Ernest Boyer: practical visionary

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
With the death of Ernest Boyer on December 8, 1995, the United States lost one of its most principled, perceptive and persuasive educational leaders.

An educator with vision, his vision did not blind; rather it served to give voice to the students, teachers, administrators, and most surely the parents, upon whose collaborative efforts successful learning so greatly depends.

As president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for the past 15 years, his reports spanned the spectrum of educational issues. He also commissioned Carnegie studies of education in the workplace and on the controversial issue of choice.

Ernest Boyer, who was born in 1928, understood the seminal importance of language. No one can read any of his reports without understanding what is being said. He was likewise a gifted orator, a candid and compelling public speaker who inspired listeners from all walks of life.

He achieved this most effectively when he spoke on Communities in Partnership at the first Anglo-American Teaching and Learning in Cities conference and study visit, organised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate and the Carnegie Foundation in 1988.

His support for that initiative arose from his deeply held conviction that international collaboration benefits all parties. On that occasion, as on others, his priority was "to deal with the deeper needs of the nation and its people".

In more recent years, that concern was addressed in Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation. Few reports have struck such a responsive chord and caused so many to give such serious attention to the needs of the under-fives. Within months, legislation based on the report's recommendations, was proposed in Congress.

He served as an adviser to several US presidents, Democrat and Republican, and as Federal Commissioner of Education to one of them. On Ernest Boyer's death, President Clinton said: "The nation has lost one of its most dedicated and influential education reformers . . . whose work will help students well into the next century."

Helping students, teachers, and parents was his ultimate concern as he endeavoured to uphold the Carnegie Foundation's original charter - "to do and perform all things necessary to encourage, uphold and dignify the profession" of teaching.

As the foundation's eighth president, Ernest Boyer kept the mandates of his charter in sharp focus. He was the conscience of the school reform movement in the US, never letting the politicians forget that it is the teachers, and their students, who matter most.

He argued forcefully to involve teachers in school decision-making, to give them time to plan and reflect on their work, and to treat them with respect. He viewed them as "leaders", and headteachers as "lead teachers" who lead, not by the authority of their office, but by the inspiration of their ideas.

He advocated a strong role for parents, who he saw as the child's first and most essential teacher. "A school must become not a holding place for isolated effort, but a community. A community in which teachers and students and surely parents are engaged towards common goals," he said recently when speaking about his last work, The Basic School.

Such interconnected ideas were a driving force in all of Ernest Boyer's work. He viewed education as a "seamless web", beginning in the first year of life, and took every opportunity to remind his audiences that equity and excellence in education cannot be divided.

Shortly before his death, Ernest Boyer remarked that: "Frequently I'm asked whether I'm optimistic about the future of education, and my answer is unequivocal, a straightforward 'yes', whenever I'm in classrooms and I watch teachers and children."

Ernest Boyer knew where standards and quality in education are achieved, and by whom.

* The Ernest L Boyer Teacher's Scholarship Fund will encourage and support the education of future teachers. Donations can be sent to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 5 Ivy Lane, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, United States.

The writer was director of the Anglo-American Teaching and Learning in Cities programme in association with Ernest Boyer

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