The Contradictions of High Schools: To Be Excellent and Equal, Universal and Special

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Recent developments in the economy and the culture have given powerful impetus to changes in high schools. ... High schools worked for a long time because many students for whom the high schools could not provide a decent education simply stayed away--or if they came, kept quiet.

But those days have been gone for some time, and their disappearance brought a fundamental change in what people expect from school, and a change in how students use high schools. The economy has not been pulling many students out of the high schools into work for several decades, now; in fact, youth unemployment rates have been steadily increasing. This is not exactly a new development; high-school enrollment fluctuated with unemployment rates in earlier times, but the only change in the rates for decades now has been upward.

In addition, the long improvement in economic conditions and social welfare since the bleak days of the late 19th century has provided many families, even poor ones, with resources that have substantially eased former pressures on adolescents to take work, any kind of work, to keep their families afloat. These changes, along with the growth of a national culture oriented to middle-class and cosmopolitan tastes, have made many once-acceptable working-class jobs seem not only less acceptable, but also less necessary to accept. Education, among other factors, has helped convince many children of the working class and the poor that they deserve better jobs than they can find.

These developments mean that although high-school attendance is virtually universal, it is not due to a desire for learning nor even to a hunger for the presumed economic fruits of schooling. Often it is simply the result of having nothing better to do. The high schools now have large numbers of students for whom school is a problem, a bore, the best entertainment available in a poor selection, or a necessary evil to be borne grudgingly. Students who cause trouble or who do not do the work are more difficult to suspend or expel when attendance is universal, a point that has been reinforced by recent court decisions. And problem students often cannot be tactfully counseled out, in part because often there is little to counsel them toward.

In response to these developments, students and faculty have been converting their schools into a different sort of institution, or perhaps only adding another facet to those already there.

High schools are becoming a sort of state-supported social-service center for adolescents at loose ends. In addition to the many other purposes they serve, these schools are increasingly being turned into a place to hang out, an alternative to the street, to unemployment, or to unattractive work--even a place to find some diverting activities in the absence of anything else to do.

In some schools, for example, a federal program that had originally been intended to teach students about various career opportunities has been transformed, by students and teachers, into a means of getting adolescents out of school into part-time work.

Many local projects permitted students to remake--and sometimes water down--the curriculum to suit the needs of students who are academically marginal. The students were pleased to get part-time jobs through the schools and to get credit for work--which in some cases did include writing about it. The schools were pleased to find a way to do something for some students who were bored or restless and frequently quite uninterested in academic work.

In other schools, faculty members have tried to adapt to universal attendance by devising courses and other activities that will interest students, or by creating activity areas where students can gather without cluttering up the halls, or by simply not bothering those who come to school to hang out and see their friends rather than attend class.

The spontaneous transformation of secondary education from below is a fascinating adaptation of an institution to changes in the character and purposes of its clients. The changes reflect in part the way adolescents have found to cope with the eased pressures to work full time and with the increased pressure to attend school. They also reflect the schools' efforts to adapt to universal attendance and to the increasing difficulty of getting students out of school by means other than giving them a diploma.

In practice, the definition of equality that has developed in American secondary education has left less and less room for schools to control student exit on grounds of achievement, a change that fits nicely with the more relaxed standards for academic performance and social deportment associated with the upward spread of child-centered reforms.

These changes in high schools have softened both academic and social standards. They have tended to weaken the value of the high-school diploma and to convey the sense that secondary education is less special--and less serious--than was once the case. But if the changes have pressed high schools in some new directions, they occur within an institution whose organization still embodies the old assumption that high school is a serious competition for educational achievements that will bring real economic rewards.

The result has been to put into clearer relief the contradictions that riddle American high schools. The old assumptions are still dominant in official ideology and organization, but they are contradicted by new practices that seek peace with changed conditions.

The schools thus profess both rigorous academic work and relaxed experiences, respect for the classical curriculum and regard for the mini-course. They proclaim the economic value of academic struggle, yet they do so in the midst of an economic situation that seems to belie the proclamation. Indeed, the images of capitalist competition that once inspired and accompanied so much of the struggle for high-school education now seem a sad, even wicked parody.

While the high schools are thus more of a puzzle, more of a bundle of contradictory tendencies than ever before, students and faculty must somehow make sense of these contrary tendencies in their daily activities. For the first time in history, the schools must contend with a large number of students who explicitly doubt that participation in the great academic competition will do them much good. Many reject the idea outright. And as belief that the competition makes sense declines, the legitimacy of the schools' organization becomes less convincing. Of course, ever since early in the century there have been many students who knew that the competition was loaded against them, but some accepted it, hoping to make their way and perhaps even change its terms. Others accepted it even when ground down by it, because the selective character of attendance made challenges difficult.

But recent developments have made it much easier to challenge the high schools' organization and the ideas it embodies. The high schools have been at the center of political storms for two decades now, storms that often centered specifically on minority students or on issues close to them: desegregation; student rights; fair treatment of the handicapped; bilingual education; and more. In each of these cases the schools have come in for more explicit political criticism than ever before in their history: the discriminatory and often racist character of education in the United States has been well-ventilated, and the schools' treatment of less fortunate members of society has been under steady attack. These attacks have been fundamental in character, raising explicit questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. Challenges from the world of adult politics have spilled over into the everyday life of schools--in strikes, street demonstrations, court injunctions, and the like.

All this provides students with a political education of no mean importance, and raises doubts in the minds of students and teachers about the character and usefulness of their work. Academic and popular attacks on the legitimacy of both academic and capitalist competition have become easy and even fashionable, and have weakened the old assumption that doing well in school garners economic rewards in adult life. Whether researchers argue that schools do little to reduce economic inequality, or that schools do much to maintain and harden inequality, or that the economic returns of schooling have been exaggerated--whether or not schools increase equality--these challenges reinforce what students and teachers know about the economy, youth unemployment, and the like.

Along with the broad conflicts that have been played out in schools, they have encouraged students and teachers to produce their own challenges, in the small political life of classrooms, in teachers' meetings, and the like. By now, many students and faculty simply do not believe that the institution is fair, or that it is organized to serve them respectfully or well. For the first time, many are willing to say so.

Awareness of social problems can be helpful in solving them. But the greater politicization of students and faculty itself contributes to the problems of high schools, because there is now a more widespread and forceful sense in the schools that they are in trouble--perhaps, in some sense, even illegitimate--and this makes them less viable. In many schools, teachers and administrators must work harder than ever to gain or maintain authority. The problems of inequality in education are now more visible to students and teachers. This awareness has made the schools livelier but in certain respects more difficult places to work.

Ours is not the only way to tell the story. High-school problems appear in a variety of distinct and vivid terms to those embroiled in them. Teachers may see them as a collapse of interest in academic work or as a loss of faith in teachers. Administrators worry about an upswing of defiant behavior. Parents are distressed that their children seem to take school so lightly and to disdain the path by which they made their way. Others see a loss of nerve or a relaxation of larger competitive energies.

Whatever the diagnosis, together these ideas have once again added up to a sense of crisis in the high schools, to heated opposition to some recent developments, and to cries for reform. Some partisans focus on the quality of instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics; others object to recent curriculum reforms on the grounds that mini-courses and studies of academically marginal material reduce the opportunity to learn more basic subject matter; still others attack the new interest in ethnic studies as irrelevant or worse. And some reject these innovations as racist or discriminatory because they relax standards for minority groups or the poor while leaving more demanding work available to advantaged students. The objecting teachers, parents, and public officials support a list of counterreforms, perhaps the most popular being minimum-competency testing. Advocates hope that these new tests will provide incentives for students and teachers to work harder. There is a revived interest in teaching "basic skills," in private schools, and in religious education.

These school wars sometimes caricature sane reform impulses. The minimum-competency testing movement, for example, has spawned tests that are poorly made and that lack sensitivity to school curricula. To the extent that such tests affect anything besides the fleeting contents of the daily newspaper's front page, they seem likely to degrade teaching and to turn sensible efforts to improve learning into defensive rearguard actions against badly constructed exams. And there are plenty of counterparts on the other side of the educational barricades--mini-courses on science fiction as literature or local-history study that consists largely of neighborhood walks.

These examples and the passions they stir up are only the most recent version of old shoot-outs that began over elementary education with Froebel, Colonel Parker, John Dewey, and their enemies. The schools are a great theater in which we play out these conflicts in the culture; they are a stage for the long war over the character of adult life that Americans prefer to wage on the friendlier terrain of childhood. Genel5lerations of ordinary Americans have had front row seats, and often leading parts, as the opposing battalions drew up their forces at pta or school-board meetings. We know many of the roles and leading players; even the lines are by now quite familiar.

These reforms will undoubtedly affect high schools, some for the better and others not. But we doubt that the current crop of changes will produce fundamental improvements, because none respond to the dilemma these schools face: secondary education has made substantial advances in the direction of equality, but this has eroded the sense that high schools are special institutions with valuable things to offer those who labor in them.

Without greater equality, the fundamental political promises America offers would remain hollow and defeating: but without the sense that their schools are special, valuable, and worth sacrificing for, students and teachers cannot generate the mutual commitment that every school and classroom must have if it is to be a good place to learn. The high schools have moved far in the direction of equal access, but because these steps occurred in the context of fierce social and economic competition, advances for equality have been accompanied by the gradual debasement of secondary education. This debasement lies partly in the eyes of beholders who have difficulty believing that an equal institution can be excellent, and partly in the dilution of academic standards by educators and communities who cannot believe that excellent and demanding education is possible for most students.

Public high schools cannot be made better by turning back the clock, reversing the fundamental3gains for equality that have been made--though many who turn to private education or who worry about reinstating education for "character" seem to think that such movement is possible. On the contrary, that would almost surely further debase the character of public secondary education, either by depriving it of a democratic public or by eroding these schools' sense of special value even more. Basic improvements in public high schools may require real inventiveness, designed to endow institutions that are public and universal with the sense that they are also institutions of special value, unique and attractive to students and teachers.

Perhaps means can be found to marry equality with a sense of institutional uniqueness. If so, high schools could react and release the mutual commitment that is required for good teaching and learning.

Vol. 01, Issue 07, Page 24, 21

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories