Book Notes & Thoughts: The Shopping Mall High School, by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen

shopping mall high school

The semester is over, which means it’s time for reading! The summer around here is actually much busier than the semester, like trying to squeeze all the loose ends into the “free time” when you don’t have classes (oh wait, taking one class).

I’m really excited to geek out this summer about organizational theory. Seriously. I think I’ve gone from my first year “everything is novel and interesting” to my second year “I know what I’m not interested in anymore” and “I want to spend all of my time thinking about…” My advisor is stacking up the books for me to read, and my post today is from the first of those readings.

(As always, these thoughts are rough, non-linear, and littered with more questions than answers. I will say, though, that I have referred to these blog posts often as a way to remember what particular books or articles were about. This continues to be my commonplace book in the commons.)

The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace was written in 1985 as part of a national study of high schools and is the second book in the series. In the introduction, the authors explain the analogy of the shopping mall:

  1. High schools accommodate the range of student needs by offering many options so they can achieve the result they want; there is “something for everybody” (p.2). There are four types of curricula: horizontal (different disciplines), vertical (levels of difficulty), extra-curricular (sports and other nonacademics), and social services (e.g. counseling).
  2. It is for students/families to choose their path, and thus not the school’s responsibility. Schools do not tell kids what to do. If they are happy, they will stay. If they stay, they will graduate.

The authors call these “treaties,” i.e. the compromises made to reach passing grades. “Learning is not discounted or unvalued, but it is profoundly voluntary” (p.4).

David Cohen wrote chapter 5, Origins, focusing on a history of the high school in two periods, 1890 to pre-WWII and the 50s to the 80s.Before starting graduate school, I read Kaestle’s Pillars of the Republic, which was 1790-1860, so this chapter almost picked up right where that left off.

The big debates were between 1) intellectual rigor and the perceived lack of ability by the masses of students enrolling, and 2) whether the curriculum should be academic or practical.

  • “Between them, Elliot and Hall had politely laid out the greatest issue that divided American educators at the time: could all students be expected to pursue an intellectually demanding program of academic study, or should most be given an easier and more practical curriculum? This question was full of implications for schools and for political democracy, but it was quickly settled – in Hall’s favor” (for the practical curriculum) (p.243), and by the 1930s this was in place.
  • “American educators quickly built a system around the assumption that students didn’t have what it took to be serious about the great issues of human life, and that even if they had the wit, they had neither the will nor the futures that would support heavy duty study” (p.244).
  • “Many educators argued that schools had to tie their work to new developments in American society: rapid industrialization, a knowledge explosion, and the efficient style of great corporations” (p.247)
  • “A new organization for high schools would help to turn educators into captains of industry and respected liters of society” (p.248).

Choice is something I’ve been interested in along with the research I’ve done on personalized learning. Many seem to think this is the first time we’ve given students choices, but not so:

  • “Student choice was an essential development in the new system. Reformers argue that students ought to be able to select their courses, and, within limits set by test scores and counselors’ opinions, to select the curriculum in which they would work” (p.258).
  • Choice was not a new idea, Harvard president Elliott had introduced an elective system, and Dewey had also urged educators to have a curriculum that got students interested. Dewey also worried about choices and curriculum, and argued against the “vocationalized and stratified offerings” (p.258-259) Dewey wanted to “marry quality and equality” and choice is not available to all students. Interestingly, it was actually students in the academic track who had less choice in terms of the number of academic courses relative to the vocational tracks.

Of key difference here, however, is that choice is used to keep students in school and to shift responsibility onto the student and the teacher.

I learned that it was not that schools or society wanted to educate everyone: it was a massive increase in enrollment as a result of the financial crises of the 1890s and lack of economic options for adolescents. They were in school because there was no work. So the schools compromised – gave them an easy path to graduation and tried to entice them to learn something along the way. From the beginning, it wasn’t about academics.

“So far, our picture of the high schools’ response to mass enrollment suggests a curious mixture of hope and despair. From one angle the reforms describe just above added up to a massive revision of educational substance and standards, all of it designed to cope with the deluge of students who were believed to be incapable of serious academic work. But the reforms were not an exercise and cynicism. There was 1 billion enthusiasm for the good work that schools would do with the new students. High schools would serve democracy by offering usable study so everyone, rather than dwelling on ab academic abstractions that would interest only a few. It was easy to ignore the great inequalities in what students would learn – for a booming economy needed clerks as much as it needed corporate executives. The reformers’ vision combined deep pessimism about most students is academic capacities with high optimism about schools is capacity to do good” (p.259-260).

“If most students were as incapable as reformers believed, how can we explain the reformers’ astonishing faith in the schools power to redeem them?” (p.260). This quote has interesting resonance with Can Education Change Society?, by Michael Apple, which we read at the end of our class this spring. Clearly we still grapple with whether schools are agentic institutions.

Cohen’s perspective on this: “The answer lies, first, and the simple fact that the reformers were pedagogues…. Second, these educators had been raised in the faith of Horace Mann. Most were small town men, drawn from the protestant heart of the country, where a belief in education’s saving power had deep religious as well as political roots. If education is America’s civic religion these men were among its leading evangelists, struggling to build institutions that would bring the untutored masses into the one true church. Faith of their sort is rarely diminished by evidence about the heathens incapacity; if anything such evidence only heightens evangelical zeal” (p.260).

One of the consequences of these treaties was that if students were not engaged, it was the school’s fault or the curriculum’s fault because it wasn’t engaging the students.

Also very interesting, was the “invention” of adolescence (p.262) by Joseph Kett. Russell and Hall describe adolescence as “the best things are springing up from the human soul” – endless enthusiasm. “If the race is over to advance, it will not be by increasing longevity… But by prolonging [adolescence]” – Hall (p.262). As a former middle school teacher, I agree!

All this talk about “practical curricula” is that it sounds basically like project-based curriculum, which either means it’s incredibly hard to implement or it’s not actually the best way for schools to do this, if they were talking about it in the 20s and 30s and we still can’t seem to do it today hundred years later.

  • “It seems, then, that the reforms discussed here produced the worst of both worlds: new courses, content, and academic standards that were less intellectual and more practical, and a style of teaching that was as dull as reformers had once complained of in Latin and medieval history courses. There was one difference, though: it was much easier for students to get through. Schools could best be more successful, at least in the sense of increasing both enrollment and graduation rates” (p.267).
  • “The practice of passing students through the grades on the basis of age and attendance, rather than academic achievement, soon came to be known as social promotion. That was the final, crucial stone in the foundation of math secondary education, for it meant that progress in school was detached from progress in learning” (p.267-268)
  • “The practical curriculum for every day living that he wanted ‘would give both better mental and better social training to perspective college students and they are getting now.’ [statement by Prosser, Harvard president] There really was a perverse populist slant to this educational Babbittry, a democracy of anti-intellectualism” (p.275).

I found this quote fascinating for it’s commentary about “American” life.

  • “After all education is one of our oldest enthusiasms and vast enterprises another. the combination was bound to please. another reason that so many Americans found high schools to their liking was that the institution tied up many contrary threads in the country’s character: great faith in the good work that schools could do but little confidence in most students’ academic interest or ability; Great faith in the transforming power of curriculum but modest budgets, and thus teacher workloads that would defeat most efforts to make classrooms exciting or challenging; great faith in the Democratic extension of schooling to all but an anti- intellectualism that severely limited educational content for most; great faith in the schools potential for equality, but a school organization that created terrific inequalities. These stunning polarities were the fundamental terms of reference for high schools – the treaties, if one likes, that Americans made in order to extend secondary school to all comers. Educators had managed to build a system of secondary schools in which the popular passion for education and popular contempt for intellectual work were woven tightly together.”

Moving on to the 50s-80s…

  • The reforms of the 1950s – denunciation of academic weaknesses, focus on science and math, attack on the Life Adjustment Education that had begun in the 1930s. (p.281)
  • Also in the 1950s huge increase in the number of students attending college. Ironic though that the more that attended they were being admitted to less selective institutions, so there was less pressure on high schools to have rigorous college prep courses. (p.292)
  • Brown versus board in 1954 the movement for excellence soon became an even more intense movement for equality, and this had a counter effect of eroding the sense of schools as fair progressive and open.
  • There was a continued relaxation of course standards and requirements.

The fate of the 1950s reform is that it was vulnerable to forces beyond the control of schools or reformers – the “selective excellent strategy”(p.296-297) saw that it failed but it didn’t really succeed either:

  1. Rapidly changing national political agenda simply diverted attention from high school
  2. Educators responding to all reform efforts in the same fashion: diversify our offerings to accommodate the pressures for new constituencies, and continue to ease standards and invent interesting courses for the still expanding mass of students judged in capable of serious thought
  3. The 50s reformers did not challenge this tendency

“Here is one of the biggest bargains in the brief history of mass secondary education: intellectual quality would be acceptable to educationists and appealing to reformers as long as it was just another small item in that large cluster of accommodations called the comprehensive high school” (p.297)

This can be seen as terrible or admirable – on the one hand students may be have been short changed, but on the other schools are demanded of by so many different factions, without the resources to do it, that they are remarkably adaptive (p.297) 

In the 70s there was a sense that schools created a bad youth culture, so there was pressure to engage with the community and have students experience work – so there were lots of internship programs. “Even a reform that was aimed at reducing high schools dominion over youth was turned to institutional advantage. The notion that experience should replace cooling became the rationale for adding yet another division to the schools curriculum.” (p.298)

“The reforms aim to improve education by ratcheting up school requirements, yet a large fraction of the students now in high school seem quite immune to such requirements. The students are educationally purposeless. They attend for reasons quite unrelated to learning … opinion surveys show repeatedly that most students, like most adults, do not regard academic work as the primary purpose of schools: they give greater importance to social and vocational matters into personal development. And whatever the reasons for being in school, students are frequently hostage to circumstances that tend to defeat learning … Perhaps high schools teach students what they need most to know: how to endure boredom without protest” (p.303).

“Secondary educators have tried to solve the problem of competing purposes by excepting all of them, and by building an institution that would accommodate the result” (p.306).

As I was reading I kept wondering what my dad’s high school in the 50s was like or my mom’s high school in the 60s. Or my grandma’s in rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 1930s. Who were their teachers? What did they learn? What did they think of all the curricula or was it just about going to school and socializing?


One thought on “Book Notes & Thoughts: The Shopping Mall High School, by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen

  1. Pingback: Book Notes & Thoughts: America’s Public Schools, by William Reese | Julie Kallio

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