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By All Measures: Combining Two Conversations

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Nowadays I often feel caught between two conversations that should become one conversation. The "hard heads'' insist that the time is at hand for a single set of national standards, possibly reflected in national curricula and syllabi, and culminating in a high-stakes test, something like the College Board examinations. The "soft hearts'' believe that any effective kind of educational policy needs to be developed, almost from scratch, by stakeholders at the local level; "soft hearts'' fear that educational reform will be doomed if we countenance a national or federal effort.

Some years as a participant in efforts of educational reform have convinced me of two things. First--and here I am a "soft heart''--no effort at reform can succeed unless it is understood and endorsed by teachers, parents, and others in the community. Second--and here I am a "hard head''--it is not credible that every local county can come up with an effective educational program for the 21st century. Local efforts need all of the help that they can get ... and then some.

From my perspective, the "soft hearts'' and the "hard heads'' must swallow their pride (and their rhetoric) and begin to work together. "Hard heads'' can help to define standards that make sense from the perspective of the disciplines, and in terms of interdisciplinary work. Impressive efforts have already been undertaken in the fields of mathematics, science, and history. There can be more than one set of standards, but there need not be a large number; better to hammer them out publicly than to keep generating new lists. The "soft hearts'' can demonstrate what it takes for any new approach to take hold, why sheer "top-down'' mandates won't work, and how standards can be refashioned in terms of local conditions.

In The Unschooled Mind, I recommend that we identify "national understandings'': for example, the ability to interpret events reported in today's newspaper in terms of knowledge of national and world history. Such understandings ought to be the centerpiece of our curricula; they ought to be assessed by performance-based methods, such as the trio of performances, portfolios, and performance-based examinations favored by the New Standards Project.

Those who spurn any kind of national system fear politicization and inequity. These genuine fears can be met. Other countries have examination systems that are insulated from political pressures and we can, if we wish, institute the same. Any system--including the present one--will have initial inequities. The important point is that the system at least focus on the right kinds of performances and assessments, and that enough support be provided for all students and teachers so that the playing field is truly level. This can only come about if we have improved teacher education and sustained efforts to introduce the community to a new way of thinking about schooling.

Howard Gardner is a professor of education at Harvard University and the co-director of Harvard's Project Zero.

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