Education Commentary

More-of-the-Same Reform Will Not Achieve Both Excellence and Equity

By Harold Howe II — May 23, 1984 8 min read

We have just finished a year that has seen a multitude of reports and studies offering prescriptions for school improvement in the United States. Looking back over the year, I find I have several major concerns about the recommendations of some of the national reports, about present tendencies in responding to these reports, and about issues inadequately addressed in them. Here are four that I believe are most likely to be of interest to people in schools.

  • Dropouts: I list this as the first priority. It is absolutely astounding to me that so many intelligent people could look for so long at American schools and say so little about this problem. John I. Goodlad says in A Place Called School: “The quality of an educational institution must be judged on its holding power, not just on assessments of its graduates.” I say “amen” to that.
  • The fact is, of course, that the national groups issuing reports on the schools weren’t terribly interested in this subject or even in the 5.5-percent increase in the school dropout rate from 1972 to 1982. Their recommendations for more homework, more demanding courses, longer school days, and more tests are likely to be implemented in ways that will further increase the number of dropouts, although some schools may be skillful enough to avoid this hazard. They will be schools that have made a firm decision to emphasize their holding power along with improving their academic performance.

    We have an ambivalence in this country about our secondary schools. On the one hand, we see them as institutions to serve the needs of all the children of all the people; on the other, we see them as “sorting out” institutions, where those who will go to college and those who won’t are set on different and inflexible tracks, where discipline systems are applied to produce a conformity that tends to ignore the needs and problems of students from families characterized by poverty or instability or both, and where the school all too frequently heaves a sigh of relief rather than feels a sense of failure when a difficult 16-year-old decides to drop out.

    The first question after the blanks for name and address on most job-application forms is, “Do you have a high-school diploma?” A young person without one has a permanent sentence to a limited life. As we make diplomas mean more in terms of learning, we must keep this issue in mind.

    There are now effective dropout-prevention programs operating in some school systems; various experiments with alternative schools and magnet schools have shown promise with this problem. Beyond such programs, we need a commitment by all those who are responsible for schools to the idea that holding power is as important as test scores--perhaps more so in big-city schools, which can be seen as publicly supported institutions that fail with almost half their clients. If a hospital managed to kill off 40 percent of its patients, it would make headlines. City schools leave too many of their students on the dump heap of the job market, and that is painfully close to being economically dead.

  • Freedom for individual schools. Several of the reports suggest that states or school boards or colleges impose new requirements to make sure that schools are tending to serious business. Many states are responding to these recommendations. New York State’s recent action to require more mathematics, science, foreign language, and English for a Regents Diploma is an example. It holds the potential for encouraging imaginative changes in local practice that will result in improved learning for all enrolled in high schools. And it holds an equal potential for the mechanistic application of new requirements that will increase the number of dropouts and do little to enhance learning. A school’s job is to move each youngster ahead in his or her learning, not to set up some arbitrary standard that all must meet and then fail those who don’t. As Massachusetts Commissioner of Education John Lawson has said, “If a kid can’t clear four feet, it doesn’t do much good to raise the bar to four feet, six inches. It does help to give more and better coaching, more and better training.”
  • Unless the individual school finds ways to provide this coaching and training, states’ efforts to raise standards by legislation will be a disaster. Both Mr. Goodlad’s study and the study by Theodore R. Sizer that resulted in the book Horace’s Compromise lend support to this view. The very process of having those connected with a school responsible for what it does is a healthy one. It builds morale, it creates the right kind of accountability, and it offers opportunity for experimentation if something isn’t working well.

    The tendency of some of these reports is to create a new orthodoxy in the name of quality. It will never succeed. Different communities and different schools really do have different needs. Of course, broad objectives are fine. I would not, for example, quarrel with Ernest L. Boyer’s insistence that everyone should learn to write with reasonable clarity and correctness. But how to achieve that goal is a question that belongs inside the school. To make this “freedom within the school’’ have any meaning, local school districts will have to give individual schools some money that can be spent as the school’s parents, teachers, and principal see fit.

  • Building the school’s atmosphere. Recent research on schools that work well, even for disadvantaged youngsters, emphasizes the need for a positive school climate. This intangible element of a school may well be the most important thing about its capacity to help students succeed. It can’t be created by enacting a policy or program; it can only be created by people who care for each other--by friendly, respectful, and genuine feelings among the people in a school. These include students, parents, teachers, principal, secretarial staff, and janitors. This point was recently stated very well by Roland S. Barth. (See “Sandboxes and Honeybees,” Education Week, May 9, 1984.).
  • There is nothing wishy-washy or sentimental about being concerned with the atmosphere a school should have. Among the components of a good school atmosphere are high expectations for the performance of all concerned and a willingness to accept constructive criticism when those expectations are not met. A positive school atmosphere is something like strong team spirit in an athletic team--it encourages high expectations and strong loyalties. It has a very personal aspect; an institution that succeeds in creating it is one in which people know each other. This is the reason that very large schools have trouble building such an atmosphere--too many people remain anonymous within them. Systems for decentralizing large schools into smaller units can contribute to a positive atmosphere.

    The state of Vermont is considering regulations to require schools to develop a positive climate. I am sure that this effort is well-intended, but it has about the same leverage on producing change as trying to lower the divorce rate by enacting a state requirement that all married couples love each other.

    The personality and style of a principal can contribute immensely to a school’s atmosphere, but there is no single prescription for how a principal should behave. I have known somewhat authoritarian principals who managed to create an atmosphere that students and teachers found comfortable, and others who placed their emphasis on participation and group process. Probably the main ingredient in creating a good atmosphere is integrity and fairness in dealing with others.

  • Motivating students. The most prevalent way of motivating students in American secondary schools (and in some elementary schools) is to award grades. A is good. F is bad. If a student gets an F, he or she is supposed to feel like a failure, and that feeling is supposed to stir a desire to be a success. For a great many students, this practice doesn’t work very well, and for quite a few it doesn’t work at all. It adds to a negative self-image that all too frequently is augmented in a youngster’s home and community life. Recent studies of the reasons for dropping out of school place the student’s tendency to see himself or herself as a loser highest on the list, and they place much of the responsibility for creating this impression with the school.
  • Skillful teachers manage to develop relationships with individual students that are supportive and that help them overcome the frustration of failure and dig into their lessons. But not all teachers are skillful, and even a teacher who is will be hard-pressed to do anything for individuals as 150 students flood the classroom daily.

    The students who are most “at risk” in schools are those for whom the school is a place of discouragement.

    Recent research on teaching points out that students, and particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieve best when they receive predominantly positive messages about their work. This doesn’t mean that a school should pretend to approve inadequate work; but it does mean that a school should be organized to make kids successful, not to turn them into failures as present practice does for so many.

    I am quite aware that simplistic observations like these won’t settle the long struggle between those who favor rigor and standards and those who favor motivational encouragement as the key to improved learning--maybe it takes a bit of both. But I do want to say unequivocally that a major component missing from most commission-type reports on education in the last year is any recognition of the importance of motivation.

    My list of concerns has two threads running through it. The first and most important is the need to give equity a chance in the excellence game. Unless we find a way to do this, our “excellence” will be so flawed that it will haunt us. The second is that more-of-the-same solutions to our education problems will not help us attain the excellence to which we aspire. We require boldness in making changes and particularly the boldness to challenge the patterns and structures and practices that are so familiar in our schools and that stand in the way of success. This is particularly true for students who bring to school the problems produced by our inability to live up to our ideals.

    A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 1984 edition of Education Week as More-of-the-Same Reform Will Not Achieve Both Excellence and Equity