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By All Measures: 'A Re-Conceptualization'

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As apparently attractive as the virtues of national standards and assessments appear, they are, unfortunately, a vulgar oversimplification of the conditions that need to be addressed to improve our schools. Even more important, they reflect a shallow view of the purposes of education. The current reform agenda is largely rationalized with marketplace metaphors: regaining our competitive edge, becoming first in science and mathematics by the year 2000, increasing our status in an educational Olympics. These are the dominant aspirations.

Fields that appear to have little to do with our competitive edge, the fine arts for example, have been left off of the list of core subjects so prominently displayed in America 2000. But even more, the structural consistency of the proposed plan flies in the face of the cultural, regional, and ideological diversity that this nation has historically celebrated and which seems especially important today.

America's schools serve 45 million children who attend 110,000 schools, located in 16,000 school districts, which themselves are located in 50 states and are served by 2.5 million teachers. The belief that a common curriculum will serve all, at best is questionable. The belief that a single assessment system, no matter how complex, is appropriate for students who start at different places when they enter school seems to me to be even more questionable. The belief that our schools are or should be driving our economy doesn't fit the facts and suggests a tactic designed to blame the victim. If a competitive climate was essentially what was needed to improve the output of an organization, the American automobile industry would not be in such doldrums. American schools and American children need more.

The recent push towards the standardization of schooling distracts both educators and the public from the deeper, structural inadequacies of American schools and the inadequate level of funding that has been provided to them. America is ninth in its spending for education out of the 16 major industrial countries of the world. When calculated on a per-capita-income basis, we are 13th out of 16.

I do not suggest that dollars alone will do the trick. In fact, they will not. Nor will top-down prescriptions. Unless teachers and local communities assume ownership for reform in their local schools, until educators and communities question the adequacy of existing organizational structures--such as graded classes, schools that move 5- to 10-year-old students from teacher to teacher each year, 47-minute time periods which require adolescents to click off and to click on to discrete subjects 14 times during the course of the school day, university entrance requirements which exert a strong conservative force on educational change, testing systems that preoccupy teachers and students with the equivalent of cognitive trivia--unless these conditions change, the reform movement that is now under way will have as much effect on schools as reform movements have had in the past.

What is needed is no less than a re-conceptualization of the aims, form, and content of schooling. Schools need to become intellectual institutions, not merely academic ones. Teachers and administrators need to have the time and the space to be reflective about their own work, and communities need to understand why these conditions need to exist. Universities need to be substantially broader and more generous in the ways in which they evaluate applicants for admission, and the schools in which educators work need to possess a climate that encourages professionals to work at the edge of their competence. Unless such organic and intrinsic conditions are created in schools, unless a genuinely educational climate is made palpable for teachers as well as students, all this talk about standards, national tests, public report cards, and national goals will be feckless or, even worse, will provide yet another distraction from the genuinely serious and important problems that American schools encounter each day.

Elliot W. Eisner is professor of education at Stanford University and president of the American Educational Research Association.

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