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Education: Frenzy at U. Mass.

4 minute read

Forgettable used to be the word for the University of Massachusetts School of Education. Like many such trade schools, it trained teachers in stale methods and lacked a complete graduate program. Then, two years ago, the university turned the place over to a frenetic professor of education from California named Dwight W. Allen. Ever since, it has hurtled into experiments that could turn U.S. teachers into models of sensitivity−or cause the school to selfdestruct.

The ambitious son of a successful used-car dealer, Allen, 39, is one of nine American leaders of the Baha’i faith, a Persian religion resembling Unitarianism that advocates world brotherhood and universal education. A Stanford graduate, he joined the ed school faculty there, ran the Peace Corps training program, and continually tried to inspire public schools to break up their rigid schedules. The “modular” class system he advocates−16-to 20-minute periods that can be endlessly recombined for different subjects−is now used in 500 schools, from Temple City, Calif., to Sarasota, Fla.

Out of Business. When U. Mass. Provost (now Chancellor) Oswald Tippo approached him about heading the ed school, Allen boldly “asked for everything.” To his shock, he got virtual carte blanche−and has used it with characteristic gusto. Draping his portly form in custom-tailored African shirts and guzzling low-calorie colas, Dean Allen first set out to whip up a graduate school. Foundations and the Federal Government agreed with his goal, came up with nearly $4,000,000. Allen raised faculty salaries to as much as $33,000 a year, signed on historians and economists as well as education professors, attracted 90 new doctoral candidates. Then he popped them all aboard a chartered 707 jet for a week of planning at a camp in the Rockies, where he bulled through his reforms. “A little change hurts,” he soothingly told objectors, “but a lot of change doesn’t hurt much more.”

Heaving out the old curriculum, Allen & Co. reorganized departments into multidisciplinary “centers” that must rethink their goals every three years or automatically go out of business. Though timid undergraduates may still take old-fashioned teaching-methods courses, the adventuresome are free to gather credits where they may. In the “humanistic education” center, for example, students and professors join modified encounter groups to pinpoint the elusive emotional problems that may baffle them and the children they will teach. A doctoral student recently got credit for one self-designed unit of “watching Dwight Allen.” Students also practice-teach while living full time in Philadelphia and other cities far from the ed school’s Amherst campus.

This week Allen is in Washington at the White House Conference on Children, superselling his suggestion that every school system in the nation should create an “alternative” school “where change is the tradition.” Said he: “Students will no longer tolerate a procrustean system of education. I want useful alternatives and an atmosphere of choice.”

The First Alarm. Allen’s off-campus missionary projects (400 speeches last year) occupy him four days a week, and even though he often starts his on-campus days at 4:30 a.m., troubles are building up. Ironically, the new ed school shows signs of tripping into some of the intellectual vacuity that marked its pre-Allen days. Administrative procedures are disorganized; last summer the state auditor’s office sounded the first alarm in a probable public reaction by charging that the school’s books were too vague.

So far, Allen has retained the overall support of Chancellor Tippo, but he admits he has made some mistakes and expects to make more. He is convinced that taking risks is the only way to change the school, and most of his faculty agree. “Dwight Allen promises more than he can deliver,” sighs one professor, “but he always delivers more than you expect.”

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