A Manifesto For American Education

Have we lost the boldness of America's revolutionary spirit? We built the greatest nation on earth by committing ourselves to our beliefs and principles. Why not apply that same spirit to American education?
12/15/2016 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2017

I have taught for 65 years and founded Hyde Schools, a group of private and public schools devoted to exploring and developing a better way to prepare American youth for life.

During that time, there has been continual dissatisfaction with the quality of our education system and with the 50-plus years of ineffective reforms to improve it.

Have we lost the boldness of America's revolutionary spirit? We built the greatest nation on earth by committing ourselves to our beliefs and principles. Why not apply that same spirit to American education?

First, determine the basic purpose of American education. I strongly believe its first and foremost responsibility should be developing the unique potential and character of each American child.

This will motivate youth to pursue a far richer education and empower their lives to effectively deal with adversity and changing times, particularly in the job market. Presently many Americans are out of jobs because of the narrow and depersonalized training we give them.

Of course American kids need job/college preparation. But with a wider appreciation of their deeper capabilities, they will be more independent, resourceful and focused to deal with life challenges.

So how would this change our schools? Clearly the student--not the subject--becomes most important. That radically changes the teacher's focus, because character is primarily caught--not taught--by example. So teachers need to be mentors for their students, modeling character in their own lives.

I began to learn these things after I founded my first Hyde School 50 years ago. Then eight years later, I learned my biggest lesson by tracing the progress of Hyde graduates in college (and life) to see how effective our education actually was.

I was stunned to find what really influenced their progress was not Hyde but parents and family!

I understood that if you really want to help kids, you need to help their parents. So in spite of being a boarding school, we began a rigorous, regular and required program to address parental growth and family issues.

This has been the most rewarding work of my career. Basically our schools have learned: In character development, parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom.

This work highlighted the rampant inequality our present educational system creates between the privileged and the disadvantaged. In "Our Kids," Harvard's Robert Putnam clearly illustrates the dramatic difference between these two family/community support groups. It's as hard for privileged students to fail as it is for disadvantaged students to succeed.

As long as the primary purpose of American education is academic proficiency, little will change, because this kind of education can be bought and passed on. It plays to the strength of the privileged.

But developing the potentials and character of students plays to the strength of all youth, as well as to parents and family.

In a district with only a 47% high school graduation rate, 93% of our first Hyde-Bronx graduating class went to college, and two years later, 78% were still there. We believe our parent/family program sets the foundation for this success. Consider this recent email from a parent:

Thank you, Mr. Gauld, for developing this idea of working with families; thanks to the staff, the parents and their children, I was able to forget the problems I left in the Bronx. This retreat helped me reflect and know that's going to be a positive change in my family--time to forgive and let go of resentment and guilt and appreciate what I have: my family.
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Schools can strengthen families; families can strengthen schools. The individual focus highly motivates students to contribute to improve themselves, peers, family and school.

If that seems too idealistic, realize kids raised/educated in an achievement society/system are often on the defensive, and generally not open to partnerships with authority figures. However, in the system truly committed to their growth instead of their achievements, they see effective authority figures as mentors, not judges.

What I present here is based on American principles and common sense. In contrast, our present educational system has no founding philosophy; it simply morphed out of the one room school house teaching the three "R"s.

It needs a revolution.