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The underlying assumptions and recommendations for change contained in the [Secretary of Education Terrel H.] Bell commission's report on excellence in education bear a striking resemblance to James Bryant Conant's 1959 work, The American High School Today. Then, too, national security demanded that our schools be reformed. "The Russians are coming!" was the national phobia. Now it is the Japanese.

As a piece of political propaganda, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, was a success. The media and the public were very receptive to having their preconceived notions about teen-agers and our public high schools reinforced. Unfortunately, as a plan for improving secondary schools in America, it is a failure.

No one should be too surprised when a group of successful college graduates concludes that what everyone in the nation needs to be as productive as they are is an education like the one they had. Mortimer Adler and friends came to exactly the same inane conclusion in The Paideia Proposal.

A Nation at Risk and The Paideia Proposal will, unlike The American High School Today, slip into oblivion after promoting a great deal of negative publicity about our schools. Their ideas cannot be implemented because they are not grounded in an appreciation for the social history behind the current shape of our public-school systems.

Prior to the turn of the century, one curriculum--a rigorous college-preparatory program--did serve the needs of almost all high-school students. Latin and often Greek were required subjects, along with most of the other curriculum suggestions recommended in the Bell report. Relatively few people earned high-school diplomas. Anyone who did not successfully negotiate the curriculum did not graduate. The system put a high premium on excellence at the expense of equity and democracy. It worked as long as the only people who wanted to attend high school were those with similar backgrounds, interests, abilities, and career goals.

In the 1890's, immigrant groups, women, and blacks began to force the nation's school systems to allow them access to a high-school diploma. Universal high-school education became the national goal. The institution of the high school had to adapt to meet the needs and abilities of a much larger and more diverse client population. Grouping students according to ability and career objectives and the implementation of electives were two of the most obvious innovations. These were never considered ideal solutions. They were pragmatic political strategies on an institutional level designed to straddle the contradiction inherent in a democracy between the pursuit of excellence and equity.

Alexis de Tocqueville labeled such exercises in democratic politics potential prescriptions for mediocrity long before the Bell commission.


Steven O'Brien Social Studies Teacher Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School South Hamilton, Mass.


John S. Mayher made some very valid points in his Letter to the Editor (Education Week, May 11, 1983) replying to my Commentary, "Judging Teachers by Students' Achievement" (Education Week, April 20, 1983). His comments critically round out my essay.

Mr. Mayher stated that "The major problem still unsolved, is our general inability to measure student learning reliably and validly for most of the higher-level competencies schools ought to be developing." If this is true, we are really flying blind in our efforts to educate children. We had best solve this problem, and soon, not only for the sake of our students, but to ensure adequate public support of schools.

I doubt that leading educators would admit that they do not know how to "measure fairly and adequately with breadth and depth such competencies as critical inferential reading; powerful, clear writing in a wide variety of modes; and synthetic problem solving." Mr. Mayher does not say they do not know how to do these things. His point is that school systems and test makers must be willing to face up to the difficulties and costs of this kind of assessment. Right on!

We have waited much too long to "develop sensitive measures of the really important abilities schools should be developing," which Mr. Mayher says should be the first priority. There is no way that schools can "recall" students when they have been unwilling to make the effort and to spend the money to assure the quality of the students' education.


Laurence T. Mayher Former President, Shaker Heights Board of Education First Director, Citizen's Council for Ohio Schools Cleveland, Ohio


Regarding your recent article, "Ford Foundation Recognizes Progress of 92 Urban Schools" (Education Week, April 20, 1983), I was disappointed to find that you omitted the name of our school in listing the high schools in the country that had won awards from the Ford Foundation.


Jack M. Pollock Principal Abraham Lincoln High School Brooklyn, N.Y.

Editor's note: Our apologies for the inadvertant omission.

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