Connections: How Good Is Good?

August 01, 1992 3 min read

Since the mid-1980s, the reform movement has been mostly about fixing schools that are obviously failing and improving education for the most disadvantaged kids in society. But the more closely reformers have looked at how schools are organized and what takes place in them, the more convinced they have become that even advantaged youngsters attending good schools are not getting the kind of education they need to prepare them for the changing world that awaits them. Some teachers and the principal of Parkway South High School near St. Louis reached that conclusion six years ago.

Parkway South (see page 28) is considered a good suburban school, populated by ordinary middle-class Americans, most of whom go on to college. Except for fads and fashions, it is in 1992 much like the good neighborhood school of 1952.

Nonetheless, some teachers began to wonder if good is good enough. They concluded that too many of their students were just sliding through, that too many teachers were compromising standards, and that the schedule and the curriculum were outmoded. So they enlisted Parkway South in Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools and set out to make it the best it could be.

Along the way, they have encountered what has been cited as one of the greatest obstacles to school improvement: complacency. Poll after poll reveals that while the majority of citizens believe the nation’s schools are in trouble, they think their own schools are doing well.

So it’s not surprising that a number of parents and teachers at Parkway have resisted major reform on the grounds that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’' Now, after years of effort and controversy, Parkway’s faculty is divided and dispirited and questioning what all their effort has accomplished.

The story of Parkway South is especially significant because of what it may portend for school reform nationally. Craig Larson, Parkway’s principal, captured that significance when he said, “As these schools go, so goes the nation.’' Everyone can agree on the need for major reform in the blighted schools of inner cities. But if schools like Parkway that serve the advantaged kids refuse to change to meet the needs of the future, there is little likelihood of significant systemic change in American education.

An increasing number of reformers insist that the environment of traditional schools like Parkway actually impedes learning and creative teaching because it reflects the obsolete factory model. The school must change, they insist, because virtually everything that affects schooling--family structure, social values, the student body, the knowledge to be transmitted, the workplace, and the modes of communication and transportation--is different today in scale and substance than it was half a century ago. American education is in trouble today, say these reformers, because schools have not changed sufficiently to address the new needs and new opportunities that these revolutionary changes have wrought.

The current reform movement is our belated attempt to catch up. And the teachers and administrators at Parkway South-- like thousands of their counterparts in schools across the country--are learning just how hard a task that is.

When the current reform movement began in the early 1980s, most of those at the forefront believed it would take at least a decade to begin to show real gains. Now, after a decade of intensive effort involving thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers, few would argue that the educational system has been significantly improved. And the modest progress that has been made may now be undermined by crippling budget cuts.

Where Parkway South will go from here is not clear. Neither is the fate of school reform in America. What is clear is that change--the kind we cannot control but only adapt to--is inevitable.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote about change as a force “driving mankind from its old anchorage.’' “Sometimes,’' he said, “the period of change is an age of hope, sometimes it is an age of despair. When mankind has slipped its cables, sometimes it is bent on the discovery of a New World, and sometimes it is haunted by the dim sound of breakers crashing on the rocks ahead.’' --Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Connections: How Good Is Good?