Education Commentary

Delineating the Boundaries of a People’s Aspiration

By Patricia Albjerg Graham — January 27, 1999 11 min read

Rusticating in the spectacular scenery of Glacier National Park during the summer of 1987, the nation’s chief state school officers spent a week discussing a series of academic papers chronicling the circumstances of American children, particularly those living in poverty. Following these meetings and with the guidance of its president, David W. Hornbeck, then Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, the Council of Chief State School Officers adopted a statement and model statute, “Assuring School Success for Students at Risk.” Its first two assumptions were: “All children can learn,” and “What each child learns must include a challenging and common curriculum.”

This action taken by the chiefs, a politically attuned group of educators, occurred four years after publication of A Nation at Risk, the strikingly popular report of the National COmmission on Excellence in Education decrying the academic ignorance of American schoolchildren. Paradoxically, the goals to which the chiefs committed themselves were both banal and revolutionary. They were banal because Americans in the 1980s lived with the comforting but unexamined assumption that the schools aready did what the chiefs now proclaimd. But it was revolutionary because in reality, as the chiefs knew well and as the American public had heretofore given its unspoken assent, the schools had been muchmore successful in enrolling students than in teaching them.

What a contrast to the reigning sentiment of public educational purpose during the middle years of this century! Best expressed then in the U.S. Office of Education’s 1947 Commission on Life Adjustment Education for Youth, a group of educators opined that the goal of schooling was to help young people “adjust to life,” a sentiment that assumed most of their lives would be significantly determined by their socioeconomic class, their race, and their gender. Under the leadership of Superintendent Benjamin Willis (then of Yonkers, N.Y., and later of Chicago), the commission barely alluded to academic matters as a function of schooling and instead stressed children’s nonacademic needs: “physical, mental, and emotional health ... personal satisfactions and achievements for each individual within the limits of his abilities.” The argument was that one should adjust to the circumstances one found in one’s life rather than improve them through one’s own effort and with the school’s help. The “limits of one’s abilities” was perceived as a profound curb on aspiration.

The implementation of these sentiments was widely accepted as diminishing the need or desirability of academic achievement for most students and justifying tracking in high schools. Its chief proponent, Charles Prosser, an early leader of vocational education, argued in the 1940s that only 20 percent of American youths could benefit from an academic curriculum, 20 percent from a vocational curriculum, and the remaining 60 percent from “life adjustment training.” Americans, both the public and professional educators, seemed to accept and to endorse these arrangements for schooling.

This winter in Massachusetts, which considers itself the birthplace of American public education given the 19th-century leadership of its chief state school officer, Horace Mann, public authorities are decrying the poor academic performance of both aspiring teachers and students on recent tests of the academic knowledge of each. For example, a majority of Massachusetts’ 4th, 8th, and 10th graders scored “failing” or “needs improvement” grades in mathematics, science, and English, with the exception of 8th graders in English. Last July, almost half the candidates for teaching positions in Massachusetts public schools failed a test of basic competency.

What should this tale of contradictory expectations for American schooling in this century tell us? Five issues seem most important and each deserves closer examination:

(1) Mandatory academic achievement for all is a revolutionary change in expectations for American students.

(2) School is a limited though important influence in the lives of children, particularly adolescents.

(3) Fundamental reorganization of schools, particularly high schools, may be necessary.

(4) An exclusive focus on academic achievement may prove too narrow a goal for schools.

(5) American schools historically have consistently delivered what the public sought from them, but accomplishment of those goals has taken decades.

Mandatory academic achievement for all: This unique expectation for American youths attempts to replace attendance with learning. We have found it much easier to develop and implement a policy of universal attendance in elementary school and for most in high school than to actually have the students learn academic material while they are in school. Our interest in the academic learning of all students has been so limited that most districts did not even report scores of their students on standardized tests of academic subjects until the past decade. The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores were reported only by region of the country until the 1990s, when state reporting became common. In short, our lack of interest in what children were actually learning was so great that, as a nation, we had little knowledge or evidence of their success or lack of it in mastering academic subjects.

Throughout this century, of course, we have always sought academic achievement for some. Included among the “some,” to this nation’s credit, have been a few children of poverty of all races, who were able to accommodate themselves to the routines of American schooling, and many children of affluence, whose parents often found satisfactory alternatives to schooling routines that did not appeal to their youngsters. But even for these students, academic achievement per se was rarely the goal; rather, admission to a prestigious college was the coin of the realm, and academic achievement was only one among many issues that admissions staffs considered when selecting a freshman class.

School’s limited though important influence in the lives of children: American children spend between 900 and 1,100 hours in school in a given year (if they attend daily). That is roughly one-ninth, or 11 percent, of the time in a given year. While time alone is not the only measure of significance of schooling in a child’s life, the power that schooling has over a youngster’s life varies enormously. By some calculations, American children average 200 more hours annually of watching television than time in school.

Employment during the school year, often exceeding 20 hours a week, for middle-class adolescents (but rarely for either poor or rich ones--for different reasons) is a powerful diversion from schoolwork. It provides the immediate gratification of a paycheck, typically spent, not saved, and thus providing highly desirable teenage luxuries. Schoolwork and concomitant homework typically assume a much lower priority for such a youngster, although a high school diploma is still perceived as an important and desirable goal.

Recent international evidence, however, reveals that the United States has lost its lead, held throughout most of this century, in percentage of teenagers receiving a high school diploma. In the 1950s, the United States led, along with Germany and Czechoslovakia, with more than 75 percent of the age group graduating from high school. Today, among industrialized nations composing the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is next to last, primarily because other countries have increased their graduation rates while the U.S. rate has declined slightly. The United States still sends the highest fraction of its graduates to college among the OECD nations, though other nations are close behind, and the U.S. college-dropout rate is high (37 percent).

Fundamental reorganization of schools, especially high schools: With high school graduation declining in the United States and attention to schooling diminished among employed adolescents, major effort needs to be exerted to make schooling more compelling for children. The most obvious problems are in the high schools for teenagers, who are much less compliant with demands of schooling than are younger children and whose gap between their grade levels and academic skills is inevitably greater.

Too many high schools are too large, and thus impersonal, for adolescents seeking or needing close and concerned adult involvement. The legacy of James B. Conant, who urged that high schools be large enough to offer advanced-placement courses for potential Harvard applicants, has given legitimacy to huge high schools in which students pass unknown and unnoticed in “general track” courses that make few academic demands.

In high school, the skills gap between curriculum demands and teacher knowledge is greater than in primary school, where nearly all teachers have mastery of the material. Given the emerging standards movement in science, mathematics, history, and even English, many teachers, who through no fault of their own were never the beneficiaries of a strong liberal arts education, find the new material difficult to understand and consequently hard to teach. Furthermore, those teaching in either the vocational or general track never had to teach a demanding academic curriculum before. Now they are expected to assist all high school students in learning the material. That is a profound challenge to the existing teaching force, which the nascent and chaotic professional-development efforts in most districts have not come close to mastering.

Finally, the increases in per-pupil expenditure in U.S. schools in the past two decades have gone disproportionately to support educational services for children with handicaps or special needs. These children, of course, deserve good educations, and they often have strong lobbying support to assure that they get the help they need. But ordinary children who must meet the new academic standards also need informed, imaginative pedagogy and effective school organizations to help them.

Exclusive focus on academic achievement may prove too narrow a goal: We Americans tend to swing from one rhetorical goal to another across a wide spectrum. We have tended to argue that “adjustment” is all that counts, or that “access” is all-determining in our educational policy, and, today, that academic achievement for everyone is all that matters for schools. In reality, sensible school people have generally mitigated the effects of these policy broadsides, in part because the teaching force was usually educated and socialized when a previous goal was dominant and because the school organization is not easy to change. Most systems do not move swiftly from a high school building accommodating 3,500 students to 10 serving 350.

Today, surely any sentient adult would recognize that improving the academic achievement of American youths is a desirable priority for our schools. Certainly I believe that to be true. The question, however, is whether that should be the only goal for our schools. And, to that query, I find myself responding that increasing subject-matter knowledge is one very important task for schools, particularly those serving children whose families and communities have not been able to supply that instruction when the schools have historically failed them. But academic learning, important as it is, is not the only desirable end of schooling in this society.

Public schools still serve the vast majority of American children, roughly 89 percent of our youngsters. About half the remaining 11 percent are enrolled in Roman Catholic schools, and the other half are in private schools or home schooling. Despite residential segregation by income and often by race, public schools remain one of the primary means by which our children meet others who may have different familial cultures, attitudes, beliefs, or traditions than they, but who will with them compose our nation’s citizens. Particularly at a time when the United States is experiencing a level of immigration unprecedented since the beginning of this century, it is imperative that our young people come to know and to appreciate one another so that as adults they can contribute together to the constructive development of this nation. The tragic difficulties of Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland point to the inescapable need for young people of diverse views to learn together.

The overwhelming tragedy and shame of America is that the schools that serve the children who most need them, typically inner-city schools and ones serving poor rural areas, are with important exceptions the worst in America. The best schools in America generally are ones that serve the most affluent families, the ones whose children need good schools less because their families can and do supplement the school program. If we believe that education is important and that mastering academic material is vital, our energies must be directed to schooling these children well. Their schools can no longer be the ones most in need of physical repair; their teachers and administrators adults who themselves were denied good educations; their school routines bound by bureaucratic rigidity. Their schools must become similar to our finest suburban ones: attractive and efficient campuses, populated with well-compensated teachers and administrators who are themselves the beneficiaries of excellent instruction in the liberal arts as well as in their subject areas and in professional education. All must work together in an environment that cherishes high standards for all students while respecting individual variation in learning style, interests, and culture.

That must be the agenda for school reform; even more importantly, it must also be the agenda for social reform.

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as Delineating the Boundaries of a People’s Aspiration