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The Swing to the Right In America's Views on Education

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If the resurgence of Republican leadership in government means anything, it signals broad public affirmation of individual rights and a deepening of the ever-present mistrust of bureaucracies, governmental and otherwise. American educators, at least at the precollegiate level, have yet to understand that this mistrust is directed toward them, too.

But the information is out there. In "First Things First: What Americans Expect From the Public Schools," the Public Agenda Foundation, a nonpartisan citizen-research group, recorded startling discrepancies between Americans' aspirations for their children and the goals of many educational reformers. (See Education Week, 10/12/94.)

According to the 1994 study, parents believe that schools should provide a safe, orderly environment and effective teaching of the basics. They want more emphasis on reading, writing, and math, and press for individual student accountability for learning. Eighty-eight percent recommend "not allowing students to graduate from high school unless they demonstrate they can write and speak English well," and 82 percent favor "setting up very clear guidelines on what students learn and teachers should teach in every major subject." Parents also uphold learning environments that vary according to individual ability. Only 34 percent believe that mixed-ability grouping helps students learn, in stark contrast to the position of most progressive educators.

Parents are apparently not against advancing more generalized, community-oriented aspirations in schools; they merely want team goals balanced by a serious commitment to the individual pursuit of knowledge. They believe this pursuit will bring in its wake the skills and understandings necessary for their children to lead productive and successful lives.

The battle lines indicated by this new sketch of public views redraw an age-old American conflict: Should we emphasize the individual or the community? To what extent should team goals displace individual quests? As long as educational reformers evade these questions and sidestep evidence of parents' real-life aspirations for their children, they will inspire the same type of dissent evident in last November's elections. The issues invite comparisons.

Today's educators are moved by the vision of large numbers of students learning the same thing at the same time and with the same degree of accomplishment. They have replaced the most necessary goal of equality of opportunity with a utopian fantasy of equality of achievement. They are pleased by what seems to them the decency of a homogeneous view of the achievements of our youths. But the effects of their policies are hardly convincing. More and more students approach schooling with a belief in a predetermined equality of accomplishment. From this position grows the posture of entitlement, with its distorting effects lasting into adulthood.

Legions of schools currently enact seemingly unrelated strategies to advance ill-conceived notions of equality. These strategies include the reduction of testing, especially standardized assessment; the reduction of competitive individualism, even of the most healthy sort; and the broad promotion of cooperative-learning strategies at the expense of any form of mixed-ability grouping. All of these strategies collectively reduce most, if not all, options for individual difference.

Influenced by theories of systems management initially designed for corporations, many schools subscribe to a collectivist vision that denies the presence and dignity of the individual student, favoring instead a bland and ultimately deceptive notion of community. For in what kind of community does the individual play ultimately no part? In what kind of community are our youths trained in artificial, homogeneous collectives with the expectation that not only will society be so constituted, but that life will be equally nonthreatening?

Collectivist notions of learning dress up an ideology that has the potential for disarming our children, one by one, from facing the realities of a complex and challenging world. Educators who balk at differentiating among students invite a revolution that will transfer control of schooling from educators to a new leadership--American parents. Charter schools, vouchers, and home-schooling, however undeveloped at the present time, are but forerunners of a new, alternative contract for educating in America.

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