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Inequality, Testing, Utilitarianism: The 'Three Killers of Excellence'

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Legislatures have begun to require more of everything, and everywhere, politicians have become alert to the evils of mediocrity and the desirability of excellence. All of this activity may be enough to give excellence a bad name.

Although these measures may turn out to be helpful, we must not assume that legislated excellence will work any better in the 1980's than legislated accountability did in the 1970's.

Do not forget that the history of American education is checkered with examples of short-lived surges of zeal for reform, most of which died after brief bursts of spending accompanied by earnest talk.

Do not be deluded by the latest explosion of earnest talk. The enemies of excellence are legion and well-entrenched, including three major killers of excellence, any one of which could murder educational reform and escape without being seen.

The first killer is a destructive inequality in society's commitment to educating students from different social and economic classes. A Marxist would call it class warfare. I prefer to call it a malignant disparity under the guise of equality.

In the name of promoting equality, we Americans have shown a knack for creating and recreating schemes that disequalize even as they aim to do otherwise.

By court decisions and legislative action we have tried to equalize the financial support given to all school districts within a state. Yet no Serrano case, no "thorough and efficient" law, has erased the differences between schools in East Los Angeles and Beverly Hills or Newark and Short Hills.

And, dramatic as the disparities can be from city to suburb, there can be just as large a gulf between the best and worst schools in a single school district, wherever it may be located, or between instruction in the best and worst programs within a school. Contrast, for example, the rigor of college prep courses offered in a city high school and the flaccidity of the so-called general academic courses offered in the same building to students not bound for college.

Consider the disparity between the best and worst teachers, and you will understand the appeal of merit pay. Moreover, mounting research suggests that teachers often lavish more time and more attention to "critical thinking skills" on high-achieving students than on low-achieving ones. Such inequalities ensure that expectations--high or low--become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is an especially pernicious injustice when the expectations are predicated on a pupil's race, street address, or family status.

Contrary to these persistent disparities is the comforting myth among affluent families that their children are deprived of excellence when too much attention and money are spent on the poor. There is a danger, now that we are celebrating excellence, that the aggrieved rich will see to it that a warrant for excellence becomes a license for redress of this presumed prejudice.

How we define excellence will determine whether the tensions between social classes are intensified or ameliorated. If virtually all students are mandated into courses in mathematics and science designed solely for well-prepared students, we are likely to produce a soaring failure rate and an increase in school dropouts. In short, schools would be the sorting machines of which social Darwinists dream.

On the other hand, if courses are watered down to provide a politically acceptable graduation rate, students from all parts of society will be cheated, and upper-middle-class parents will have justification to believe their children have been slighted in favor of the poor.

Grouping students according to academic achievement can be a legitimate way to pursue excellence for all.

But such grouping--often called tracking--must meet three tests: one, fairness and objectivity in assigning students to groups; two, flexibility in moving students to different groups as their achievement dictates; three, and most important, common objectives for all students, regardless of differences in ability. These common objectives are made necessary by the fact that all young people face three lifelong tasks upon completion of the basic education they receive in school: continued learning, responsible citizenship, and earning a living. When tracking is a means to give students various paths to the same destination, it succeeds. But if tracking leads some students down blind alleys, pretensions of excellence merely perfect the disguise that masks inequality.

The second killer of excellence is the rampant misuse of minimum-competency testing, which is predicated on the laudable notion that such tests can define a floor below which no one would be allowed to fall and above which standards would rise incrementally.

A fine idea, in theory. A high-school diploma, after all, should represent more than mere persistence, more than seat-warming time. However, playing on the public's dissatisfaction with schools as well as on the public's naive faith in the efficacy of standardized tests, an unholy alliance of state lawmakers, governors and other state officials, abetted by the press and credulous citizens, argued that minimum-competency tests would guarantee that all students master basic skills.

After feeble protests at the beginning, educators also began to accept minimum-competency testing as necessary and inevitable. Most of us have been conditioned to believe that so-called objective tests measure what's important in schooling and that test scores are valid measures of a school's effectiveness.

But we ought to recognize by now that minimum-competency testing does not guarantee that students will be competent in basic skills, because many important basic skills are not measured by the tests and many others are unmeasurable, given the state of the art in testing. Instead of testing students on their ability to solve mathematical problems or their capacity for estimation, minimum-competency tests measure the simple computation skills that were sufficient for a previous era, but not sufficient for living in the year 2000.

Instead of testing students in critical thinking or in the writing of expository essays, multiple-choice tests only test the student's capacity to edit very simple text. Students may be drilled on the use of commas, but few are given adequate opportunity to write.

Minimum-competency tests have the potential to smother good teachers under an oppressive blanket of homogenized curriculum and monotonous instruction. The resulting emphasis, aimed at the bottom quarter of academic achievers (who do need help, to be sure), drains away the challenge and intellectual excitement of learning for all students and teachers, but especially for the best and the brightest.

When imposing these tests on local schools, state officials run the risk of institutionalizing mediocrity by permanently substituting minimums for maximums, thereby removing much of the incentive for local schools to seek excellence.

But the most insidious killer of excellence is the American passion for anything that sounds utilitarian. It may be true that utilitarianism was an appropriate philosophy 100 years ago and more, in a society that tamed the wilderness with practical skills and homespun ingenuity. The American romance with what seems practical, however, has led to some modern-day confusion about the purposes of schooling. The idea that a school should prepare students for an entry-level job is dear to many hearts, particularly if the vocational training is for somebody else's children. But in today's world, the rudimentary skills needed for success in a first job soon become inadequate. Both change and technology demand highly-developed intellectual skills and adaptability.

As Cardinal Newman once put it, a liberal education is the only practical form of vocational education. Liberally educated people enjoy that breadth of perspective and suppleness of mind that inherently empower them with a capacity for lifelong learning and thus lifelong employability. Liberal education enables students not only to tolerate complexity, but to relish ambiguity; to find change not an affront, but a delectable challenge.

Our future demands a liberally educated population. But the curriculum in most of our schools, on the pretext of providing for the "different needs" of different students, and under the flag of utilitarianism, denies most students what they need for the world they face.

For nearly 30 years, the Council for Basic Education has advocated a core curriculum in the liberal arts for all elementary and secondary students. There is no direct correspondence between job training and job availability, yet the assumption of such an equation lies at the heart of vocational education as conducted in American secondary schools.

Moreover, the current flurry of rhetoric and proposals about excellence proves that our romance with utilitarianism is far from over. Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina is attempting to justify needed improvements in mathematics, science, and technology on the basis of economic competition with other nations, not because of their inherent importance to the development of minds. And everywhere, high-tech hype threatens educational excellence by convincing us to train students to operate machines that may be obsolete by the time the students graduate from high school.

Until we deal effectively with these killers of excellence, the structural changes proposed by the various commissions are unlikely to happen, or if they do, they will become a new version of mediocrity masquerading as excellence. The very fact that these various proposals--such as better education for teachers, better professional training for teachers, higher salaries for teachers, recognition for superior teaching, more emphasis on writing and applied mathematics, et cetera have remained only proposals despite their near-universal endorsement should alert us to the need for a more fundamental understanding of the forces that hold us back from genuine reform and keep us engaged in hollow talk and cosmetic puttering.

The burden of defining excellence must rest primarily on local school officials, who will get little help from their friends. Instead, they will feel pressures from vocal and powerful special interests in every community to provide excellence for the few and training for the many. And there will be countervailing pressures to guarantee diplomas for all students even at the expense of academic standards. There will be other pressures to establish seemingly--but falsely--utilitarian electives and requirements. Only by concentrating resources on developing better teachers for rigorous instruction in the liberal arts will local school boards and school administrators begin the process of achieving excellence.

State legislatures prefer writing new legislation over abolishing dysfunctional legislation. But if state legislatures have the vision and astuteness to recognize that minimum-competency testing, in its current form, is contrary to excellence, and if they have the political courage to rescind the testing laws, teachers will have no reason to emphasize the low-level skills that are measured on machine-scored tests.

Teachers will still need great courage to teach the complex skills that are not measured by paper-and-pencil tests, because spending time on the sophisticated skills of critical thinking, both verbal and quantitative, risks students' scoring no better on trivial test questions. Without that risk, however, students will be deprived of the chance to struggle with thinking and writing. They may never learn that intellectual growth requires some risk and effort.

Finally, a word about the federal government's role in creating educational excellence. One enemy of excellence is cheapness. At present, the Reagan Administration allies itself with the popular cause of school improvement but is unwilling to assume responsibilities that the federal government alone can shoulder. As a consequence, federal officials sometimes put themselves in grotesque contortions. We are told that education is a national emergency, but that the national government should merely cheerlead for the rescue operation. We are told that excellence doesn't cost money, but that states should pay for it. A blustery national debate about merit pay, which can be created only at the local bar-gaining table and will be paid for only by state and local tax revenues, has been this Administration's substitute for intelligent analysis and purposeful action. What can one say about a President who proposes to stem the tide of mediocrity by enacting a school-prayer amendment?

What American education needs is less opportunistic politicking from the White House and a great deal more dedication to the requirements of reform. No real change can occur unless policymakers, educators, and all Americans are ready to make patient efforts over a decade, courageous political decisions, and financial sacrifices.

Although only five months have elapsed since Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's commission declared excellence to be the proper ideal for America's schools, there are already signs of erosion and backlash. Policymakers speak of abandoning the promotion standards they set only recently. State officials consider cancelling tests of basic skills for new teachers when it becomes clear that many holders of bachelor's degrees from state colleges cannot pass tests on which average 8th graders should do well. Educators resent any hint that some teachers--or principals or schools--are better than others.

Make no mistake about this: excellence will test our patience, our courage, our will-ingness to sacrifice. For this nation to sustain its rededication to excellence, our leaders must transcend the proponents of selfish interests, the defenders of minimum-competency testing, and the advocates of narrow utility. Any lesser commitment will frustrate school reform and threaten the survival of our democracy. That is the challenge of excellence.

Vol. 03, Issue 06, Page 24, 20

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