive insurgent tribe," she wrote. "We were not subjected to a theory of education. We were set down in the center of a primal force at work. We never knew what would happen next, but what did happen was always immensely interesting… everything we learned was alive, hunted down, a private possession."
Does your school's viewbook crackle like this?
The best school is about touching, unlocking, discovering, doing, owning the learning. Sarton shows us that the criteria are revealed in verbs, in what you get to do. And the interior fire of verbs is accomplishment, and the self-knowledge to which doing leads.
How do we recognize "the best school in the world"? Plenty of smart people have tried to quantify it in terms of curriculum, scale, faculty, facility; all manner of reform; all manner of style; all manner of standardized tests. Educational literature from The Old Testament to Education Week schematizes a myriad of successful learning environments. I suggest that the zeal for learning comes when conditions allow us to work effectively on becoming ourselves; when "school" is alive to us in the same way that we are alive to school.
A wise kindergarten teacher explained it to me with this metaphor: We are each at work on a personal, existential jigsaw puzzle. Some of our puzzles comprise thousands of pieces, some only hundreds; some are photo-real images, some are Picassos. In my puzzle, the bottom edge and two bottom corners seem to be pretty well finished, but there are an awful lot of those frustrating pieces with clouds and blue sky yet to fall into place. And I'm just glad to have found that there are corners! Some puzzles are circular; some have no apparent borders. Although it would be nice if my jigsaw puzzle came with clues for assembly, I have not been given the box cover to see how I'm supposed to look at the end! Neither have you. This suggests we'll never be finished. Thank goodness - since we should enjoy the ride. Life, after all, is a progressive education, therefore we should remember that school is the locale for works in progress, at times a neatly quantifiable lab, but more often a messy experience at best.
Which brings us back to that tribal-school poet-zealot May Sarton. Her teachers and classmates clearly affirmed her work on her puzzle in a way that connected her with the beauty of her own pieces: unique, incomplete, coming together, only hinting at final form and color, worth assembling every day, full of "private possessions" to be hunted down.
We who work in schools and raise children are reminded daily of the phenomenon of children's pieces, gifts, colors, form: beautiful, unique, incomplete, coming together and, yes, messy. In an era of standards reform and school accountability, we are in danger of following the wrong star home if we standardize our mission. In our era of quantification of unquantifiable things, schools in particular are under great scrutiny and pressure to measure up by measuring student achievement as if it were reducible to a simple algorithm, like bandwidth or megahertz. And yet, whether we are a Big Name Franchise or a one-room schoolhouse, it is the chemistry of our verbs that ignite learning. It is this elemental level on which reputations are earned, child by child, day by day.
So here's my advice: Choose verbs carefully — you are what you conjugate. Don't settle for theories of education; seat yourself at the heart of a "primal force at work." Know that the quantifiable task of mastering the multiplication tables occupies the same space as the unquantifiable development of a soul. Emphasize verbs that will contribute large pieces to the varied and beautiful puzzles of children. Think, care, listen, serve, laugh. And if your students (and your children) are asked what school they attend, may they reply, "The best school in the world."
Todd R. Nelson, who spent twenty-two years working as an independent school teacher and administrator, is now assistant editor of Hope magazine. He lives and works in Castine, Maine.