The End of School

In 1992, The Atlantic delivered a bleak prognosis of American education, calling for its revolution in the new millennium.

Marcelo del Pozo / Reuters

School as we know it is doomed. And every attempt to improve—but fundamentally preserve—the present system will only prolong its death throes and add immeasurably to its costs, both financial and social. By the year 2010, if we are to survive as a democratic society, our children will have to learn in a variety of new ways, some of them already on the drawing board, some unforeseen. None of them will involve a teacher in the front of a classroom presenting information to twenty or thirty children seated at desks.

Ironically, the success of a highly publicized school-reform movement has most clearly revealed the failure of school to meet the challenges of these times. The movement began on April 26, 1983, with the publication of a report by the National Commission for Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform asked for a longer school day and year. It called for the assignment of "far more homework." It demanded higher standards for college admissions, more rigorous grading, better textbooks, and a nationwide system of standardized achievement tests. Like most of the dozens of reform proposals from other organizations which followed, A Nation at Risk was preoccupied with course requirements at the high school level—four years of English, three of math, three of science, and so on. As if four rather than three years of English for students already turned off by the present system would really make much difference.

The interesting thing about the National Commission report (along with most of the other proposals) is that with all its talk of "fundamental" change, it proposed nothing really new. Let's ratchet up the present system, the report seemed to say. Let's get tough on students and teachers. Let's have the same, but better and more of it.

A Nation at Risk set off a firestorm of interest and approval. All three television networks did shows on education. Newsmagazines ran cover stories on the subject. Governors throughout the nation scrambled to get on the band-wagon and create their own commissions and task forces on school reform. Public-opinion polls showed a willingness, even an eagerness, to spend more on the schools. In an amazingly short time—as touted in the Department of Education's follow-up report, The Nation Responds—the more-of-the-same movement was well under way.

No movement to improve the schools gets all it asks for, but this one got more than most. From 1978 to 1983 total spending per public school student, from kindergarten through high school, adjusted for inflation, had remained stable. From 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, to 1991 per capita spending, adjusted for inflation, increased by 30 percent.

With what results? Blacks and Hispanics have shown some real improvement in reading and writing, and students in general have made small gains in math scores. But even with more and more teachers devoting up to half their time preparing pupils for achievement tests, today's students nationwide are scoring little better, or even worse, in reading and writing than did their predecessors. The painful truth is that despite the spotlight on schooling and the stern pronouncements of educators, governors, and Presidents, despite the frantic test preparation in classrooms all over the country and the increased funding, school achievement has remained essentially flat over the past two decades.

The failure of this well-intended, well-executed movement toward reform summons us to think the unthinkable: we can no longer improve the education of our children by improving school as we know it. The time has come to recognize that school is not the solution. It is the problem. Take a look:

• Clearly, human beings learn at different rates. This doesn't mean that slow learners are less intelligent than fast learners; they're just slower. Yet by and large, school as we know it forces everyone to learn at the same rate or be declared uneducable.

• When we human beings first emerged on this planet, our ability to cooperate gave us an advantage over larger and more powerful creatures. Throughout history we have worked together and learned together to further ourselves and our species. Today if you need help, you're likely to find a friend or a fellow worker who will bat the problem around with you, check out your ideas, offer suggestions. Yet for the most part school is set up to teach competition rather than cooperation.

• A certain amount of self-confidence and self-respect is an essential precondition to learning. Yet by and large, school is set up to humiliate publicly those who, for whatever reason, are unable to come up with the right answer when called upon.

Middle school and high school make it worse. The day is divided into periods of some forty minutes. You sit in a room with twenty or thirty other people with whom you are discouraged from talking over what you are hearing, listening to a presentation that's probably either too demanding or not challenging enough for you. Then a bell rings, and you go sit in another room, with twenty or thirty different people, listening to another presentation that's probably either more or less than you want, on another subject. The teacher in this room probably doesn't know what the teacher in the other room has said or done, nor will any of the teachers in still other rooms know what the other teachers have said or done.

But how about the good old days? Didn't school work then? In 1900 the number of high school graduates was equal to only 6.3 percent of the nation's seventeen-year-olds. As late as 1940 the comparable percentage was only 49—and included a rather high proportion of the same kind of academically motivated kids who can get something out of present-day schooling. Academically successful kids, both past and present, have learned for the most part in spite of, rather than because of, school. The emphasis of today's reformers on the importance of homework and family support points up the fact that school on its own does not and cannot do the job of educating our children.

"In the old days people used to go to doctors to get cured," says Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and one of the few true visionaries among today's education reformers, "but for several centuries doctors were actually harming their patients, indeed sometimes resulting in deaths, because they didn't realize they had to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments. In other words, in the normal course of practice doctors were doing things out of ignorance that were harmful to their patients. We need to ask whether schools in the normal course of education do things that are harmful to students."

School as we know it is not inevitable. From the beginning it was an administrative expediency, an attempt to adapt the tutor-learner system to mass education, a crude way of handling a large number of learners with a much smaller number of teachers. We were able to get away with it in the past chiefly because our society required few academically or technically educated citizens. In 1900 farming alone absorbed 37.5 percent of the American work force. As late as the 1950s, even the 1960s, unskilled jobs were still relatively easy to come by. What has happened is that the demands and stresses of today's multi-ethnic, technological society have revealed the fundamental flaws in a system we have long taken for granted.

In spite of the best of intentions, the commissions, foundations, task forces, governors' conferences, national and state administrations, and departments of education have missed the point. Longer bad school days and years don't add up to a good education. Cranking up the assembly line a bit tighter, spending all year teaching to the achievement tests, might increase the scores a few points, but at the cost of whatever love of learning remains in our students' hearts. Raising graduation standards without radically improving the mode of instruction will only increase the dropout rate or worsen the cheating that is already rampant in our schools. The assumption that higher quality textbooks, or teachers who "really know their subject matter," can set things right crumbles beneath the boredom, cynicism, and despair produced by the present system. Even if the top graduates from the most prestigious universities were to go into teaching, their best efforts would founder within an essentially unworkable system.

If all of this is true, then what is the alternative? The key to good education, almost totally overlooked by the putative reformers, is to be found by taking the viewpoint of the learner, and, more particularly, by focusing on the interaction between the learner and the learning environment. We can say that the effectiveness of any learning experience depends on the frequency, variety, quality, and intensity of that interaction. Unless the interaction is improved, any and all proposals to improve education are moot. With this premise in mind, one can easily see why school is doomed.

Start with the fact that the human being is a learning animal, pure and simple. What sets him or her apart from all other known forms of life is the ability to learn prodigiously from birth to death. By the time our children start to school, almost all of them have completed one of the most spectacular learning tasks on this planet: the mastery of spoken language with no formal instruction whatever. Rather than any kind of formal instruction, they have enjoyed a feast of high-intensity interaction with their learning environment, which in this case comprises all the adults and older children around them. Here are teachers who react immediately to success, permit approxima-tions, and aren't likely to indulge in lectures—that is, the best kind of teachers. School as it is now constituted minimizes interaction and thus minimizes learning among our children, while yoking teachers to a frustrating, essentially impossible task.

What can we do? We must summon the courage to recognize that the present system is entirely inadequate to our present educational needs. We must move as swiftly as possible to end it. We must empower our educators to create interactive learning environments rather than merely presenting information to passive students. We must shift our national educational goals from improving school as it is to building something beyond it—call it metaschool.

A number of educational experiments that move us in the direction of metaschool are already under way. Albert Shanker points to the success of a secondary school in Cologne, Germany. There the Köln-Holweide school uses team teaching, cooperative learning, and peer tutoring to create a close-knit learning community for some 2,000 secondary school students from middle- and lower-income households. Teachers, rather than administrators, make all instructional decisions at this school. They work in teams of six to eight, keeping the same group of eighty-five to ninety students for their entire six years at the school, from the equivalent of our grade five to grade ten.

But these teachers don't hold forth from the front of the room. Actually, the room has no "front," no rows of desks lined up in the same direction. Instead, the students sit around tables, working with the same "table group" of five or six students, integrated by sex, ability, and ethnic origin, for at least a year. The table group is the basic unit of learning, the key to the school's success. Students are in constant interaction, helping one another learn. "If a student has a problem," the headmistress, Anne Ratzki, explained in an interview in American Educator magazine, "he doesn't have to wait for a teacher; he can ask his table group for help. If the group can't help, then the teacher will—but the first responsibility lies with the group."

The school day at Köln-Holweide is long, from 8:15 to 4:15, with a thirty-minute pause in the morning, an eighty-minute lunch period, and, for each student, generally one or two pe-riods a day devoted to tutorial or project work or free learning. School closes early every Tuesday, so that students can take care of doctors' appointments, piano lessons, and other non-school activities. What we would call homework is mostly taken care of in the tutorial or free-learning periods, during which other students or teachers can help out. The extended lunch period is time for sports in the gym, special lessons in such things as theater and ceramics, and dancing in a disco.

What are the results? A dropout rate of one percent, as compared with a West German average of 14 percent, and an astonishing 60 percent rate of admission to four-year colleges, as compared with a national average of 27 percent. And this despite the fact that Köln-Holweide's student body is far from an elite one. Best of all, the kids seem to enjoy their education. Parents report that they can't wait until the holidays end, so that they can get back to school. By ending frontal, lockstep teaching, maximizing interaction with the learning environment, and putting the natural human bonding drive to work for rather than, against the educational process, Kö1n-Holweide travels a good distance past school as we know it and toward the metaschool that lies beyond.

Recent developments in computerized interactive multimedia can take us considerably further. The filmmaker George Lucas is one of a number of innovators who are devising tools for electronic learning. Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas, is devoting a quarter of his time these days to long-term research and development in education. He hopes over the next few years to create a "curiosity-driven" demonstration project, perhaps an entire semester's eighth-grade curriculum, combining still and moving pictures, sound, and text, all computerized so that the learner can intervene and interact at any point along the way.

Already his LucasArts Learning, in cooperation with National Geographic, has produced GTV, an American history course for middle school students. GTV requires only a computer, a television screen, and a videodisc player. If you let the material on the videodisc run to completion, you have a richly textured two-hour survey of American history, with still pictures, moving pictures, charts, narration, and background music. But this is only the beginning. GTV, like all interactive multimedia, is meant not to be viewed passively but rather to be touched, molded and remolded, played with. A trove of information lies just beneath the surface. Using a mouse that controls a pointer on the computer screen, you can freeze the image on the television screen at any point and ask for additional information about whatever is pictured. A photograph of some rather primitive-looking safety pins, for example, yields this caption: "American ingenuity: Inventor Walter Hunt created the safety pin in three hours. He patented it in 1849, and later sold all rights to the pin for $400."

Another click of the mouse reveals that images of thirty-nine American inventions are scattered throughout the program, ranging from the cotton gin to the Apollo moon lander. You can select any or all of these images, put them in any order you wish, write your own captions, and present your own multimedia show on the subject of American ingenuity to the rest of the class.

In the interactive-multimedia world you aren't locked into any one linear sequence. Time doesn't just unreel; it unfolds. You can move swiftly across the entire span of American history, jumping from one decade to another, one century to another, spotting patterns that might otherwise be hidden from view, experiencing the resonance as well as the results of history. The supple all-at-onceness of the new medium comes closer to the workings of human consciousness than does a lecture or a textbook.

When computers were first proposed as learning tools, some people were concerned that children would become little robots, plugged in to their machines, isolated from human contact. In most cases just the opposite has happened. Actually, the conventional classroom, not the computer, is the isolation cell, the lockup. Contemporary electronic technology, used not as an adjunct to the conventional classroom but as something entirely new, inspires cooperation, encourages learning teams, and builds student confidence.

Moreover, this technology can join students with a whole universe of information, allowing them to reach out to other learners and teachers all across the United States and overseas, and to link up with data bases that eventually will contain a goodly chunk of all human knowledge. When these connections are made, the classroom walls will dissolve, the egg-carton model of education will become a memory, and the schoolhouse will become, in effect, the whole world. Metaschool, a truly new educational entity, might well be born from an imaginative combination of highly interactive technology with the kind of nonfrontal, cooperative learning modeled at Köln-Holweide.

Education circles in the United States are astir with talk of something like this, something beyond school as we know it. But most of the talk thus far has led only to piecemeal experimentation: a model classroom here and there, a "school within a school." One exception can be found in Modesto, an agricultural town with a large Hispanic population in California's central valley. "We are not an extension of the past," says Charles Vidal, the principal of the Evelyn A. Hanshaw Middle School. "We're something entirely new and different—a new building, a new kind of teacher, a new educational concept, a new way of thinking of our kids. We don't call them students. We call them citizens."

At Hanshaw, which opened last September with 807 "citizens," 78 percent of them Hispanic, teachers work in teams, children sit around tables rather than in rows, and every room contains a computer lab, in which all the computers are linked into a network. From the beginning Vidal has sought to eliminate the textbook as a prime educational tool. Instead, teaching teams work out core subjects from which related knowledge develops. Social studies provides a core for history and English. Science serves as a springboard into math. During their two-year stay the citizens of Hanshaw must also do eight "exploratories" in such subjects as arts and crafts, home economics, and drama and chorus. The technology exploratory is made up of twenty-eight five-day segments in such specialties as pneumatics, robotics, hydroponics, and desktop publishing.

It's still too early to tell how this metaschool will work, but Vidal's aims are nothing if not ambitious. Hanshaw is made up of seven subschools, which are named for the seven California state universities, and during the year all the children are bused in for a visit to their school's namesake university. "During the visit," Vidal says, "I ask them to close their eyes and see themselves there."

As for the reform movement that began in 1983, even its most avid supporters are beginning to realize the futility of more-of-the-same measures for improving education. In April of last year, inspired by his new Education Secretary, Lamar Alexander, President George Bush called for a "revolution" in schooling. Rather than commissioning more studies, the President said, we should get on with the business of reinventing the classroom. Among other things, Bush also called for nationwide voluntary achievement testing, more freedom of choice for parents and students in selecting schools, and one-time grants of $1 million each toward the creation of 535 model experimental schools.

A good start, perhaps, but a timid one. We need to know how well our students are doing, but undue reliance on standardized nationwide tests can chill innovation and creativity. Choice might encourage efficiency in education, but it can leave socially disadvantaged students in worse shape than ever. Then, too, a choice among institutions that are fundamentally flawed by the very nature of school itself is hardly a choice at all. Bold talk of revolution and a reinvention of the classroom reveals an understanding of the dimensions of the challenge that faces us. The paucity of the proposed new federal funding amounts to a refusal by the present Administration, thus far, to take on that challenge.

What's needed today is a willingness to think the unthinkable—that school as we know it is doomed—and the will to create something new to take its place. Only a consummate fantasist could argue that this can be done without a substantial initial investment of federal, state, and local money. Since all else in our national life follows from the development of our human resources, this is the most important long-term investment we could possibly make. The end of school could mean the beginning of an education that would tap the potential of all our children, and immeasurably increase individual fulfillment and national success as we enter a new millennium.