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Connections: Schools That Compel

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With discipline at the top of Americans' concerns about education, it is not surprising that many teachers and taxpayers applaud Perez. Perhaps, instead, they should ask why so many young people despise school so much that they play hooky, misbehave, and drop out as soon as they can. Why is it that children who are so eager to learn in the first three grades are, by the time they reach high school, either discipline problems or reluctantly doing just enough to pass?

Some kids are maladjusted (often understandably) and beyond the reach of even the most patient and professional teacher. But some schools are also maladjusted and must share the responsibility for their disciplinary problems.

It is hard to imagine that the two very different Palo Alto, Calif., schools featured in our cover story (beginning on page 24) could have any disciplinary problems. Hoover and Ohlone elementary schools engage their pupils and foster a joy of learning. Parents are delighted with the schools. And alumni of both places look back with fondness and gratitude.

Hoover and Ohlone represent opposite ends of the pedagogical spectrum. Hoover prizes academic rigor and emphasizes basics taught by teachers in a highly structured atmosphere. Test-taking is a significant part of a student's life. Ohlone is loosely structured, and teachers strive to establish lateral rather than vertical relationships with their students. They begin with what each child brings to the school and build on that, encouraging the students to explore and discover for themselves. Tests are barely tolerated.

Both of these schools are successful. Hoover is the traditional school at its best. Ohlone is the prototypical progressive school. Both succeed, in part, because their students are from advantaged families that value education and have made their children ready and eager for it. The teachers in both schools are caring, committed, and creative--demonstrating that good teachers, more than anything else, make for good schools.

But what about the thousands of schools whose students are not from advantaged families and whose teachers are not as experienced and committed as Ohlone's and Hoover's? Compulsory attendance represents America's commitment to universal education--the belief that all children are entitled to an adequate and appropriate education. But schools find it ever more difficult to carry out that mandate because of profound social changes, such as the decline of the traditional family and the growth of an underclass of disadvantaged and non-English-speaking students.

To reach many of today's and tomorrow's children, schools will need to be flexible, adapt to changes around them, and meet the unique needs of each child. Teachers will have to be autonomous professionals, tailoring their practice to meet ever changing circumstances. They will need to make the most of research on how children learn (like the findings described in the article on page 20). And they will need to continuously rethink and redefine the role of schools (as educator Deborah Meier suggests in the excerpt from her new book on page 44).

Within that context, one might argue that Hoover represents the best of the past in American education, and Ohlone the hope and promise of the future.

--Ronald A. Wolk

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