The public schools
of America long ago sank to a level of decrepitude guaranteeing them the
sort of dogged scrutiny by blue ribbon commissions reserved for a "crisis"
both intolerable and permanent. The distinguished panel reports by now
fill many shelves; but the standardized test scores, trumpeted as the
unfailing indicator of the system's health, continue to languish.
Like its predecessors, the Reagan Administration
has proclaimed that improving education is a number-one priority; unlike
them, it has succeeded in persuading the states to enact what it calls
a "tidal wave" of reform. Purportedly designed to make the schools
more "accountable," these laws mandate more requirements and
more standardized tests, further concentrating power in the state capitals.
The reforms, aimed at an already heavily bureaucratic and inflexible system,
propose to heal the patient by administering more of what made him sick.
What will this current wave of school reform actually
achieve? What are the real problems of American schools, and why are they
so intractable? What sorts of action would serve as the beginning of true
reform? Harper's invited education scholars, former government officials,
a superintendent, a principal, and a high school teacher to consider how
best to fix America's schools-and how not to.
The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the Harvard
Club in New York City. Mark D. Danner served as moderator.
MARK D. DANNER
is senior editor of Harper's.
is chairman of the social studies department at Farmingdale High
School in Nassau County, New York. He has been a high school teacher
for thirty years.
FLORETT A D. MCKENZIE
is superintendent of the District of Columbia public school system.
She served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of
Education from 1979 to 1981.
is president of the American Federation of Teachers.
ERNEST L. BOYER
is president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement
of Teaching and the author of its 1983 study, High School: A Report
on Secondary Education in America. He was chancellor of the State
University of New York from 1970 to 1977 and United States commissioner
of education from 1977 to 1979.
is a contributing editor of Harper's and the author of Indispensable
Enemies and The Politics of War.
A. GRAHAM DOWN
is executive director of the Council for Basic Education, a national
advocacy group dedicated to improving liberal arts education in
elementary and secondary schools.
THEODORE R. SIZER
is a professor of education at Brown University and the author
of Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.
He was headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts,
from 1972 to 1981.
is principal of Thayer Junior/Senior High School in Winchester,
New Hampshire. He created the Shoreham Wading River Middle School
in Shoreham, N. Y., and served as principal there from 1972 to
Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce,
industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by
competitors throughout the world. . . . [T]he educational foundations
of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity
that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable
a generation ago has begun to occur-others are matching and surpassing
our educational attainments.
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America
the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well
have viewed it as an act of war. . . . We have, in effect, been committing
an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
MARK D. DANNER: These incendiary words are drawn from the opening paragraphs
of A Nation at Risk, a report on America's schools, written by the National
Commission on Excellence in Education. The document was obviously intended
to provoke a strong response, and it did: its publication in 1983 set
off a heated national debate about the perilous condition of America's
schools, a debate that quickly spread from the editorial pages to the
state legislatures to the presidential debates the following year, culminating
in a small library of books and follow-up reports.
What is most surprising, however, is the fact that A Nation at Risk,
unlike most government reports, actually provoked significant changes
in school policy, what the Department of Education called "a tidal
wave of school reform."
As of 1984, forty-one states, following the report's recommendations,
had stiffened high school graduation requirements; thirty-seven states
had introduced new, presumably stricter student evaluation and testing
programs; and twenty states had increased the amount of required instruction
time in their schools, by lengthening the school day, the school year,
or both. And we could offer other examples.
Yet the general effect of the report's proposals can be summarized in
one phrase: more of the same. The report takes the schools as they exist
for granted, arguing that we need only add more requirements, more standardized
testing, more hours spent in the classroom. A gross disparity seems to
exist between the urgency of the crisis situation described in the report
- the "rising tide of mediocrity" - and the comparative mildness,
even superficiality of the proposed remedies. If a crisis of such magnitude
is indeed upon us, we should be scrutinizing our schools in a more fundamental
way. I hope we can make a start on that today.
Perhaps we should begin by trying to predict what the results of these
reforms will be, at least in the short run. Mr. Krakowsky, what do you
expect will happen in your classroom as the New York State program is
IVAN KRAKOWSKY: The New York State Regents Action Plan is potentially
revolutionary. To earn a diploma, all students will be required to pass
four years of English, four years of social studies, at least two years
of math, two years of science, one year of a foreign language, and one
year of art and music. In my field, social studies,
every student must not only successfully complete four years but must
also pass a statewide examination in the tenth and eleventh grades. Students
who fail the exams must take remedial classes until they can pass.
Our schools have never had requirements like this before; I don't know
how students will respond. It seems likely that many more of them will
fail; certainly large numbers will not be able to meet the new standards.
Many will leave school; some might stay in school longer in order to graduate.
Actually, in my opinion, the most likely scenario is that the New York
State Regents will retreat the moment a problem arises, particularly if
the problem is on a leviathan scale, such as thousands more kids suddenly
flunking out of school. The Regents may reduce the requirements or water
By the way, despite all the publicity, the New York State Regents Action
Plan, at least at the high school level, does not go into effect until
1989, and I suspect that in the average school the full implications of
it are not even being discussed. Administrators and teachers will probably
realize them two days before it's implemented, or two years after. There
is certainly no sense of urgency. Some educators no doubt hope the plan
will go away. They may be right.
FLOREITA D. MCKENZIE: It's obvious that some serious costs of these programs
have not been calculated or perhaps even thought about. After all, remedial
classes mean a lot more teachers, no two ways about it. And the extended
school day, or school year, that's being mandated in a lot of states is
going to mean a lot more money.
ALBERT SHANKER: SO is this new foreign language requirement. Where are
the teachers going to come from? No one has been studying languages for
the last twenty years! It's ridiculous.
MCKENZIE: There's great potential for a negative impact if these tough
standards are set without a compensating effort to make sure students
can meet them. It's easy to set the standards and let kids fail, but in
the end communities simply won't tolerate a lot more failing students.
DANNER: How will the local school boards react?
MCKENZIE: First off, they'll fire the superintendent. You don't fail large
numbers of students and expect everyone to be happy. There'll be a lot
of turnover, I can tell you that.
The word you hear everywhere today is excellence; everyone is concerned
with the quality of graduates, not the quantity. I worry that by wrapping
ourselves in this cloak of "excellence" we'll be satisfied if
the percentage of Americans graduating from high school continues to hover
around 75 percent when other nations are graduating 90 percent. Excellence
is important, sure; but we have to confront the simple fact that a high
school dropout is likely to become part of a permanent underclass with
very little hope of decent employment.
Of course we need the concern and the support of the state legislatures.
But one result of all this political action is that we on the front lines
become afraid to talk about the real problems, even to tell the truth
about how many dropouts there are in some districts. We don't know if
we have any hope of attracting these young people back to school, because
we don't know whether we're giving them anything better or more useful
than what they were getting before.
We need to talk about these problems honestly before we can develop
a meaningful policy. A lot of kids are going to get hurt while we skitter
around on this hot political frying pan.
SHANKER: Politicians look for slogan answers and quick results within
election periods of two or four years. For all the tough exams being mandated,
nobody is mentioning the obvious fact that these tests measure the end
product of a long educational process: they measure what students didn't
learn in the first, second, and third grades. You don't hear much talk
about in- vesting in the earlier grades so that when these students get
to high school they will have a better chance of making it. These "reforms"
are political measures designed to get test numbers up fast; everybody
wants to have some "improvement" to point to before the next
ERNEST L. BOYER: This is a school reform movement, in short, driven by
political and economic interests, not by educational and human ones. Well
over 90 percent of the so-called advances in the fifty states listed by
the Department of Education in a recent report are regulatory-do this,
don't do that.
SHANKER: The message out of the state capitals is: We think you superintendents
and principals and teachers are a bunch of idiots, so we're going to tell
you to spend this number of minutes on this subject, and we'll provide
a standard set of materials and a standardized examination to make sure
you follow orders. At a time when the administration in Washington is
claiming that our biggest sin has been to stifle initiative by overregulation,
we have entered the greatest era of educational regulation in history.
BOYER: But the politicians are only filling a vacuum; they certainly aren't
trying to subvert or hurt the schools. They're doing what they know how
to do, and legislators know how to do one thing: to regulate. So they
tighten standards and mandate more tests. The motivation is there; the
attitude is constructive. People generally don't want simple answers;
but they do want real answers, evidence, and accountability.
DANNER: But must accountability be achieved at the expense of real reform?
BOYER: This is our central dilemma: historically, Americans have wanted
local control of education but national results. Americans like the idea
of localism. But how do they know their schools are doing a good job unless
they have a national yardstick to measure them against?
The problem is, we've never been able to devise a system that allows
the excitement and flexibility of local control as well as the accountability
of national results. In the end we do the worst of all things: we not
only mandate rigid standards but also hand out to the nation an annual
report card based on SAT scores - yardsticks that were devised precisely
to be schoolproof, to measure aptitude rather than learning. And the media
use these test averages to pass on to Americans the one bit of information
the tests can't reliably tell us: whether our schools are getting better
WALTER KARP: I think we ought to be a little more skeptical about how
the wheels of power turn. Educational "reform" movements have
assumed a certain pattern in this century. The so-called progressive movement
of the 1920s was brutally converted into tracking and vocational education.
Today, the drive for so-called excellence is immediately converted into
state-mandated requirements; the need to develop critical, independent
thinking turned into more standardized tests that encourage its opposite;
the demand for better teaching into less pedagogic freedom in the classroom.
Those in power seem to have a habit of manipulating to their own ends
any desire for meaningful reform.
You have to accept the fact that the schools are political institutions.
If you went to a state legislature and said that the schools should produce
inquiring, idealistic, active students, students with self-esteem and
self-confidence who have been encouraged from the moment they start school
to think for themselves and understand their liberties, those politicians
would faint dead away. That is exactly the opposite of what they want
DANNER: Presumably it's not the opposite of what the people at large want
to see. Or do we have any real idea what Americans want today's schools
to do? Do we want the schools to produce effective workers and thereby
help our economy keep pace with the ]apanese, as the writers of A Nation
at Risk assume? Should the schools promote social justice, as Mrs. McKenzie
believes? Or should they produce vigilant citizens, as Thomas Jefferson
KARP: We tell young people incessantly that if they stay in school they're
going to get a better job, but very often we're lying to them; for many
of them, the jobs simply aren't there. This single-minded purpose is drummed
into kids, and not only high school kids. My wife is a school-teacher;
she recently asked a class of second- graders why they were in school.
They said, "To get a better job"; it was a chorus sung by thirty
eight-year-olds. My wife said, "That's not the only purpose."
Pencils dropped. The kids thought it was a trap.
There is a tremendous amount of this kind of crass utilitarianism in
our schools, a pervasive propaganda that comes down from the tops of school
systems all over the country. The confusion in children, their lack of
interest in school, is often the result of the confusion and dishonesty
of the schools themselves.
A. GRAHAM DOWN: To make people more functionally competent and employable
is only the implicit purpose of education. Surely its abiding, all-encompassing
purpose must be to equip people with the taste for lifelong learning.
THEODORE R. SIZER: At the heart of it is teaching people to use their
minds well. Jefferson's conception of education as essential to true citizenship
comes into that: if a person is ill-equipped to think issues through carefully,
he becomes a ready target for those who would manipulate him. Similarly,
the necessary complement to developing the ability to think is developing
character. Whether we like it or not, schools help youngsters develop
values by which to live. They may do it well or badly, implicitly or explicitly,
but they inevitably do it.
BOYER: The two fundamental goals of education are personal empowerment
and civic engagement. Personal empowerment requires that people be able
to think analytically and examine information critically; that they be
able to think creatively - go beyond the analysis and challenge assumptions,
leap out of the present and imagine beyond where they are; and that they
be able to act with a clear sense of integrity. Civic engagement requires
that people learn how to use these skills while taking full part in the
life of the larger community.
KARP: One simple concept includes all those purposes: Americans do not
go to school in order to increase the social efficiency or economic prosperity
of the country, but to become informed, critical citizens. A citizen is
not a worker. The Soviet Union has workers, the American republic has
citizens. A citizen is a political being; he has private powers and a
public role. As Jefferson wrote, the education of a citizen must "enable
every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom."
In practice, that goal is persistently betrayed. It is essential that
citizens be able to judge for themselves and have the courage and confidence
to think for themselves. Yet America's high schools characteristically
breed conformity and mental passivity. They do this through large, impersonal
classes, a focus on order as the first priority, and an emphasis on standardized,
short-answer tests, among other things. Our schools do not attempt to
make citizens; they attempt to break citizens.
SIZER: And the recent reforms reinforce the tendency toward fact-stuffing,
short answers, and mental passivity by emphasizing tighter requirements
and standardized testing.
One of the reasons the reforms aren't changing this tendency is the
surprisingly substantial public support for the schools. The idea that
most people believe schools are in disastrous shape is, I think, quite
mistaken. If anything, people exhibit a rather mindless, ill-informed
satisfaction about the schools. This is why our political system avoids
challenging the basic assumptions and merely strengthens and extends them:
our schools are basically OK; let's just push them a little harder, add
an eighth period to a seven-period day, add thirty days to a 180- day-a-year
schedule, test the kids more. That approach certainly does not suggest
people are tremendously upset with the schools as they are.
BOYER: Meanwhile, students don't have the fog- giest idea why they're
in school. We asked hundreds of students what they were doing in school.
The most frequent response was, "I have to be here." They know
it's the law. Or, "If I finish this, I have a better chance at a
job." The "this" remains a blank. Or, "I need this
in order to go to college." Or, "This is where I meet my friends,"
Not once in all our conversations did students mention what they were
learning or why they should learn it.
In general, we found among students a feeling of passivity and non-engagement,
a sense that they don't fit, that they are not really being asked to become
responsible adults. The schools have become institutions of passivity
and are viewed by most students as adult places where rules are imposed
and they must conform. If 40 million children do not see their schools
as places for learning that somehow touch what they worry about every
day, the prospects of making school a vital place are not good.
MCKENZIE: So many of these kids are just marking time, just playing the
game to get through the day. And a good deal of the time teachers are
doing the same thing, doing just enough to get through the hour. The two
sides are partners; neither side pushes the other.
I taught a class in geography during American Education Week, a class
full of bright but lazy youngsters. I asked a lot of questions about things
they should have known just by living. But they didn't know, not because
they weren't bright but because they lacked interest. I'm talking about
some very bright kids - some of the brightest - who should be having fun
challenging the teacher, making that teacher move. The problem is not
that everything is dramatically falling apart in the schools; it's that
the schools are working in a passive, dull, mediocre way.
SHANKER: We're forgetting something essential about schools. Although
the aims of education certainly include the development of character,
civic virtues, and so on, the public also pays its school taxes for quite
a different purpose. The need to control children, to harbor them for
a certain amount of time away from their working or otherwise engaged
parents, tends to become the most important function schools perform.
And this custodial function often conflicts with, even dominates, the
What are the purposes of summer camps? Teaching children to work with
others, to enjoy the beauty of nature, and so on. Well, I once worked
at a camp whose real purpose was to ensure that a camper could not escape
and wander back to his or her parents at the main hotel. So keeping close
track of the campers became our major purpose; they were no longer permitted
to wander off and catch butterflies or look at trees or just stroll in
the woods. What might have been the major benefits of camp were lost.
If we were to design a place whose sole purpose was to develop the qualities
all of you listed, it might look nothing like an institution that, as
its first priority, must ensure that three thousand kids get there at
8:30 in the morning, stay until 3:00 in the afternoon, and are reason-
ably well behaved for most of that time.
DENNIS LlTTKY: One of my teachers did a fantastic month and a half of
classes on questioning- teaching the kids how to analyze a subject and
ask the right questions. The sessions were designed to teach critical
thinking, and they were highly successful. But we got a huge amount of
flak - from parents. They didn't want their kids pestering them with questions.
We thought our job was somehow forcing these kids to use their minds;
the parents thought we should take care of their kids during the day and
eventually reward them with a diploma.
SHANKER: Insofar as a student is influenced at home, he is told to go
to class, find out what the teachers want, and give it to them. Not because
he'll become a good citizen or come to enjoy learning for the rest of
his life or learn how to think critically, but to get that piece of paper
and trade it in for a job.
BOYER: So a school becomes not a place of learning but an institution
issuing certificates of upward mobility to those who conform to the rules.
DANNER: You educators seem to be in a rather embarrassing minority position
here. You think of schools as places where people are taught how to think
critically and how to become vigilant citizens, whereas most adults and
students apparently believe the schools exist to keep kids out of trouble
for a few years and help them get jobs.
SIZER: Well, some schools produce students who in fact know they're there
to learn. Last year five students - two seniors, one junior, and two ninth
graders from Dennis Littky's Thayer School - lectured to one of our education
classes at Brown. These were tough kids, examples of the wonderfully complicated
kind of classic kid who fights the system relentlessly and ultimately
walks away from it - drops out. The Thayer people had taken time with
these youngsters and had somehow managed to make them see a clear connection
between their wish to get ahead and the larger intellectual and civic
vir- tues of education. These kids spoke about school with the passion
of converts at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
LlTTKY: What was different about these kids was that they became committed
to learning. They stayed in school because they were given a lot of respect,
and the time to talk about what they were studying and why they were studying
it. It is crucial that a kid understand why he's learning something, almost
as important as the fact that he does learn it. Sometimes I find myself
watching a student who's not doing anything. I know if I told him, "Hey,
go on and do this," he'd do it, but he'd just be following orders.
Teachers must not only present material and help students understand it;
they also must be patient enough to let students discover for themselves.
BOYER: But educators themselves have become less sure of what is worth
knowing. Why should we expect a principal at a Long Island high school
to be enlightened and clearheaded, to say nothing of a second-grade teacher,
when the faculties at our universities endlessly debate what is necessary
for a good education? There's no longer a single accepted core of knowledge.
KARP: We can go on and on about the complexity of knowledge, but when
we get down to brass tacks we find more basic problems in our schools;
one example is the systematic, protracted failure to teach reading - just
one of those minor skills without which you can't achieve anything in
this society. A student who can't read will be so far behind by the sixth
grade that school will be a nightmare.
What about the teaching of history? Jefferson thought it was crucial
that citizens learn history, so that they might "know ambition under
all its shapes." Travel to any schoolroom in the country and you
will not find ambition, let alone the disguises of ambition, taught this
way. What you will find is something called "social studies,"
in which schoolchildren learn a great deal more about the Panama Canal
than about Abraham Lincoln, a great deal more about Betsy Ross than about
freedom of the press. And how about the development of critical thinking
in the classroom? Studies appear pointing out the failure of schools to
develop critical thinking in students. Instantly, statewide standardized
tests are mandated, multiple-choice tests guaranteed to wipe out any vestige
of critical thinking.
SIZER: The degree to which the reform movement ignores the current concepts
about learning is astonishing. It is doubly ironic that these educational
reforms, supposedly based on a belief in the power of the mind, are in
fact profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-scholarly. John Goodlad's seven-year
study A Place Called School was published at the same time as many of
these reports, but it's as if his work doesn't exist; it's as if certain
common-sense notions about how schools are organized-that students, for
example, can't engage their minds very well in 35- minute snippets of
time, or that smaller classes allow for more individual attention - play
no role whatsoever in many of the state reforms. I think the responsibility
for this serious oversight rests primarily at the doors of our universities.
DOWN: H. Ross Perot-a man, I may say, of less self-doubt than any other
human being I've ever met - declared to me rather heatedly the other day
that all teachers colleges ought to be torched. Although that seems rather
too strong a statement, I do think the present general practice of requiring
aspiring teachers to go directly from a liberal arts college to a teachers
college may be wrong. Perhaps a system in which teachers go through a
clinical experience in a school, as doctors do in a hospital, and only
then return to a teachers college, would be a better way to equip them
with the skills they need to teach.
KRAKOWSKY: Americans teach pretty much the same way they did twenty-five
years ago. But our student population has changed radically. Everybody
goes to high school today, not just those who feel a strong motivation
to go. In 1940, 24 percent of Americans over twenty-five had high school
diplomas; in 1984, more than 73 percent did. That's a huge difference.
Meanwhile, the culture has changed enormously. We talk about developments
in peda- gogy: What about developments in sex? The sexual revolution has
profoundly altered how young people think and behave, their expectations
about school and about becoming adults. Walk into a high school and look
at the way kids relate to one another in the halls; kids are standing
outside classrooms grinding their hips together. What goes on in the halls
must affect what goes on in the classroom.
BOYER: Kids are less willing to be institutionalized, to conform to certain
specified behaviors, unless they are given what they consider acceptable
reasons why. Through the influence of television and other media, students
have become much more sophisticated, if not wiser. They are more skeptical
and more distracted, less reverential and less willing to take direction.
The problem is not only what to teach but also how to engage these young
One way to begin is to recognize the central- ity of the teacher, to
give more recognition and empowerment to the people who have to do the
actual work. All of the regulatory mandates come to precisely nothing
if we refuse to recognize that teachers matter most. Many high school
teachers see 150 different students every day.
DOWN: Teachers often have no support services of any kind-no assistants,
secretarial help, or private offices. Because they are the victims of
everyone else's sense of priority, they are constantly interrupted during
their classes. American schooling has become a sort of kaleidoscope of
activities - announcements blasted over the public address system, constant
messages from the administration, and of course the chaotic change in
classes every hour - in which the psychology, not to say sanity, of the
teacher is challenged at every turn.
KARP: But how did we get these horrifyingly bad conditions? We are the
richest country in the world, yet we have very large classes. Goodlad's
study shows that in the first three grades, the average class size is
27 students; in high school, it's 35. That's a national disgrace. We also
have enormous schools. I went to one, and I'll never forget what it was
like to be one of 5,000 students: gongs ringing, announcements blaring,
guards at either end of a mobbed hallway. It was a prison. Citizens should
not have to spend their youth becoming accustomed to prison life.
SIZER: The large high school is a product of the so-called efficiency
movement, the pre-World War I fantasy that, following Frederick Taylor's
industrial principles, saw the school as a place where certain rivets
were hammered into the heads of indistinguishable units, each of which
was called a child.
SHANKER: And since then, many dissertations and studies have been written
"proving" that small classes make no academic difference. Publishing
such studies used to be one way to get ahead in educational administration.
Of course, common sense says that it makes a great deal of difference:
kids will learn to write better, to organize their thoughts better, and
to think more critically, if they get more personal attention.
KARP: One would suppose class size to be absolutely fundamental in making
teaching more bearable, in transforming custodialism into true instruction,
in helping to encourage struggling students to think for themselves, giving
them a chance to talk in class, to answer questions, and so on. Yet it
is hardly mentioned in the recent reports.
SHANKER: It is a basic money issue. In any large American city, reducing
class size by one or two students means spending tens of millions of dollars.
That's why school boards would rather pay for reports saying that class
size is irrelevant than put up the money to make classes smaller.
And where are the extra teachers going to come from? We are going to
have to replace 1.1 million teachers during the next eight years. To begin
to reduce class size, we might need 1.4 or 1.5 million. Hiring 1.5 million
new teachers would mean that 55 percent of all students graduating from
college in the top half of their classes would have to become teachers.
The teaching profession would find itself competing directly with law
and medicine to attract applicants.
Raising teachers' pay will not be enough to attract these people; the
salaries will rise anyway because of market forces. We can no longer take
advantage of a pool of female graduates and minorities who are forced
into teaching because they can't get jobs elsewhere. Even reducing class
size and eliminating some of teachers' more onerous burdens is not enough.
Educated people today simply do not want to work in the kind of factory
the traditional school has become, especially when they're treated like
KARP: Among the things that will never happen as long as schools are considered
instruments of economic growth is that the teacher will attain some kind
of dignity. It is a simple fact that 90 percent of Americans have shitty
jobs, and if you say that your profession is teaching people how to get
low-life, terrible jobs, it is unlikely that the public will ever see
true dignity in it.
SHANKER: Well, 90 percent of the people don't think they have shitty jobs,
which is why I have such trouble unionizing them!
KARP: Perhaps the federal government should com- mission a report with
an appropriately inflammatory title; they could call it A Nation at Risk.
The subject would be the dehumanization and regimentation of students,
the cynicism bred in the schools by the mobs pushing down the halls, the
authoritarianism built into those commands barked over public address
systems. Suppose the real A Nation at Risk had pointed to the desperate
necessity for a humane education, that it had emphasized the need for
smaller classes, smaller schools, fewer interruptions, more teachers.
Don't you think all the complicated factors you described that now prevent
reform might be swept away?
SIZER: I think we have to figure out a way to reallocate priorities, both
financial and human, within the existing school system. That means simplifying
the schools in order to get that personalization, which in turn means
engagirig in the politics of subtraction a most difficult exercise and
one the public schools have not often had to confront in this century.
Two ways to begin reducing student-teacher ratios within existing budgets
are: first, simplifying administration, thus reducing the number of administrators;
and, second, refocusing the curriculum around a core of essential intellectual
skills and areas of study, and restricting programs that don't directly
contribute to this core.
The Rudiments of Teacher Education
"That's your little mob in there," said Grimes; "you
let them out at eleven."
"But what am I to teach them?" said Paul in sudden
"Oh, I shouldn't try to teach them anything, not just yet,
anyway. Just keep them quiet."
"Now that's a thing I've never learned to do," sighed
Paul watched him amble into his class room at the end of the
passage, where a burst of applause greeted his arrival. Dumb with
terror, he went into his own classroom.
Ten boys sat before him, their hands folded, their eyes bright
with expectation. "Good morning, sir," said the one
"Good morning," said Paul.
"Good morning, sir," said the next.
"Good morning," said Paul.
"Good morning, sir," said the next.
"Oh, shut up," said Paul.
At this the boy took out a handkerchief and began to cry quietly.
"Oh, sir," came a chorus of reproach, "you've hurt
his feelings. He's very sensitive; it's his Welsh blood, you know:
it makes people very emotional. Say 'Good morning' to him, sir,
or he won't be happy all day. After all, it is a good morning,
isn't it, sir?"
"Silence!" shouted Paul above the uproar, and for
a few moments things were quieter. . . . "I suppose the first
thing I ought to do is to get your names clear.
What is your name?" he asked, turning to the first boy.
"Tangent, sir," said the next boy. Paul's heart sank.
"But you can't both be called Tangent." "No,
sir, I'm Tangent. He's just trying to be funny."
"I like that. Me trying to be funny! Please, sir, I'm Tangent,
sir; really I am."
"If it comes to thai:" said Clutterbuck from the back
of the room, "there is only one Tan- gent here, and that
is me. Anyone else can jolly well go to blazes."
Paul felt desperate.
"Well, is there anyone who isn't Tangent?" Four or
five voices instantly arose.
"I'm not, sir; I'm not Tangent. I wouldn't be called Tangent,
not on the end of a barge pole." In a few seconds the room
had become divided into two parties: those who were Tangent and
those who were not. Blows were already being exchanged, when the
door opened and Grimes came in. There was a slight hush.
"I thought you might want this," he said, handing Paul
a walking stick. "And if you take my advice, you'll set them
something to do." He went out; and Paul, firmly grasping
the walking stick, faced his form.
"Listen," he said. "I don't care a damn what
any of you are called, but if there's another word from anyone
I shail keep you all in this afternoon."
"You can't keep me in," said Ciutterbuck; "I'm
going for a walk with Captain Grimes."
"Then I shall very nearly kill you with this stick. Meanwhile
you will all write an essay on 'Self-indulgence.' There will be
a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of
any possible merit."
From then onward all was silence until break. Paul, still holding
the stick, gazed despondently out of the window. . . . By the
time the bell rang Clutterbuck had covered sixteen pages, and
was awarded the half crown.
-from Decline and Fall (1928), by Evelyn Waugh
MCKENZIE: But can we guarantee that smaller classes would give us higher
achievement - students who'd be able to think and articulate more effectively?
In Japan, high school classes have about fifty students, yet learning
goes on and there is little disorder.
BOYER: The Japanese have a very narrow, "content-managed" view
of education. Some tasks can be accomplished quite well in large classes;
introducing certain subjects, for example. But one might argue that the
best way to help human beings learn to use their minds critically is not
to pack fifty children into a room and talk at them without letting them
speak. I have grandchildren in Japanese schools, and they literally go
days on end without opening their mouths. They're in school to cover the
material and then put it back on paper.
To produce individuals who are critical, you need to encourage involvement
and irreverence. That needn't always mean more teachers. After ten years
in school, studerits should be able to work in groups without the teacher
always hovering over them. School could increasingly become a student-controlled
environment where older children, for example, could work with younger
ones. I imagine a school where the teacher plays more the part of a mentor.
Of course, this conflicts directly with the school's custodial function,
which demands that the teacher and student be together in the classroom
every minute. If that's the mentality, the number of teachers has to be
increased if we are going to reduce class size. But that system makes
MCKENZIE: The teacher makes students dependent. It's partly the way we
teach, the way we organize. We want dependency. In order to change it,
we'd have to change the way teachers and principals - and parents - think.
LITTKY: I think that can be changed. A good principal can make a school
an exciting place, and there are a lot of good principals. What too often
happens is that no one is able to imagine other options. We have to stop
worrying about where the kids are every minute and start thinking about
how to design new ways of learning, how to mix things up, how to change
SHANKER: Imagine that we had no schools, that the United States was a
very poor country that for centuries had been sending its kids off to
work in the mines or the fields at the age of three. All of a sudden we
discover great wealth and are about to design a school system. What if
somebody said: Let's build huge buildings and
divide them into classrooms that seat thirty-five or forty children apiece.
Let's bring those kids in at 8:30 in the morning and make them sit in
those seats until 3:00 in the afternoon, and during that time an adult
will stand in front of them and talk. Well, someone else might reasonably
ask: What makes you think these kids would sit still and keep quiet? And
why would any adult in his right mind want to be locked up with them under
We have this pervasive notion that even though those thirty-five kids
are sitting in that classroom, bored, dozing, thinking about something
else, this is nonetheless the way in which education has to take place.
LlTTKY: We can overcome that notion. At Thayer teachers and administrators
spent about eight months discussing goals, getting down on paper what
seemed important. We decided that we wanted our students to demonstrate
a broader understanding of problem solving, speaking, writing, and economics;
as for specific content, we wanted to instill an appreciation for the
humanities, comparative cultures, and geography. Then we asked ourselves:
how can we accomplish these goals?
First, students were asked for their views on rules, evaluations, and
their own educational needs. The idea was to involve students from the
beginning in how they would'learn, and thus to improve the general climate
for learning. Then we looked at the goals we had set and the resources
we had, and tried to design new structures to maximize learning.
Two tactics we found to be effective were team-teaching, which allowed
colleagues to think, plan, and work together; and integrating subjects.
For example, a foreign language teacher and an English teacher have been
working together to teach kids about the centrality of language. A social
studies teacher and an English teacher are recreating a town that otlce
stood in the area by beginning an archaeological dig and by studying local
Meanwhile, we increased the personal attention each student receives.
Every Thayer faculty member acts as adviser to fifteen students, meeting
with each once a month to discuss his or her progress in school. In addition,
we've just begun a "mentor program" whereby seniors act as advisers
to incoming seventh graders, helping them develop an involvement with
learning. Older kids are playing an increasing role in educating our younger
If we lack the resources to accomplish a particular task within the
school, we look outside, placing students as apprentices in the local
bank, hospital, and auto-body shop. They don't just learn practical skills.
We also give their supervisors our list of goals. We ask them, for example:
"While they're working here at the bank, can you try to help them
with their oral communication skilis?" This is not just vocational
training; it's another place to teach kids.
Recently, I've been meeting with parents, giving them our list, and
saying: "OK, you've got to help us help your kids learn these skills.
If they begin to learn them at home, great; it makes our job a whole lot
BOYER: I'm intrigued by the idea of having students discover that as they
become more educated, they become capable of transmitting information,
asking good questions, helping others understand ideas.
KRAKOWSKY: Aren't these the kinds of innovations that were put forward
during the 1960s?
SHANKER: During the 1960s, the assumption was that every student would
automatically find the right educational diet without any strong help
or advice. Standards were "self-set." But at Thayer the teachers
worked out a clear set of goals.
SIZER: At Thayer, the amount of time served -"seat time," as
it's called - is delightfully irrelevant in awarding a diploma. What is
relevant is whether a student can use these skills in imaginative ways.
That's very un-sixties.
KRAKOWSKY: But look at the assumptions underlying the recent reform movements.
First, the amount of time students spend doing schoolwork directly affects
how much they achieve. Second, there's a certain necessary component of
arduousness in the learning process. Third, people tend to respond to
short-term needs and discomforts rather than to long-term advantages.
To convince the body politic that encouraging greater student participation
and human- izing the school system would be more effective, the following
questions must be confronted. How do you get kids to work harder when
they prefer to work less hard? How do you convince them that in the long
run hard work in school will give them a sense of well-being when in the
short run they'd much rather hang out in the local mall than do geometry
SHANKER: You get kids to work harder by rewarding hard work and failing
the goof-offs, and by getting them involved in the learning process instead
of lecturing to them all the time.
Many regents and state boards may feel that the 1960s proved the bankruptcy
of academic pluralism. But the pluralism being advanced in this discussion
is quite different; no one says that since everyone has an opinion about
what's worth doing, we should let students do what they want. We're saying
that in order to achieve certain difficult goals, judgment has to be exercised
at the level where the learning is actually done. We are asking only for
a reasonable exercise of professional judgment, like that found in other
professions. Fifteen lawyers might analyze the same case and all do a
brilliant job, yet do it quite differently. In a field that depends for
its results on the uncertain behavior of adults and children, room must
be made for the exercise of professional judgment.
MCKENZIE: Empowerment - Ernie's word keeps coming back to me. We must
empower students within the school, yes, but first we must empower teachers.
So often folks like me find ourselves telling principals and teachers
what to do rather than capitalizing on their tremendous intelligence and
talent. My struggle is, first, to persuade principals to work with teachers,
to talk about the curriculum and discuss broader goals; and, second, to
encourage teachers to interact with students, to talk about what is supposed
to happen in that classroom, to be unafraid to show enthusiasm for the
subject they're teaching. We've got to unleash the tremendous energy of
the people who work in our schools.
SIZER: That involves a great leap of faith. There has to be trust on
the part of the superintendent and the principal. And there also has to
be trust on the part of the local school board. In many cities, alas,
there doesn't seem to be much trust.
SHANKER: The usual pattern is. that school boards become uptight about
any little jnnovation and they scream at the superintendent; the superintendent
wants to make damn sure the school board doesn't make noise at the next
meeting, so the rules and regulations are duly passed out.
An obvious tension exists between order and Innovation. You can have
order and have the closest thing to death. Eyery time a principal or teacher
tries to do something that is a little different, he or she is taking
a chance. If school boards are always afraid that the kids are going to
get Out of hand or the teachers are going to change something or the principal
is going to try a new program, we'll never get changes.
DOWN: What is the appropriate role of school boards in a world where people
who serve on them do so for their own "pragmatic" purposes,
certainly not usually as advocates for children?
MCKENZIE: Even in my fifth year in the job, I believe a superintendent
must educate the school board, sometimes at the risk of his or her tenure.
In general, if you've had some successes you can afford to take some risks.
And above all you must be sensitive to the media, because they often write
policy as effectively as the school board. The Washington Post is sometimes
more effective than the school board.
Most of all, you want to make sure you always have room for thoughtful
discussion instead of constantly reacting; you want to hold back that
tide of opinion pushing you to react immediately, and to act when you
understand better what the effects of a given reform will be. Remember,
school board members generally are scared; they're under heavy criticism.
In fact, many of them are delighted to see state legislatures tak- ing
steps they wouldn't have had the guts to take at the local level.
SIZER: But state boards of education and legislatures are even going so
far as to specify the actual substance of some subjects. One of the darkest
sides of this regulatory movement is the states' power to choose what
ideas are appropriate for our youngsters. What astonishes me is the silence
of the academic community about the states' easy assumption of power over
ideas. In New York State the regulations apparently now require one approved
sequence of mathematics courses and one history sequence. Where are the
voices for intellectual pluralism in the schools when we need them the
KARP: Where are the voices of academics? List five wise comments about
schooling and one stUpid comment, and it is the stupid one that will invariably
be picked up and used to justify "reforms." John Dewey said
that a democratic education should teach every child to perceive the essential
interdependence of an industrial society. So where was the first supposedly
"Deweyite" school system established? In Gary, Indiana, a town
formed a year earlier by the U.S. Steel Corporation. One of the early
social studies projects assigned to kids in this huge smokestack community
was "The City: A Healthful Place in Which to Live." The wise
give us their smorgasbords of suggestions; the powerful pick and choose.
BOYER: The failure of academics to influence these reforms would be most
ironic if they turned out to be "successful"; that is, if all
students successfully completed the new requirements. People will take
comfort in another unit of English - which could mean anything from Shakespeare
to creative conversation-and kid themselves that the schools have been
"fixed." The students will have remained ignorant; they will
not be more responsible citizens; they will not be more creative; and
therefore their own lives and their nation's future will be blighted because
we've chosen the wrong response to the right challenge.
SIZER: At least some people in authority at the state level are having
second thoughts. The difference between the debate in California three
years ago and the recently issued report of that state's Commission on
the Future of the Teaching Profession is instructive. The new report is
sophisticated; it accepts complexity; it takes into account some of what
we know about teaching and learning.
SHANKER: In California they're talking about "education policy trust
agreements," in which a faculty that develops a program designed
to achieve the same goals as the state legislation will be permitted to
ignore some regulations. This sort of change could be revolutionary.
BOYER: It may be one way to get the human dimension back into the reform
movement, which represents the essential issue for the rest of the decade.
Otherwise, in ten years we'll find ourselves looking back at one more
rather intense but abortive effort to improve a system that should be
humane. One could make an interesting comparison with the corporate renewal
movement, the central theme of which is that to increase productivity,
managers must discover the people who do the work; they can't man- date
it from the board room. Business leaders are discovering that if they
don't find a way to engage their employees, their companies won't be competitive.
Is it too much,to expect people in education to accept the same message?
SHANKER: We should realize that throughout most of its history the United
States was populated by uneducated people who had a high regard for teachers
and schools. I remember growing up in a working-class neighborhood in
New York City in the 1930s. No one had gone to college; one or two people
might have completed high school. During the summer people would sit in
front of their apartment houses and parents would ask their kids to write
a letter for them or read out loud the postcards they received. The schools
were very highly regarded as local intellectual and cultural institutions.
Many of the problems we've discussed today - low regard for schools
and teachers, in particular - are a product of our own success. We've
simply educated everybody; that gap between the overwhelming majority
of citizens and teachers is gone. Schools must mean something different
to a society in which most people are educated. We're in the process of
figuring out what. But we shouldn't forget that there are worse positions
to be in.