An Unsung Educational Hero

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

Every teacher remembers the educational philosopher John Dewey, and few can forget Joe Clark, the Paterson, N.J., principal who presided over Eastside High School with a bullhorn and a baseball bat. But when Cornelius Turner died in September, at the age of 83, only a handful of admirers knew that he had invented one of the few successful responses to the dropout problem.

Cornelius Turner had been a school superintendent in Leicester, Mass., before joining the Navy during World War II. Assigned to the U.S. Armed Forces Institute in Madison, Wis., Navy Lieutenant Turner's task was evaluating the educational preparation of soldiers, sailors, marines, and Coast Guard personnel for courses offered by the military services.

Some servicemen and servicewomen had enlisted before completing high school. College-level correspondence courses under the auspices of the institute required a high-school education, as did many of the vocational-training courses that the services conducted themselves. Which nongraduates were intellectually ready for these courses? Which required supplementary high-school-level courses?

Mr. Turner developed tests for service personnel without a high-school diploma to enable them to show that they had somehow gotten the educational equivalent of high school. Once military personnel obtained high-school-equivalency certificates, a path opened for college-level courses sponsored by the Armed Forces Institute as well as for college attendance in civilian life.

He gave his high-school-equivalency tests a strange name: General Educational Development tests. By "general," he meant to distinguish the educational competence that he hoped to measure by the tests from more specific bits and pieces of information. Here is how Mr. Turner described the ged tests in an article for The Encyclopedia of Education: "Ged tests are designed to measure attainment of some of the major goals of secondary-school programs. ... They are not intended to measure factual recall so much as intellectual power: competence in using major generalizations, concepts, and ideas; and the ability to comprehend exactly, evaluate critically, and think clearly. Adult learning methods are less formal than those learned in schools. They are more likely to depend on first-hand experience, self-directed reading, and informal contacts with other people than upon close examination of texts."

After World War II ended and Cornelius Turner was demobilized, he joined the American Council on Education to head its Commission on Accreditation of Service Experiences. His new job was supervising the evaluation of the thousands of training courses that veterans had taken during their military service. How much, if any, credit for these courses should they receive in the civilian colleges that the American Council on Education served? Meanwhile, Mr. Turner continued to believe that people are educated by informal as well as formal experiences; he was pleased that the U.S. Armed Forces Institute was still awarding high-school-equivalency certificates to military personnel.

Then Cornelius Turner got a bright idea. Why not extend the high-school-equivalency program to include civilians? In 1947-48 he adapted the General Educational Development Tests for New York State. The plan was to enable school dropouts with night-school courses or educationally relevant work or travel experiences to take the test and get certified by the New York State Department of Education as having the equivalent of a high-school diploma. In 1956, he began a campaign to extend the acceptability of this alternative route to a high-school diploma. He lobbied personally in all 50 states with local education officials. Eventually, the ged tests were accepted by the education departments of every state and of 10 Canadian provinces. In 1959--for the first time--nonveteran adults taking the ged tests exceeded the number of veterans.

Civilian test-takers now predominate. About 700,000 people take the tests each year, 30,000 in Spanish, and more than 12 million people have taken it since it started in the civilian sector. What this means is that the mistake of dropping out of high school is not irrevocable. Ged programs provide re-entry points into education at any age. Although half of those who take the ged tests are between 18 and 24, 10 percent are 40 or older. The ged opens up not only job opportunities but opportunities for further education; a third of those who pursue the high-school diploma through the ged route plan to go to college.

Women constitute 60 per cent of the ged candidates and minority adults nearly 30 percent. In short, those who need education to compensate for missed opportunities in the past are taking advantage of ged programs to a disproportionate extent.

The ged program capitalizes on the secret of night school: Voluntary students are motivated students. Motivated students learn more than unmotivated students and present far fewer disciplinary problems to their teachers. On the other hand, dropout-prevention programs, though often ingenious, are almost uniformly unsuccessful. They offer money payments to students who are at risk of dropping out for attending regularly; they take away the driver's licenses of students who leave school before graduating; they reduce the welfare allowances of the families of truants; and they provide remedial academic services. Why do dropout-prevention programs so often fail to attain their educational objectives? Because they seek to change the minds of students who are personally convinced that attending high school is useless.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr., like most educators, won't take the dropouts' "no" for an answer. Mr. Finn has written that "education [is] some3thing that a decently functioning society obliges people to get a certain amount of, even if they don't really want to....Does not a concern for the general welfare move us to set certain minimal criteria for entry into adulthood," he asks,"and to insist upon some standards of knowledge, skill, and behavior?"

Mr. Finn rightly wants young people to have enough education to function in our complex modern society. In fact, he is ready to use threats--like driver's-license revocations--when persuasion fails. But attempting to coerce unwilling adolescents to remain in school for their own good does not seem to work. Cornelius Turner suggested an alternative strategy: Wait until life teaches dropouts that at least the equivalent of a high-school education is necessary for occupational advancement or for desired further education.

Ged programs have the built-in advantage that they target people, who, though they have dropped out of high school before graduating, have come to realize that they need more education. They choose to return. Since learning requires a cooperative relationship between teachers and students, this gives ged programs an edge over traditional dropout-prevention programs.

Cornelius Turner found one answer to the dropout problem: another chance. For inventing the most important educational innovation since night school, he should have been listed in Who's Who in America along with those who made outstanding scientific, political, artistic, or business accomplishments; he never was.

Vol. 10, Issue 32, Page 26

Published in Print: May 1, 1991, as An Unsung Educational Hero
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