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The Schools Flunk Out

A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future

by John I. Goodlad
McGraw-Hill, 396 pp., $18.95

Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School

by Theodore R. Sizer
Houghton Mifflin, 241 pp., $16.95

High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America

by Ernest L. Boyer
Harper and Row, 363 pp., $15.00

High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared

by James S. Coleman, by Thomas Hoffer, by Sally Kilgore
Basic Books, 289 pp., $20.75

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform

National Commission on Excellence in Education
US Government Printing Office, 65 pp., $4.50

Action for Excellence

Task Force on Education for Economic Growth
Education Commission of the States, 50 pp., $5.00

Making the Grade Education Policy, background paper by

Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary Paul E. Peterson
Twentieth Century Fund, 174 pp., $6.00

Educating Americans for the 21st Century Mathematics, Science and Technology

National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in
National Science Foundation, two volumes: 124 and 251 pp., available without charge

1.

Having been through the mill ourselves, we all feel entitled to expound on education. So, too, we believe that the schools belong to us, and hence we have the right to set them straight. The past year has been one for sounding alarms, mainly by a number of task forces and commissions, titles taken by committees to suggest vital issues are at stake. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, appointed by Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, set the general tone. Its report, A Nation at Risk, opened with the now familiar warning that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” The Education Commission of the States, created to counsel governors, released its report, Action for Excellence, “with an unusual sense of urgency,” because “a real emergency is upon us.” The Twentieth Century Fund followed with Making the Grade, which forecast “disaster” unless we make “a national commitment to excellence in our public schools.” And the National Science Board’s Educating Americans for the 21st Century called for “academic excellence by 1995.” Something must be in the air, when four independent panels choose “excellence” as their common denominator.

All four reports concentrate on public education, from kindergarten through high school. Lay and religious private schools, which currently enroll one-ninth of all pupils, are apparently seen as in good shape. Nor is much concern shown about the colleges, compared with the clamor of a dozen years ago. The call today is for a more rigorous approach to learning, beginning as early as possible. Educating Americans, for example, recommends that first graders spend ninety minutes every day on mathematics and science. The reports also share a singleness of purpose. Nowhere is it avowed that learning may be pursued for its own sake, or that there may be reason to esteem a cultivated mind. A nation facing peril has no time for such asides. Rather, the concentration on “excellence” means that we must upgrade “the design and delivery of education” (Action for Excellence) if we hope to “keep and improve the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets” (A Nation at Risk).

So the stakes are economic, with our living standards in the balance. (Interestingly, the reports say little about the relation of education to our military capability.) Other nations are outpacing us because they are, yes, smarter. The only way to preserve our position is to enlarge our pool of trained intelligence. These arguments can have a persuasive ring given this country’s decline in so many ways. Even so, there remains the question of whether reorganizing the schools will improve our competitive position. And even if such a connection can be shown, we must ask how far we want to recast our assumptions about the aims of education.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese are held up as a model. Their students attend classes 220 days a year, against 180 for ours. An ordinary high school there devotes three times as many hours to studying science as do our best schools with full science programs. Moreover, their graduation rate is 95 percent, while ours is an embarrassing 73 percent. (True, they allow students to leave earlier; and of those who stay, fewer go to college.) On our side of the Pacific, less than a third of high school graduates have taken intermediate algebra; half last studied science in the tenth grade; and two-thirds do less than an hour of homework on an average night. According to Action for Excellence, the majority of our seventeen-year-olds cannot “write a letter correcting a billing error.” All the reports point to the decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. A Nation at Risk concludes that American students are “coasting” through “a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.”

We are already into the era of the “technologically sophisticated workplace,” whether the products be goods, services, or information. However, most employers report that the people they have had to hire “had basic skill deficiencies in a majority of job categories” (Action for Excellence). It is not just secretaries who cannot spell. Equipment operators cannot understand the diagrams in instruction manuals. According to Action for Excellence, the only way to upgrade our labor force is to “establish firm, explicit, and demanding requirements concerning discipline, attendance, homework, grades…” for all students in all schools. A Nation at Risk calls for three years of mathematics and science for all students, along with at least a semester of computer science, plus more hours of instruction and a longer school year. Making the Grade would also like to see all students “acquire proficiency in a second language,” and possibly a third for those who do not speak English at home. Action for Excellence would have every boy and girl know how to “use elementary concepts of probability and statistics” and “distinguish problems whose genesis is in basic mechanics, physics or chemistry.” Educating Americans adds that “algorithmic thinking is an essential part of problem solving.” It also urges bilingual training; in its case, however, that means “two computer languages.”

While the reports stress that education must be improved if we are to catch up with our competitors, they also profess a broader goal: excellence for everyone. Educating Americans specifically states that “academic or educational excellence … does not mean the provision of high quality education to only a small group of highly talented youth.” Of course, this is the American way of discourse. A panel addressing a general audience cannot conclude that the nation’s work force needs, say, 25 million people with sophisticated skills, and then propose that we provide such training for only that number. The democratic ideology dictates that algorithmic thinking must reach rural Wyoming and inner Chicago. The panelists omit saying that what they are proposing is both unprecedented and radical. Equal opportunities for everyone may be our accepted rhetoric. However, as a practical matter, we have never sought to close the gaps between different classes of schools. At best, some cities have special public schools that permit students from modest backgrounds to press ahead. By the same token, state and municipal universities have offered talented students a similar chance. However, the fact remains that high quality schooling, as defined by the educators themselves, at best reaches about a third of young Americans. Nor is this solely a matter of spending money. Expanding the number of people with comparable qualifications can threaten those in comfortable positions. We can already see this happening with the impending oversupply of lawyers and physicians.

The reports are highly critical of teachers, especially on grounds of competence. Educating Americans states that half of those hired as science instructors are “unqualified,” meaning not incomplete credentials but deficiencies in knowledge. Of course, picking on teachers is easy, not least for class reasons. They are the most marginal of middle-class professionals, with their union and civil-service affiliations reducing an already shaky status. Young people who choose teaching have tended to come from the bottom of their college classes, enrolling in often sterile courses on education instead of in classes with more substance. Hence the complaint that we have been staffing our schools with “C”-level graduates for too long; a nation aiming at excellence will need “A”- and “B”-grade people in its children’s classrooms.

So it is curious that the commissions show no more than passing interest in who our teachers are or why we end up with the ones we do. Teaching school is our largest profession, with approximately two million members in the public sector, of whom two-thirds are women. Because enrollments have been decreasing, there has been little recent hiring, so the typical teacher is now thirty-seven and has had thirteen years in the classroom. Salaries in 1982 averaged $17,360 for ten months of work, which would come to $20,830 if teachers taught—and were paid for—the entire year. Whether “C” quality or not, teachers are close to a minimum wage, by the standard of middleclass salaries. On the other hand, a majority of the women are married and belong to two-income households, as do most of the men. Indeed, 73 percent of the married male teachers have working wives, one of the highest proportions among the professions.1

All the panels say they support across-the-board raises to attract better teachers. At the same time, they do not pursue the matter, doubtless because they realize that raises of $5,000 to $10,000 multiplied would be very costly. So they settle instead for keeping the stars in the system. Action for Excellence urges “extraordinary rewards for extraordinary teachers,” suggesting that not many will display that luster. Making the Grade would appropriate federal funds to create a class of “Master Teachers.” All the panels favor differentials in pay, presumably based on merit, although none hints at how quality would be rated. Nor do they consider that each teacher’s salary—construed as an evaluation—would be in public records available to parents and others.

There are few signs that the commission members made an effort to find out what goes on in some actual classrooms. It is customary, with such bodies, that the signatories review memorandums prepared by salaried staffs. The principal members of the panels were public officials and business executives, along with college professors and school superintendents. Three of the four groups thought to include a teacher, in one case from Beverly Hills. A Nation at Risk lists “site visits” to a dozen or so schools, but does not say who made those trips or what they did there. The panelists who signed Making the Grade call for terminating bilingual education without having seen such instruction in action. A Hispanic member of the commission felt obliged to file a footnote explaining how it really works.

2.

It is probably too much to hope that commission members would take off time to sit in on some typical classes. Still, if they couldn’t manage this, the next best thing would have been to examine some of the research done by John Goodlad, a professor and former dean of education at the Los Angeles campus of the University of California. While A Place Called School officially appeared at the same time as the task force and commission reports, the overall study began in 1975 and various of its findings have been available for several years. “Most of the efforts to improve schools,” Goodlad writes, “founder on ignorance of the ways schools function.” He and his associates approached thirty-eight public schools and secured permission to observe more than one thousand classes in grades one through twelve. In addition, they surveyed some twenty-seven thousand parents, teachers, and students. Most of the schools were middle class, although not more than a handful were in well-to-do districts. In only one or two did discipline or truancy present major problems.

Goodlad presents a disquieting picture. In its essentials, education has not changed since it moved indoors. Students sit at desks for five or more hours every day, listening to an adult. (The author calls this “frontal” teaching.) Education, he found, consists largely “of a teacher standing or sitting in front of a class imparting knowledge to a group of students. Explaining and lecturing constituted the most frequent teaching activities.” In addition to listening (or not, as is often the case) pupils sit doing assignments, such as “filling in blank spaces in short narratives.” This regimen remains much the same from kindergarten through the senior year.

Is anything wrong with this picture? After all, teachers know things that students don’t, which means the former have to talk while the latter listen. The trouble with all that classroom sitting is that most young people are not natural scholars; they don’t see the purpose in what they have to learn, or at least in the way it is presented. This is not to say that Goodlad found students resentful or rebellious. The majority dutifully attend, and even do their lessons. Still, on the whole, they come unwillingly, as they have since Shakespeare’s time. They realize “there is no choice” and that “society requires it…as part of growing up.” So they cool it by keeping “the classroom experience relatively low in emotional drain in order to preserve energy for other things.” When teachers were polled, they said their major regret was “lack of student interest.” What they face, in fact, is a form of passive resistance.

Insofar as students find being in the building congenial, it is because school is their main social center where they make and meet with friends. When Goodlad’s student informants were asked to cite the “one best thing” about their school, “my friends” and “sports” led the list, with “classes I’m taking” and “teachers” well at the rear. Needless to say, many perform well in the academic side and continue doing so in college. But usually it is their success they enjoy rather than the substance of their studies.

All of us agree that there are things youngsters should be learning. Beyond the elementary skills, the curriculum consists largely of “subjects”—English, social studies, science, and so on—that we are told form the groundwork of what an educated person ought to know. But after reading A Place Called School, I am no longer so sure. For what the schools teach is a very special brand of knowledge, evolved by educators and tailored to textbooks and segmented lessons. It is pretty dreary stuff, usually presented, Goodlad notes, in a “flat emotional tone.”

To this it may be replied that we need better teaching, to be gained perhaps by attracting faculty with more varied training. However, here Goodlad warns that “talk of securing and maintaining a stable corps of understanding teachers is empty rhetoric” unless we lighten their classroom load. Even with its long vacations, teaching is one of our most demanding professions. You are on center stage every hour of the day, obliged to hold the attention of up to thirty students. In the elementary grades it is a single group, which makes the job considerably easier. However, by junior high school, you may have 150 or more students passing through your room. One teacher told Goodlad, “It is the sheer emotional drain of interacting with 173 students each day that wears me down.”

Still, we say we want teachers who will be both inspired and inspiring, who can make chemistry and Chaucer come alive, as we may recall happening in some of our own classes. I’m not sure what reforms will bring more high-quality instruction to the nation’s classrooms. Getting teaching candidates with higher test scores or college grades would be desirable but is hardly a guarantee. In fact, we should not overestimate the number of adults who have an aptitude for getting through to children. Certainly, we won’t get the best from teachers if they are on the verge of burning out. At my own loftier level, I am in a classroom only eight hours a week; and I don’t have to monitor the cafeteria, confer with parents, or coach the debating team. A Place Called School acknowledges that teachers want better pay. What they would also like are college schedules.

Theodore Sizer also concentrates on teaching. He makes an excellent complement to Goodlad, because he gives us detailed accounts of real classrooms in action. To gather material for Horace’s Compromise, Sizer visited more than fifty high schools himself in 1981 and 1982. The eponym of his title is not Horace Mann, but a semifictitious “Horace Smith,” an English teacher at a suburban school who advises the theater club and moonlights at a liquor store. Sizer follows him throughout an average day, starting at 7:30 AM teaching Romeo and Juliet and ending close to midnight with papers uncorrected. The “compromises” are really the corners Horace must cut to fit everything in. Like using last year’s class notes, or recycling paragraphs on college recommendations.

We observe about a half dozen other teachers, also “composites,” but the class sessions Sizer describes are as realistic as any I have read. We can actually see and hear how some teachers hold their students’ attention; or, in other cases, we read on helplessly as a class turns into chaos. “Martha Shiffe” certainly knows her subject, tenth-grade biology, but her class is a disaster. She writes phylum chordata and superclass tetrapoda on the board, but no one copies them down. Students giggle, pass notes, or gaze into the air. (“One girl took out her compact, popped the mirror open, and went over her face in detail, squinting at each incipient blemish.”) Nor is this a problem school, but one “in a pleasant area of a small city.” Do we really want to impose chordata and tetrapoda on all four million of our nation’s fifteen-year-olds?

The star teacher in Sizer’s book is “Sister Michael,” a seventy-two-year-old nun who analyzes a Graham Greene story with fourteen seniors in a Catholic high school. She calls on every member of the group, posing questions admitting of no easy answers, orchestrating the replies into a disciplined discussion. (“The words a student used in this classroom were important. There was no sloppy language in Sister Michael’s domain.”) But it is doubtful if she will serve as a useful model for enlivening biology, or indeed for most teachers with larger and less carefully selected classes. (Sizer was headmaster at Andover, and feels easiest in seminar settings.)

Horace’s Compromise makes clear that the first attribute of a good teacher is to be able to evoke the respect of an assorted group of students. This talent can come in varied forms; we all recall good teachers who had very different styles. Unfortunately, too many people who take up teaching lack this capacity. (The class element figures here as well; they are often the first in their families to enter a profession, so they tend to play it safe.) Knowledge of a subject just isn’t enough to stir youngsters who have been deskbound since 7:30 AM. None of the commissions confronted this issue, preferring to believe that pupils will learn a lot more if demanding standards are set. They have it the wrong way around. Teachers who are first admired for their personal qualities end up getting better performances, because their students make extra effort. Some of the most successful teaching Sizer saw was done by athletic coaches.

3.

One rather sour note runs through all the commission reports. So far as I can ascertain, almost all of the members are in their forties or older, and they take pains to differentiate themselves from the generation currently in school and recent graduates. A Nation at Risk quotes one analyst, Paul Copperman, as saying that “for the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.” The commissions are in fact indicting an entire generation: upward of eighty million young Americans born during the baby-boom years of 1946 through 1964. The members of this cohort, a third of our current population, are now between the ages of twenty and thirty-eight, ranging from the group just completing college to those becoming candidates for responsible positions. In the eyes of the commissions, this is largely a lost generation: indulged by their parents and spoon-fed by the schools.

This charge calls for close examination. Let us assume that many of today’s middle-aged Americans—say, those between forty-five and sixty—went through a more rigorous academic regimen. Has this been an especially able generation? If the United States has “fallen behind” in various fields, they were in or very close to presiding positions. Moreover, except for those who entered technical professions, there are few signs that adults who studied calculus or physics at school can claim the “scientific literacy” they now wish instilled in youngsters. And just for the record, it would be interesting to know how many of the commissioners continue to be competent in another language. Or of those who spent four years studying literature, how many curl up with Jane Austen or John Donne in their spare time? John Goodlad suggests that what we were made to learn at school may have less impact on our later life than we would like to think. For support, he directs our attention to an ambitious study that looked up members of a high school class fifteen years after graduation. There was “little in the data to suggest that the high school curriculum contributed to job competence or satisfaction, later participation in civic and political activities, or life enjoyment.”

Still, there is the fact that SAT scores have been declining ever since the baby-boom generation began taking the tests. Nor does the expanded pool of candidates explain the drop, because even students from well-regarded schools are among those doing poorly. Equally disturbing, high school graduation rates are actually declining. Between 1972 and 1982, the proportion of students who failed to finish high school rose from 23 percent to 27 percent. Attrition rates for 1982 ran from 37 percent in Mississippi to 11 percent in Minnesota, with large states like New York (34 percent) and California (31 percent) high in the dropout category.2

Unfortunately, none of the panels made a serious effort to ascertain why this has been happening. Making the Grade recites a familiar litany: “the ready availability of drugs, the growing number of family breakups and the increased permissiveness in those remaining intact, the distractions of television and of easily affordable video games, the growth of underworld culture.” Well, yes. But the real fact that must be faced is that today’s youngsters differ markedly, in character and constitution, from their counterparts in earlier generations. This revolution must be understood in connection with any discussion of education.

More students in the past tended to acquiesce to authority, and dutifully did their assignments. By and large, they were anxious to become adults, and looked for cues offered by that world (such as how to appear “mature”). At the turn of the century, immigrant children sat silently in classrooms, often with little idea of what was going on, and most left for work as soon as the law allowed. High schools were elite institutions: in New York in 1910, altogether 2,477 students got diplomas, less than 3 percent of their age group. Even as late as 1948, only 54 percent completed high school nation-wide. Through the 1950s—the Eisenhower era—students who stuck it out at school performed pretty much as expected.

How does it happen, then, that so many of today’s students seem such a sloppy crew? One answer is that young people nowadays are less members of their own families than citizens in a nation of their own. A generation ago, we used the term “adolescence” to refer to that painful period in which teen-agers prepared for adulthood. Today that word is seldom heard. We speak instead of “youth,” a span that runs from about the age of twelve often into one’s thirties. This youthful nation stands apart from the adult world. It has a language and sensibilities of its own, holding a skeptical view toward adult authority.3 In a curious way, the reports acknowledge this. While they criticize students and teachers, at no point do they hold parents responsible for their children’s poor performance, in what amounts to an admission that parents have little influence over their own offspring.

Of course, there are still plenty of “good students,” or students who can meet that standard if they are so inclined. Howard Gardner has described how they cope with the system:

Children skilled in the ways of school are accustomed to the presentation of problems and tasks, often out of context, and learn to tackle these assignments just because they are there. Children learn to look for clues, to devise steps and strategies and to search doggedly for answers that are not known.4

On the whole, most pupils whose parents have been to college can get through their assignments with a minimum of strain. It is not that their parents help them with homework, but rather that middle-class households share enough of the academic culture so that they adapt relatively easily to what is required in the classroom.

Another dimension of the dropout problem, ignored by the reports, is that the rate for boys is considerably higher than for girls. The most common reasons boys give for quitting school are “poor grades,” “couldn’t get along with teachers,” or simply, “school wasn’t for me.” Almost 15 percent had been expelled or suspended at least once. Another Education Department study, of students who did graduate, found that 40 percent of the girls had mostly A’s and B’s, while only 26 percent of the boys did that well. Of the students now going on to college, there are 108 women for every 100 men; and for the first time they out-number men among those receiving bachelors’ and masters’ degrees.5

By and large, girls submit more readily to a classroom setting, where they take better notes and turn in assignments to their teachers’ liking. (They also put in more time doing homework at both the school and college levels.) Of course, many boys make good records, especially among the science and mathematics students. But on the whole, more boys lack the makeup for twelve or more years of sustained sitting. It seems hardly necessary to add that society will feel the side effects as more women move ahead of men in educational attainment.6

Despite the dropout statistics, all four commissions call for mandatory courses considerably more demanding than those required now. (Educating Americans, for example, wants “technological reasoning” taught to all eighth-graders.) Interestingly, none of the reports alludes to an earlier effort of this sort. Remember the “New Math”? It was instituted across the nation after the Soviets outpaced us with Sputnik in 1957. University mathematicians said they knew why we were behind: our high school graduates lacked an understanding of mathematical theory. Students should not merely memorize equations, but begin with the foundations of the discipline. So elementary and high school teachers were sent to summer courses to master the New Math. Within a year, virtually every child in the nation was being taught “set theory” and “number fields.” Teaching theory may have been a fine theory, but in the classrooms it didn’t work. Not only could most students not follow what was going on, but the New Math also obstructed learning ordinary arithmetic.7 Indeed, it was close to that time that test scores started going down. The New Math was dropped; and mathematical theory is now generally reserved for the few college students who are concentrating on the subject.

Do we really want to try to teach everyone subjects that only some need to know? At this point, we have no evidence that factory workers who have taken high school physics are more effective at their jobs or show more concern for the quality of their product. The opposite may be the case. One need not share George Gilder’s overall outlook to see some sense in something he wrote several years ago:

Contrary to widespread belief, academic attainments are of little real importance in performing most jobs. What education is required can be given selectively to motivated workers, who learn rapidly for some clear purpose. Most skills in the United States economy are learned on the job and well under half require the knowledge entailed in a high school diploma…. Unschooled peasants in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan build television sets, automobiles, electronic devices, semiconductor chips, and musical instruments that compete successfully in American markets.8

Indeed, it is hard to pin down ideology here. Gilder, a supply-side conservative, opposes the emphasis on formal education because it creates a nonproductive class which raises barriers against other kinds of talents. In his view, a Korean immigrant working by his wits contributes more to the economy than a dozen MBAs. To this it may be added that scientific training is not the only factor in becoming number one. The Japanese turn out well-engineered products. But part of their appeal is that they are also pleasing to behold. (We ought not to forget that Japan has always honored art, even to their serving food in floral configurations.) The Japanese are also superb at sales, without slapping a single back, tailoring their approaches to the needs and customs of a hundred different nations. This does not mean that schools should teach international sales and industrial design. Clever management and the widespread desire to make good are the critical factors in Japanese success. Stressing deficiencies in our schools can deflect attention from shortcomings in areas occupied entirely by adults.

Despite their professions of egalitarianism, all the reports end up hedging their bets. Thus while A Nation at Risk asks that we “demand the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged,” it does not assume that all will rise to the challenge. Accordingly, the National Commission on Excellence in Education goes on to propose that “placement and grouping…should be guided by the academic progress of students.” In other words, tracking. And, as a contingency plan, it also suggests “alternative classrooms, programs, and schools” for “continually disruptive students.” The only problem is that once pupils are grouped by performance or progress, or segregated in special schools, few in the slow lanes ever manage to catch up.

Educating Americans takes tracking even further, calling for the establishment of 2,000 “exemplary” elementary and secondary schools specializing in mathematics and science. These would enroll the top 2 percent of the students in the nation’s public schools, many if not most to be chosen at an early age. (North Carolina has taken the lead already, with a boarding school concentrating on science and mathematics.) Making the Grade offers a parallel proposal, recommending federal stipends for two million students who “have been unable to learn in public schools.” These scholarships would enable them to attend a series of “small-scale academies” which would presumably start up once public money was available. Given the tone of the Twentieth Century Fund report—it charges that we have given too much attention to “equality of opportunity”—it seems unlikely that much of this money would go to youngsters from inner-city schools. Middle-class parents who think they have gifted children would be the ones more likely to file for the scholarships.

In this connection, we frequently hear of exceptional youngsters who need—and deserve—special educational treatment. It is one thing for parents to believe that they have talented offspring. It is quite another to have public policy based on this premise. Should we have special schools or classes for children identified as gifted? A lot of people seem to think so, including members of the US Senate, which now has a “Children’s Caucus,” presided over by Connecticut’s liberal senator Christopher Dodd. At a recent hearing, fourteen-year-olds told how boring they found the public-school classes they had to attend. (“I feel gifted children are a natural resource that is being wasted,” testified a girl from Dodd’s home state. “We are America’s future, won’t you invest in us?” pleaded a lad from the Pacific Northwest.) Senator Dodd estimated that the nation has 2.5 million of these outstanding youngsters, of all classes and races, half of whom have never been discovered.9

Of course a society should search for people with unusual talents, whether they are five or fifty-five. However, youngsters identified as “gifted” are children who master schoolwork more quickly than their peers. (Those who show artistic talent early are a different case, because they are often average classroom students.) I agree that it must be boring to have to sit listening to lessons you already understand. John Goodlad offers the suggestion that these youngsters work on a regular basis with their classmates who need help. In doing so, they would discover that explaining things to others can be considerably more difficult than simply understanding it yourself, and is a skill worth developing in its own right. (They might find they have a flair for it and decide to become teachers.)

Still, what we are talking about is precocity: youngsters who absorb adult knowledge faster than their age-mates. Anyone who has been a teacher has had students who performed at extraordinary levels. But having acknowledged this, I must add that those of us who have been teaching long enough to encounter those students one or two decades later will testify that in most cases the brilliance has worn off. Indeed, there is no evidence that precocious children as a group go on to contribute more to society than those whose talents emerge later. Examine any Amherst College reunion class or one from the Bronx High School of Science. They may be solid citizens and respectably intelligent; but hardly a payoff for the investments lavished on them. Every society has people of merit who should be discovered and encouraged. But in trying to identify the meritorious at an early age, we too often end up with the precocious, and they are quite a different group.

4.

Ernest Boyer disputes the view that the schools should be skewed to the supposed needs of the work force. In High School he asks that we make liberal education a universal goal. “People who cannot communicate are powerless,” he writes. “People who know nothing of their past are culturally impoverished.” The United States will simply be a better place if its inhabitants are literate, thoughtful, and share “a core of common learning.” His book, which acknowledges Goodlad’s findings, is ostensibly based on month-long visits at fifteen public high schools, with enrollments ranging from fewer than three hundred to more than five thousand. It is not clear from the text how far Boyer participated in this fieldwork, since he had a staff of twenty-three “observers” who wrote up reports.

But High School is less a research project than Boyer’s own book. A former commissioner of education and currently head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, he takes learning seriously. Literature and history head his list of required subjects, and he feels science sequences should “distinguish between the training of generalists and specialists.” But his most emphatic recommendation is that the schools should show students how to write. Boyer believes that “clear writing leads to clear thinking; clear thinking is the basis of clear writing.” He would have all pupils take at least one course demanding much written work, with the classes sufficiently small so teachers can comment on each assignment. High School skirts the question of the extent to which good writing can be “taught,” and this is probably just as well. My own experience has been that writing is often self-taught. If frequent papers are assigned and criticized, however, students become more coherent and emerge with styles of their own. Insofar as this is so, the need is less for brilliant teachers than for reasonably competent ones with time to read those stacks of themes. I might add that aides and assistants will not do; students deserve to hear from the teachers of their class.

Boyer also holds that “the school program should offer a single track for all students.” This prescription may make sense in some suburban settings where almost everyone goes to college. But he does not tell us how single-track instruction will succeed in schools with youngsters at different levels of preparation. In fact, this dilemma was put to one of Boyer’s own observers by the principal of a big-city school:

Our students range from National Merit winners to kids who can hardly read and write. Some go to Harvard and others are mechanics. It’s just crazy to think that one curriculum can serve them all.

If we set “a core of common learning” as our goal, then it must reach those “kids who can hardly read and write.” Boyer is right in refusing to write off children from sub-literate homes. Still, America is not a classless society; and class segregation is evident in our schools, a fact Boyer does not directly confront. His argument would be stronger had High School depicted a few classrooms where the offspring of executives sit next to children from welfare families. But of all the books under review his is the only one that tries to define how education can contribute to a more interesting and thoughtful life—and not just a more competitive one.

Apart from the account of “Sister Michael” in Horace’s Compromise, the books and reports avoid discussing private schools. This could be construed as a commitment to public education, or—more likely—an admission that the private schools as a subject are too hot to handle. For example, honesty might require evaluating some religious schools as mediocre. Also, the issue of public aid is one few people wish to raise. And there is the fact that many private schools serve as class preserves, where some of the authors or commissioners may have sent their children.

Still, the parents of 11 percent of America’s youngsters choose to pay for private education. This sector has changed a lot in recent years, and can best be sorted out with a few statistics. In 1981, the most recent year for figures, 5 million children attended private schools, down from 5.2 million in 1971. However, this 5 percent drop was less than half the 11 percent decline in public enrollments. Consequently, in 1981 the private share was in fact higher than it had been a decade earlier.

Whereas Catholic schools once stood well in the lead in enrollments, this is no longer the case. Between 1971 and 1981, their student population fell by 21 percent. And in the last twenty years, 40 percent of their high schools and 27 percent of elementary schools have actually closed. In 1981, Catholic schools still drew 63 percent of all private students, but this is down from 77 percent in 1971.10 This trend seems likely to continue, if only because the fees needed for survival are well above what most parents are willing to pay. One reason is that over three-quarters of Catholic schoolteachers are now lay people who are paid competitive salaries. We cannot expect many successors to “Sister Michael” in the future. Public funds, if they ever arrived, would be too little and too late.

However, lay schools and those under other religious sponsorships are growing, despite the decline in the number of school-age children. The former enroll about 800,000 students and the latter slightly more than one million. The leading religious sponsors are Lutherans, Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists; almost no research has been done on what happens in these schools. Some started as “Christian Academies” during public desegregation, and others continue for lower-middle-class parents who put a premium on discipline and religious instruction. Most old-line secular boarding schools are flourishing, but their overall enrollments are not high. The big expansion has been among day schools, catering to upper-middle-class families, not only in cities but also in the suburbs. Many suburban public schools have lost their elite veneer, because of the broader base on which they now draw. In many two-income households, private tuitions absorb much of the second check even before the college years.

The most comprehensive study of public and private education was published by James Coleman in 1982. His survey, High School Achievement, drew mainly on Catholic schools for the private side. (His sample included some with other sponsorships, but not enough for generalized findings.) Students at the Catholic schools came away with higher test scores in every academic subject, and this was also the case with children from low-income and single-parent homes. Indeed, the Catholic schools showed a smaller gap between poorer and better-off youngsters, leading Coleman to remark that they “come closer to the American ideal of the ‘common school’ educating all alike, than do the public schools.” Moreover, they accomplish this with slightly larger classes.

But the big variable, of course, is “selection bias”: the public schools must take every pupil who walks in the door. Coleman shows that Catholic enrollments are more varied than people tend to think, with 15 percent nonwhite and 9 percent non-Catholic. Even so, only 22 percent of their students had family incomes under $16,000, compared with 37 percent in the public schools. Having fewer pupils from the lowest economic group can make a huge difference, and may account for most of the variations in the test scores.

Unfortunately, Coleman and his colleagues did not interview any parents, settling for information the children put on forms. What does appear, however, is that the Catholic schools are selective not simply in that they can expel unruly students, but that the low-income parents who apply have a notably strong desire for something better for their children. One index of this is that Catholic pupils spend more time on homework and less watching television, both suggestive of parental discipline. Of course, most poor families—which produce most of the dropouts—can hardly afford to send their children to private schools. Indeed, few send their children to “magnet” schools in the public system, or take advantage of voluntary busing programs. None of the books or reports under review here proposes what might be done for youngsters from low-income homes where adult determination is lacking.

Taken together, the books and reports devote surprisingly little space to financing their proposals or to potential sources of support. From the demographic standpoint, their proposals come at a time when the constituency for improved education seems shaky. As a proportion of the total population, school-age children and their parents are at an all-time low. Between 1960 and 1982, the proportion of Americans aged six through seventeen dropped by 22 percent, and parents as a group fell by 24 percent. From 1970 to 1980, elementary and high school enrollments declined in all but ten of the states. The United States is a “mature” society now, and most calls on public funds involve adult wants and needs.

Adult Americans vary in their feelings about children, so it would be unwise to generalize. At one extreme are retirement communities that don’t want youngsters around, even for short stays. Many people who are middle-aged and older feel they have paid their share of taxes and school fees for education and don’t want to start again. At the same time, the schools no longer encounter the hostility they did when “progressive” tendencies were under attack. Paul Peterson, in an essay appended to Making the Grade, indicates that school bond issues are doing rather well. During the 1970s, almost half of them went down to defeat; now the passage rate is up, at 73 percent, about where it was in the 1960s when children were in style. Of course there are not as many offerings now and these have fewer frills attached. Peterson also points out that the baby-boom offspring are themselves becoming parents. Since they are an outsize group, the number of children in the country will be on the rise once again. However, their reproduction rate will be nothing like that of a generation ago.

Each year, the Census conducts its “fertility survey,” in which it asks women how many children they “expect” to have in the future. In the past, a majority generally said three or four; now most say one or two. Indeed, among young women who have not yet had children, as many as 31 percent say they do not expect to have any ever.11 Their views may of course change, as may the circumstances of their lives. Nevertheless, the fact remains that childlessness—not merely the postponement of childbearing—is on the rise. The main reason is that children are expensive, given the experiences and outfitting parents feel obliged to provide. Women contemplating lifetime careers may also be thinking twice; in such projections they frequently find that no time is the “best time” to have children. And the availability of abortion means the number, or none at all, can be planned.

Public education lacks the kind of constituency it had when birth rates were high and schools were linked to social mobility, especially in the expanding suburbs. The last infusion of funds involved special programs for handicapped children. While this was a cause no one could object to, such classes have proved very costly. (One effect of their small size has been to reduce, at least on paper, figures for pupil-teacher ratios.) Another problem is that public enrollments are becoming increasingly nonwhite, with the consequence that some citizens cease identifying with the schools.

As matters now stand, I can detect no visible sentiment for raising education’s share of federal or local outlays. Nor does it seem likely that fears of economic decline will spur support for increasing teachers’ salaries in any serious way, or reducing the size of classes or work loads. Some states are already raising graduation requirements, and it will be interesting to see if the result will be more knowledgeable students, an increase in attribution, or a combination of the two. Indeed, the current debate over education, like so many before it, illuminates the symbolic uses of our schools. We project onto them nostalgia for a past that only partially existed, plus blueprints for a future we may not entirely want; and our fantasies about them are underpinned by the belief that here is a subject in which anyone can be an expert.

At this point, all we can say with certainty is that no one really knows how far classroom education contributes to the kind of people we ultimately become. But if the schools leave a lot to be desired, the quality of educational commentary has declined even further. We no longer have commanding figures like John Dewey and Robert Hutchins, who, in their different ways, tried to create a vision of an educated citizenry whose members would have some chance at something that could be called the good life. That this goal, however nebulous, is all but absent from current books and reports is far more disconcerting than our lag in teaching algorithms to restless teenagers.

Letters

Flunking the Schools September 27, 1984

Flunking the Schools September 27, 1984

Flunking the Schools September 27, 1984

Flunking the Schools September 27, 1984

Flunking the Schools September 27, 1984

Flunking the Schools September 27, 1984

  1. 1

    National Education Association, Status of the American Public School Teacher (1982).

  2. 2

    US Department of Education, State Education Statistics (January 1984).

  3. 3

    See Andrew Hacker, “Farewell to the Family,” The New York Review, March 18, 1982.

  4. 4

    Frames of Mind (Basic Books, 1983), p. 357.

  5. 5

    See the following documents published by the National Center for Education Statistics: High School and Beyond: Sophomore Cohort Follow-Up (April 1983); Digest of Education Statistics (May 1982); Earned Degrees Conferred by US Colleges and Universities (January 1984). Part of the undergraduate imbalance can be explained by the fact that several hundred thousand young men of college age enlist in the armed forces.

  6. 6

    See Matilda Butler, Education, the Critical Filter: A Statistical Report on the Status of Girls and Women in Elementary and Secondary Education (US Government Printing Office, 1979). The imbalance is even more pronounced in the black community, where women have come to hold a higher proportion of white-collar and professional positions, due largely to their educational attainments. US Bureau of the Census, Detailed Occupation and Years of School Completed by Age, for the Civilian Labor Force by Sex, Race, and Spanish Origin (1983).

  7. 7

    Despite its unfortunate title, Morris Kline’s Why Johnny Can’t Add (St. Martin’s Press, 1973) provides an excellent post-mortem on the New Math.

  8. 8

    Wealth and Poverty (Basic Books, 1981), pp. 147-148.

  9. 9

    The New York Times, November 14, 1983. See also David Elkind, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Addison-Wesley, 1981).

  10. 10

    National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education: A Statistical Report (1982).

  11. 11

    Bureau of the Census, Fertility of American Women (April 1983).

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