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Secondary Schools Faulted for Breeding 'Docile' Students

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Dallas--The majority of students in American high schools are not challenged academically, according to two major studies of the high school.

Instead, they have reached a "no-hassle" truce with their teachers that allows them to do little or no demanding work, two leading education experts have found independently.

"In my view, schools are not an educationally demanding place," said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former U.S. Commissioner of Education. "The majority of kids face no challenge."

The Carnegie Foundation study and another sponsored jointly by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (nassp) and the National Association of Independent Schools reached similar conclusions about conditions in American high schools.

Although the full findings and recommendations of both studies will not be released until later this year, the educators who headed them discussed some of their findings here this week at nassp's annual convention.

Theodore R. Sizer, professor of education at Harvard University and the director of the nassp-supported study, called the condition in the American high schools "a conspiracy of 'leasts,"' in which overworked teachers have an unwritten agreement with their students that if they cause no trouble the teachers won't demand too much of them.

"No one is pushing very hard," Mr. Sizer said. "As a result, kids take it easy."

After directing the two-year Carnegie study, Mr. Boyer said he has concluded that "public education is surviving, but not thriving."

"It is my opinion that about 15 percent of the students are getting a very good education, some of it the best secondary education on earth."

"But about twice that many are getting a poor-to-terrible education," Mr.Boyer said. "There are people completing high school who are not at all equipped to face the world. They have limited language skills, and their math skills are virtually nonexistent."

"Then, there is the vast middle ground, where there are no great victories and no great defeats," Mr. Boyer added. "The mood seems to be a kind of contract between students and teachers in which you don't hassle me and I won't hassle you."

Mr. Boyer told the principals that one suggestion he has for improving high-school education is to develop two kinds of mathematics and science curricula, one for general-education students and another for more advanced study.

He said all of the high schools in the U.S. should have sound core courses in mathematics and science for every student. But for the top 10 to 20 percent of the students "who will become leaders in the field'' there need to be special programs.

"Those are two very specialized problems," he said. "The generalists and the specialists must be studied side by side."

"I conclude reluctantly that it would be impossible for every one of the nation's 20,000 high schools to offer that advanced training," he added.

Mr. Boyer said the Carnegie study will propose "a network of residential math-science academies to be established across the nation." He said those special schools should receive a substantial amount of federal aid because the quality of mathematics and science education is closely linked to the future security and economic health of the country. He also said these schools "should attract and hold the most experienced and gifted teachers."

In discussing the shortage of mathematics and science teachers, Mr. Boyer said, "If we want outstanding math and science teachers, then I believe the recruiting must begin early and it must be sustained." He cited Houston's magnet school for prospective teachers as one option school districts could use to encourage young people to explore teaching.

"Building a strong, vital teaching force must begin in the schools themselves," he said.

"At many colleges, there is a terrible bias against teaching in the public schools," he said. Mr. Boyer called it "scandalous" for colleges to "call for excellence in the public schools" and then spend millions of dollars to recruit athletes but little or no money to recruit potential teachers.

Mr. Boyer suggested giving full scholarships to the top 10 percent of the students who opt to go into teaching.

Failure to Challenge

According to Mr. Sizer, the biggest problem facing American high schools is their failure to challenge students mentally or physically. "Schools are better than their stereotypes," he said. "They are not driven with violence. They are not filled with a sense of crisis. What's in the public eye is a distortion."

However, the major problem--"the docility of kids," who are not forced to think--is not in the public eye either, Mr. Sizer said. "I don't see much talk about docility. I see a lot of talk about getting test scores up and violence."

"It is possible for a student in a pretty good school to go through the day never being the object of two consecutive sentences from a teacher," Mr. Sizer said.

Because they are "terribly overworked," teachers are not asking students, "what do you mean by that?"

"People aren't asking painful questions," he noted.

One solution to the problem, Mr. Sizer said, is to drastically reduce the workload of teachers so that they have time to challenge their students.

"Try to get to know 150 kids well enough to know what drives them," he said. "Five minutes a week just to read a paper from each child adds up to 12 or 14 hours. If you do the arithmetic, you'll find the job difficult, if not downright impossible to do the way good teachers feel it should be done."

That could be accomplished through a "rearrangement" of the American high-school system, he said.

"There are a lot of adults around, but not in contact with kids," Mr. Sizer said. "The number of adults working in a British city school is smaller than the number of adults working in an American city school, and a higher percentage of them (in Britain) are teaching."

Mr. Sizer said American high schools could reduce the number of adults in nonteaching positions and replace them with additional teachers to reduce the workload.

"Why do reasonably well-paid janitors clean up after healthy students? Why don't students clean up the schools?" he asked, suggesting that students could do other work in the schools, such as cafeteria and clerical work.

He cautioned, however, that there is a danger in eliminating those positions.

"If we were to redefine the adult roles, there are penny-pinching politicians who would say, 'Cut the budget and leave the ratios where they are,"' Mr. Sizer said. "In a theoretical sense, there is a lot more money there than we realize. In a practical and political sense, it's going to be darn hard to rearrange it."

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