Our Education Problem

Our education problem, and we have a problem, probably follows directly from the two main characteristics of our educational system. One is that our best and brightest young men and women do not go into teaching but instead enter what were always more remunerative and are now more prestigious professions and occupations, including law, medicine, scientific research, and business, to name just a few that come immediately to mind. The achievement of our students in the schools has certainly suffered from their absence, although no less certainly has the active, entrepreneurial life of our country, benefited from their presence. (See Linda Darling-Hammond’s, A Marshall Plan for Teaching)

The other characteristic, no less destructive of learning and school success, is that we have continued to group children together by age and inexperience, with the result that they have little to learn from one another. And this situation is exacerbated 1000 times by the fact that the neighborhoods that feed the schools are themselves segregated by race, ethnic background, and socioeconomic class, meaning that the students from these neighborhoods who attend school together have even less to learn from one another when all together in the same classroom.

The new meaning of the common school, which originally meant that widely different children, including the children of immigrants, would come together and learn much in classrooms in common, now means that the kids with the most in common now attend school together and learn little from one another.

Helas! that our best and brightest are not the teachers of our young, and helas! that our young are placed together in groups, the make-up of which is probably detrimental to any real learning that ought to be going on.

I have written in earlier posts that grouping of students mostly by age for learning purposes is a terribly destructive compromise with learning itself. In my own life, and I suspect this to be true for most, real learning is pretty much a solitary experience. Even when we seem to be sharing work with others, such as finding by an apparent group effort the solution to a problem, each member’s understanding is probably his or her own individual understanding, not the same as that of anyone else.

This is why there should always be as many lessons as there are students in the class. The good teacher has to have each of her students in mind, both when crafting and presenting the lesson. Yes, it does seem like an impossible task, teaching the whole group when each one in the group has unique needs and unique responses to what one says and does. This is why teaching is such a demanding profession, probably much more demanding that that of the doctor who only exceptionally faces a difficult medical problem.

Every student is a daunting challenge for the teacher if she would have the student acquire some new understanding, and not just coast by, as in our large classrooms so many do, on previously acquired knowledge. Transmitting knowledge should never be the first order of business for the teacher, although this is probably what mostly goes on in class or in other large group situations in school.

Most of what the medical doctor does is routine, such as transmitting knowledge of his illness to the patient, and this is good given the nature of medical practice, which is just that, the knowledgeable expert enlightening the relatively ignorant patient. What a good teacher does should rarely be this, rarely be the routine transmission of knowledge, if she would truly bring about her student’s learning, which is best described as acquiring mostly by his or her own efforts new skills and new understandings.

The educator, Ted Sizer, knew these sorts of things about teaching and learning. He was not, however, able to bring it about that the best and brightest of our young people enter the teaching profession nationwide. Who might have done so?

Our president might have chosen to single out the volunteer teaching profession for planned action on his part but within our own country, rather than settling as he has on the volunteer army and marine corps for planned action in Iraq. But he didn’t, and although he now wants to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act he probably won’t by doing this lead the best and brightest into teaching, let alone leave by the law’s reauthorization no child behind.

Ted Sizer did lead a good number of our best and brightest into the many Essential Schools that he founded or helped create throughout the country. And, although he wasn’t able to change the way we group children by age, nor change the way our neighborhoods are segregated by race, ethnic background and socioeconomic class, he was able to bring it about that individual highschool teachers saw fewer students on a daily basis, that which enabled them to provide their now 80 rather than 125 students with a bit more individual attention. Not enough, but some movement if only a tiny step in the right direction. 

Dunking and Second Order Polynomials

Now we require that all kids learn algebra. But no one has ever convincingly justified the rightness of this requirement being placed on our children in school. Why not instead require that everyone be able to dunk a basketball? Would this be any more unreasonable? In fact, the probability that children can learn to dunk a basketball may even be greater than the probability that children can learn to correctly work and solve quadratic equations.

Now we don’t require that our school children be able to dunk the basketball. Why not? For it has certainly brought great riches to those who can do it well?  We don’t require it because we readily accept that the ability to do so depends on factors over which the child has no control, such as the physical size of his parents that have mostly determined his or her own height and springiness.

Yet there are those who say they can teach you to dunk the basketball, that by following strict exercise and strength regimes you can train your body to rise to the necessary height. See, for example, How to Dunk a Basketball. Do you believe that? I don’t.

So we have no problem in allowing children to be different in regard to dunking ability. Nor do we have a problem in saying that the learning environment is powerless to change this situation. There will be those with and those without this ability, and no one will bemoan the fact.

But when it comes to algebra, heaven forbid that there be those who are born with advantages in this regard, and heaven forbid us from saying that the algebra ability is beyond the grasp of some. For to say this would be to put them down, somehow make then inferior to those with the ability.

Nationwide school dropouts were asked why they dropped out of school. The most frequent response given was mathematics, implying their failure to learn that discipline. At least no one dropped out because of failure to dunk the basketball. In some respects, in this respect, we do allow our children to be different and be normal, and healthy, and happy at the same time.

Shto delat?, or What Is To Be Done?

In May of last year the US House of Representatives began hearings on the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by George Bush on January 8, 2002, and now up for reauthorization. The law has many opponents, both on the right and the left. The central question that the Representatives must confront is still before us, no less today than 5 years ago. The question, how can the Federal government best support the efforts by the States to make all children, poor and wealthy, black and white, immigrant and native, proficient in both reading and math in a reasonable length of time.

No Child Left Behind is the Federal government’s attenpt to do so. I believe it was an honest attempt to resolve the problem of the achievement gap. The gap is there and doesn’t sit well with those of us who still believe in equality of opportunity if not of results. At the present time poor children living in poor neighborhoods attend schools where the majority of the students are like themselves, poor, and as a result their learning opportunities are severely curtailed. And so far, anyway, the achievement of these children lags well behind that of their middle class peers living and attending school in the more affluent suburbs.

We have tried forever to fix the problem of achievement gaps by improving the teaching as well as the conditions of learning within our schools, and so far all our attempts have been without measurable success. Nor so far has the No Child Left Behind Act been anymore successful in raising the achievement of underachieving poor children.

Many have written about the problem. It’s real. It’s real in spite of those who see both diagnosis and remedy, in this case NCLB, a conspiracy to undermine if not destroy the public schools.

Joseph P. Viteritti in chapter 14 of his book, Making Good Citizens, has this to say about the problem:

“Even though the black-white test-score gap that had reached its peak in 1971 seemed to be narrowing in the 1980s, the gulf remained dangerously wide at the end of the twentieth century. When Steven and Abigail Thernstrom completed their cyclopedic study in 1997 reconsidering the racial dilemma that Gunnar Myrdal* had brought to the attention of the nation fifty-odd years earlier their report on education was especially discouraging. They found that the average black twelfth-grader in the United States reads with the same proficiency as the average white eighth-grader. A study released a year later by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that the educational status of Hispanic Americans was even worse: the high school dropout rate among Hispanics was twice that of blacks and more than three times that of whites.”

For many years both David Berliner at Arizona State University and Richard Kahlenberg, a senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, have been addressing the problem. During the past year they have both weighed in with their own diagnoses and remedies about how we might best solve the problem of large numbers of poor children not progressing satisfactorily in our public schools, schools that still serve over 90% of all our children.

Here’s what David Berliner says, his solution being to renew the unfinished war on poverty:

“Our analysis is about the role of poverty in school reform. Data from a number of sources are used to make five points. First, that poverty in the United States is greater and of longer duration than in other rich nations. Second, that poverty, particularly among urban minorities, is associated with academic performance that is well below international means on a number of different international assessments. Scores of poor students are also considerably below the scores achieved by white middle-class American students. Third, that poverty restricts the expression of genetic talent at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Among the lowest social classes environmental factors, particularly family and neighborhood influences, not genetics, is strongly associated with academic performance. Among middle-class students it is genetic factors, not family and neighborhood factors, that most influences academic performance. Fourth, compared to middle-class children, severe medical problems affect impoverished youth. This limits their school achievement as well as their life chances. Data on the negative effect of impoverished neighborhoods on the youth who reside there is also presented. Fifth, and of greatest interest, is that small reductions in family poverty lead to increases in positive school behavior and better academic performance. It is argued that poverty places severe limits on what can be accomplished through school reform efforts, particularly those associated with the federal No Child Left Behind law. The data presented in this study suggest that the most powerful policy for improving our nations’ school achievement is a reduction in family and youth poverty.”

and, then Richard Kahlenberg, whose solution is to allow poor kids to attend schools outside of their own district:

“At the end of the day, separate but equal schools for rich and poor have never worked well. If the twin goals of the No Child Left Behind Act are to be taken seriously—to raise overall achievement and narrow the achievement gaps between groups—the law should be amended to encourage what research has long found to be the single most promising step for raising the achievement of low-income students: allowing them to attend high-quality, middle-class public schools. The theoretical and philosophical underpinnings for this policy are already in place under the federal law. Now it is time to move from theory to practice."

So as of this time we have three tentative solutions to the problem of the achievement gap:

The No Child Left Behind Law, that would make the schools accountable for failure, requiring those schools designated as failing to initiate certain prescribed procedures intended to raise their students’ achievement up to the proficient level.

David Berliner’s war on poverty, which would provide considerable additional funding to address the full gamut of the needs of poor children, without as well as within school, for only when the conditions of their lives improve will they begin to work well and succeed in school.

And finally, Richard Kahlenberg’s plan that would permit poor inner city school children to enroll in more affluent middle class mostly suburban schools. And also, as the inner city schools improved, would his plan allow middle class suburban kids to enroll in what would become sought after inner city magnet schools.

As of this time we have invested, probably insufficiently, in just the first of the three solutions, simply because solutions two and three would demand more of us than we are ready and willing to give. David Berliner would have us give more of our tax dollars to the poorest school communities as well as the schools themselves. Richard Kahlenberg’s proposal would require that middle class families open their own schools and more important their own children’s lives to the lives of disadvantaged kids, most often minorities and immigrants, coming from impoverished inner city neighborhoods. Not much chance of either one happening on a wide scale, although there are a few school districts—Wake County, N.C., San
Francisco, and La Crosse, Wis., among them—that are consciously seeking to
integrate students by socioeconomic status. 

I would say that we’re now at an impasse. We’re apparently not willing to do what we would have to do in order to solve our problem. Not an unusual situation for our country to be in. So we ask Shto delat, or What is to be done?

*("Gunnar Myrdal called it the “Great American Dilemma.” He described the dilemma as a moral one, manifested by the nation’s failure to reconcile the democratic “American creed” of liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity with what was referred to in 1944 as “the Negro problem.” Although the term is no longer in fashion, the problem is still very much with us. Racial inequality remains the most glaring blemish on the face of American democracy. At its core is an inequality in education defined by race, an inequality that persists in both opportunity and achievement. Not only is education the most crucial social variable for promoting meaningful citizenship in a modern age; all the others that matter—wealth, occupation, social standing, and skill—are to some degree a function of education." Cited by Joseph Viteritti in Making Good Citizens, Chapter 14)

Isn’t it obvious?

Isn’t it obvious that the production techniques that give us millions of i-Pods all exactly the same should not be used in our schools? Yet haven’t we adopted such techniques in the education of our children? Children are different, every one of them from every other one. Yet we go on grouping them together most often by age in our schools. This does keep the cost of education low, but also keeps even lower the learning of our children. (If you don’t believe this try using your Spanish on the typical fourth year Spanish language student in our highschools.)

The wolf pack is all about rearing its young. The wolf wouldn’t have it any other way. Going off to work for the wolf means keeping its young well fed. Staying home means being sure the cubs play and thereby learn. The salmon is different depositing its thousands of eggs in the river bottom to be then fertilized by the male and subsequently abandoned to fend for themselves when only the fittest few will survive to lay thousands of eggs in their turn.

Both methods are best in their particular circumstances. No one would have the wolf or the salmon reform its practices. Our method? Who would ever say it’s the best we can do? Who is satisfied?  Who hasn’t tried, so far without great success, to improve our educational system? Perhaps in the past, when we were hunter gatherers, we knew how to educate our young. Who would ever say that we know how now?

We blindly and stubbornly keep our young of the same chronological age together, trying to work with whatever abilities and interests they may share, rather than with what makes them special and unique. In fact, we pretty much neglect the individual traits that will one day, in one way or another, come into their own, making most of what we have done in our schools come to nothing.

Again, only because our children have extraordinary survival capabilities does our race continue. Think how much more significant humanity’s story on this earth would be if we allowed each child to realize his or her own unique potential. Isn’t it obvious that what we have been doing is all wrong?

Now educators have for a long time had glimpses of this truth. But they haven’t yet by and large drawn the obvious conclusions. (The educator John Holt is an exception, and there are others.)

Take for example, these remarks of Ted Sizer. Isn’t he on to something?

“School curricula are a mile wide and an inch deep. For example, what
could be absolutely more insane than the world history course,
Cleopatra to Clinton in 180 days? What could be abolutely more insane
than an English teacher with 130 kids, five classes a day, expected to
edit childish writing into prose of quality and grace and clarity?”

and, “Push [only] on a mass basis three standards: resourceful reading, clear
writing and speaking, and computational mathematics. These are subjects
upon which most can agree and without which no school can begin to be
effective…. keep central authority out of the other elements of
school, matters over which there can and should be ‘no one best

Or Joe Gauld who in an email to James Traub writes: “The emphasis
on academic achievement is basically elitist, since roughly 10
percent naturally respond to classroom instruction, while the other 90
percent either give up or seek recognition elsewhere.”
(Here is the link to James Traub’s article about Joe Gauld and the Hyde Schools in Education Next in which this comment appears.)

I would agree with Joe. So why indeed do we keep the other 90 percent in the same classroom? Haven’t we learned that it doesn’t work? And unbelievably we’ve been doing this since the founding of the common school some 150 years ago. Once again this is great testimony to the extraordinary survival qualities of our race, and in particular of our children.

Schools are the same, and kids are different.

I’m still thinking about Harold Howe’s statement that "most educators are aware that any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons."* Is there any truer statement that one can make about education than this? That kids of the same age are different and that they learn differently? And yet don’t we go on in the way we structure our schools and classrooms pretending that this isn’t so?

That kids differ widely among themselves is what makes teaching an art, and not a science. If kids were all the same we could have them adding fractions, writing paragraphs, answering questions about the same texts in the same room at the same time, and have robots replacing teachers. But they’re not, and we can’t, unless as is too often the case, we have the entire class go on at the pace of the slowest learners among them.

The art of the teacher is to somehow enable all of her students to learn in spite of the fact that what they learn and the rate at which they learn are hardly the same for any two of them, let alone the entire class of 20 – 25 individuals. Only the extraordinary teacher will bring it about that most of her students in the class are learning. But not even the extraordinary teacher will bring it about that all are. The more ordinary situation, when only a few are learning, is the rule.

This situation has been with us for as long as we’ve had schools and is the reason for our repeated attempts at school reform. At times we have faced up to it directly and tracked the students, into slow and fast learners, into college bound and vocation bound, creating other, perhaps even worse problems by so doing. At times, such as now, we have religiously avoided tracking the students, and have invented one stratagem after another in order to keep all those of the same age together in the same classroom. The children of course have resisted our liberal and egalitarian solution with the result that many have fallen way behind their peers, and many of them have dropped out of school entirely.

But in fact tracking has always been with us in one form or another. Because in some terrible sense it does correspond to the ways things are. We’re perhaps not as guilty of this device as was the former Soviet Union where the schools were either magnet schools serving only the best and the brightest, or holding stations for the worst and the dullest youth who only upon reaching the proper age were released to join the working classes, usually for life.

Not as guilty, but guilty we are. For don’t we also have, not perhaps in the same building, but in different buildings, and very often far apart, in different corners of the city, or state, programs for our intellectually and artistically gifted and talented? Art and music academies, math and science regional schools, exam schools, and technical high schools? Not to mention the private, independent schools, serving more and more our political and economic elite. Not to mention the growing number of so called “no excuses” schools although not selected by the kids, selected by the parents? Not to mention the growing number of religious schools, not to mention the growing army of home schoolers. Haven’t we in these other learning situations placed those with similar interests and abilities together in the same learning environment? And haven’t we become in spite of our profession of egalitarianism a meritocracy?

So we have partially solved the problem of students of varying abilities in the same classroom by permitting selected students to attend more specialized schools. Now there are those, proponents of school choice, who would increase this movement away from the traditional public school and have all schools become schools of choice. And there are those, representing the entrenched interests of our public schools, who would resist this movement, seeing in school choice a slightly veiled attempt to dismember and eventually destroy our 150 year old system of public schools open to all.

There have always been efforts to reform our public schools. And time and time again we see reformers repeating the efforts of past reformers. I believe that this is so because schools have as a rule, from the beginning 150 years ago, put children all together in one building separating them only by age. This was certainly the least costly solution to educating all of our children. It was never, however, the most effective solution. Once again, this system has never really worked for the reason that, as Harold Howe reminds us, “any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons.”*

*"Those of us who recently supported the new legislation (the NAEP) and its funding had no intention of creating a new authority to tell all American schools what to teach in each grade or even that schools should be organized by grades. More importantly, most educators are aware that any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary wide­ly in their learning for a whole host of reasons. To suggest that there are particular learnings or skill lev­els that should be developed to certain defined points by a particular age or grade is like saying all 9th graders should score at or above the 9th grade level on a standardized test. It defies reality."
(Vinovskis, Maris. 1998. Overseeing the Nation’s Report Card. The
Creation and Evolution of the National Assessment Governing Board
(NAGB). National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of
Education. p. 43)

Letter to Jerry Bracey

Gerald Bracey may be the best friend that the public schools have ever had. Anyone who would be critical of the schools, and in particular, anyone who would make the schools any less "public," by returning to the people, say, the power to choose their children’s schools, public or private, well this person or group will find itself the object of Jerry’s verbal onslaught. The most recent target of Jerry’s wrath are the recommendations of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce calling for the biggest changes in American public education in a century.

Click here to read Bracey’s onslaught.

Here is my reply to Bracey:

You know, Jerry, I find that I agree with your put-down of Tough Choices or Tough Times. And in particular your put-down of those who would lay the principal responsibility for the future success of our country on the schools. At the same time I’m sure you would agree with me that neither the schools, nor anyone of us, lives up to being all that we could be. Imperfection is very much with the schools and with us. And therefore, you’re right, not to single out the schools for special blame, the schools being just one of a host of imperfect institutions that make up our country.

Where I think you’re wrong is that you seem to believe in the existence of a conspiracy out there to destroy the public schools, supported in particular by ‘research’ emanating from the bad guys, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan and Heartland Institutes, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, et. al.

I think you give these think tanks and their thinkers too much credit. There is no conspiracy. They’re not hiding anything. I believe that they believe in the rightness of what they are doing. Education in this country has always been saddled by those who would reform it, and reform is what they are all about. Reforms are what drive them. They’re not out to destroy our present system of education, just make it more effective. I’m sure you would admit that the present system could be improved.

I too might criticize the reformists, these and others. They believe a bit too much in the rightness of what they are doing. They are yet one more group of true believers in this world, of which there are already too many. What we really need are a few more skeptics, reformers yes, but reformers who would proceed more cautiously, more humbly, more tolerant of the views of others while going about proposing their reforms. As it is too many people believe in too many different and opposing things, and would impose their partially correct solutions on everyone, with the result that all of us coming together for the common good, in this case for the benefit of kids, seems to happen less and less.

Education is an enormously complicated process to get right, even for just one child, say my grandson, but when it concerns, how many, 50 million kids in our nation’s schools? well then we approach the degree of complexity that places other familiar phenomena, such as the weather and currency evaluations, beyond our ken. Isn’t the nature of the best education for all in important respects also beyond our ken? So far it seems to have eluded all our attempts to put it in a box.

Finally, I agree with you that our country, compared to other countries, is doing quite well in many if not most important respects, and that our present system of education with all its faults compares well with the systems in place in the other developed countries. And I also agree that our country’s failings probably stem more from the failure of our leaders than that of our schools. It’s interesting that our leaders are often the products of our best schools, sometimes even the same one, Yale for example. I haven’t yet heard anyone blaming Yale.

Comments of the Commision Members:

“Anyone who hopes to hold a job in the next several decades should read—if not memorize—this extraordinary report.” —Norman R. Augustine, Retired Chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation

“This penetrating, scary analysis and these astute,
far-reaching recommendations amount to A Nation at Risk for the next
generation.”—Chester E. Finn Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

 “Bold, inventive, analytic, and piercing.”—Sharon
Lynn Kagan, Virginia & Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood
and Family Policy, Teachers College, Columbia University

proposal is radical? Yes. Hard to achieve? Of course. Essential?
Absolutely. Our nation’s schools are failing to educate our children,
and that has to stop—else we condemn our own kids to ever lower
incomes. We must act—now!”—William E. Brock, Former Secretary of Labor, Reagan Administration

“Fascinating and thought-provoking read that is sure to get the American educational establishment talking.”—Charles B. Reed, Chancellor, California State University System

report lays out the kind of drastic change to the system that is
crucial if we are to remain a viable economic and political leader in
the world.”—David P. Driscoll, Commissioner of Education, Massachusetts

For More responses to Tough Choices or Tough Times, click here, and then here to read Jay Mathews’ piece from the Washington Post.

Harold Howe on Standards

We have not yet figured out how to educate our children, all of our children, and it’s not as if we haven’t been trying. As evidence for this statement, two observations.  One, the nearly 50% dropout rate from our inner city schools (25% nation wide) and two (this an example of anecdotal evidence so overwhelming that it becomes statistically meaningful), that large numbers of those who stay in school through highschool still cannot read, write, or figure well enough to either go on to college and finish college in a reasonable length of time, or obtain anything but menial work following a job search.

At the present time there is only one proposed “fix” for this situation, and that is the standards movement, meaning that all children be required to meet and master standards in math and language arts by the time they graduate from highschool, or, in other words, that all students be judged “proficient” in these two areas. On the face of it the fix, the standards movement, seems not unreasonable. Richard Riley, President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, in 1989, wondered why we shouldn’t first
determine what a child should know and then develop tests to
determine further if that child is learning what they should know.” Highly reasonable.

But our leaders were not always so reasonable. In September of 1989 President Bush and the nation’s governors called an Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a follow-up to the Summit came the National Education Goals Panel of 1991 and a number of the goals were closely allied to the standards movement. For example, "By the year 2000, American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy." A bit extravagant, that, but others even more so, for example, Goal 4:  "By the year 2000, U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement." What does being first in the world in math and science have to do with the education of all of our children?

In her book, National Standards in American
Education: A Citizen’s Guide, 1995, former Secretary of Education Diane Ravitz, had this to say, among much else regarding standards: “Standards can improve achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected.” One needs to be far away from the classroom to make a statement like that. Faced with 25 to 30 children right there in the room with us how many of us have ever been able to "clearly define what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected" from all of them. It can’t be done, I don’t think. That’s perhaps why we have, up until now, failed to improve things for kids in the classroom.

In the new century with the new Bush presidency came the No Child Left Behind Act of Congress, a further and much more substantial step in applying the "standards fix" to our children’s schooling, but stirring up with its passage, and even more with its initial applications, more substantial opposition to the standards movement than ever before.

Perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of national standards is the fact that so many other countries, liberal developed democracies no less than we, have them. In France, for example: “a French math text for 16-year-olds begins by spelling out the national curriculum for the year so that all 16-year-olds know what they are expected to  study…. the text makes frequent references to math  exams the regional school districts have given in the past. Students practice on these exams to help them prepare for the exam they will face; they know where to concentrate to meet the standard.” We certainly ought to look more closely at the French experience.

What is the source of the growing opposition to the standards and testing? Are the opponents being unreasonable? Why is it that the full scale adoption of national performance levels in our country is still today, after all these years, very much a long shot?

I don’t think it’s primarily because we don’t want to lose local control of education to the Federal government. In my experience local educators do not shut themselves off from the outside world, but have always easily adopted and benefitted from best practices from elsewhere. Rather, I believe, it’s because we sense that national standards will inevitably create what some have called an educational apartheid. For under any system that applies the same achievement benchmarks to all there will always be a good number of children who will not reach those achievement goals, and will be even more left behind, separate from their more successful peers, than they are now. It’s ironic that those who created NCLB would have most of all prevented this from happening. It was in their plan to bring up those now at the bottom of the educational ladder, not leave them further behind.

What is it about our children that the standards movement with its performance levels is overlooking? Harold Howe, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education while addressing the reauthorization of the NAEP in 1988, gave what is for me the best reason to oppose the same performance levels for all:

"The NAEP was created to be a service to tell  Americans what young people know and can do in  certain important areas of learning and how it is changing. The main objective of the new legislation  was to extend that purpose to encourage state level use of NAEP. Those of us who recently supported the  new legislation and its funding had no intention of creating a new authority to tell all  American schools what to teach in each grade or even that schools should be organized by grades. More importantly, most educators are aware that any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons. To suggest that there are particular learnings or skill levels that should be developed to certain defined points by a particular age or grade is like saying all 9th  graders should score at or above the 9th grade level on a standardized test. It defies reality."

What I take away with me is this: "…any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons."  Why isn’t this bit of wisdom, or common sense, in the forefront of our thinking about how children learn, and about how best we may evaluate that learning, and for their benefit, not for ours?

The Goals of Education

The history of education has seen a struggle between those who would grow children en masse, the way one raises pigs in Denmark, or tulips in Holland, and those who would begin with each individual child, and the education that best suits that child.

At this moment in history the former seem to have the upper hand, be it those of the NCLB, or narrow standards movement concentrated on the 3 R’s, or be it the reformers, such as Richard Rothstein and many others, who would make the standards movement as broad as possible by including a much larger gamut of school subjects, music, art, sports, citizenship et al., as well as a diminished emphasis on testing and accountability. Unfortunately the best of those who would take us a third way and have us look closely at each individual child, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Holt, Milton Friedman, and a few others, are no longer with us, and no one is loudly defending their position in the current debate over standards, accountability, and the goals of education.

Does it make sense to speak in general of the goals of education, other than what is best for the individual child? I don’t think so, yet what a lot of books have been written thereupn. Shouldn’t there be almost as many goals as there are learners, with these goals becoming more and more distinct from one another as the learner matures? How many college seniors have you ever met with the same goals? So we know that this is what is to come. In the elementary grades shouldn’t we begin the process by helping each individual learner to find his or her own way?

To speak of shared goals for an entire population may very well be appropriate for populations of pigs and tulip bulbs, and other such species of life totally subjugated to our interests. In all such instances we choose not unreasonably to disregard individual characteristics (except when we would improve the strain) and apply the most profitable pig production techniques to all pigs, and similarly the most profitable tulip productive techniques to all tulips. The result is that the pigs from Denmark, all 13 million of them, are all success stories, as are the hundreds of millions of tulip bulbs from Holland. We made them exactly what we wanted them to be.

When it comes to children, however, failure is common and successes are exceptional. At best there are a relatively small number of individuals at the top, who have turned out to be just what we wanted, those who have gone on to higher education and become themselves entrepreneurs holding important roles in the growing knowledge economy. Then there are those, many more of them, in the middle who read, write, and figure well enough to become knowledge workers, and who, if there are remnants remaining of their individualities, may even indulge themselves in being what they are in moments away from the job. Finally, there are the large numbers of those who have dropped out of school and at best get back in on the fringes of society, in the shops and the trades and the service industries, and at worst find themselves without a job, or home, or stable family situation, often turning to destructive behavior, to lives of crime and/or drugs.

I readily recognize that things are much easier in regard to the rearing of pigs and the cultivation of tulip bulbs. For those that don’t correctly respond to our production schedules are simply cut from the stock, eliminated, and we hear no more about them. Of couse there are always maniacs, such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao et al., who would do the same for men as for pigs and tulips, eliminate those that resist taking on the form intended for them. But happily up until now the maniacs have either been defeated or have died without true followers.

Today in the developed world the rulers respect individual lives enough to allow them to go on living. But, of course, just staying alive, in ghettos, bidonvilles, squatter cities, shelters, Parisian suburbs, jails etc. is nowhere near enough, and although we know all that well enough we seem unable to do more. We are constantly waging wars against poverty, illiteracy, sickness, homelessness, joblessness etc. because even we, living in the richest country ever, are beset with these scourges. But who would ever say we are winning these wars, that what we are doing is at all effective? We’re not, and it isn’t.

I believe that in important respects our problems stem from our insistence on raising our children in regard to what’s best for us, or at least what we think is best for us, by placing them, mostly separated by age in classrooms in schools. The latter can never be right for all, and are probably most often wrong for most.  Somehow we have to spring the individual child loose from the school environment, allow it to become what ever lies within its power to become, because all children have within them the potential of becoming real people with their own important contributions to make to their fellows.

How can this be done? I like what Milton Friedman proposes. Give the full per capita cost of public schooling to the parents ("universal vouchers"), and allow the parents, until the child is old enough to do so for himself, to seek out the learning environment that is best for the child. Let a million different flowers bloom (to employ one of the bits of wisdom from one of the maniacs referred to above). This is what we should be writing and talking about. It ought to be evident by now that reforming the schools is not going to do the trick. Haven’t centuries of failed school reforms demonstrated this? And please, no more endless chatter about the goals of education. Talk rather about the goals for each individual child.

Csikszentmihalyi and PlayStation 3

There are some things that can never be said or heard enough, Moses’ Ten Commandments, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and almost everything Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has to say about how kids learn.

For example, these passages from an article of his in Daedalus, Fall, 1995:

"Whether or not children will learn does not depend primarily on what happens in school, but on the experiences, habits, values, and ideas they acquire from the environment in which they live."

"Education is the result of a continuous process of interaction between individuals and the environment. Children are formed by their experiences with parents, teachers, peers, and even strangers on the street, and by the sport teams they play for, the shopping malls they frequent, the songs they hear, and the shows they watch."

"Each of the young person’s experiences contributes to the shaping of his mind and character, sometimes vastly out of proportion to the time spent in the activity. One song heard on the radio or one conversation with a friend can have a more profound effect on a child’s future than a thousand hours spent in school."

"Most of the time adolescents are either alone or with friends and classmates. Very little time is spent in the company of adults. The typical American adolescent spends only about five minutes a day alone with his or her father–not nearly enough to transmit the wisdom and values that are necessary for the continuation of a civil society."

We know what Csikszentmihalyi says is true. We know that his words are an accurate description of kids’ lives. Yet we go on speaking and acting as if school, and not everything else, was the most important shaping influence in the adolescent’s life. And furthermore we even blame the schools for the kids not learning what the schools are teaching. What the kids are in fact learning, because they are learning all the time, by and large escapes us. 

Why don’t we start with what Csikszentmihalyi tells us about the the formative experiences of the adolescent’s life and go from there? For whatever reason we don’t do this and instead always start with the schools and what they are teaching. We continue to “tinker” with the curriculum and everything else, thinking that by our changes we will  improve the outcomes for the kids, higher test scores, for example. The tinkering goes on and on but the outcomes don’t seem to ever change. In our frustration we look back and talk about an imaginary “golden age” when things were better, or we look ahead to the next great hope from the political party out of power, believing that this time we will really have an education president.

If you’re not convinced by what Cskiszentmihalyi has to say about what are the formative influences in kids’ lives read the account in today’s NYTimes of the long lines of young men and women, many still in school, waiting through the night to be first for the store opening and the sale of Sony’s new PlayStation 3. The real passion that young people, not just here, but everywhere throughout the developed world where people are wealthy enough to be able to buy these games, the real passion that young people show for these games must have begun much earlier, certainly while in school. Computer games, the internet, popular music, popular culture, the culture of the mall, all that sort of thing, friends, just being with friends, hanging out, these are the things that were probably most alive for them while they  were in school. School at best was someting they had to do, an obligation, a payment to be made in order to do what they wanted to do, their school experiences probably having little real meaning for them and certainly never, like PlayStation 3, arousing their passion.

More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

Most education writers write as if the students who would profit from what they have to say were a single, monolithic group of learners, and that whatever they were saying about education were appropriate to the entire group, say kids learning to read, or kids being introduced to algebra or geometry. The reason the education writers differ so much among themselves is that only the needs and abilities of certain students, say middle class kids from two parent families living in the suburbs, or impoverished, immigrant, and minority kids from single parent families in the cities, are most on their mind, whether consciously or not, when they promote this or that method of what and how to teach. Instead of writing about, say, the best way to teach reading and math, these people should be writing about the different needs of different groups  of students, all the ways that students differ among themselves, the widely differing ways in which they best learn, and perhaps most important of all, the differing ways in which they are ready or not ready to learn. Most of what the education writers have to say would be perfectly reasonable and appropriate with this or that group of students. Most of what they have to say is not appropriate for all kids.

This is why some educational disputes seem to never reach a resolution. Take, for example, the disputes over how best to teach math. There are those who push for the basics. There are those who push just as hard for the so-called new math. There are those who swear by applied mathematics. And there are those who back “general math,” or an understanding of numbers in every day life. Now it may be true that all kids can learn, and that all kids can learn to handle numbers in some useful and profitable manner, but it is no more true that all kids can function at the highest levels of abstract mathematics (which can begin at a very early age, such as in the Math Olympiad competitions for elementary school students) than they can reach master level play in chess. Suppose for a minute that it was chess, not mathematics, that made up along with language arts the most important subject matter of schooling and testing. Wouldn’t it be clearly absurd to expect all kids to proceed ahead in pretty much the same fashion towards chess master play? We know it wouldn’t/couldn’t happen. Yet don’t we now expect all kids to proceed in pretty much the same fashion, be this integrated or traditional or applied math, towards math proficiency? We also know that wouldn’t/couldn’t happen.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité