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The Making of High Schools

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In The Myth of the Common School, Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. explores the historical development of the idea that, "in the interest of national coherence,'' the state should control the education of its citizens.

Conflicts between advocates of this view and those who assert the right of parents to control their children's education continue to influence the structure of public education, contends the author, director of the bureau of equal educational opportunity for Massachusetts.

In considering the future needs of American public schools, Mr. Glenn notes the disappearance in this century of a consensus about the moral objectives of education:

The public school has largely abandoned the role that was of such central importance for Horace Mann and his contemporaries: developing character and conveying moral principles for which there was a societal consensus. It was this mission that gave the common school its almost sacred character in American life from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.

This is not to say that the contemporary public school is truly neutral with respect to values and world view. ... [W]e can agree that schools inevitably present a view of reality that has the effect of relativizing other views. ...

The difference is that, in Horace Mann's day, the moral objectives of the school were essentially congruent with those of the public, but this is no longer the case. ...

This consensus on the moral content of education no longer exists. The values most strongly stressed in public schools and, even more significantly, those ignored or subtly denigrated are in many cases matters over which Americans divide more clearly than over any theological issue.

It is only by stressing another contemporary--though equally controversial--theme, the expansion of parent choice, and working with the utmost care to develop a diversity of schooling that offers distinctive approaches to the common goals essential to our society that we can rebuild broad support for public education.

University of Massachusetts Press, P.O. Box 429, Amherst, Mass. 01004; 369 pp., $32.50 cloth, $13.95, paper.

The American high school "was founded to produce citizens for the new republic but quickly became a vehicle for individual status attainment,'' argues David F. Labaree in The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939.

To demonstrate the influence of the marketplace in transforming the purposes and practices of high schools, Mr. Labaree, assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, offers a case study of the first public high school in Philadelphia.

The school's history illustrates the tensions between democratic and meritocratic goals that continue to shape--and stratify--American public education, the author concludes in the following passages.

The stratification process works as follows: The high school's success in the credentials market brings political pressure for wider access; wider access lowers the market value of high-school credentials for members of the middle class who already have access; this market situation puts pressure on the high school to stratify (both schools and curricula) in order to permit both wider access in the lower tracks and schools and exclusiveness at the upper end.

... [T]he history of the American high school has been a continuing struggle between political forces and market forces, and there is little sign of a change in the offing. For as long as we require the high school to produce educational commodities for the purpose of individual accumulation, we will affirm the high school as a market institution and subject its credentials to the vagaries of shifting supply and demand.

And as long as we also require it to provide open access to all citizens as a matter of political right (the watery residue of the common-school ideal), we will unavoidably keep flooding the market and diluting the exchange value of high-school credentials. Since politics prevent American educators from restricting access to high school, its characteristic form has become a peculiar combination of comprehensiveness and stratification.

Yale University Press, 92A Yale Station, New Haven, Conn. 06520; 208 pp., $30 cloth.

Because of changes stemming from the increasing diversity of the student population and external mandates to correct inequities, teachers and principals have in recent decades lost much of their influence in creating a "strong positive ethos'' for their schools, Gerald Grant concludes in The World We Created at Hamilton High.

Examining closely the evolution of one high school from the 1950's through the 1980's, the professor of education and sociology at Syracuse University links the decline and gradual improvement of academic achievement there to shifts in the school's authority system.

Two reforms are essential, Mr. Grant suggests, if schools are to re-establish their intellectual and moral authority without sacrificing gains in equity: Teachers must be put "in charge of their own practice'' and, as he explains in the following excerpts, schools must be allowed to "shape their own destiny.''

Most teachers and principals in public schools do not feel that they control their fate. They have lost a sense of efficacy and, like those at Hamilton High, believe that they are on the receiving end of policies made elsewhere. Principals have become middle managers who process directives issuing from a multilayered bureaucracy.

In one school a principal pointed to 45 pounds of circulars that had emanated from the central office in the previous year; in a single month 37 different topics had been covered. ...

Schools labor under an increasingly massive superstructure. Yet there is nothing educationally that necessitates such a framework. ...

Consolidation and centralization were well under way before World War II. But Hamilton High in the 1950's was still primarily a local school with a great deal of local discretion, and strong authority rested in the principal. The egalitarian reforms of the last decades were aimed at dismantling that discretion because local traditional authority was often a reflection of local prejudices.

But now that the battle has been won, it is time to recognize that central-office bureaucrats cannot make good schools. Only the teachers and principals in those schools, acting in concert with parents and pupils, can create vibrant educational communities. But they cannot do so without a radical decentralization that restores a large measure of autonomy and initiative to the individual school.

Harvard University Press, P.O. Box 1034, 525 Great Rd. (Rte. 119), Littleton, Mass. 01460-1034; 285 pp., $24.95 cloth.

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