Last week, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published the the results of a major study of American secondary education written by its president, Ernest L. Boyer, a former U.S. commissioner of eductaion. In addition to a long list of recommendations for educational reform, the book-length report includes unusual glimpses of daily life in the nation's public high schools, some of which are excerpted below.
BEATEN DOWN by some of the students and unsupported by the parents, many teachers have entered into an unwritten, unspoken, corrupting contract that promises a light work load in exchange for cooperation in the classroom. Both the teacher and the students get what they want. Order in the classroom is preserved, and students neither have to work too hard nor are too distracted from their own preoccupations. All of this is at the expense of a challenging and demanding education.
Consider one ninth-grade English class that was typical of others we observed. The bell rings at 10 a.m. The roll is called. Then come such matters as late slips, excused and unexcused absences, problems about uncompleted homework.
The teacher begins the class by handing back a grammar test dealing with subject, object, and verb identification. She briefly reviews the test, giving the correct answer to each question. She then collects the papers, announcing that she will give the test over again and average the two scores.
After the papers are collected, the teacher instructs all students to "turn to page 24, read the poem on that page, and answer the accompanying questions in complete sentences in your notebook."
At this point, students begin to cluster together. As it turns out, few have brought textbooks to class. The teacher complains: "I specifically asked you to bring your texts on Friday." She then warns that she is going to give a test on the poem they've been asked to read. Her final instructions are to read the poem twice and then answer the questions.
One student, clearly stalling for time, asks if they will have time to do it all. The teacher explains that she will grade them on what they have done. The students remain restless. Sensing this, the teacher urges them to get to work and suggests that "if you don't have a text, you can sit with someone else as long as you don't talk or read aloud. Otherwise you will not be able to complete the assignment."
Very few students work alone. Those in clusters begin to talk. Realizing that the class has not yet settled down, the teacher once again goes over the rules for working together. One of the rules, she reiterates, is that they cannot talk or read aloud.
By now the teacher is beginning to be exasperated. "We've wasted almost five minutes going over a simple rule that you are not to talk or read aloud," she exclaims. But her show of impatience doesn't seem to work either, so she begins to single out individuals and implore them to get to work.
"Joe, get busy," she warns. Joe replies that he is busy. "Are you being rude?" "No, ma'am," Joe answers. But the teacher is still not quite sure, and she gives Joe a brief lecture on impudence.
It is now 10:25 in the morning. Almost 30 minutes of instruction time has been lost. Prose and poetry will have to wait.
In a world history course, students go over the worksheets on the Middle Ages they completed earlier. For the next 30 minutes, the teacher lectures on the following topics: reasons Constantinople was a good location for a capital; differences between the Greek Orthodox religion and the religion of the Western World, and characteristics of Gothic church architecture.
Each of these topics might represent at least one class period in its own right. The challenge of the teacher seems to be to cover the material, to carry students from medievalism to the present, within the next five months.
At various points, the teacher reads from the test, obviously assuming that the students had not read the book or, if they had, that they did not understand it. Fragments of information, unexamined and unanalyzed, are being transmitted here. There is no time for questions. Instead, the teacher, using an overhead projector, carefully outlines the key points, which the students assiduously copy down. Curiously, there are no pictures of photographs to illustrate Gothic church architecture.
Students suffer from information overload -- not to mention boredom. Some pass notes to each other; others doze in the afternoon heat, heads down on desks. Nevertheless, the teacher believes it has been a successful class. He has "covered the material," and there have been no serious disruptions.
In a large number of schools, a steady stream of assemblies, announcements, pep rallies, and other nonacademic activities take up precious time, leaving teachers frustrated. At one school we visited, a class was interrupted on three separate occasions by trivial announcements. We agree with the teacher who said in exasperation that "the first step in improving the American high school is to unplug the PA system."
When good teaching does work -- as it does every day in every school -- the results are brilliant and enduring. Rosemont High School is a large suburban high school in the Northeast. When you walk through the halls and peer through open doors during class periods, students are attentive and busy. Most teachers feel confident enough to leave their doors open. The educational setting seems lively. Teachers share ideas with each other and often work together on curriculum projects that cross the boundaries between academic disciplines.
A visitor at Rosemont is surprised not to hear the harsh sound of bells signaling the beginning and end of class. Despite that, classes start on time. Rosemont students express surprise when asked about the lack of bells. One says in mock alarm, "This isn't a prison, you know! We're not Pavlov's dogs!"
The seriousness of purpose is not limited to courses for bright, academic students. In a reading class for those with learning disabilities, the room is noiseless as students work individually at their seats. The teacher insists on quiet and helps students focus on their assignments. When their attention wanders, she directs them back to the tasks; when they become discouraged and begin to "turn off," she supports them and re-engages them in their work.
When one student distracts his classmates from their reading, the teacher does not tolerate it. With only a few minutes left to go in the class period, Christopher resists getting another assignment from the teacher, insisting, "But it's only four minutes left." The teacher responds firmly: "I know, but you have to do something in those four minutes. Hurry up or you'll only have three minutes left!"
When Randy approaches the teacher for approval because he has gotten a perfect score on an exercise, the teacher pushes him to do more challenging work: "Randy, if you got 100 percent, it was too easy. Did you feel it was too easy?"
Certainly there are those at Rosemont who slip through unnoticed and unchallenged. Not all teaching is at a high level. One hears complaints about teachers who are uninspired, tedious, and boring. But standards for teaching and learning seem high across the full range of academic abilities.
In an American literature class at Rosemont High School, the desks are in a circle. Many students in this class have learning disabilities and have had difficulty focusing their attention.
At the beginning of the class, the teacher returns their papers and warns, "Now, folks, don't panic. Some of you got low grades, but consider this a quiz. This is like the core of a paper, beginning ideas. . . If you have a low grade, it is a sign that there has been a misunderstanding."
She clarifies the next day's assignment. "You will need to develop a thesis statement, and that means it must be a debatable idea or opinion, not a factual statement. Here are some pitfalls for a debatable statement: it can be too huge and expansive (she offers an example); it can be so obvious that only a ninny would debate it. Virginia Woolf says a writer is one who sticks his neck out. . . takes a firm stand with some intellectual risk and then backs it up with evidence."
Today, the discussion is of "Death of a Salesman," and the focus is on Willie Loman's decision to commit suicide. The teacher encourages students to talk to each other rather than direct all their comments to her. She pushes for participation. To one girl who is having difficulty penetrating the barrage of comments, the teacher says quietly, "Assert yourself. . . get in there. .. you have something to say."
When the conversation begins to lose direction, the teacher breaks in. "We have a whole lot of separate ideas on the floor. Let's take a few minutes of silence to sort these out. . . If you can't remember anyone's ideas except your own, you haven't been listening.. . I have heard at least 15 explanations for Willie's suicide. See if you can reconstruct it."
The class quiets down as students begin to write down ideas. The teacher walks around the room, encouraging students who seem stuck or discouraged and restating her question. Then she offers a clue to the whole class: "See if you can remember Cynthia's question; it was a turning point in the discussion."
After several minutes, the teacher says, "Let's combine our reasoning," and students immediately begin to offer reasons for Willie's suicide:
"He wanted to quit a world where nothing was going right for him."
"He felt he had failed terribly and was a disgrace to those who loved him."
"He wanted to have people pay homage to him at the funeral."
"He had only half achieved his dream."
The contributions are energetic and fast-paced. When the exchanges become heated and confused, the teacher intervenes with a tentative and thoughtful voice, "Let me ask you a very hard question. What happens when a dream you've lived by turns out to be a lie? How do you feel about that? Or are you too young?" The responses are charged and unrestrained.
One girl speaks with passion: "People shouldn't circle their lives around one idea." Another disagrees: "But it is not just one idea, it is their whole reason for being too committed, too closed. .. You should have one or two goals. You should choose.. . You don't have to die with one ideal." The discussion becomes argumentative, but not hostile.
The teacher does not direct them toward a tidy conclusion. They are struggling with unanswerable questions, profound dilemmas, and she wants to encourage them in the struggle. She wants them to recognize Willie's pain.
Class is over. Students leave, troubled, reflective, and inspired.
An unsettling problem in today's schools is the neglect of writing.
Clear writing leads to clear thinking; clear thinking is the basis of clear writing. Perhaps more than any other form of communication, writing holds us responsible for our words and ultimately makes us more thoughtful human beings.
During our visits, we infrequently found writing being taught. Occasionally, writing assignments were given, but often papers were returned late with only brief comments in the margin. One student observed: "A good teacher writes a comment on the bottom of an assignment that shows you she has graded your work as carefully as you have written it."
An excuse given for the failure to teach writing is that the results are hard to measure. The pressure is on to teach the skills that can be counted and reported. As one teacher said, "We are so hung up on reporting measured gains to the community on nationally normed tests that we ignore teaching those areas where it can't be done. How do you say, 'Susie has improved six months in the quality of her writing'? We test them to death in reading and ma. "You th. . . but that's all."
The most frequent reason given for the failure to teach writing is the extraordinary demand it places on the teacher's time. Today, most English teachers meet five classes daily, with 25 to 30 students each. If the teacher gives one writing assignment every week to each student, he or she spends a minimum of 20 hours correcting papers. One English teacher who left public school teaching explained the drain on her personal life:
"I loved teaching high school. . . The work just wore me out to a nub. My students loved to argue, and they loved to write. If I didn't return their themes within a week they were terribly disappointed. When I did, they were as excited as I had brought them a wonderful gift. But I was correcting papers all the time. I would take my sons to their 4-H meetings and sit and correct papers. I played bridge and corrected papers. I carried papers with me when friends invited me to dinner. I was totally enslaved by those papers. I had a class load of 130 students. Ninety percent of them showed dramatic improvement in writing at the end of the year. But I thought I was going to die."
Sometime between 6 and 8 a.m. each weekday morning, about 970,000 public high school teachers arrive at school.5
Many people think teachers have soft, undemanding jobs.
The reality is different. The average high school teacher not only teaches five or six classes a day, but has only 54 minutes of in-- school preparation time. Teachers are often responsible for three different levels of a single course. Outside the classroom, teachers must review subject matter, prepare lesson plans, correct and grade papers, and make out report cards.
Moreover, in some schools, budget cuts have made it necessary for teachers to prepare for their classses at night, early in the morning, or over a brief lunch break. Occasionally, they are assigned courses for which they are not prepared. One teacher told us:
"It's not unusual for me to be teaching a course that I know very little about. I could manage it if I had some time to do some background reading. But there is no preparation time here; the day is jammed. So any digging into the subject that I do, I have to do at night. But then that gives me little time to grade reports or handle the paper work for other classes. I often wonder if I'll ever catch up."
Teachers also are required to perform menial tasks -- supervise lunchrooms, police hallways, and chaperone student activities -- tasks that could be better used for instruction or planning. The majority of these chores are viewed by teachers as babysitting or security-related and as reducing their professional image. "I would like to use my duty periods for tutoring," one teacher told us, "and have the kids guard the halls. They don't do it here because they don't want kids in the position of being the security force."
The combination of the self-contained classroom and heavy teaching schedule give teachers few opportunities to share common problems or sustain an intellectual life. One teacher describes it this way: "I don't know what it's like in business or industry. It may be the same. I don't know how friendly co-workers are, how honest they are. It just seems that in teaching . . . you do your thing in your class, and you leave, and you don't talk to anyone about it." Another teacher, when asked with whom he discussed his teaching, responded, "My wife."
After visiting schools from coast to coast, we are left with the distinct impresseion that high schools lack a clear and vital mission. They are unable to find common purposes or establish educational priorities that are widely shared. They seem unable to put it all together. The institution is adrift.