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Schools, Colleges, and Mending Reform

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Something there is," Robert Frost wrote, "that doesn't love a wall." At times that same force seems to exist in education, or at least in educational reform: "Something there is that doesn't love reform." Joe Nathan's Commentary (related story, 02/15/95 ) makes a strong case for identifying that "something" as college admissions.

I find no fault with what Mr. Nathan says. Indeed, he probably did not go far enough in citing either how much trouble colleges have caused for schools or the good they have done. On the positive side of the ledger, there is, among other examples, the Advanced Placement examinations, which at their best (English, for example, and the essay and open-ended sections of many of the exams) have encouraged excellent teaching and learning. Furthermore, a new A.P. exam, still being developed, in environmental science is likely to promote this complex, naturally interdisciplinary, and critically challenging study to the rank of "hard" science, a worthy sibling to biology, chemistry, and physics in the high school curriculum. Such a stamp of approval could lead to a dramatic increase in enrollment in science, and at the same time, because of the special nature of the topic, we might witness an active demonstration of how performance-based teaching and learning can engage students in powerful ways. Such "reform" in both curriculum and pedagogy, if it occurs, would be tied directly to a college-driven catalyst for excellence.

While there is no doubt that the college-admissions folk lord over secondary schools, often tyrannically, I have a hard time believing that college admission is the sole force heaving aside the boulders each winter and spring from the new structure being built by school reformers. College is an easy target, maybe too easy, and by rushing at it we might miss other relationships and conditions which are at least as important if not more so. It just does not make sense, for example, that 3,000-plus colleges would consciously decide to reject the compelling results of the late University of Chicago scholar Ralph Tyler's "Eight-Year Study," cited in Mr. Nathan's essay, which showed that students who went through a profoundly "different" high school experience succeeded in college at a higher rate than those who attended traditional schools. It is more likely that secondary school educators--on their own--failed to replicate the program and the process, and by their own neglect reduced the study to a curious anomaly gathering dust on the shelves of researchers. And if that is the case, then our efforts to understand why reform is so difficult should include those other forces at work in the schools. We need to examine what pieces of the answer are held by teachers, administrators, parents, and others.

Teachers exhibit a strong tendency to teach the same way they were taught, and since for many teachers school was mostly a positive experience (which is in part why they feel comfortable remaining in schools for their careers), it is doubly difficult for them to imagine and then implement new approaches to teaching. Also, since a lot of what is regarded as "good" in schools is connected to order and keeping order (rather than to achievement and authentic development), new ideas which admit to the noisiness and messiness of meaningful learning and which emphasize expansive questioning over neat answering can leave teachers feeling significant fear about their job security.

Administrators get caught in the same vise. Known mediocrity apparently is better--or safer--than unknown possibilities, especially since school boards and taxpayers expect quick returns even though most thoughtful people know that systemic change requires a longer time-frame. Top administrators also tend to ride into office on the promise of bringing something better, which usually means advocating a "new" idea about the way school should "keep." This approach, almost by definition, means overthrowing the predecessor's plan, by fiat if necessary, even though some parts of the former plan might have been beginning to show results. This administrative paradox of identity-through-advocacy (to get the job) and conservatism (to keep the job) can leave faculty members feeling that their safest response is to stand quietly on the sidelines regarding any new promises as something akin to New England weather: Wait a minute and it will change.

What about the parents? For many,if not most, school was not a particularly positive experience, yet somehow the business of "going to school" has attained a certain rite-of-passage status. "Yeah, we did that, and it was awful ... so you can do it, too." It's as if we have accepted, as a society, that school can only work for some kids--and we all know who they are. And just like the teachers who have difficulty imagining other ways to teach, parents who have not experienced other ways of learning have a hard time seeing how learning might be different.

The list of forces working against reform does not stop here. I would add the remarkable isolation of schools from the variety of enterprises for which they are preparing students. This lack of connection does not allow for an easy flow of new ideas. Also, the human ego itself seems highly resistant to change, perhaps even because evolution has favored that tendency. And then there are pressures from government and funders which also play a role, described nicely in Robert Hampel's Commentary (related story, 02/08/95 ).

I have oversimplified each of these domains, but my point is that there are lots of forces at work in keeping schools locked in their old patterns. College-admissions practices are certainly one of those forces and one which, I think, can be brought around to work more actively to support general improvement of our schools. But as we struggle to create schools which are truly places that promote learning and development for all students, we are likely to succeed only to the extent that we can understand the challenge in its full scope. There are, it seems, many things that do not love reform. n

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