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10 'Radical' Suggestions for School Reform

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If we are to make essential changes in schools, we must work hard to suspend our disbelief in proposals that seem too radical for realization. A knee-jerk reaction that an idea cannot work--or will never be implemented--too often cuts off healthy debate and reinforces the status quo.

With that concern in mind, I offer the following suggestions to stimulate thinking about the process of redesigning high schools.

While originally prepared for the Coalition of Essential Schools--a national reform project based at Brown University and chaired by the author and educator Theodore R. Sizer--these 10 proposals address basic shortcomings common among American high schools.

1. Do not waste class time on "teaching." Every activity should serve at least one of the three basic purposes of assembling students in a class: to work collaboratively; to practice or perform with the benefit of "coaching" from teachers and peers; to gain through talk or activity knowledge or experience that cannot be effectively communicated in print.

It is a waste of precious time to devote classes primarily to lectures when students have textbooks and assignment sheets.

To raise and uphold standards in class is to make homework essential; classwork should build on it, not take the place of it or duplicate it.

2. Give final exams a year after a course is completed. With the current talk about "cultural illiteracy" and the desire to ensure that students are taught every conceivable idea and skill of importance, it is easy to overlook the fact that students soon forget three-quarters of what is commonly taught ("covered") and tested.

The most effective way to demonstrate to skeptics that "less is more" is to show that "more is less"--that "coverage" usually leads to forgettable learning, while in-depth, engaged study results in thoughtful understanding. Testing students a year after they have taken a course to see what they recall would provide an instructive and perhaps sobering lesson about conventional course design and testing.

The primary task of the high-school teacher should be to help students learn how to learn. Colleges and employers do not seek graduates who have a passing familiarity with all the ideas in a field, but rather those who are knowledgeable, self-disciplined, and inquisitive enough to know how to find out what they need to know.

3. Stop thinking of education in terms of "content" and start thinking of it in terms of "intellectual habits." It is hard to imagine a soccer coach saying "But we 'covered' corner kicks last month" or a music teacher complaining that "I already gave you a clear lecture on how to position your fingers on the guitar." But teachers routinely expect that an idea or skill taught once will be internalized--as if education were inoculation.

What would it mean for teachers to approach the aim of careful reading, insightful questioning, or respectful dialogue as a habit? At the very least, the concept of "coverage" would give way, and with it superficial teaching that pays little mind to its effect on student performance.

Internalizing a new habit--note-taking skills, problem-solving strategies in math, even new conceptual knowledge such as the idea of irony or inertia--requires that the studentpractice a skill or an idea in context and from different perspectives.

How do we help students break dysfunctional habits and develop new ones? What typical classroom practices unwittingly reinforce the older habits? What do weight-loss and substance-abuse programs teach us about people's resistance to developing better habits, even when they want to change? Teaching should stress "successive approximations," perfected in cycles of model-practice-feedback, rather than one-shot didactic lessons or drills.

4. Insist that all major decisions about curriculum, discipline, and school standards be made by consensus. The usual rules of governance (top-down decisionmaking, faculty decisions by majority vote, etc.) are inappropriate for promoting and managing institutional change.

Why not insist that all major academic-policy decisions require a consensus of the faculty or faculty representatives? What can we learn from Quaker meetings, schools run as "just communities," "quality circles" in business, and other nontraditional governance structures about ensuring greater harmony and collaboration while reforming a school from the inside out?

5. View classroom-staffing and time needs through the eyes of the varsity football staff. Those who cite the "unrealistic" cost of decreasing the teacher-student load to an ideal of 80 to 1 ignore the fact that in even the poorest schools the varsity football program is organized on about a 40-to-3 basis, with a two-hour time-block each day. Everyone concerned understands that if the school is to run a high-quality program, the ratio simply cannot be much higher, nor the time commitment shorter.

Yet the public is not convinced that strong classroom teaching is as labor- and time-intensive as good athletic coaching--that a 15-to-1 ratio and long time-blocks are necessities, not luxuries. Reconceptualizing the problem of successful schooling to stress that good teaching is personalized coaching should be a high priority in restructuring.

6. Do not "plan" for change; rather, get change under way and institutionalize the making of intelligent adjustments. A great myth in schooling is that the key to success is planning.

When teachers, for example, undertake change, they usually spend the prior summer months writing curricula. But effective teaching (especially when one is changing one's approach) depends essentially on the learner's reactions, and on the teacher's intelligent responsiveness to the inevitable surprises and unexpected consequences of a plan.

Schools should undertake different approaches to reform simultaneously. Most attempt only one strategy at a time. When the project expands, the new group or team generally takes the experimental model as a given. Since genuine experiments require alternatives and control groups, and since every school is different, each school should initiate a number of different strategies.

Given sufficient courage and mutual trust, a friendly competition between teams of teachers and administrators would help determine which approaches work better with roughly equal student populations. Without such experiments, we may not understand why aspects of restructuring succeed or fail in a particular school.

7. Conceive all academic courses as if they were to be taught to the top-track students. Though designed to honor student difference, tracking ends up reifying it--and often in pernicious ways. The school's goals should apply to all students: We should ensure that kind of work offered in gifted-and-talented, advanced-placement, or honors courses is provided schoolwide. Not because it is "harder" work, but because it is tailored to students' interests and is therefore far more engaging, in most cases, than conventional coursework. Why should students who are less able or motivated have to "earn" the right to engage in interesting work?

The objective here is to raise standards in schools by creating stronger intellectual incentives, not to require everyone to take Advanced Placement examinations.

The establishment of firmer "scaffolding"--in the terminology of David Perkins of Harvard University--would help less-able students. Rather than ignore their needs, we should respond to them by simplifying work that is interesting but challenging. Physics is not inherently more difficult than biology. Shakespeare can be read profitably by anyone if the right kind of support is provided.

8. Adopt a grading system that creates stronger incentives for students. Implicit in the previous suggestion is the need to rethink our grading system. Too often a set of grades represents a self-fulfilling prophecy to students (as when teachers say, "Oh, he's a C student"). And rarely do grades and comments help students gauge their overall progress toward meeting diploma requirements based on competence.

Concealing more than they reveal, grades are only symbols of teachers' standards, not insights into the standards themselves.

In the ideal school, grades as we know them might play a minor role--just as they play little or no role in athletics or drama, where students learn to judge and improve their work by comparisons with models and with the performances of others. Progress--and the internalizing of standards--comes through successive approximations and descriptive feedback, not through evaluative language, which amounts to little more than praise or blame. Assessment should teach standards, not simply apply them.

How can we devise a grading and feedback system that sets all students a clearer target while also providing better incentives for those who start out at a disadvantage?

One method might be to incorporate in grading "degree of difficulty'' points, as in competitive diving. Every teacher would design a range of questions, with each item carrying its own "difficulty" points, for exams or exhibitions. To graduate, students would need to accumulate a minimum number of difficulty points as well as credits. Just as divers prepare a program that enables them to accentuate their areas of strength and downplay some of their weaknesses, students would have some leeway in developing a balanced academic program.

9. Develop in each school a pretest and a post-test to measure to the school's own satisfaction its effect on student performance. While complaints about the limitations of standardized testing may be justified, it is unwise to ignore the need for making judgments about the overall effectiveness of schooling.

A legitimate test of a school's effectiveness depends less on absolute test scores or numbers of National Merit finalists than on relative progress among cohorts of students. The good schools would be those that show the steepest curve of improvement, not necessarily those whose students earn the highest average scores.

By picking or designing a test of essential skills and knowledge, and administering it to students at the end of each year, a faculty gains vital insights for assessing its own work.

10. Make schools, not universities, the primary home of researchers. Where possible, schools should employ staff members who are qualified to conduct educational research. Under the supervision of principals, deans, or department heads, research would focus on new approaches or special concerns of a particular school.

This strategy requires that veteran teachers be hired both to teach and conduct research--or that education professors maintain clinical interests.

Also implicit in this suggestion is the belief that the idiosyncrasies of schools are more important than their similarities.

Hopelessly idealistic though some of these suggestions might seem, all concern basic--and frequently neglected--weaknesses in our high schools. We must be willing to consider with open minds even the most unorthodox proposals, and risk failure in some experiments as we move toward meaningful reform.

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