We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
I recently came across a speech by Joseph Priestley given on the dedication of New College, in London, in 1794:
Whatever be the qualifications of your tutors, your improvement must chiefly depend on yourselves. They cannot think or labour for you, they can only put you in the best way of thinking and labouring for yourselves. If therefore you get knowledge you must acquire it by your own industry. You must form all conclusions and all maxims for yourselves, from premises and data collected and considered by yourself. And it is the great object of this institution to remove every bias the mind may be under, and to give the greatest scope for true freedom of thinking and equity.
If becoming an educated person depends, as Priestley says, upon one’s own industry, how best can we engage the industry of youngsters and their communities, in their own behalf? This question lies at the heart of democratic society–even more than in Priestley’s time. Priestley could dismiss the laggards as unfit for a good education. We cannot.
But what should we do? Should we rely on efficiency, prescription, and compliance as a means for meeting Priestley’s challenge? That is the central issue in this debate, and thread that runs through the principal challenges advanced in the responses to my essay.
1. Don’t I know that standards are meant to ensure equity for the least advantaged? I never doubted that this was one important motive. (It was assumption number five in my essay.) Yes, standardization and centralized control have often been hallmarks of efforts on behalf of the oppressed.
But when it comes to schooling, this approach is not sound. I believe that we have hard evidence that the best reform strategy involves reinventing schools on the model of the small, locally grounded schools I know best. The last thing we need is more of the centralization and standardization that has always dominated schools (and classrooms) serving the poor. That has been part of the problem.
Abigail Thernstrom is right that in this respect I sound like a defender of private school privilege. Except that I want to extend some of that privilege (including more autonomy) to the urban schools that so many low income minority students attend, and that traditionally possess the least autonomy from centralized authority.
The shift away from local control even in our more prosperous communities, and the demise of experiments with meaningful on-site power in poor communities is dramatic. With what results? Unlike Frank Murnane I see no convincing evidence that centralization in North Carolina and Texas has produced significant gains. While Texas scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills have gone up on account of the state’s relentless pursuit of test-driven curriculum and teaching, Texas students are scoring the same, or lower, on nationally normed tests. And the impact of these reforms on graduation rates for precisely the students Murnane is most concerned with remain unknown–but potentially scary.
Contrary to what Gary Nash says, lots of people are looking to make standards de facto national and mandatory–from textbook publishers (who are also our test-publishers), who have long homogenized our educational fare, to a new host of reformers who see in even the occasional oddball exceptions a danger to standards. They, unlike Murnane and Nash, are determined to cut off the escape valves.
2. What about the dangers of local control? Nash and Thernstrom warn that local control often means right-wing and bigoted (for example, the recent decision in Kansas to stop teaching evolution). True enough, local empowerment can often be vicious and retrograde. But so too can nationally imposed power. We apparently disagree in our assessment of the danger to democratic life or schooling of tipping the scales further in the direction of centralization.
Again, this is a disagreement over a fundamental assumption. I think the benefits of greater autonomy and more local control outweigh its dangers when it comes to schools. My long term fundamental faith in local democracy, and a recognition that there are sufficient incentives in place–such as the requirements of employers and universities, as Murnane points out–that keep local school standards from straying too far afield makes me rest easier than my critics. I’m more nervous that few will stray far enough!
I apologize to Nash if my remarks in favor of local control sound like "disdain for the efforts of university-based scholars to involve themselves in K-12 education." We do need them. And we need them also in the reform of college education, which too often fails our neediest students in the same way that many of our big comprehensive high schools do.
3. But don’t we need some standards? Central Park East was perhaps the first public school in the nation to graduate students only on the basis of standards–not classroom hours logged, but publicly evaluated performances. We are not debating the value of standards, but how to raise them and who should decide them.
I agree with all four of Bob Chase’s highly reasonable conditions for standards-based reform. I believe all four will require a less grandiose state role. The state–and the academy–should nudge, persuade, expose, even embarrass, but based on a far deeper analysis than we get from test scores. The state, like the academy, can lead the way in promoting higher standards–offering richer and deeper resources, especially for staff development. Teachers need far more well- crafted time to examine their work–as Nash, Chase and Murnane all point out.
I welcome standards that "provide guidelines, and perhaps some inspiration, for those interested" (Nash). I read the California early standards efforts with much interest and borrowed, when I was at the Central Park East, many features of them. We do need experts out there, talking about what is worth knowing. But Chester Finn is partly right: if the teachers in our schools, and ultimately their communities don’t see our standards as theirs, then we "aren’t going anywhere." And shouldn’t. If parents think "character" and "extracurricular life" are as important as "academics" maybe schools should listen. I hope Nash will join me in fighting off efforts to turn some cobbled-together compromise between interesting, useful, competing viewpoints into the one "correct" view of what it means to be well-educated.
4. But if you agree that we need higher standards, why not use standardized tests? Thernstrom’s rhetoric and tone reflect the harshness which many of the central authorities feel they must take on behalf of their draconian testing policies. I don’t think she actually believes that my opposition to tests means that I am as unconcerned about the have-nots as her words suggest, nor that I favor low standards for low-income kids.
But she does believe that the tests–even some of the sillier ones Massachusetts has adopted–measure the only important qualities of a well-educated person, and that they must be imposed at all costs. That my New York students’ subsequent life histories are not indicated by their SAT scores, which were never much affected by the school’s work–despite Kaplan-sponsored test coaching–doesn’t puzzle her. She’s stuck on measuring merit by one, and only one, criteria even when the evidence tells her otherwise. As though the purpose of schools were test scores based on schooling, not life scores based on living.
She further suggests that I’m not a trustworthy spokesperson for low-income students since students at Mission Hill had reading scores on the Iowa Basic Skills third grade reading test that placed them below the state median. In fact our students scored at the 62nd percentile on this nationally normed measure–not bad for an "inner city" school. But we pay more attention to our own harder data–taped-recorded, one-on-one reading exams we give in the fall and spring to all our students. By this measure virtually all our students are fluent readers by the end of fourth grade. In crying wolf over Mission Hill’s test scores, this member of the Massachusetts Board of Education endangers a success that ought to be getting some attention. But her error is revealing: defenders of high-stakes testing keep telling us that education is in crisis, and keep neglecting all the evidence that refutes their extreme assertions of doom.
The success of Mission Hill is a happy reminder of a time and place in our educational history when we were promoting professional judgment. It benefits as well from an apparently short-lived interest in beating off charters by offering an in-district form of chartering–called "pilot schools." But how long can Mission Hill and other Boston pilots survive if their initiatives are undermined by ever-more-detailed state mandates–about subjects to be taught, material to be covered, time to be spent per subject (down to the minute)–and a single high-stakes test as a measure of success? And what if indicators that are far more significantly correlated to later college and life success for low-income and African-American youngsters are no longer counted, and reforms guided by them die out? For example, while going to a small school correlates with later success in school, it does not substantially raise test scores. Other indicators turn out to be more attainable and equally powerful: perseverance, high attendance, strong relationships with adults outside the family, and participation in extra-curricular and service-learning experiences. Smallness also correlates with school safety and a greater sense of personal efficacy. How sad if we lose track of these in our relentless pursuit of test scores.
I welcomed Bill Ayers’ comments on behalf of our shared vision and his analysis of the impact of standardization on Chicago’s neediest. Like Ayers, I know that our schools all need a jolt, and I suspect we both welcome such shocks even when they come in the wrong ways. I’ve watched Linda Nathan’s work–and that of her colleague Larry Myatt–for years. Nathan’s Fenway High School started up at the same time as Central Park East, and we gave each other encouragement and inspiration. She’s probably right that what I’m proposing is not an alternative, but what we ought to see as the mainstream.
So too is the charter school that Ted and Nancy Sizer helped found in Fort Devon, Mass. Ted Sizer, above all people, helped me to see the value of not agreeing on a single definition of a good school. In fact, close as our views so often are, we didn’t design the same secondary school when we had the chance. And our graduating standards are not duplicates of each other. We probably didn’t choose to send our kids to the same schools, and we did not ourselves attend schools with the same "standards"–"save at the obvious margins." Figuring out those "obvious margins" is a heady task, and one we ought to be engaged in–instead of developing ever longer laundry lists of what every eight-, ten-, fourteen- and eighteen-year-old should know and be tested on–or off with her head.
I agree with Sizer that "990 minutes of delivered instruction" is just a drop in the bucket. What has always amazed me is how powerful that drop can be–if we use our hearts and minds. But, as Priestley would have noted, you can’t force hearts and minds. They must labor on their own behalves. My concern about standardization and high-stakes testing stems precisely from my conviction that what makes some schools overcome the limitations of time is the power of the relationships that are developed inside them: among members of the faculty, between young people and adults, and finally among young people. Only a very powerful faculty can build those enduring and rigorous relationships with the young; only a faculty that also accepts responsibility for developing its own standards will be tough enough to police its own kids and its own colleagues. Schools that do less cannot offer enough to overcome the odds facing too many youngsters.
The intellectual demands of the 21st century, as well as the demands of democratic life, are best met by preserving plural definitions of a good education.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox