The concept of excellence in education is one that, on the surface, seems to be unquestionable. After all, who would not accede that students within our schools should, in fact, excel? Certainly teachers, parents, and administrators can agree on excellence as an aim to shoot for. The interpretation of the term “excellence” is, however, less obvious. How do we regard excellence? Is it the college bound student with a broad liberal arts education? Is it the student who graduates high school trained in a specific trade? Many in the field of education cannot come to an agreement on how our schools can best achieve excellence for and from our students. One of the many authorities who have contributed a model for what schools should be is Robert L. Ebel. According to Ebel, knowledge is the single most significant and most important goal in the education of children. In his article “What are schools for?” Ebel answers “that schools are for learning, and that what ought to be learned mostly is useful knowledge” (3). He builds this declaration in answer to trends in education that focus upon other aspects of learning in schools. Ebel states in the beginning of his article, that he does not assume schools should be social research agencies, recreational facilities, adjustment centers, or custodial institutions. (3). While he does not deny that our nation is currently wrestling with a dreary array of social ailments, he does argue that the answer to such problems can or should lie within the jurisdiction of our schools. In discussing education’s mission to provide useful knowledge, Ebel defines what he means by the word knowledge: “It is an integrated structure of relationships among concepts and propositions” (5). Knowledge, the way Ebel describes it is not the same as information. Ebel states that “knowledge is built out of information by thinking”. Knowledge, according to Ebel, must be constructed from information by each individual learner; it cannot be looked up, or given to students by a parent or teacher. “ A student must earn the right to say ‘I know’ by his own thoughtful efforts to understand” (Ebel, 5). The intellectual proficiencies many educators hope to teach are, like information, essentially useless to Ebel without a knowledge base on which to draw from. Ebel feels that a good teacher can “motivate, direct, and assist the learning process to great advantage”. Although Ebel feels that good teachers are essential to providing a “favorable learning environment,” he puts much of the accountability for learning on the students themselves. Ebel feels that teachers are there to facilitate students in their learning, not to coerce those who are indifferent and unmotivated and do not wish to learn, against their will. Ebel states that “for the most part, motivation to learn is an attitude a student has or lacks well before a particular course of instruction ever begins” (7). In spite of the fact that his stress is unmistakably concentrated on the students, Ebel does briefly describe his idea of a “good teacher”. Good teachers, according to Ebel, have learned from past experiences. Such teachers provide “immediate recognition and rewards” for student achievement. Ebel in praising the school’s role in moral education, calls teachers “models of excellence and humanity” (4). Ebel discusses moral education as another of education’s special missions, second only to the teaching of useful knowledge. The author defines moral education as “the inculcation in the young of the accumulated moral wisdom of the race” (4). Ebel feels that moral education is being neglected and should have more emphasis placed on it. He feels that our youth has grown up as “moral illiterates.” Although somewhat restricted by courts and public opinion, schools are the perfect place for the type of moral education advocated by Ebel. A sense of respect for regulations and discipline in the schools, along with the examples provided by teachers, “can be powerful influences in moral education” (Ebel, 4). Ebel’s article makes many recommendations of what schools should and should not be, and can and cannot do. He does not, however, explain to the reader exactly how schools should be structured. The author lists some of the qualities that he believes make up a “good learning environment” (Ebel, 6). Some of these qualities seem fairly obvious, for example, “capable, enthusiastic teachers” and “a class of willing learners.” Another quality listed by Ebel, reveals the author’s belief in traditional methods of teaching as well as learning. By advocating “formal recognition and reward of achievement,” the article mentions traditions including “tests and grades, reports and honors, diplomas and degrees” (6). Ebel denotes that these instruments for rewarding excellence have long been incorporated into the structure of our schools. He urges educators to cling to these extrinsic motivations unless they are “willing to abandon excellence as a goal for our efforts”. Another authority on the subject of excellence in schools is Diane Ravitch. Like Ebel, Ravitch, has suggested that schools must retain their traditional goals, while varying in method. In her article “A Good School”, Ravitch mentions Ron Edmonds, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who provides an outline of what makes an effective school: Edmonds identified schools where academic achievement seemed to be independent of pupils’ social class, and he concluded that such schools had an outstanding principal, high expectations for all children, an orderly atmosphere, a regular testing program, and an emphasis on academic learning (55). Ravitch, however, does more than only recite her basic ideas on “effective” schooling. She depicts an actual school which, she feels, incorporates those ideals. That school is the Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, New York and it is run by its principal, Saul Bruckner. Ravitch feels that what “Bruckner is doing deserves attention, not because it is the only way or even the best way, but because it is one successful way of wedding traditional goals with non-traditional means” (56). As her support of “traditional goals” suggests, Ravitch’s views regarding schooling have much in common with those of Robert Ebel. Ravitch shares Ebel’s opinion that a refreshed stress on traditional academic programs is imperative to reestablish the effectiveness of the American education system. This return to academics is an essential part of Edward R. Murrow High School. At Murrow, “all [students] are expected and required to take a strong academic program to graduate- that is a minimum of five academic courses through the school year” (Ravitch, 56). Although New York City requires that a certain percentage of “below-average” students be admitted to Murrow, no student is excluded from upper level academic classes. “The school philosophy is that no student should be discouraged from taking on an academic challenge” (Ravitch, 57). Even though Murrow’s emphasis on academic goals is an example of traditional education, the setting and structure in which they are achieved is unique. “The school year and day are organized somewhat differently than they are at a more traditional school. Instead of two semesters, there are four cycles of ten weeks each” (Ravitch, 57). The school also differs from most other schools in the curriculum it offers. It is important to note, however, that it is not the academic content that has been altered at Murrow, but the fashion in which it is presented. Many of the classes have been made to be more appealing to the students and have been renamed. Murrow sets “high requirements for graduation, but the school permits students to meet those requirements by choosing among a carefully designed mix of required and elective courses” (Ravitch, 57). Another way in which Edward R. Murrow High School differs from most other public schools is in its use of a teaching method known as the “developmental lesson” or the “socialized recitation”. Principal Saul Bruckner demands that all of the teachers at Murrow use this method in teaching their classes. On her first visit to Murrow, Ravitch observed Bruckner as he taught an American history class: The lesson was taught in a Socratic manner. Mr. Bruckner did not lecture. He asked questions and kept up a rapid-fire dialogue among the students… Sometimes he called on students who were desperately waving their arms, and other times he solicited the views of those who were sitting quietly… It was a good lesson: it was well planned, utilizing a variety of materials and media; and the students were alert and responsive (Ravitch, 59). This kind of instruction, when used by an experienced teacher, opposes an American education system where there is an abundance of “student passivity, and little if any thought provoking activity in the typical classroom” (Ravitch, 59). Among the numerous characteristics of Edward R. Murrow High School that Ravitch finds meritorious is its lack of a vocational program. The school has not attained its high degree of effectiveness with intelligent students “by pushing the average ones into nursing and automobile mechanics” (Ravitch, 60). Neither Ravitch nor Ebel see vocational education as a priority in the American school system. In spite of this scarcity of attention by some theorists, vocational education is actually the focus of many current debates. Joe Kincheloe, in his book Toil and Trouble, states schooling is always a “struggle over particular ways of life and particular epistemologies” (32). The controversy about American vocational schooling is a debate over what type of education is more valuable: one that emphasizes academic knowledge and attempts to prepare students for college, or one that values the knowledge of work and prepares students to be trained in a skill, to find a job. For Kincheloe, it is imperative that education approaches the matters of the workplace. The failure of American schools today is a “failure of vision, an inability to connect the tenets of democracy with the construction of our institutions” (Kincheloe, 1). This lack of vision has left both schools and workplaces with failures in many other domains: motivation, creativity, self-awareness, and social justice. The nonsuccess of many educational reform movements can, according to Kincheloe, be creditted to their incapacity to see the critical association between the world of education and the world of work. In contrast, Kincheloe’s own intended amendments are contingent on the assumption that schools and workplaces are intrinsically connected, that they are “two features of the same problem” (2). Although there has been a recent promotion for vocational education in our public high schools, inherent programs have come under attack from all sides. Kincheloe views vocational education, as it currently exists, as a failure because it has failed to work in relation to economic actualities. In addition, “vocational education has failed to create a vision of good work or a democratic workplace" (Kincheloe, 31). A lot of the instruction has been too confined. Specific skills taught to students in vocational courses can become out-of-date. Kincheloe believes that in a time in which the workplace is changing to become more technologically complex, industry is requiring workers who value understanding ahead of knowledge. The answer, then, is for students to be taught, not only specific skills, but, instead, the larger academic concepts that embrace them. According to Kincheloe, this can be achieved through the merging of vocational and academic education. Kincheloe indicates that many discussions encompassing this type of integration concentrate on reform for vocational programs solely. His work, however, cites integration as a means of reforming all schooling, vocational and academic. Proponents point out that integration forces schools to reduce class size, improve student counseling, provide coherent programs of courses, offer greater contact between teachers and students, and create closer relationships with social institutions outside of school (Kincheloe, 39). Alterations made to accommodate integration would, according to Kincheloe, have a completely positive effect on an American education system that most experts accede is in a severe crisis. John Goodlad is unquestionably one of the authorities mourning the state of America’s schools. As he states in the very first line of his book A Place Called School, “American schools are in trouble” (1). Behind this “trouble” is, according to Goodlad, a loss of public faith in our schools. “The ability of schools to do their traditional jobs of assuring literacy and eradicating ignorance is at the center of current criticism” (Goodlad, 2). The confidence of the society in schools’ competencies to reach these fundamental goals is necessary to its support of schools. When there is a deficiency of such faith, as Goodlad claims there currently is, there is a withdrawal of support, both financial and otherwise. This presumed incapability of the schools to teach “the basic” academics promoted by Ravitch, Ebel and others, has been reflected in lower test scores. Goodlad states “an array of conditions surrounding the conduct of schooling” as some of the reasons there are problems in schools (7). These conditions include the weakening of the household and church as stable factors in a child’s education, the deterioration of the previously supportive relationship between the school and the home, a change in the nature of our communities and neighborhoods, the decline of the political coalitions that had fought for support of our public schools in the past, the division present among educators themselves, the changing roles, tasks, and student populations facing high schools, and the array of “educating forces” such as television, that students encounter outside of school. Although Goodlad names conditions outside the school as contributing to its decay as an institution, he does give credence to the fact that schools can be effective. One of the propositions of his book, however, is his recognition that “the schools we need now are not necessarily the schools we have known” in the past (2). Goodlad’s recommendations for reform may be perceived in many ways as a middle ground between the extreme academic focus suggested by both Ebel and Ravitch, and the radical integration suggested by Kincheloe. In chapter two of his book, Goodlad lays the foundations for a detailed list of the goals our schools should be attempting to comprehend (51). His first set of goals is similar to those of Ebel. The “basic” skills include reading, writing and arithmetic. Goodlad does, however, take his description of academics beyond the basics by encompassing such goals as “develop positive attitudes toward intellectual activity, including curiosity and a desire for further learning” and “develop an understanding of change in society” (52). Second only to academic goals, is vocational goals. Like Kincheloe, Goodlad disapproves of vocational education as it had evolved in recent years. He instead, calls for vocational programs that teach students the main concepts needed to succeed in the workplace. Rather than narrow, specific skills, Goodlad’s goals include “learn to make decisions based on an awareness and knowledge of career options” and “develop positive attitudes toward work” (52). Goodlad does not stop at just vocational and academic goals, but he goes on to list such goals as “social, civic, and cultural goals” that were eagerly rejected by Ebel, as well as something he refers to as “personal goals”. Goodlad feels that the state, rather than an individual school should be held accountable for change. He suggests a “tendency to overlook the broad focus of reform and the awesome task of hammering out state policy, and to zero in on school and classroom- not to listen and learn, but to change things quickly” (57). Many people, teachers and theorists similarly, believe the contrary is true: Teachers have not been given enough of a voice in the argument of school reform. In their purpose as education practitioners, teachers are the spirit of any education system. As such it is paradoxical that in spite of the fact that they often endure most of the outside criticism, they are very seldom involved in actual decision making outside their classrooms. In addition to the broad reform programs indicated by the theorists considered in this paper, as well as others, the profession of teaching also seems to be in need of some improvement to better allow teachers to successfully acclimatize to the changing times. As Beverly Caffee Glenn Points out, “the most long-lasting and beneficial reforms in teaching would involve structural and social changes in the profession itself” (2). She feels that more emphasis should be placed on classroom teaching in order to keep the best teachers in the classroom, as opposed to the current trend that encourages the top teachers to “move up the ladder” into administrative work. These reforms, however, are most often discussed by politicians, bureaucrats, advocates, and the media, rather than by those who have the most impact on what is actually taught and the manner in which it is presented. Whether we ultimately follow the visions set forth by Ebel, Ravitch, Kincheloe, Goodlad, or someone else, teachers must be included in any major reform movements. They must not be handed a mandate for change, but “the authority to make major decisions and the direct responsibility for higher student achievement” (Glenn, 27).
Glenn, Beverly Cafee. “Include parents and teachers in reform.” Social Policy. Winter 1992, v 22, p 30.