About Partnership: The New High School Reform Movement

By Fred Hechinger


Partnership between the universities and the public schools is not new in American history. Reform of the schools has often been led by university leaders. For example, in 1890, President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard University, using his great prestige, complained that three-fourths of the population had no access to secondary education and he made public school reform a major task of the university. Many colleges at the time had to offer remedial education courses. Eliot called for more high schools offering greater access to more students and higher standards for all high schools.

Almost 80 years later, in 1959, another president of Harvard became the lead reformer of public school change. James Bryant Conant ignored both the post-Sputnik charges that American education had become a wasteland and the counter claims that schools were better than ever and needed only to be given more money to solve all their remaining problems. Schools, Conant said, would have to offer comprehensive programs, aimed at satisfying those who were preparing for college as well as those who needed marketable skills with which to earn a living upon graduation. Social democracy, which seemed to Conant the modern mantle of America s republican heritage, would best be achieved by having young people from "a wide variety of backgrounds and of great variety of talents mingle within the same school."

Both leaders, Conant and Eliot, as well as other university reformers of the public schools, have done a great service in calling public attention to problems in elementary and secondary education. They did, however, overlook the actual needs of real children. They had tried to reform the systems without dealing directly with the problems of those served the students. In the tion of this relatively small group o ple for the e1950s0, Conant had accurately charged that the junior high school did not serve those needs. It was, he found, actually a replica of the senior high school. He reported that these schools cared more for marching bands than about the actual needs of young students.

Now in the late 1980s, the Carnegie Corporation of New York trained its attention on those needs. Its report, Turning Points, transformed the junior high school into a middle school, which tried to make it its main purpose to insure all the young adolescents would find themselves in schools in which they knew the teachers and the teachers knew them.

This would be accomplished by dividing schools into small units of no more than 150 students, each of them taught by a team of either four or five teachers, representing English, social studies, science, and mathematics. The team would be entirely responsible for the education of this relatively small group of children.

This obviously raised the question: What happens to these youngsters once they reach high school? Would they be entering large institutions and moving from class to class, taught by different teachers and become essentially anonymous units? Adolescents, like adults, behave at their worst when they are anonymous, when nobody knows or cares for them.

Carnegie is currently looking at ways to reform the senior high school. While the outcome of this reform proposal may not be an exact replica of the foundation s Turning Points, some of the middle school experience may be helpful in reforming the high schools. Changes will not be easy. High schools are strongly embedded in the autonomy of the separate disciplines. The idea of interdisciplinary teaming will not be readily accepted.

This could be a special opportunity for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute to move into the forefront of the new high school reform movement. As it has pioneered in developing the relationship between university professors and public school teachers, it might now be ready to enlarge its experience to the relationship between university faculties and high school teachers. Eliot and Conant, after all, led the movement to greater access by more young people to high school education, and thereby to access to higher education and to the work force. Now, universities can again show their great strength in shaping the future of the high schools. University faculties have already experimented with the idea of interdisciplinary teaching; they could now offer their experience to leading high school instructors and demonstrate the concept of teaming and a closer relationship between teachers and students.

As Harvard took the lead in the two previous school reform efforts, Yale now could have the opportunity to pioneer in reforms for the next century's schools.


Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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