Education Opinion

Partial Transformations, Persistent Traditions

By Robert L. Hampel — March 19, 1986 9 min read

Different schools cannot share a precisely common past. Each institution has its own ethos, subject to change for many reasons. Comparable budgets, related courses, the same textbooks, and other similarities do not result in identical schools. Because of the substantial diversity among high schools, it is necessary to concentrate on major tendencies when summarizing and interpreting the recent history of secondary education.

One of these tendencies was the speed with which the changes took place. High schools of 1945 and 1965 were more alike than the schools of 1965 and 1975. The period of greatest change was short and stormy, although much of the basic structure of schooling was left untouched. The reorientation came about less through internal leadership than as a consequence of pressure from the wider world. Ferment in the society, more than educational theorizing or pedagogical research, accounted for upheaval in the high schools. Educators could not ignore the many issues that developed outside their corridors but affected their lives.

Dropping an American history textbook for an anthology of primary sources exemplifies the garden variety of change known to educators in the 1950’s. Coping with growth was the foremost achievement of those years. The quantitative changes--new buildings, more teachers, bigger budgets--were more striking than any rethinking of fundamental principles. The high schools’ ambiance remained uneasy. The lives of the decisionmakers continued to be less regimented than those of the students and teachers, who were constrained by the middle-class rituals they observed every day.

Then quite suddenly this conservative institution took on much of the national liberal agenda. The vigorous pursuit of egalitarian reforms promised to clarify, expand, and protect the claims of the disadvantaged. Disparate groups--ethnic and racial minorities, the learning-disabled, the poor, the physically and emotionally impaired, and teen-agers in need of social services--previously served in niggardly fashion now found a more comfortable place in secondary schools. Before, their place had been marginal; in the 1970’s, their once tenuous hold on the schools’ resources and respect grew firmer. As one political scientist put it, “Inclusion has to do with the reduction of asymmetries of power, influence, and authority.” Policymakers treated youth as one of the disadvantaged groups, due to receive and to exercise, by virtue of earlier maturation, more privileges and rights.

In 1965, high-school principals ranked “development of positive self-concept and good human relations” seventh of eight educational goals; by 1977, that same objective was second of ten. The new prominence of feelings and emotions went hand in hand with the heightened responsiveness to the rights of the disenfranchised. There was less regimentation and more choice, both academic and personal. Getting a hall pass became easier.

The modification of the old austerities was an important liberalization of schooling. The treating of kids more as adults--and the kids’ acting less innocent--alarmed conservatives. Most school people praised the changes as sensitive and pragmatic accommodations to reality, but many outsiders perceived in them the collapse of authority, morals, and common sense. The direction of change was toward openness and informality, but they did not sweep the field. Frankness about sexuality evoked strong resistance in many towns. Irate residents of Muncie, Ind., pressured national television to cut several minutes from “Middletown,” a documentary series filmed in their city. The objectionable episode aired teen-agers’ discussions of sex. (Yet in the same town, there were seven porno stores, plus two stores selling used porno.)

Moreover, the number of censorship cases rose in the 1970’s. Some of the offensive books were well known; Catcher in the Rye, with its 222 hells, 27 Chrissakes, and 7 hornys, had been a target for years. Less familiar were the books, written for young readers, that explicitly discussed drugs and sex. Less familiar were the controversial novels of Judy Blume that referred to menstruation and masturbation with an openness that sparked many protests against their purchase by school librarians.

In face of the challenges to conventional behavior, many nervous parents transferred their children to private schools in search of more adult oversight in an environment shielded against unsettling social change. After the late 1960’s, the liberals felt more at home in public schools than did conservatives, and their educational philosophy displeased some conservatives.

The easing of the old controls was one of several issues in dispute between adults. On many questions there was more public conflict than before. In the same years that student-teacher relations softened, adults quarreled openly with each other. Matters previously evaded or settled by compromise behind closed doors began to cause visible confrontations. Thacher unions frequently pitted staff against administrators. Often outsiders were the antagonists, whether stingy taxpayers, well-educated parents, judges, media alarmists, or social scientists. The exchanges seemed especially shrill because the voices muffled in the 1940’s and 1950’s were now clearly heard. The calm of the past had been superficial and deceptive. The more recent cacophony was an honest representation of opinion.

Like the swing toward less stressful schooldays, the rise of the adversarial style was a partial transformation. Not everyone was swept up by contentiousness. A case in point was the popular exaggeration of the impact of unions. The media often pictured teachers and administrators at one another’s throat. In contrast, the past was memorialized as peaceful and professional, with powerful principals presiding over harmonious and happy staffs. In truth, life without unions was far from perfect. In smaller districts, teachers needed the principal’s support in times of unexpected intervention by either the superintendent or the school committee, yet that alliance was uncertain, because the principal was dependent on those superiors. In Houston in the early 1950’s, conservative pressures terrified some teachers, but they could not share their anxieties with their principals for fear of reprisals.

Various constraints on the principal either predated teacher militance or had little to do with unions. Smaller districts meant closer supervision by the superintendent and more informal pressure from the community. Later, the early 1960 ‘curricular reforms gave rise to subject specialists for kindergarten through 12th grade, and those coordinators were often less subservient than department heads. Moreover, high-school principals could sidestep contract provisions, few of which were fully implemented in any school. On paper, firing a teacher required tremendous caution and calculation, but in practice informal pressures could neutralize the inept or ease them out. Union representatives squared off against the principal, but in daily life their relationship was often friendly. As Susan Johnson argued, many nonsalary provisions were “interpreted, bent, and informally renegotiated to fit the needs of the teachers, principals, and schools.” ...

The flexibility in union-administrator relations signaled the persistence of some of the traditional informalities. Just as the mellowing of student-teacher contact was partial, so too was the mellowing among decisionmakers. Not every aspect of administrative life was tightly constrained. Not every classroom was full of frankness and free of fear. Schools did not wholly abandon their past.

Still, administration became less tranquil as classroom climates softened. Student- staff relationships turned more agreeable, on the whole, in the same years that administrators and aggressive outsiders snarled at each other. Both developments entailed more openness than the circumspections of the past. People spoke about concerns previously not legitimate topics of public conversation.

The major changes of the last 15 years promoted equity and equality for the disadvantaged. Student rights, teacher unions, a comprehensive curriculum, compensatory and remedial programs, and other initiatives empowered different groups unaccustomed to full participation in the schools. Instead of foisting middle-class white Protestant values on a captive audience, high schools began to respect pluralism more than ever before. In the 1940’s, there was much earnest rhetoric about the school as a democracy, but little actual respect for cultural diversity. By the 1970’s the commitments to equality were taken more seriously.

Equality did not escape the competing claims of other interests. Throughout the 1970’s, school people sought to restore orderly efficiency while they enfranchised the dispossessed. That was a hard assignment, because the uproar of the late 1960’s. had been fueled, in large part, by the protests from the disadvantaged. Stability returned, but there were no resurrections of the strict unilateral peace treaties of the past. The new covenants featured a broader curriculum, less stereotyping, and more freedom. Episodes of school violence distorted the general satisfaction with the new arrangements.

But the ingenious truce extended few incentives for academic intensity. Relaxation and engagement were not necessarily synonymous. If they were, student passivity and lack of interest would not have been ranked by teachers as their worst problems. Nor would achievement scores in social studies have slipped during a decade when school people worked hard to promote tolerance, celebrate pluralism, and encourage diversity. The daily lessons of peaceful coexistence in heterogeneous schools did not translate to better civics scores. In 1976, 47 percent of the seniors did not know the number of senators per state. In 1979, almost 10 percent of the seniors could not find the United States on a world map.

Often the lighter school atmosphere was misused as an excuse for lazy classrooms, where neither teachers nor students pushed each other very far. Too easily ignored was the fact that first-rate schoolwork had to involve struggle and tension. In spurning regimentation, many schools also rejected the process of evaluation bound up with schooling that was focused on academic achievement. ''To see some as better was perceived as denying that the failures were victims,” said one critic. The heightened sensitivity to rights and feelings fostered considerable sympathy for those previously victimized by educational inequities. There was much generosity in the grade inflation of the 1970’s, but for some, learning how to profit and grow from failure might have been a better lesson than receiving an unearned passing mark.

Easygoing attitudes could encourage agreements to make life cozy for all. Being comfortable could mean that an analysis of Act ill in Macbeth might slide into chitchat on television murder scenes. As one housemaster said, “We don’t grab them and say, ‘Hey, this just isn’t enough.’ We don’t grab them--but at least they no longer try to grab us.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 1986 edition of Education Week