Commentary

The Futile Quest For 'No-Fault Excellence' in Education

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The movement to rededicate American education to a standard of high quality is already in trouble. Though platoons of governors, state legislators, and business leaders are fighting for educational excellence all across the country, the framework of principles and convictions needed to support a durable policy edifice is not being built.

Hence there is considerable risk, as A. Graham Down asserted recently (See "The Three Killers of Excellence," Education Week, Oct. 12, 1983), that we are witnessing just one more of education's "short-lived surges of zeal for reform." The reasons for this are more fundamental than Mr. Down suggested, however. They include moral timidity, intellectual confusion, and institutionalized self-interest within the education profession and among politicians who seek to advance their own interests by pandering to it.

This is a strong accusation, and I do not make it lightly. Nor do I suggest we are witnessing willful efforts to subvert quality. Rather, I would call them semiconscious moves to redefine quality in ways that eliminate risk, anxiety, hard work, and tough choices. One might say we are seeing a quest for no-fault educational excellence.

This, I grant, is natural. Excellence in any field is a stern and demanding faith, one not entirely compatible with a laid-back, pluralistic democracy or a relativistic modern culture. Orthodox regimens are always hard to stick to; they invite evasion, backsliding, rationalization, and quests for effortless if costly alternatives. The electronic gizmo that supposedly exercises your muscles for you is a lot more appealing than three weekly rounds on the Nautilus machine as a way of getting into shape.

As a profession, and indeed as a society, we are still stumped by the question John Gardner posed years ago: Can we be equal and excellent, too? We want so much to say yes, everyone can excel in his or her own way. Such a wistful reply eases us past the harsh but indisputable fact that some people are born with more ability to learn than others. So long as everyone's mind brims over with knowledge and skills, we educators can be content.

Perhaps indeed we could be. But there are differences in desire as well as differences in capacity. While some people are motivated to wake up before dawn to study chemistry or French, others snooze until mid-morning. Some students spend their evenings in hot pursuit of learning, while others are more apt to pursue a good time, giving only as much of their energy to formal education as is needed to scrape by. They regard educational excellence approximately as I regard physical fitness.

It is when we begin to depict excellence as something that everyone can reasonably be expected to attain that the talk gets woolly and the concept of standards begins to lose meaning. This confusion partakes of our customary muddle about the nature of "equality" in a democratic society. There is, and always will be, a fundamental difference between equality of opportunity and equality of result. To deny people the former is undemocratic and evil. Even I have a right to train for the Olympics. But I'm not going to make it, let alone win a gold medal, and anyone who denounces as unjust a system that doesn't confer a gold medal on me is himself oblivious to the meaning of excellence or pretty ignorant about the value of gold.

To attain excellence, you have to excel. To organize an educational system around standards is to understand that not everyone will achieve those standards, some because they don't care to try, others because they don't have what it takes, still others because society cannot force them and will not invest the resources to boost them across the line that separates failure and success.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Forget the Olympics. Suppose we would be content if everyone entering high school is able to read and do arithmetic at an 8th-grade level. It is possible to imagine a system in which almost everyone attains such a standard, but the dual costs of that system are nearly unimaginable. The first is measured in individual freedom. You can force people to do almost anything. If you threaten to jail or execute anyone who does not learn to read and to multiply fractions, a lot of people will learn them, perhaps even without the aid of formal instruction. The second cost--to some extent a substitute for the first--is financial. If you give everyone a dynamic, full-time teacher of his very own, a lot of people would meet your learning standards without much coercion. Up to a point, educational achievement can be bought.

Our profession has an innate and strong preference for the latter approach and has managed to recruit a cadre of politicians who will promise to pursue this strategy if we will help them get elected. Hence, it is not surprising that one of the primary dynamics currently visible in the "excellence movement" is an attempt to substitute additional outlays for the far less costly--and noncoercive--strategy of setting standards and letting those affected decide how hard to push themselves to attain those standards.

An example is last month's report of the Simon-Goodling task force on merit pay, appointed by the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to examine the notion that teachers should be compensated, at least in part, according to their classroom effectiveness. As numerous polls have made plain, the public embraces the idea that good teachers should be paid more than bad ones. The fundamental principle in "merit pay" is that there should be performance standards for teachers as well as students, and that those who meet or surpass the standards should be rewarded, while those who fail to meet them should not.

But the Congressional task force, populated almost entirely by educators and by politicians sympathetic to them, contrived to redefine the issue so thoroughly that the original principles practically vanished. The word "standards" appears just once in the task force's recommendations, while paragraph after paragraph urges new spending programs. (Even so, Mary H. Futrell, president of the National Education Association and a task-force member, promptly denounced the report for not putting a large enough pricetag on the federal obligation in education.) "Experiments with performance-based pay" are condoned, but if the proverbial visitor from Mars read this report, he would not divine that the essential problem is the lack of meaningful performance standards in the teaching profession--but, rather, that there is a grave insufficiency of cash outlays by various private and government agencies at every level. It is difficult to believe this was the conclusion John Q. Public had in mind when he told the pollster he favored merit pay for teachers.

Notwithstanding our unshakable American confidence in statistical impossibilities--if only we work hard enough and spend enough, we can get "everyone above the mean"--the function of standards is to distinguish those who achieve them from those who do not, or at least from those who have not yet achieved them and must therefore redouble their efforts. But how much failure will we endure? How large a fraction of the population can "fail" before we conclude that any standards producing so much failure must be too stringent? At what point does the recoil knock us down? Alternatively, how much will we spend--or how many constraints on liberty will we tolerate--in order to reduce the incidence of failure without easing the standards by which it it determined?

These issues are already being joined in communities and states where too many youngsters are failing the high-school proficiency tests; where "promotional gates" programs are yielding too many 16-year-olds who for the third time in a row have failed to make it out of 8th grade; where classrooms are being staffed by substitute teachers because too few candidates for the regular teaching positions possess the necessary qualifications; and where too large a fraction of those scoring below the cutoff point are members of minority groups.

But such issues arise whenever standards are imposed in any field of human endeavor. How many people shall be denied drivers' licenses? Pilot licenses? Medical licenses? What degree of physical fitness and moral probity shall be demanded of candidates for the police force? For astronauts? For army chaplains?

Education is not alone in facing the dilemmas of standard-setting. And it is not unique in paying lip-service to a concept that the public cherishes while going on about its business as before. But at the present moment, we may be afflicted with a slightly higher than usual level of self-delusion, perhaps not even admitting to ourselves that costly gadgets will not make us fit, whereas a Spartan regimen might. It's not that we don't want to be fit. It's that no one much likes Spartan regimens, and many educators are especially squeamish about standards that some will not attain. It is so much nicer to redefine the problem as a lack of resources and insist that the only proper standard is one that in fact anybody could attain if only we do enough for him.

If I am right that the public has quite a different understanding of educational excellence, then one of two things is going to happen (more likely, a combination of both).

The excellence movement may be distorted into such a parody of itself that it will not be worth sustaining, and will produce a frustrated and angry public, resentful that it was again euchred by the professionals and their acolytes. Or education may come to be directed in far greater and more specific detail by nonprofessionals than is currently the case.

We have always acknowledged formal accountability to the public that supplies the resources (as well as the children), but we have expected the public and its elected representatives to keep out of the innards of the educational process: what is taught, how, and by whom. Already we see governors and legislatures delving deeply into curriculum, testing, and teacher licensure; we see congressmen and Presidential candidates fiddling with the structure of the teaching occupation; and we see task forces of business leaders bluntly telling educators what they must do differently if they expect any more money. Even as public interest in education has soared, public confidence in educators has plummeted. Unless the profession can come forth in an orderly and responsible manner with standards for student and teacher performance that the public finds sufficiently orthodox, and can curb its natural temptation to substitute costly gadgets for arduous regimens, the reins will continue to be tightened, the scope of professional discretion will continue to be narrowed, and an historic opportunity to rebuild public confidence and broaden the base of public support is going to be wasted.

Vol. 03, Issue 12, Page 24, 19

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