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Two Schools Of Thought

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In the battle for the hearts and minds of America's public schoolchildren, old-line traditionalists and reform-minded progressives are embroiled in a seemingly endless knock-em-down brawl. The traditionalists tend to favor order, strong-headed teachers, and exacting standards. For progressives, on the other hand, learning is like the blooming of a flower: It can never be compelled, only tended by nurturing teachers. The former talk of structure, time on task, and drill and practice. The latter speak of freedom, student-initiated projects, and authentic assessment. In newspaper columns and educational journals and books, the two sides snipe at each other, insisting that their view is better than the other's.

In the affluent community of Palo Alto, Calif., these two very different visions of education unfold daily at two very different schools. Both are alternative schools--parents choose to have their children attend--but there is nothing competitive or combative about their relationship; each speaks well of the other. The parents of one talk not of the bad choice others have made but of the good choice they have made. All of which raises important questions: Is the pedagogical combativeness between educational progressives and traditionalists really necessary? Is one approach necessarily better than the other? They are questions I met head-on during a recent visit to Palo Alto and Hoover and Ohlone elementary schools.

At Hoover Elementary School, children in one classroom I visited hunched over mimeographed work sheets answering questions on a book titled The Trumpeter Swan; overhead, a banner read, "Free Monday Through Friday: Knowledge--Bring Your Own Container.'' In a classroom at Ohlone School, children percolated from one workstation to the next; a sign on the wall read, "Children need a place to run / to explore / a world to discover....''

At Hoover, a girl's tearful outburst was disregarded by classmates preoccupied with work; briefly administered to by a whispering teacher, the girl shrugged her shoulders and then resumed her own work as if nothing had ever happened. At Ohlone, a class of students sat in a close circle during "rugtime,'' trying to resolve a playground dispute; finally, after a protracted discussion, the teacher said, "Since I'm the teacher and adult, I'll make the decision, but I'll ask you how you feel about it.''

At Hoover, classroom after classroom featured dual posters of Washington and Lincoln in honor of president's month. But at Ohlone, you'd never know it was president's month, or any other month for that matter.

At Hoover, the principal anticipated my arrival and escorted me, a visiting reporter, from one classroom to the next, beginning at kindergarten and finishing at 5th grade. At Ohlone, the principal greeted me with some surprise. "Refresh my memory,'' he said. "What is this all about?'' Told that he had agreed to have his school featured in this magazine, he said, "Well, stay all day if you want. Go wherever you want.''

Snapshots like these cannot, of course, give a complete picture of what any school is like. But in this case, they are suggestive of two very different philosophies of education--philosophies that have generated such long waiting lists for both schools that there are stories of mothers-to-be attempting to register their unborn children.

In 1970, Hoover and Ohlone were but two of 13 neighborhood schools, all with fairly conventional educational approaches. The initial impetus for change came from three Ohlone teachers who returned from a conference on open education so impressed that they proposed that their school become one of a consortium of open schools. This was the era of a renewed interest in progressive education, of a belief in giving heretofore constrained children new freedom, so it was not hard for these teachers to interest their colleagues.

As then-principal Jim Mathiott recalls, the decision to become an open school was considered and reconsidered before it was actually made. Indeed, two-thirds of the faculty members would have to support the new conception. The teachers spent hours reading and discussing such books as A.S. Neill's Summerhill and Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age. The difficulties inherent in making such a philosophical shift were apparent. Nevertheless, 13 of the 14 faculty members eventually voted to make the move. They gave themselves three years to fully transform Ohlone from an essentially conventional school to an open one.

Becoming an open school meant that teachers had to relinquish some of their authority in favor of a new egalitarianism. Ohlone teachers, then, would strive to establish lateral rather than vertical relationships with their students; that is, they would become more or less equal members of a classroom community rather than officials who could exempt themselves from the very rules and procedures they instituted. What applied to teachers applied to students, and vice versa. If teachers expected students to make democratic decisions regarding classroom policies and procedures--this the cornerstone of the open-school philosophy--then they would have to expect the same of themselves when it came to determining the school's guiding principles.

This led to what Mathiott calls "cluster meetings''--retreats at which the faculty members discussed salient educational issues as they cooked together and swapped family stories and pictures. The goal, as Mathiott puts it, was to "learn about people as people,'' so that teachers would come to view themselves as equal partners in an enterprise larger than any single person. "I learned a lot about giving up,'' he says, "about letting people give you authority rather than asserting it.'' This, in sum, was what Ohlone teachers were to do with their own students.

A year after Ohlone became an "open'' alternative school, a core of parents on the north side of Palo Alto came to the superintendent demanding that a very different kind of alternative school be created. Disenchanted with their neighborhood schools, which they believed lacked academic rigor, they wanted a school that would reemphasize basics disseminated by teachers in a highly structured atmosphere.

If teachers at Ohlone in 1970 looked at the American educational landscape and concluded that children needed new freedom to pursue their interests, the north side parents in 1971 looked at the same landscape and decided that too much freedom had set children academically adrift. Several of the most vocal parents had been educated in Europe, where the teacher's authority was unimpeachable, and they wanted for their own children teachers who would have uncompromising control of both the classroom and curriculum. In their minds, Ohlone's new egalitarianism smacked of permissiveness; a teacher who wasn't always clearly in charge was a teacher neglectful of his or her duty.

When Hoover became Palo Alto's second alternative school in 1971, its mission statement, which is still in the current brochure, read, "Hoover School puts primary emphasis on the basic academic skills and subject matter and the establishment of good study habits....Toward this end, the school provides the quiet and orderly environment which many children need in order to learn.'' It was a far cry from Ohlone's stated purpose of helping each student acquire the tools for learning "in such a way that the child experiences a joy of learning.''

"We liked how we were taught, so we teach the same way,'' Hoover principal Kay Van Der Berg told me, sitting with her hands folded upon a desktop in an office so tidy that it might, but for a few school mementos, be that of a corporate accountant.

Van Der Berg, who came to Hoover in 1988, was herself taught in parochial schools where she learned the importance of basic skills, order, and discipline--fundamental educational values that are explicit in the daily workings of Hoover. Later, in the late 1970s, while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, she found herself "right down the line'' with the then burgeoning effective schools movement, which insisted on the inviolability of instructional time. This made her a good match for Hoover, which in the early years was so wary of academic disruptions that parental classroom visitations were virtually forbidden; there are even stories about parents being scolded for peeking through classroom windows. While this policy has been eased somewhat, Hoover teachers have indisputable command of their classrooms. Parents, who play only a supporting role, are limited to cameo appearances.

Some educators suggest that a basic-skills emphasis, with its slavish devotion to time-on-task activities, invariably hinders creative expression. But Van Der Berg and her teachers assert that the opposite is in fact the case: A grasp of essential skills is a prerequisite to meaningful creative expression. "My own belief,'' Van Der Berg said, "is that with a strong structure in place, you can learn almost anything you want. You have to have the skills before the creativity. You can write like e.e. cummings, but you'd better have learned the conventions first.''

Later in the day, at a luncheon held in honor of the Chinese New Year, Hoover parents made the same point: Skills are prerequisites for creativity. "Creativity can't occur until the building blocks are in place,'' one parent said. Another added that "children need to follow steps that will allow them to express creativity. If you're good at sports, you scrimmage; if you're good at music, you practice the scales.''

While Ohlone's student population is 11.8 percent Asian-American, Hoover's is a remarkably high 36 percent--a statistic Chinese mothers said is no coincidence. One such mother, Marion Kwok, said Chinese parents want an orderly environment in which heedful children work at basic skills. "We Chinese parents like structure; we believe that creativity can come later,'' Kwok said. "Too many American schools overemphasize creativity, when school should be all about academics. Here at Hoover, our son will learn how to write and do mathematics, and he'll have these things for the rest of his life, even if he doesn't prove to be creative.''

While Van Der Berg insisted that the teaching strategies used at Hoover are far less traditional than they once were, noting that "some of our parents wish this weren't the case,'' she also said, "We know when we're teaching commas, and we're very clear about when we're teaching math and science.'' Hoover teachers may have students write stories and use games to teach math, but they do not hesitate to break sentences into grammatical components on which their students are then drilled. This, of course, is not always enjoyable for the students, but "fun,'' Hoover teachers believe, isn't the point. Constructive work is necessarily toilsome on occasion. The payoff is in the finished product, which at Hoover may be a project, a report, or--as is most often the case--a test.

More and more educators these days denigrate the so-called objective test. It tends, they say, to dehumanize students, as their success has everything to do with conforming to an external standard and nothing to do with individual expression. But as far as Hoover parents and teachers are concerned, a test is not a punishment but a chance for thoroughly prepared students to demonstrate mastery. In fact, listening to Van Der Berg, tests began to sound like a vehicle for building self-esteem. "Our kids are happiest when taking a test,'' she insisted. "The more challenged they are, the better they perform. The harder they work, the better they feel about themselves.''

Van Der Berg said Hoover parents are wary of qualitative measurements--portfolio assessments and the like; they want "hard data.'' Beginning in the 4th grade, students not only receive traditional report cards but also "mini'' report cards, replete with grades, that are sent home each Friday. This way, so the theory goes, parents are never left in the dark regarding their children's effort and achievement. Any slippage will be immediately detected, so teachers and parents can take quick steps to reverse the trend.

This sort of strict vigilance may conjure up images of the regimented turn-of-the-century schoolroom presided over by a daunting schoolmarm, but this is not the case. As one parent said rather defensively when asked about the school's "toe-the-line'' reputation, "It's not like this is a military academy or something.''

The classrooms themselves are anything but austere. Decked out with elaborate and colorful displays--many made by the students themselves--they almost call to mind an upscale gift shop. And during my visit, I never saw students sit impassively at desks. They used manipulatives to solve math problems and created passports for a social studies project. The progressive notion of the student as worker appeared to be implemented into daily practice.

Perhaps, then, as Van Der Berg asserted, it is less the teaching strategies that make Hoover a traditional school than the fact that children are expected to master certain skills and acquire certain knowledge in ways and at times determined by the teacher. As one parent put it, "At Ohlone, teachers want learning to come from the kids. But at Hoover, teachers have a sense of what educational standards are all about, and they expect kids to adapt to those standards.''

Even in kindergarten, there was an explicit expectation that students will learn specific things at specific times; "age appropriate'' instruction was alive and well, a far cry from the mixed-age classrooms at Ohlone. As Van Der Berg escorted me into a kindergarten class, for instance, the teacher, Doris Ann Girerd, rallied her children in the midst of a phonics lesson by conspiratorially stage-whispering, "We can't be too loud because if the 1st grade teachers come in, they'll snatch you. Only 1st graders are supposed to be doing this!'' The children, feeling themselves privileged, responded enthusiastically. "T as in top, say t,'' Girerd said, the children then nailing down a succession of t's before moving on to the other letters of the alphabet.

In contrast to Ohlone kindergarten classrooms, where children worked at activities of their own choosing, Hoover students were learning certain things as a class. For instance, all of these kindergarten students knew their numbers to 30 and could write their names in lowercase letters. They were already "writing'' reports, too--eight-page pictorial documents on the presidents. In one report, a hoe repre-sented Thomas Jefferson, an apparent reference to his celebration of the agrarian ideal.

As we were about to leave the room, Girerd, wanting to show us what the class had recently learned, called out to the children, "Who's on a penny?''

"Lincoln!'' the students shouted in unison.

"What number president is he?''

"Sixteen!'' they hollered.

This continued through the various monetary denominations; the children were never at a loss.

The sense of a strong outcome-based curriculum spiraled upward at Hoover, from one grade to the next. Teachers knew what their students needed to know, and the children were to follow their leads without equivocation. In one 1st grade classroom, this meant learning how to spell six words a day or collecting a dozen similar objects for a mini museum. In a 2nd grade classroom, it meant using words such as "toothed'' or "baleen'' in reports on whales the students were piecing together. ("Expository!'' the students called out when asked what kind of report they were writing.) In a 4th grade classroom, it meant drawing up charts that would demonstrate a knowledge of the early California explorers. This is a school that author E.D. Hirsch, whose books have popularized the notion of cultural literacy, would approve of, for each teacher strives to ensure that each student "exits'' a particular grade with a specific knowledge and skill base.

Compared with the vast majority of elementary schools, there was in Hoover classrooms a sense of remarkable calm; even more remarkable was the fact that this general quiescence was achieved without apparent threats or coercion. The children were businesslike, studious, going about their work with neither complaint nor screeching zeal.

This scholarly environment, Hoover teachers said, is a natural byproduct of the students' need to meet uncompromising standards--they simply know they cannot afford to waste time. Their words echoed Van Der Berg's about how kids are happiest while taking tests--that is, demonstrating mastery. "Most educators are far too liberal with grades,'' said 1st grade teacher Ellen Uchida. "And there's no need for that because if you demand that your students achieve, they will achieve. If you want them to read, they will read.''

While Uchida talked about the things her students were working on--a list of dizzying length--her students worked on thank-you cards for parents who had made presentations during Chinese culture week. Repeatedly, children came up to show her their cards, asking if they were now complete, and time and time again she suggested further refinements. Without so much as sighing, they simply returned to work.

Eclectically attractive, with a miniature grocery tucked into a corner, Uchida's classroom did not strike me as "traditional.'' Yet she was a traditional teacher in that she didn't permit her students to become, academically speaking, conscientious objectors. She was requiring, for instance, that her students read nonfiction even though, she remarked, many would read fiction to perpetuity if left to their own devices. But they had to expand their horizons, and that was that. She tallied the books her students had read and then determined that they had indeed done the reading by randomly picking a page and asking them to put the information into a broader context.

For Hoover teachers like Uchida, intrinsic motivation was important but insufficient. Kids respond well to rewards, and Uchida pays them, in mock coinage, for work well-done. "Rewards,'' she said, "are not so much for being the best but for trying.''

As I listened to Hoover teachers and parents talk, the metaphor of the high bar kept coming to mind. While it is now fashionable for educators to talk of raising or lowering the bar to meet students' individual needs, the Hoover community wants the bar to be set high and raised incrementally each year. "If my kid can truly do something better, I want her to be asked to do it over again until it's done right,'' one mother, Carol Scholtz, said. "That's what they do here.''

Another mother, Valerie Wolk, said: "People like to say that the child will learn when he's ready to learn, but it's not true. I've seen what happens with phonics, for instance. If the teacher really wants them to learn it, the children will be ready.''

"OK, you're ready,'' a father interjected. "That's all the teacher has to say.''

The parents went on to say that what they liked best about Hoover was the fact that the teachers were clearly in charge and could hence spur on student accomplishment.

"We like the fact that teachers are authority figures,'' Scholtz said, "and I hope they're authority figures over there, too.'' By "over there,'' she meant Ohlone.

"Years ago, shortly after I began teaching, my principal told me that I was very untraditional,'' Ohlone K-2 teacher Carol Miller told me as she roamed from one workstation in her mixed-grade classroom to the next, answering questions and making suggestions. "Her idea was that children would all do their ABCs at the same time so that you could make comparisons. You'd carry in your head an invisible chart so you'd know how well one child was doing as opposed to another. But you can only make comparisons if all the children are working at the same thing, and I prefer to have the kids determine the subject and theme of their studies.''

At Ohlone, it is almost school credo that competition--the inevitable result of drawing comparisons--is bad. Consequently, there are no school spelling bees, no accelerated reader programs, and no schoolwide themes. There is no grading, either, but rather a two- to six-page year-ending narrative in which the teachers reflect upon their students' personal growth. "We don't compare John with Sara, we compare John with John,'' Ohlone principal Michael Kass said. "Our teachers will never talk about a kid's relative status. And we don't talk about grade-appropriate levels or abilities either because kids may very well be at different places socially and academically. It doesn't matter how old you are; it just matters where you are.''

Because teachers do not draw comparisons and because the students, up to three years apart in age in certain classrooms, work on activities of their own choosing, the children are at very different places--both literally and developmentally. In Miller's classroom, for example, two girls took me on a tour of various workstations; at one, three children played a connect-the-dots game, while at another, two kids painstakingly worked at forming Chinese characters. It was the older children who tackled the latter task, but by and large the children separated themselves not by age but by interests. Older children helped the younger ones work on weather kits, reading, or making land forms from papier-mâche. Whatever the children cared to work on, it was essential for the teachers to have an intimate knowledge of each child's interests and needs; they were always in the midst of creating "customized'' learning environments. If at Hoover the child was to adapt to the school, at Ohlone the school was to adapt to the child. The former required that the child be motivated to reach more or less absolute standards; the latter required flexibility on the school's part.

Miller said she believes most students shun hard work because the schools they attend aren't "kid friendly.'' They allow children to play and explore in kindergarten but then institute, usually in the 1st grade, "formalized'' learning. Children who had been pursuing interests were suddenly called upon to relinquish them, usually in favor of unwelcome tasks. "Unlike other school families,'' Miller said, "our families do not have to fear that we'll institute formalized learning in the 1st grade; we try to get rid of that whole notion. Here, learning is not like, 'You will know this.' It's a continuum--not stop and start.''

Miller made it clear that she expected students to learn letters and numbers--everything required by the California curriculum. But she wanted to accomplish it without imposing, which is not always easy to do. "Every day, I strive for a balance between freedom and teacher expectation,'' she said. "Every day is a judgment call because I'm juggling what I believe in with the need for accountability.''

Later, while supervising recess, Miller talked of a study in which children could choose from a table loaded with sweets as well as fruits and vegetables. Initially, children would choose the sweets, but eventually a nutritive instinct would kick in, and children would eat the healthier food. This, in a nutshell, was the Ohlone view of schooling: If trusted, children would eventually make good choices.

Talk like Miller's about the Ohlone disdain for formalized learning has led many Palo Alto residents to think of Hoover as the town's structured public school and Ohlone as the unstructured one. It is a perception that raises hackles among the Ohlone faculty. "People sometimes say that this school lacks structure, that it's loosey goosey,'' said principal Kass. "But I would never use the word 'unstructured' in describing Ohlone. It's highly structured. Teachers have to be organized and have strong internal structure because it's up to them to provide the framework in which children can have autonomy.''

A number of Ohlone teachers said their work is rewarding but exhausting; providing what Kass called "the framework''--that is, establishing projects and activities that simultaneously provide children with both focus and intellectual freedom--is all-consuming. It would be infinitely easier, they said, to simply tell children what to do, to have them fill out work sheets that followed the course of a textbook.

One Ohlone teacher, Arlene Malkin, confessed to doing just that on occasion. "This kind of teaching demands that you constantly think up new activities, and that burns you out,'' she said. "Then I go back to basics--drilling and the like--for a day or so. I need the respite, so I don't feel guilty about doing it.''

Today, she said, was not a particularly demanding day, yet she still had done a lot of scrambling about to prepare activities for what turned out to be Groundhog Day. Reading an endearing newspaper account about a groundhog sniffing at his shadow was insufficient; she wanted to use the occasion to have the students learn something about the nature of light--to understand concepts such as opacity and translucence. This meant, among other things, getting hold of flashlights and paper so the students could conduct the experiments she had planned. "I'm always rounding up junk,'' she said.

At Hoover, none of the teachers cited class size as a problem; but at Ohlone, Malkin and her fellow teachers did, even though both schools have identical pupil-teacher ratios of 28 to 1 (though at Ohlone teachers are assisted by aides and parent volunteers). When I mentioned to Ohlone teachers a recently published Brookings Institution report asserting that reducing class size was a fruitless expenditure--students learned as well in large classes as in small--they were astounded by the inexcusable obtuseness. "This is what happens,'' one teacher said with a sigh, "when people putting out such reports are so far removed from the classroom.'' Large classes, they felt, are conducive to little but lecture and rote drill. Small classes, on the other hand, enable teachers to know students on a personal basis, which in turn fosters good practice.

But what exactly is good practice? For Ohlone teachers, it is recognizing that children have an array of learning styles and creating a learning environment that accommodates all of these styles. "Learning demands no one skill,'' Malkin said. "It's auditory, social, verbal kinetic, visual, and so on. So it's our responsibility to respond to the needs of children who have very different ways of understanding the world.''

This calls to mind Harvard University professor Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which several Ohlone teachers are well-versed in. It is Gardner's contention that schools have historically emphasized linguistic and logical-mathematical competencies. Students gifted in these areas are more likely to take advanced classes, receive outstanding grades, and attain sterling results on the SATs. In traditional schools, these students are more likely to eclipse their increasingly anonymous peers, even though the less celebrated students may be acutely intelligent, albeit in very different arenas. As Gardner sees it, there are seven such arenas, or intelligences: spatial, musical, bodily-kinetic, interpersonal, intra-personal, and the two mentioned above.

In his 1993 book, Multiple Intelligences, Gardner--who is spending the current academic year at Stanford and has a son attending Ohlone--describes an "MI curriculum'' as one that features "pods,'' or workstations, at which children "work with peers of different ages and a competent teacher to master a craft or discipline of interest.'' Children's intelligence manifests itself in highly individualized proj-ects as opposed to standardized tests. Nevertheless, Gardner himself writes that there is no recipe for a multiple-intelligences education. It demands--and this is what Ohlone teachers like to say of themselves--that "the teacher be an artist and not a scientist.''

For an Ohlone teacher, being "an artist'' requires structuring but never regimenting activities. It is the teacher's task to provide not mandates but options, allowing the students to determine their own agendas. As such, Ohlone students typically begin the day by making up their own schedules, which they affix to their backpacks or desks. On many classroom walls are tacked student-made charts of assignments, which the students themselves check off as they complete their work. But the charts, like the schedules, are only guides; there is always room for spontaneity at Ohlone. What gets put off today can be done tomorrow.

This is not to suggest that Ohlone does not have high expectations. What it does suggest is that expectations at a progressive school like Ohlone are very different from expectations at a traditional school like Hoover. At Hoover, children are expected to step outside of themselves and meet the expectations of teachers who know what must be learned. At Ohlone, because each child is measured against him- or herself, expectations have to do with realizing one's potential. Sometimes, Kass said, this can even mean backing off on expectations if a child is under duress.

If critics of traditional schools worry that rigid expectations will stifle children's creativity, critics of progressive schools worry that necessarily relative expectations will result in children moving from one grade to another with "holes'' in their body of knowledge. As if to point at this problem, two girls who took me on a tour of a combined 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classroom told me they were reading about Paul Revere. "Bill [Overton, their teacher],'' they said, "told us it was something our 6th grade teacher at the middle school would want us to know.''

Later, during a free period, Overton, an Ohlone elder who has taught at the school for 15 years, said the same thing Miller had said when asked how he balanced a progressive philosophy with a required curriculum: "It's a juggling act.''

"Look,'' he said somewhat wearily, "people hung up on a lock-step curriculum are denying everything they know about people. To say that all 9-year-olds should know something is totally outrageous. You're grouping kids when they shouldn't be grouped, doing something that you shouldn't be able to do. Instead of saying, 'You're good at that, isn't that great?' people say, 'All 4th graders should do this or know that.' I always feel with those outcome statements that there should be a dammit at the end--'All 5th graders will know this, dammit!' ''

As Overton sees it, education is about getting kids to accept where they are on the academic continuum; comparisons with others are inevitably destructive. He told a story about a boy who had felt so shameful about his poor ability to read that he apologized to Overton; now, he felt good about himself and was "bubbling around.''

"But the fact of the matter is that this kid is going to middle school next year, and that concerns me,'' Overton said. "I'm just hoping that there are teachers there who will treat him as a person with many talents, which he has. This is where the notion of multiple intelligences comes in handy; it helps us recognize that he's a person with great talents even if they are not, right now, in linguistic or logical reasoning. I'm just hoping that the teachers who get him will see value in him and understand that how kids like him see themselves is critical to their ability to live and learn.''

Overton talked a lot about looking at the child as a "whole person'' rather than as an academic performer. As far as he is concerned, this is not so much a staple of progressivism as mere common sense; after all, the child is a person. "At school,'' Overton said, "teachers will say to one another, 'How are you doing?' or 'You look like something's bothering you.' They don't deny the fact that they have lives. Yet they won't do this in the classroom. They'll put blinders on and ignore the kid crying on the side or the child having a dispute. But that's not real life, which includes feelings, emotions, interactions. Too often, we forget the goal of happiness.''

So, can it be said that one of these two schools--and its approach to learning--is better than the other? On national examinations such as the Stanford Achievement Test, Hoover scores highest of the 11 Palo Alto elementary schools; in fact, Hoover has consistently been in the top 10 of all California elementary schools as far as test scores are concerned. Ohlone students, on the other hand, are in the middle range of Palo Alto schools when it comes to test scores, well below Hoover students. But it is difficult to say just how meaningful such test results are, for at Hoover tests are emphasized, and students have a lot of experience taking them. At Ohlone, on the other hand, standardized tests are devalued, and students take them only as mandated by the state.

Administrators at the middle and high school levels provide little help either. They claim they're aware of no obvious difference between the two groups of students. Bob Alveris, principal of Jordan Middle School, said both Hoover and Ohlone students adapt equally well to the new school environment. "Truly,'' he said, "I've never heard a teacher say one group of students is preferable to the other.''

Even the parents of Ohlone and Hoover students pass when asked the "which is better'' question. They prefer to talk not of the superiority of their school but of the great satisfaction they have taken in having been able to make a good choice for their children.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between the two schools surfaces in the attitudes of alumni. They are appreciative in different ways.

Former Hoover students speak of having been well-prepared, expressing gratitude to teachers who helped them build a solid academic foundation. "The notion at Hoover wasn't, 'You're fine as you are,' '' said undergraduate Andre Girerd, who partially credits a comprehensive 5th grade report on the history of flight for his becoming a history and aerospace engineering student at the University of Virginia. "There was always a standard and a great incentive system--I particularly remember the awards banquet every semester--that drove you to meet it.''

Ohlone alumni, on the other hand, speak of their former school with the affection and nostalgia usually reserved for old friends. "I loved the school,'' said Andy Shaw, who now works for the California Assembly's committee on higher education. "The openness, the freedom--it all taught you to take responsibility for yourself. I didn't realize what I'd had until college, when friends related the drudgery of their own school experiences.''

Another alumna, Tasha Campos, who plans to attend medical school in the fall, said: "The school drove us kids together instead of separating us.'' She could have been better prepared in mathematics, she said, but this was inconsequential; much more important was the way the school enabled her and others to "feel good about ourselves.''

In the end, the question of whether one school is better than the other is almost beside the point. For it is hard to imagine anyone visiting Hoover and Ohlone and thinking them less than good. True, one might very well prefer Hoover's view that learning is something that can be pushed and prodded, while another may think that the desire to learn must always bloom from within. But the fact of the matter is that both schools, going back over 25 years, have been successful in carrying out their missions. Simply put, their students have learned.

Of course, skeptics may note that the students at both of these schools are comfortably middle class and hence destined for success, regardless of where they attend school. And in a very real sense, they'd be right; middle-class kids have all kinds of economic and cultural advantages.

Still, if a school's underlying philosophy is so crucial to its success, as progressives and traditionalists like to claim, then how is it that both Hoover and Ohlone have succeeded for their students?

What is most apparent about both schools is that they are staffed with committed, caring teachers who know their students and want them to succeed. That--along with giving parents the opportunity to choose their children's school--is surely more important than the ironclad philosophical distinctions that many reformers like to make.

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