We are on the brink of a revolution in education. Everywhere we see the unrest; the thrashing about for something that can light our path. I see it in parents and teachers, at universities and on Capitol Hill.
Too many of our schools are failing to produce the kinds of human beings that meet a civilized society's most basic definition of an educated person. Instead of scholarship and excitement, there are often signs of pessimism, defeatism, indifference, violence and ignorance. Just watch the national news headlines.
Every revolution needs a visionary - someone with the clarity and intelligence to carry us toward a new way of thinking. Often visionaries are people who don't set out to be revolutionaries and in fact are quite unlikely leaders. Yet there they are, changing the world.
Such is the case with Mel Levine.
He is a quirky, soft-spoken pediatrician who lives on a farm near Chapel Hill, N.C. Any parent or teacher deeply interested in learning disabilities probably already knows Mel Levine. But his ideas about education encompass all kinds of learners. In fact, that broad interest is at the core of his vision.
Schools must celebrate the diversity of minds instead of attempting to fit all children into the same mold, a philosophy he has jokingly dubbed "neuro-developmental pluralism."
Levine's ideas and his modest, common-sense manner in presenting them have made him something of a cult hero in some education and parenting circles. He is a Rhodes scholar, a Harvard Medical School grad and a professor of pediatrics who has devoted his life to understanding how kids learn. He has synthesized decades of brain research to come up with eight types of brain function and subcategories within each function - a sort of neurological blueprint to learning.
The beauty of this blueprint is that it allows us to go beyond such labels as Attention Deficit Disorder, which is too vague to guide a teacher or parent toward the appropriate remedy. Rather, Levine's model zeroes in on the specific deficit under the ADD umbrella. Not only does this mean the child is more likely to get the targeted help he needs, but the deficit itself gets labeled, not the kid.
Levine's nonprofit institute, All Kinds of Minds, has been attracting substantial support from such sponsors as Charles Schwab, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Michael Eisner, as has the institute's teacher-training offshoot, Schools Attuned, which sends teachers back into the classroom with concrete and often simple tools to reach kids who struggle with attention, memory, organization or language - weaknesses that get in the way of learning.
Two weeks ago, Levine sat on a panel with Secretary of Education Rod Paige at a congressional breakfast. And though he would rather retreat to his farm and tend to his geese and donkeys, he is plunging into public life, looking at ways to help shape America's education policies. He knows he is walking a fine line in this revolution. He cannot alienate the Bush administration and indeed wants to nurture its commitment to raise educational standards. Yet Levine knows that high-stakes testing is hardly the answer.
I got a chance to talk to Levine not long ago. I wanted to know one thing: his concept of the ideal school. When we finished 90 minutes later, I felt convinced that transforming education in America isn't a pipe dream. It can happen.
Next week: The ideal school.