Sizing up school problems

The Education Beat

Study: Forty years after a report recommended consolidation, high schools have become big, impersonal places that make it difficult to foster achievement.

June 02, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THIS YEAR MARKS the 40th anniversary of James B. Conant's famous study of the American high school.

In the Conant Report, issued two years after the Russian launching of Sputnik, the scientist and former Harvard president called for high school consolidation and urged a strengthening of what he termed the "hard" subjects -- mathematics, science and foreign languages.

Alas, consolidate we did. Alas again, strengthen the hard subjects we didn't.

In the ensuing decades, the number of school districts nationally shrank from 40,000 to 16,000, and small high schools from California to Maine disappeared in the name of efficiency and curriculum "depth."

American students in science and math lagged persistently behind peers in most other industrialized nations. Today, many have trouble speaking English, not to mention Spanish or Swahili.

Nearly a quarter-century after Conant's report, the distinguished educator Ernest L. Boyer weighed in with another seminal study of the high school. Among his major conclusions: High schools are too big and impersonal.

"Most students attend large urban or suburban high schools, often with troubling effects," Boyer wrote in 1983. "A teacher at a high school in the Northeast with 3,000 students said, `This is a very big, impersonal place. It is very hard to get to know people. I know only four or five people and then only in passing. I worked before with a faculty where everyone knew everyone and supported each other. Here, nothing works as a whole, nothing works at all. The school is too big.' "

Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., was moderately sized by today's standards, with about 1,800 students and a senior class of 440. But it was plenty big enough to foster the sense of anomie that pervades many secondary schools today. Students could get lost at Columbine. Two of them did.

Educators and researchers have been arguing for a century about the optimum size of a school, just as they've been squabbling over the best class size. But you don't need a 10-year longitudinal study to sense intuitively that smaller schools and smaller classes breed mentally healthier and higher-achieving students.

Example: Schools in Maine and Maryland are roughly comparable by several education measures. They have similar state resources. They spend roughly the same amount on each student. But Maine's fourth- and eighth-graders left Marylanders in the dust last year in national reading tests.

Seventy-four percent of Maine's high schools have 900 or fewer students, compared with 9 percent of Maryland's high schools. Just over half of Maine's elementary kids attend schools of fewer than 350; 8 percent of Maryland elementary students are in that category.

Is there a doubt that a relationship exists between those scores and those enrollments?

The '90s have seen two significant reforms in high schools, both of which are seen across Maryland. One is the subdividing of big schools into smaller "academies," schools within schools, each with an academic emphasis. In the model promoted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, the troublesome ninth grade, where most dropouts occur, is an academy unto itself.

Baltimore's Douglass and Patterson high schools, the first city schools placed on the state's failure list five years ago, are academy schools. Principals told the school board last month that the experiment has improved the atmosphere at the schools, but little evidence exists of improved academic performance.

The second reform of the '90s is the four-period day. Typically, students attend two 85- or 90-minute morning classes and, after lunch, two afternoon classes of the same length. The schedule is supposed to allow for greater depth of studies. It's especially useful in laboratory courses. Four 90-minute classes make for easier scheduling and discipline; there are fewer class changes, fewer chances for hallway riots.

But desperate to maintain order, some high schools have switched to the four-period day for the wrong reasons. They haven't trained teachers for the demanding challenge of 40 additional minutes in each class session.

Even with academies and four-period schedules, too many high schools are too big and impersonal -- places where it's easy to get lost.

Coppin State, Rosemont eyed by television audience

Coppin State College and Rosemont Elementary, the city school it adopted this year, finally came in view of the big eye of CBS Television.

A crew from the CBS "Sunday Morning" program visited the West Baltimore school in early spring, interviewed Principal Georgia Felix, Coppin President Calvin W. Burnett, teachers, parents and pupils.

But world events -- a high school massacre, bombing in Yugoslavia -- kept the Coppin-Rosemont segment on hold for weeks. It aired Sunday across the nation.

Burnett may have missed his calling. He was convincing on television. Asked why he decided to take on Rosemont, he said: "It was a matter of conscience. It was hard to walk through the community and pretend Rosemont wasn't there."

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