HIGH SCHOOLS: HOLDOUTS IN THE CLASSROOM REVOLUTION
Our elementary schools are responding to dramatic changes sweeping education, but most high schools still cling to wasteful, 19th-century ways. Here’s what they could be, and inevitably will be—some day
ABOUT 70 YEARS AGO, Canadian high schools were ugly buildings in which teachers lectured nonstop, loaded obedient, docile students with homework to reinforce memorizing, preceded tests with drills and reviews, and then climaxed the school year with paralyzingly tough examinations designed to identify those students who had succeeded in memorizing at least 50 percent of the subject from those students who had not.
There has been a remarkable improvement in the country’s high schools since those grim early days near the turn of the century. There’s been little change in what goes on inside, of course — but the buildings now arc quite beautiful.
The education revolution, curiously, has had little impact on secondary schools. Elementary schools across the country, and particularly the primary grades, are reacting to the new insights into the nature of learning: they accept that the lecture technique is less effective for stimulating interest and retentiveness than independent research, that a system based on promotion by grades is inappropriate for human beings, and that final examinations are an iron corset inhibiting any real improvement in education, no matter how lithe the previous 10 months may have been.
But high schools, with few exceptions, have been unable to apply much of the wit, technology and democratic ideals of the 20th century to the teaching of adolescents, most of whom will be living a good portion of their lives in the 21st century. Like tacky royalty, high schools cling to the simple comforts of autocracy, resisting change, ruling imperiously, despising all lowborn.
An Ontario deputy minister, J. R. McCarthy, last summer addressed Ontario high-school principals meeting in Port Arthur and strongly recommended nongrading high schools, permitting freewheeling discussions between teachers and students, encouraging independent student study and an increased emphasis on the humanities — all of which have been accepted, at least in principle, by elementary schools. The reaction to his suggestions was revealing: a Toronto Globe and Mail education writer, Barrie Zwicker, reported consternation and shock among the principals.
The working prototypes of what a modern North American high school can achieve are to be found in Florida, both of them. One is in Melbourne, where families of the laborers and technicians who work at Cape Kennedy are living. The high-school principal there, B. Frank Brown, took the first step away from tradition in 1957 by allowing students to take any subject they felt capable of passing, without regard to what grade they were in.
“Increasing numbers of students eloquently met the challenge,” Brown later wrote, “and their parents were enormously pleased.” In a short time the process of grouping students by grades had ceased to exist; teachers had substituted the word “phase” and taken the school apart.
Melbourne is now a showpiece, visited by educators from all over the world and the subject of two books by the principal. Brown explains in them that students are tested upon arrival at Melbourne, to determine individual capability. Phase One children are those with the greatest needs; they are given small classes and special
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HIGH SCHOOLS continued from page 33
“The best high school in the world” —at no extra cost
assistance to grasp fundamentals. Phase Two youngsters are slightly below average. Phase Three children arc of average ability. Phase Four get an education in depth. Phase Five are taking college courses and are responsible for their own learning. There is also a Phase Q, for independent study in any area that intrigues the student.
Brown emphasizes that this doesn't mean streaming, in the Canadian sense ot bright children being kept together for all classes and duller ones perpetually assigned to one another's company. At Melbourne, a student can be in Phase One for social studies. Phase Two for language arts. Phase Three for science and Phase Four for maths.
When a student feels ready, he can be removed into another phase. Says Brown, ‘‘His willingness is a major criterion."
Further. Melbourne recognizes the sail truth that many high-school students are reading at a grade-three or grade-four level. It provides reading lahs for two hours or more a day for
such students, and small remedial maths classes for other youngsters who arrive at high school deficient in that area. The instruction at Melbourne is “shirtsleeve,'' involving the student in inquiry and discovery and consultation. rather than having him spend his day as part of a passive audience in a classroom. Teacher presentation of a topic is limited to 20 percent of the school time. 40 percent is reserved for discussion and 40 percent for individual research and reading.
"The most reassuring result has been the complete disappearance of discipline problems.” notes Brown. The reading lab, he thinks, made the greatest difference in the behavior of children of the poor. Also, there has been spectacular achievement from able children, requiring the fattening of the curriculum with such subjects as Cireek and differential equations. The number of students going on to college from Melbourne jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent of the graduates; the level of dropouts fell from 30 percent to four.
The other famous experimental high school in Florida is Nova, at Fort Lauderdale, a sprawl of low. linked buildings that are the result of the toughness and outrageous optimism of one man, a retired executive named Stuart Synnestvedt. who arrived in Florida seven years ago with instructions from his heart surgeon to take it easy for the rest of his life. He noticed a newspaper story about Broward County preparing to build a new high school and he said to the authorities, in effect, "Why not make it the best high school in the world?” and they replied, in effect, “Sure, so long as it doesn't cost the taxpayers any more than every other high school in the country." Said Synnestvedt. "It's a deal.”
Nova High School was built on an abandoned airstrip for the regulation SI 4.70 a square foot. To afford a campuslike arrangement of buildings, one for maths, one for languages, one for science, and so on, together with three specialized libraries rather than a single general-purpose one, and such delights as glass walls, rugs and private suites of offices for teachers, Synnestvedt eliminated the auditorium and cafeteria. Because of Florida’s balmy climate, students lunch from snack bars on an outdoor covered patio; closed-circuit television in every classroom replaces student assemblies.
Synnestvedt has had three heart attacks in recent years and his face has the exhausted pallor of a sick man. but he has achieved what he set out to do, and more. Paul Brandwein of the Ford Foundation, which supplies Nova with what Synnestvedt calls “icing,” recently spoke of it as immortal. “Every now and then, possibly in each generation, one school arises, or two or three, that is named in history books as having changed the course of education.” Last spring Synnestvedt attended Nova’s first graduation exercises: 92 percent of the class went on to colleges. On national tests. Nova students match or better the rest of the country in every area. In addition, there are now two Nova elementary schools, a junior college and a graduate school, which Synnestvedt intends as the equal of the Massachusetts Institute of
Just dial a number and, presto!, there’s Gielgud’s Hamlet
Technology. The plan is to make it possible to have a Nova education from kindergarten to PhD.
A Nova education is still too fluid to be described, since it is Synnestvedt's avowed purpose, and the intention of Ford Foundation which backs him, to test every educational device that serious scholars are developing. The school’s philosophy is based on the concept that every child will enjoy learning, providing no one gets in his way.
The curriculum, therefore, is assigned in individual packages — a package being a stack of varicolored pages stapled together. The top page tells the student what area of knowledge he is expected to master to complete the package. The next sheets contain some information, together with lists of sources for further study — books, periodicals, video and audio tapes, films; at intervals there are quizzes, to be self-administered and designed to help the student assess his progress. When he thinks he is ready, he presents himself to the teacher for testing and gets his next package.
Some students rapidly consume the high-school level packages. Special arrangements have been made with colleges to provide firstand secondyear maths. English and science programs.
Freedom — to learn
Only half the school day is assigned to classrooms; the rest belongs to the resource centre or seminar rooms or quiet room where homework can be done. Senior students have even more freedom: one senior in English, for instance, reports to his teacher once every two weeks. As a result. Nova gives the appearance all day of a school to w'hich students and staff unaccountably have returned on a Saturday. 't he corridors are meeting places for girls exchanging secrets; the boys stalk past, watching them. Through a glass-walled classroom, 30 students can be seen silently bent over books, without supervision. Two young boys have carried a tape recorder to an outside bench and are taking notes from it. Alone in a huge lab, a serious-faced girl and a teacher in shirtsleeves are bent over something bubbling over blue flame. The library-resource centre is a hubbub of adolescents careening noisily off one another, apologizing and laughing. A lanky youth calls out a cheerful insult, stretches himself on a chair with the tip of his spine and nape of his neck touching it, dials a number and gets Gielgud’s Hamlet on his earphones.
Nova has no academic stream, commercial stream, technical stream — divisions which, in Canadian high schools, more accurately reflect the income level of the students rather than ability. At Nova, all students learn to type, all students learn graphics, geometric drafting, electricity. Eventually, business law w'ill also be available. Each student must complete a project in a technical science, such as electronics, engineering drafting, mechanical technology — the
project to be selected by the student. The school has shortwave sets (a boon to its six blind students), a wind tunnel, welding booths, accessible to all. Next in the works is marine biology and oceanography, to be studied from kindergarten onward. That’s Synnestvedt's personal touch again: he thinks the future of the world will
depend on man’s ability to get fresh water and food from the ocean.
Nova is gathering imitators; more than 9.000 of the curious — most of them teachers, administrators and trustees — have visited the school. Rhode Island, for example, has a something-like: the Middletown Project. It’s a six-year secondary school,
designed in consultation with Rhode Island College after a town meeting open to all citizens. Subjects there are divided into levels of skill and students progress at whatever speed they can master. For example, the first skill in the English course is “taking part in conversation.” while Skill I 1 I is writing a full-length research paper with footnotes, preface anti bibliography.
In Canada, Regina has a something-
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“Nothing in the conventional high school is worth saving”
like: the Separate School Board’s
Miller Composite High School. L. A. Riederer. director of education for the city's separate schools, obtained a Ford Foundation grant and took 10 people tc Florida to study Nova. For SI3 a square foot, he built a coldclimate Nova. Then he installed a resource centre with TVand audio-tapeequipped study carrels, closed-circuit TV all over the school, and an emerging computer centre.
Miller is still thwarted by a traditional curriculum, based on assigned textbooks, final examinations and September-to-June unit thinking, niederer isn't discouraged. He hopes first to use the computers to fragment the courses, “unlock June whatever as promotion day. loosen up the curriculum." Next, the whole hog: ungrading.
A great many Canadian high-school teachers and even a few principals and superintendents take no pains to conceal their agreement with the flat declaration of Melbourne's pioneering principal. Frank Brown, who wrote in The N onyraded Hit'll School, "Nothing in the conventional high school is worth saving." But signs of improvement are few. Toronto is planning a six-million-dollar experimental high school with a “flexible" program, for 1969. In Rosemere. a Montreal suburb. high-school principal James Angrave began experimenting with nongrading in 1963. Red Deer, Alta., is famed for its well-established semester system, with individualized timetables.
Montreal high schools are emphasizing an overdue reform: promotion by subject rather than by grade. Most Canadian high schools in the east require students who fail in some subjects to repeat their entire year, including those subjects in which they received passing grades. It's a desolating practice, but a great convenience for administrators.
The most impressive high school in the country, however, is in Campbell River, British Columbia, a fishing village only 20 years ago and now a hustling little town inhabited by loggers. fishermen and Indians. Two years ago. Campbell River built a new senior high school and imported John Young to be its principal. Young likes the word “freedom”; he uses it constantly and he has the unusual notion it has a place in high-school education.
Accordingly, 75 percent of the students at the Campbell River Secondary School attend classes on a voluntary basis; for the rest of the students, some classes are compulsory because the student is having difficulty with the subject. Students are responsible for their own education, and can decide for themselves whether to attend class, study in the well-equipped library, or chat with friends. Without supervision, they can study in any unoccupied room in the school, visit the
library anytime throughout the day. There is a fiveto 10-minute break between periods, during which students relax and talk in the corridors. Senior students have a common room, in which they are permitted to smoke, listen to the radio, play cards. Beards and long hair are allowed; the school’s only proviso is that the rights of
other students must not be infringed.
Teachers have equal freedom: their lunch hour is never assigned; they are never required to be supervisors; they can absent themselves from the school whenever they have no class; they have access to all the materials in the school; they can set their own examinations when they choose, or set none
at all; they aren't required to teach a subject for which they have no training; they decide on student promotions; they take part in establishing school policy.
Young, in reporting on these matters in the January issue of the BC teacher, dryly labeled his article This Story Is Non-Fiction. From his account. freedom with responsibility is a workable tenet, just as Thomas Jefferson always said. There's no chaos in the Campbell River high school.
“The school can’t teach freedom—and censor books, ideas”
almost no discipline problems, no signs of low academic standards. Although students are allowed to miss classes, few of them do. It bears out. Young says, “what most of us have intuitively felt right along: namely, that most students, given an opportunity, will rise to the expectations we hold for them, and that most students can be trusted to show good judgment and responsibility in the exercise of freedom.”
He adds, “No one connected with the school has any nostalgia for the traditional. a u I h o r i t a r i a n school. We believe that a student-centred school provides the best environment for the development of students who are intellectually a n d e m o t i o n a 11 y equipped to become selfleg u 1 a t ed, res po n s i h I e members of a democratic society.”
Which brings up the permeating honin', the maiming aspect of high schools: their lack of respect for voting people. Edgar /.. Eriedenherg, whose book.
Coming Of Age In America. is a documented and scathing denunciation of high schools, comments. "Adolescents tire among the last social groups in the world to be given the full 19th-century colonial treatment.”
The failure of high schools to provide a democratic environment for students is regarded by many critics as both disgraceful and dangerous for society: the cost of the triumphant efficiency of a dictatorship is bitter rebellion or an ocean of apathy.
“What the school values, students will tend to believe is important,” observes the director o f teacher training at Yale,
Edward .1. Gordon. “The school as an institution cannot contradict what it is trying to teach in the classroom, h cannot teach the value of freedom of inquiry and at the same time censor books and ideas. It cannot teach the value of the individual dignity and disregard student opinion. It cannot call for responsible behavior without allowing students — and teachers — to have responsibility."
One of the most conclusive experiments with democracy in a high school was conducted during the Depression years in Milwaukee Vocational School, where 13.500 rough-edged students attended classes, attacked teachers, vandalized the school and neighborhood. fought in the corridors. Earl G. Kelley, later at Wayne State University. was hired as a disciplinarian.
After consideration, he went about his task by establishing a genuine
student government, whose executive met in a handsome paneled board room and debated recommendations that had been filtered through many executive levels. The school principal was under no obligation to carry out the recommendations, but he was required either to do so or else explain in detail why he could not. to both the executive and the student who sug-
gested the original motion. Most of the suggestions were practical and feasible. and were carried out.
Eights in the halls and attacks on teachers ceased, neatness prevailed on school property and in the neighborhood. washroom profanity vanished, the school even held a dance that wasn't interrupted by the police, a first. “1 learned then and have had it confirmed." writes Kelley in In Defense Of Youth, “that when we depend upon people to control themselves. either youth or adults, they
will do more and better than any authoritarian can make them do.” Such convictions about the worth of young people will be a long time spreading from such areas of light as Campbell River to the hostile, antiyouth high schools across the country. Nongrading may be a generation away, despite Frank Brown’s pronouncement. "The forward projection
of education can only be in the direction of a nongraded model. There is simply no other place to go."
Curriculum reform is closer to hand (see page 67) hut most of it is geared to bright children and it can have fewradiant benefits so long as it is dominated by outside examinations.
Few are even talking about the cruelest trick that high schools play on children: sorting them ruthlessly into the snobbish elite of the academic stream, composed almost entirely of the well-to-do. and the ghetto streams
euphemistically known as technical, or vocational, or commercial, or opportunity.
“Essentially." writes Lewis Anthony Dexter in The Tyranny Of Schooling, “instead of being places where people learn trades, these tend to become institutions to which the dull rejects are sent." Many educators, such as those at Nova, are convinced that the modern world requires all high-school students to have technical training, typing and business-economics training, a smattering of home repairs. The development of reading labs makes it possible for culturally disadvantaged children to catch up in reading skills to succeed at academic subjects. Trades training, they heli eve, properly belongs in postsecondary schools or in factories and offices.
In a strong plea for broader - based technology courses and the introduction of courses such as philosophy aimed at extending the innate capacities and “humanness” of students, Tom Taylor, assistant professor of education at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education, once wrote : “To narrow the student's perspective too soon into a specific occupation may be a disservice to both the student and society.”
The streaming of outcasts into socially inferior streams, with inferior teachers and texts, is often cited as a prime contributor to juvenile delinquency. Dexter comments, “The presence of a large number of resentful and hostile people is responsible for a good deal of juvenile delinquency. It is not an exaggeration to say that the school in United States society actually encourages the development of juvenile delinquents.”
Integration of students across social-class lines would be a boon to all. E riedenberg maintains. Middle-class young people could learn from the other's sexual confidence, practicality and honest reactions; the poor could learn to calm down, scrub up, be on time.
Yale's Edward J. Gordon asks, "Why do schools exist? 1 suggest that the answer ought to he what it has always been: to produce a free, reasoning person who can make up his own mind, who will understand his cultural tradition, and who can live compassionately with his fellow man.
"In judging a school, I would want to know first what its graduates care most about."
In Canada now. as at the turn of the century, what high-school students care most about is simply passing the examinations, and getting out. It’s bound to improve: give it another 30 years. ★