Education Opinion

Reforming the ‘Shopping Mall’ High School

By Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar & David K. Cohen — October 02, 1985 11 min read
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This essay is excerpted from The Shopping Mall High School, the second report from A Study of High Schools, following Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise. The study is a five-year inquiry into secondary-school education, sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Commission on Educational Issues of the National Association of Independent Schools.

The book proposes a way of looking at high schools based on the metaphor of a shopping mall. The central qualities of the “mall"--variety of offerings, choice among many kinds of transactions, and institutional neutrality about which choices are of most worth--have succeeded in holding most teenagers on terms they and their teachers can live with.

The mall works well because it is governed mainly by consumer preferences. Students who want to learn can usually do so, especially if they seek out or are sought out by “specialty shops,” where a focused commitment to learning prevails. Students with less commitment can usually graduate in return for orderly attendance. Many different bargains or “treaties” to engage in learning or avoid it are accommodated. High schools solve many problems for themselves and their clients by saying: “It’s here if you want it, but it’s all up to you.”

This excerpt on obstacles to change precedes the authors’ recommendations for reform.

High schools have been remarkably durable and, in their own way, successful. Durable because they have lived through three decades of intense criticism and reform, and successful because they have managed to accommodate many of the demands made on them. Much as teachers have struck bargains with students, high schools have accommodated pressures for change. Most reformers got a piece of the action, but the schools managed to arrange these bargains within the organization and ideology that were adopted seven or eight decades earlier. One cannot read this history without remarking educators’ persistence and ingenuity in pursuing their chosen course, and their great capacthur G. Powell is executive director of A Study of High Schools, Boston. Eleanor Farrar is a senior policy analyst at Abt Associates Inc., of Cambridge, Mass. David K. Cohen is a professor in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

We have compared the modern secondary school to a shopping mall, but that metaphor rather understates the many complex and carefully balanced bargains that keep these overworked organizations running--and running in a way that seems to please most of their clients and constituents. If we knew nothing else about the schools, we would suppose it unlikely that the last wave of criticism and reform would change this pattern of accommodation.

We do know more, though, including more about the latest reforms being urged on high schools. There has been a blizzard of ideas and proposals, but the thrust of most recommendations and actions is more academic requirements: more time spent in school, to ensure more study; more credits required for graduation, to ensure that students take more “solid” courses; and more required courses, especially in science and mathematics, to ensure that students learn more in those subjects deemed to be of great domestic and international economic significance. Many of the reports also stress that more and better teachers are needed to help shoulder this added load, and that more money will be required to attract them.

As educators respond, they walk in well-worn paths. One example is the means by which teachers reemphasized academic seriousness. Rising public concern about declining Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and related criticism prompted them to stress “basics.” This generally meant teaching students more facts. Some science teachers, for instance, reported that they stopped trying to get students to understand scientific inquiry and concepts--efforts that were inspired by the 1950’s reforms--in favor of memorizing scientific facts. Social-studies teachers reported a similar shift to more time spent on drill, worksheets, and the like.

Another example is that the new required courses are mostly taught by the same overworked and frequently undereducated teachers. In addition, even when qualified teachers do teach the added requirements, nothing elseabout their job changes. No compensatory adjustments in their workloads have been reported, nor have there been many reports of significant adjustments in salary. At best, then, the new courses will be no better than most of the old ones. Some will be very bad, because the teachers are unprepared.

A third example of stability in change is that the reforms require only that additional courses be offered, taken, and passed. Competence in teaching and learning are not required. Our earlier chapters amply reveal students’ and teachers’ capacity to cope with such requirements, and nothing about the last wave of reforms changes that. Slightly restricting the range of choice among courses does little to restrict the opportunities for bargaining within them. The existing organization of secondary schools is admirably suited to accommodate the new requirements, without producing much improvement in the content of courses, the quality of teaching, or the bargains that students and teachers strike.

Our analysis also suggests that in certain respects the current proposals are profoundly misdirected. The reforms aim to improve education by ratcheting up school requirements, yet a large fraction of the students now in high school seem quite immune to such requirements. These students are educationally purposeless. They attend for reasons quite unrelated to learning: because they need to be kept off the street, because they cannot be allowed to compete with older workers, because most of their friends attend, or because the schools are handy places to solve such other problems as driving ability, health, or nutrition. Opinion surveys show repeatedly that most students, like most adults, do not regard academic work as the primary purpose of schools: They give greater importance to social and vocational matters and to personal development.

And whatever their reasons for being in school, students are frequently hostage to circumstances that tend to defeat learning. Many students know, for instance, that when they leave school they probably will not be able to find a job or, if they can find one, that it will require only minimal skill or knowledge. It is easy to say that all citizens need to think critically, reason mathematically, and read and write well, but what sort of learning do such dismal economic prospects imply?

Perhaps high schools teach students what they most need to know: how to endure boredom without protest. These students’ prospects hardly suggest rewards for hard work or for intellectual curiosity. Students who plan for college in part to avoid such a fate know that they do not need to do much high-school work to gain college admission. This, too, does little to build academic commitment.

One consequence of these limits on reform is that most students and teachers will cope with the requirements of the 80’s as they have coped with others. Teachers and students will bargain to ease the effects of the requirements. A second consequence is that educational requirements piled onto high schools cannot substitute for real economic and social incentives for study. If many demanding and rewarding jobs awaited well-educated high-school graduates, lots of students who now take it easy would work harder. If college and university entrance requirements were substantial, many students who now idle through the college track would step on the gas.

But when real incentives that make hard work in high school rational for most students are absent, requirements alone have an Alice-in-Wonderland effect, crazily compounding the problems that schools already have. For the requirements fly in the face of what everyone knows, inviting disbelief and evasion, creating a widespread sense that the enterprise is dishonest--and this sense is fatal to good teaching and learning.

It seems plain enough that apathy, a sense of irrelevance, and compulsion are not the ingredients of good education. It seems plain that compounding this stew of sentiments with more requirements cannot improve education much; it may only further corrupt it. But if all of this is well known to educators, few voices were raised to question their corrupting effects. Nor did many commentators point out that even if problems in labor markets and higher education will not be addressed, there are other ways to cope with youth who see nothing for themselves in secondary studies.

One is a national youth service, open to students of high-school age. Another is lifetime educational entitlements for those who cannot make good use of secondary school on the established schedule. Still another is a lowered school-leaving age. These ideas have all been advanced before, and in one way or another America has had experience with each. Yet they found little place in the 80’s debate.

It seems odd that educators have failed to make these arguments and have instead insisted again that high schools can meet all students’ needs. They repeated the old litanies about programs that are practical, interesting, and relevant. They urged that dropouts be pressed back into school. And they pleaded only that more money was required.

In part, this is a reflex of tradition: Educators have long been committed to the evangelical notion that schools have something for everyone. In part, it is self-serving: Most school systems get state aid based on the number of students attending. And in part, it is political strategy: Educators have rarely pointed out the misdirection of reform efforts because they want to capital-ize on public interest--even critical interest. Promising to do more has long been a way to avoid disappointing constituents while squeezing out more money, hiring more teachers, gaining more esteem, or improving working conditions.

The strategy makes sense from one angle--appropriations to education have increased over the decades. But it has also been foolish, because the added resources have remained modest in comparison to the promises that educators have made and the demands that they have embraced. What the high schools delivered for most students, therefore, has always been much thinner and less effective than what was advertised. By promising to do everything well for everyone, educators have contributed to the growing sense that they can do nothing well for anyone.

There is one last, unhappy reason that educators have not pointed to certain misdirections in the current crop of reforms: One cannot point to an incorrect direction without some sense of the correct one. But American schoolpeople have been singularly unable to think of an educational purpose that they should not embrace. As a result, they never have made much effort to figure out what high schools could do well, what high schools should do, and how they could best do it. Secondary educators have tried to solve the problem of competing purposes by accepting all of them, and by building an institution thatwould accommodate the result.

Unfortunately, the flip side of the belief that all directions are correct is the belief that no direction is incorrect--which is a sort of intellectual bankruptcy. Those who work in secondary education have little sense of an agenda for studies. There is only a long list of subjects that may be studied, a longer list of courses that may be taken, and a list of requirements for graduation. But there is no answer to the query: Why these and not others? Approaching things this way has made it easy to avoid arguments and decisions about purpose, both of which can be troublesome--especially in our divided and contentious society.

But this approach has made it easy for schools to accept many assignments that they could not do well, and it has made nearly any sort of work from students and teachers acceptable, as long as it caused no trouble. High schools seem unlikely to make marked improvement, especially for the many students and teachers now drifting around the malls, until there is a much clearer sense of what is most important to teach and learn, and why, and how it can best be done.

The high schools’ greatest strength has been their embracing capacity to avoid these issues, to cope with many contrary visions of education by promising to pursue all of them. That has produced institutions that are remarkably flexible, ambitious, and tolerant, capable of making room for many different sorts of students and teachers and many different wishes for education. They are institutions nicely suited to cope with Americans’ fickle political and educational sensibilities.

All are important strengths, but they have had crippling effects. They have stunted the high schools’ capacity to take all students seriously. They have blocked teachers’ capacity to cultivate those qualities long valued in educated men and women--the ability to read well and critically, to write plainly and persuasively, and to reason clearly. And they have nurtured a constrained and demeaning vision of education among Americans, a vision that persistently returns to haunt the profession that helped to create it.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1985 edition of Education Week as Commentary: Reforming the ‘Shopping Mall’ High School


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