While serving as president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson said the "purpose of education is to make the young as unlike their elders as possible." According to the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, today's youth are unlike us. They are worse at writing. They understand less math and less science. Their reading comprehension is poorer. In 17 years, verbal scores on the college boards have dropped 50 points.
Little in the report surprised me. I am a regular visitor to classrooms, both as a parent of children in public schools and a guest of teachers who invite me in to talk about writing.
Earlier this year, I taught a 12-week course--on the history and techniques of pacifism--at the School Without Walls, a 250-student public high school in Washington. In the 12 weeks, I learned that the failures of American education are not as unreformable as I had once thought nor as hopeless as the commission suggests.
Personally, the 12 weeks were a delight. I enjoyed immensely the company of the 25 seniors, juniors and sophomores who had signed up for my course as an elective. Several were from military families. A few had transferred from expensive, high-pressure private schools. Some were children of privilege and wealth. The more worn their jeans, it seemed, the more upper-class their origins. Some were from working-class or single-parent families. Nearly all were planning to attend college, which was true of most of the students at the school. All were polite, refreshing people.
One innovation at the School Without Walls, which would improve the quality of every junior high and high school in the country, is the scheduling. The day was divided into two class periods. From 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., teachers taught one subject. After an hour for lunch and recreation, the afternoon class ran from 12:30 to 3. Each 21/2-hour period had a 10-minute break.
In most schools, the day is broken into six, seven and sometimes eight periods. Learning is all but impossible under this fragmentation. Time is wasted traveling to the next class. What can be taught in 40 or 50 minutes?
Instead of English, math, science, social studies, physical education, music, art, computer science or foreign language crammed into one day, let the pace be contemplative: English, say, on Monday and Thursday mornings for 21/2 hours, science on Monday and Thursday afternoons, etc. The same material is covered, but now the covering allows for depth.
It allowed me, for example, to draw out the students' writing skills. Every class, I had them write at least three essays, based either on texts we had read in class or questions I posed. Nearly all the kids thrived on the writing. They had time to think and develop their opinions. They weren't watching the clock. They could watch for ideas.
It is true that some children can't sit still for 40-minute periods, let alone ones of 150 minutes. Perhaps it is because they are conditioned to the frenzy of short periods. We impose a hyper schedule on the kids and then wonder why they can't be calm.
A second reason that the School Without Walls is a success is that the children are respected. The enrollment is small enough to allow everyone, students and teachers, to have an identity. I have been to high schools that were educational conglomerates, where thousands of students were thrown together in anonymity and remained there. Learning needs intimacy.
Teachers wear out in factory schools. So do the students. They sense they are being processed, not educated. Everyone feels the disrespect imposed by the institutional lunacies of overcrowded classrooms and overpopulated schools.
I am aware that not every school district can have the luxury of a small public high school where innovation is welcome and classes are small. But what is being proven at the School Without Walls is that only a modest surge of creativity is needed to bring on a change from negative to positive. Besides the longer class periods, its teachers encourage students to take courses outside the classroom when possible. Community people are invited in to teach subjects in which students show an interest.
Some of the problems cited by the commission's report are visible at the School Without Walls. One, though, is not: academic despair. This school, through the efforts of its teachers and the enthusiasm of its students, is shaping its own future.