I wrote The Lights Are On, Is Anybody Home? Education in America, when I was an education professor. The objective of the book was to explain how we got to the often irrational K-12 educational system that we have and to encourage thinking about what kinds of things we might do differently.
This is not a typical book about education. It is not a theoretical, “ivory tower”discourse on esoteric points,nor is it a how-to manual that fits into tidy categories like “curriculum and instruction” or “assessment”or“literacy methods.”This book is not much like many of the “pop” assessments of the American Education Condition written by journalists and educators either.
So what precisely is this book? It is an exploration of challenges and potential solutions to what ails much of American education today. It is an integrated, holistic view of the good, bad, and ugly of what we call schooling.
The book offers an overview of why I believe we have many of the difficulties we have today in providing a successful, meaning- ful education to many American youth. The book also devotes a significant amount of space to potential solutions.
So, who do I hope reads this book? Lots and lots of people… First, although this is not a typical textbook, I hope students in teacher training programs read it. I believe a shortcoming of most teacher education programs is a structure which implies to teacher trainees that there are few universal truths about good education across grade levels and subjects; that kindergarten teachers and high school math teachers are as different as plumbers and electri- cians. Certainly there are differences, but there is more in common with great teaching in kindergarten and graduate school than there are differences (more on this later). Moreover, I’m concerned that teacher trainees often don’t realize that most schools are the way they are because they are institutions of convenience and tradition. They are not the result of thoughtful, rational planning on how to provide children with optimal learning environments. Second, I would like practicing teachers, both those who agree with this book and those who don’t, to read it. For those whose practice is reflective of the beliefs and positions in this book, I believe reading it may affirm innovative, professional choices that are often not widely respected, even within educational circles. For those educators who dis- agree with the beliefs and positions in this book, my hope is that reading it (despite the great sacrifice involved) may offer at least a point of departure for examining one’s own teaching and for participating in a broader dialogue on solving education’s problems.
A criticism I received of the first edition from some teachers who read it was that my ideas make a lot of sense, but “I can’t do that in my classroom.” In fact, one teacher called me at home from another state and literally cried she was so frustrated. I told her that although I could have written a “survival manual” for class- room teachers that might have been more immediately helpful, I purposely chose to address systemic challenges in our schools because the reason our system is slow to change, despite its many serious problems, is that too many teachers manage to succeed despite the system. Hence, policy makers are let “off the hook.” They don’t have to take the risk of significant, systemic change, because too many teachers are keeping the system afloat.While I deeply respect classroom teachers, and was one myself, I frankly don’t want to play a part in perpetuating a dysfunctional system.
Third, I hope that school administrators—those in schools and central offices read this book too. Sometimes it is easy to become so caught up in the day-to-day demands of administration, that school administrators lose sight of important realities.
Finally, I believe that this book may be helpful for non-educators such as parents, business people, policy makers, community leaders and others who recognize the significance of the challenges facing education today, and who may appreciate a fairly atypical discussion of issues that ultimately impact all of us.
Note on the Millennium Edition:This edition of The Lights Are On, Is Anybody Home? Education In America, is an abridged ver- sion.The first edition contained an additional six chapters which I edited, but were not written by me.This edition is a revision of the first nine chapters, written by me, and includes the addition of a new, 10th chapter, on schools of the future.