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Well-Off Schools Ponder Barriers to Reform

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Cambridge, Mass.

Educators from some of America's top public high schools and most selective higher-education institutions meeting here recently pondered what many described as one of the greatest barriers to educational change: the high schools' own success.

At schools where so many students go on to good colleges, participants suggested, it is hard to get parents and even some educators to understand the need for reform--even though students may receive a disjointed education that fails to prepare them for changes in the economy and in society.

As a result, schools in the central cities, rather than their affluent, suburban counterparts, have been the driving forces behind the education-reform movement of the past decade, said Theodore R. Sizer, a Brown University education professor and the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, in a speech at the conference.

"No one's demanding that these schools change,'' observed one of the conference's organizers.

High Schools and Reform

The problems of successful high schools were far from the only topic of discussion at the conference at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education last month. The meeting, which brought together representatives of 18 high schools and an equal number of colleges, also grappled with such broad issues as the evolving nature of high school and the implications of K-12 reform for higher education.

The conference, "High School-College Connections: A Dialogue,'' was organized by two Massachusetts superintendents--Robert J. Munson of Westwood and Karla Baehr DeLetis of Wellesley--along with Mr. Sizer.

Each high school team consisted of a teacher, a guidance director, a principal, and a superintendent, while the higher-education teams included deans of the arts and sciences, admissions directors, and other faculty members.

"We were interested in bringing together districts that have some resources to struggle and grapple'' with crucial reform issues, Ms. DeLetis said.

"If this group comes to a consensus about what needs to change, that would be a powerful statement,'' added Mr. Munson.

Most of the participating high schools are near New York City, Chicago, or Boston. Organizers picked the schools in hopes of fostering regional partnerships between schools and colleges in those areas.

'Intellectual Chaos'

In a speech early in the conference, Mr. Sizer urged those present to ask themselves, "Can the way we do things be defended on rigorous grounds?''

Mr. Sizer asked participants whether they could randomly pull the classwork of every seventh student at their schools, ask the students to explain their work, and find the results exemplary.

On a similar note, he suggested that educators spend time "shadowing'' a student in their systems for a day. What they may find, he suggested, is "intellectual chaos,'' with students drifting through a series of uncoordinated classes with widely divergent standards.

College admissions turned out to be "a natural intersection'' for the discussions that followed over the next two days, Ms. DeLetis observed. In particular, attention turned to how the admissions process at competitive colleges drives the structure of the curriculum and testing at top public schools.

"Too often, students spread themselves dangerously thin, only so they can meet the expectations they feel the colleges have set for them,'' asserted Jean E. Goddard, an English teacher at Wellesley (Mass.) High School.

Ms. Goddard described anxious students who cram as many honors courses as possible into their schedules without any sense of purpose, and who recalculate their grade-point averages daily.

"They often have neither the time nor the energy nor the resilience,'' she remarked, "to rewrite and rethink, to wrestle with language and ideas, and to stay with a problem until they have solved it and made it theirs.''

'Better But Not Different'

In affluent districts that send the overwhelming majority of their students to college, noted Mr. Munson, "Parents are saying, 'We don't want you to change anything if it's going to hurt our children's chance of getting into college.'''

"We are driven by university requirements and not our own graduation requirements,'' added one superintendent.

Paul D. Houston, the incoming executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, spoke of the conundrum of "parents who want schools better but not different.''

"The schools have been making incremental improvements in an exponential environment,'' he said.

Several high school participants asked their higher-education colleagues to "fly cover'' for their attempts to re-examine the education and assessment of students.

Others suggested, though, that high schools are obligated to take risks regardless of whether higher-education leaders approve.

"Is not the greatest impediment to moving forward our own way of thinking?'' asked one assistant superintendent.

"Change is going to occur in one of two ways,'' observed Foster E. Wright, the principal of Belmont (Mass.) High School. "Either we're going to be the architects, or someone else is going to be.''

Promoting a Dialogue

Sharon Lloyd Clark, the director of the institute for secondary education at the Coalition of Essential Schools, described the conference as "a conversation that's long overdue.''

While the coalition helped organize the meeting, none of the high schools that attended is a member of its school-reform network.

"Our role here was to promote a dialogue,'' Ms. Clark said.

Looking ahead, participants expressed interest in continuing the discourse, in part through regional partnerships examining both broad issues about teaching and learning and such specific proposals as whether to abolish class rankings.

Members of the group also plan to release a formal statement of their long-range objectives.

"We have some confidence that each school is going to have to come up with its own unique answers,'' Ms. DeLetis said after the conference. "Its answers can be informed by the questions and answers [that are raised] elsewhere.''

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