High school students nationwide appear to be on to something that a whole decade of school reformers, legislators, and professional educators continue to ignore. In a recent nation wide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association, students state that the high schools they are attending are not very demanding, not very interesting, and not preparing for kinds of thinking or occupational skills they will need when they graduate. The really bad news is that one-third of students who enter ninth grade do not participate in the survey because they have already left school (dropped out). These reports confirm John Goodlad’s observation that high schools are places where students have become emotionally deadened by the routines of schooling and intellectually morbid by an institutional curriculum that prizes completion of work rather understanding and reflection (Goodlad, 1984).

These reports take on greater significance in a world which will demand a highly educated populace to solve the complex problems that are the products of growing global competition, growing association with diverse cultures, and the impact of industrial and technological growth on our natural habitats. Why then are our high schools, whose aim is to provide young people with a proper introduction to the symbol systems, theories, ideas, and elements of argumentation, unable to develop approaches to curriculum and instruction that reflect the kinds of critical thinking and knowledge of subject matters associated with higher levels of intellectual thought? The answer to this important question lies with the institutional nature of schooling in America and the transformation of the disciplines by schools from methods of inquiry to the memorization of unrelated fragments of theories, facts, and ideas.

In the last one-hundred years the goal of the American High School has been transformed from “what is an educated person” to the institutional functions of certification, preparation, and custodial care. In order to accomplish these institutional goals, schools configured themselves in a way to accurately account for daily attendance, to monitor the whereabouts of students on an hourly basis, and to efficiently process students through a prescribed number of credit hours. Today’s schools do these functions very well. The school’s schedule, the supervisory functions of teaching, the subject-centered curriculum, and the assign and assess delivery model of instruction are efficient means of accomplishing the institutional goals of schooling.

Teachers find themselves trapped in schools where the goals of schooling —jobs, high test scores, and admission to college—and the means of schooling—large classes, standardized curriculum, and large amounts of testing— are antithetical to a practice that requires creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity to uniqueness. Teenagers find themselves in classrooms where the goals of schooling—promotion, good grades, and following rules —and the routines of schooling —sitting quietly, listening, waiting to be called on, completing worksheets —are hostile to the social need to be known, the emotional need to be interested, and the intellectual need to make sense out of their experiences.

The organizational structures of institutional schooling induce a passivity towards knowledge and thinking. The disconnect between the emotional, social, and intellectual sources of growth becomes total, however, when high school students are required to master information contained in prescribed subjects that bear little resemblance to the methods of inquiry and levels of thought found in the disciplines of the arts and sciences.

The goals of a school subject are to provide a vehicle for scheduling, assigning daily class work, reproducing information on a test and to certify to institutions of higher learning that a student has completed a prescribed curriculum. Subject matter in such a curriculum consists of catalogues of names, dates, places, definitions, events, and procedures which have been removed from the social and historical context in which the discipline evolved and the problems they were designed to solve.

Not only has the intellectual and aesthetic power of the disciplines been reduced to catalogues of information, but policymakers have deemed only the “core” subjects of English, social studies, mathematics, and science worthy of study. Other ways of knowing the world are considered “electives.” Only a minority of students in our schools possess the social, emotional, and intellectual profile to succeed within such a configuration of schooling.

The daily challenge administrators and teachers confront in schools whose goals and functions are institutional is the minute by minute effort to reduce the tensions created by a configuration of schooling that is openly hostile to the diversity of talents, emotions, and cultures of the student bodies they serve. Administrators and teachers respond to this challenge by employing a combination of special events, routines, techniques, sanctions and broad interpretations of academic achievement to entertain, manage, control, and move along their student bodies.

Administrators and teachers intuitively know that the current configuration of schooling is not working. Things remain the same, however, because the assumptions of institutional schooling are never questioned. In fact, school administrators have intensified the goals of institutional schooling by replacing programs and course sequences that once provided groups of students with course options recognizing multiple talents, abilities, and interests with the one size fits all college bound curriculum. It is no surprise, then, that two-thirds of our students go through the motions of institutional schooling but show little joy, little emotion, and little learning and tragically, one-third of our high school students exercise the option of walking away from school before their senior year.

My effort to resolve the conflict between the institutional goals of schooling and the needs of the whole child began ten years ago when a group of freshman students, who, in the words of the Director of Pupil Personnel Services, “refused to do school.” Students in this group were fourteen and fifteen years old. All members of the group had missed over thirty days of school by November and were failing every subject. The achievement profile of each member of the group did not qualify them for special education services.

My journey into school reconfiguration began with a brainstorming session with our school’s truant officer. After I described the profile of our missing freshman students, Sarah, our truant officer made the following comment: “I know what will work with these kids, but you won’t do it.”
“No, Sarah, I am willing to try anything to help these kids through school.”
“Anything?” Sarah asked.

Sarah proceeded to describe a school configuration that would work for students who “refused to do school.” Students would begin school at ten o’clock. The course of study would be designed by the students in consultation with the director of the program. The physical education program, which was a constant nemesis for these students, was redesigned to be more user friendly to students who disliked “dressing” for gym and traditional activity structures emphasizing competition and team sports. The maximum class size for the program was set at fifteen. The classroom for the program was to be located away from the normal distractions of the high school day.

As I listened to Sarah’s “demands” my thoughts alternated between a resentment towards students who would not go along with the program and a respect for the wisdom of a teacher who had worked with these students for many years. My institutional self was saying no the program. My educational self said that my options resided outside the boundaries of institutional schooling. The traditional configuration of the high school was not working; more of the same was not an option.

Project STARS (Success Through Accepting Responsibility) began that day in my office. I was able to secure money for materials and a salary for the teacher. I found a room in a remote part of the building. I worked with the physical education chairperson to modify the program for these students. I felt a bit more assured about the success of the program when Sarah volunteered to teach and direct the program.

There were parameters for Project STARS. Students, along with their parents, had to sign a contract stipulating that they would attend school on a regular basis, would behave appropriately in class, and would complete assigned school work. Parents and students were also informed that they would not receive a diploma from the school unless they completed all required courses. Students who were unable to comply with these rules would immediately be dropped from the program.

STARS became a huge success. By the end of the first semester, students who were virtual drop-outs were now attending school on a regular basis, were arriving on time to the program and were successfully completing self-selected correspondence courses in academic and elective courses. Over the next seventeen years I was principal I handed out seven hundred and seven diplomas to students who, without the STARS program, would have become a number on a dropout report. In that same period of time, our school’s average graduation rate increased by 9.62%.

The years that I worked with staff and students in the STARS program taught me that traditional institutional approaches to improving achievement that do more of the same, only harder, or the endless search for pathologies in students only alienated the student further from purposeful approaches to learning. Both strategies ignore the fundamental disconnect between the knowledge, interests, and capacities of young people and the institutional goals of schooling.

The other lesson I learned in working with teachers and administrators on different configurations of schooling is the distinctive change in their attitudes towards students who were not doing well in school. Freed from the constraints of institutional schooling, professional staff stopped the blame game—if only students would, if only parents would, if only the administration would. Now staff focused on asking the right question: “How can we make this student successful in our school.”

Goodlad, J.I. (1984). A place called school: prospects for the future. A Study of schooling in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

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