The Eight-Year Study

Bruce L. Smith (bsmith@midway.uchicago.edu)
Fri, 7 Mar 1997 19:44:36 -0600

For my final paper in a course I'm taking on Practical Ethics, I'm
reviewing John Goodlad's (et al's) _The Moral Dimensions of Teaching_. For
the most part, it's been typically erudite, and occasionally even relevant.
As an example of one of the more interesting bits, I encountered the most
amazing thing yesterday. How many of you have ever heard of something
called "the Eight-Year Study," or the group of "the Thirty Schools"
associated with it? Apparently, back in the 30s and early 40s a group of
(initially a couple hundred, eventually thousands of) educators was
involved in the most sustained effort of educational reform ever undertaken
in this country" (well, excepting Sudbury, I suppose :). Three hundred
colleges agreed to waive their standard entrance requirements for the Group
of 30 schools, to free them to engage in bottom-line revision of their
structure and curriculum. The schools represented a range of demographic
and structural variations. And the entire project paid for itself, with
considerable donations of time and money (Carnegie helped support the
evaluation and organization, but none of the schools received any extra
financial assistance). I have to say, some of the statements of and about
this group sound eerily Sudbury-esque. Try these on for size...

[In a traditional setting,] "the fit between school and the needs of those
it putatively serves becomes increasingly awkward"

"School life and teaching should conform to what is now known about the
ways in which human beings learn and grow"

"The American high school should re-discover its chief reason for existence"

"Students from the experimental schools did as well as their counterparts
from the control schools on traditional tests but exceeded them in areas
requiring problem-solving skills, creativity, and other abilities...the
more experimental the school, the more radical the reconstruction, the more
pronounced the differences in favor of the experimental group."

"Each pupil, of course, makes the decision as to what will be learned"

"Students had to have a role in deciding what would be learned, how, and in
what sequence. They make such decisions anyway. What is the alternative
to ignoring their moral agency?"

"Purpose for the Thirty Schools was twofold: first, teaching democracy as
a way of life and, second, meeting the needs of adolescents"

"If little sovereignties such as schools and school systems are to nurture
and reward democratic individuality, they must themselves be disciplined by
democratic ideals and the methods that flow from them...This is what
happened in the Eight-Year Study. Moral individuality was secured through
collective provision and action"

"Voluntarism suffused the enterprise. The Thirty Schools chose to
participate...Government, at any level, was conspicuous by its absence"

"With every advance will come a corresponding increase in the sense of
freedom and release -- freedom to think and do; release of all one's
energies and capacities"

"The purposes of the school cannot be determined apart from the purposes of
the society which maintains the school...the life values which the people
prize. As a nation we have been striving always for those values which
constitute the American way of life"

"What changes in young people are desired? Those which lead us in the
direction of democratic living"

Sadly, this effort seems to have faded well into the background of
educational debate (I certainly never heard of this venture before
yesterday). On the other hand, the Sudbury literature I've read leads me to
see it as full of echoes and extensions of some of these same sentiments.
I suppose that in the arena of education reform, the former history teacher
in me just wishes we could do a better job of learning from our past.

Bruce