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In the Press Column

February 21, 1990 7 min read

Research on how the bond between mother and child defines infants’ sense of security has revolutionized psychology and altered “basic attitudes toward early childhood care,” writes Robert Karen in the February issue of The Atlantic.

But while the research on “attachment theory” has transformed perceptions of the importance of physical contact and responsiveness in the primary caregiver, the writer observes, it yields no conclusive answers on whether children are harmed by substitute care.

Mr. Karen examines research of the last two decades challenging the view of behaviorists that mother-child attachment was merely a function of feeding.

Profiling several theorists, he focuses on the psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who developed what he calls the first method “to assess how styles of parenting contributed to individual differences.”

Using the “strange situation” technique, researchers first observed mothers responding to infants in various situations in their homes; when the children reached the age of 12 months, the researchers observed them in a lab separated from their mothers, both with a stranger present and on their own.

Ms. Ainsworth found that those she labeled “securely attached"--generally associated with mothers more responsive to feeding signals and crying--protested upon separation from the mother but were easy to console on her return. Those “insecurely” or “anxiously” attached--linked with inconsistent, interfering, or unresponsive mothers--refused to be soothed or snubbed and avoided the mother upon her return.

In succeeding studies, Mr. Karen writes, researchers found that without intervention, such patterns persist as the child grows older, with the insecurely attached lacking self-reliance, having poor peer relations, and becoming hopeless when fearful of separation.

While some psychologists maintain that such effects are more a function of genetic or temperamental differences than parental styles, Mr. Karen notes, others have used the data to argue against placing infants in substitute care for long intervals.

He suggests that the day-care debate be viewed in the context of economic and societal trends driving both parents to work, and that “compensations” be provided to better support families, make it easier for parents to take time off to care for infants, and help schools work with children with “anxious attachment styles.”

“Needless to say, we are ages away from making such commitments,” he says.

Widespread reforms of public education in the United States have historically succeeded only when “political and social anxieties coincided with a public perception that the schools were not in tune with the needs of society,” writes Carl F. Kaestle in the February issue of American Heritage.

Tracing reform efforts from the late 18th century to the present, Mr. Kaestle, professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, suggests that the current “back to basics” movement is the latest in a series of reform cycles that have fluctuated from conservative to liberal, depending on the public mood.

In the first successful campaign--led by Horace Mann in the 19th century--efforts to raise enrollment and attendance rates met with resistance, Mr. Kaestle points out, until public sentiment shifted and “people realized that a high level of education was needed for the market-oriented economy that industrialization brought with it.”

Similarly, it was not until 1890, after 20 years of criticism over a perceived lack of moral education in the schools, that problems of labor strife, immigration, and economic depression intensified concerns ''about whether the public schools were doing an adequate job of moral education and cultural assimilation.”

In this century, Mr. Kaestle writes, the pendulum of school reform has swung from conservative calls for bolstering mathematics, science, and foreign-language training after the launching of Sputnik in 1957, to liberal reforms, spurred by the political and social upheaval of the 1960’s, emphasizing equal access to education and recognition of student diversity.

“The cycles of public-school reform in our history have had limited effects compared with their goals,” he notes.

But even so, Mr. Kaestle concludes, the reforms have served a useful purpose in forcing educators “to think about what they are doing to defend it, to fine-tune it, and to think about the whole enterprise they are engaged in.”

And with the difficulties facing schools in the 1990’s, he writes, reformers will have their work cut out for them.

The National Research Council’s recent landmark report on the status of black Americans was crucially flawed in that it blamed the lower standing of blacks solely on discrimination and refused to take into account evidence of race-based differences in ability, argues R.J. Herrnstein in the winter issue of The Public Interest.

The Harvard University psychology professor contends that A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, the 600-page document issued last summer, ignores hundreds of studies since the beginning of the century that have found lower average black achievement on standardized tests of intelligence or cognitive aptitude.

According to Mr. Herrnstein, the report is rooted in the “discrimination model,” a view attributing racial differences to unequal opportunities and unequal treatment by institutions. It fails to consider the alternative “distributional model,” which explains differing averages by referring to the characteristics of the populations themselves, he maintains.

By shunning the taboo subject of race-based differences in average intellectual endowments, Mr. Herrnstein continues, the report’s authors fall into the error of logic of saying that economic status determines intelligence, even though it is just as plausible to argue that intelligence determines economic status--and most plausible to suggest that the lines of causality run in both directions.

There is “no clear evidence,” he observes, that the gap in test scores “shrank when the economic gap between the races was shrinking.”

Arguing that “we can hardly hope to discover constructive public policies” while ignoring the effects of distributional factors, Mr. Herrnstein asks: “How much are we as a society willing to pay to try to equalize the races by benefiting the children of one race and not the other, even if the distributional model partially explains the observed differences between them?”

Faulting the public schools for their reluctance to “take responsibility for the character of their students,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend writes in the January issue of The Washington Monthly that there are ''some values that teachers should affirm.”

In a survey cited by Ms. Townsend, who runs a Maryland program designed to involve students in community service, three times as many young people between the ages of 15 and 24 selected “career success” as chose “community service,” when they were asked what goals they considered important.

Such attitudes are the result, she suggests, of “deliberate educational policy.” The schools “wash their hands of the teaching of virtue, doing little to create an environment that teaches children the importance of self-discipline, obligation, and civic participation.”

She traces the breakdown of what she calls the “inculcation consensus” to two developments beginning in the early 20th century: a growing respect for science and the denial of religious groups that “moral instruction could be carried on apart from religion.”

Education was also influenced, she writes, by the pragmatism of John Dewey and others, which “rejected metaphysical notions of human conduct.”

And the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the 1960’s challenged the old values as immoral, Ms. Townsend notes. One result was the rise of the moral-development theory called “values clarification,” according to which it is “wrong for teachers to endorse any values; all they can do is help students discover their own.”

She observes that Americans are “justly worried about party lines of any kind” and cautions that teaching values requires “special skills and real sensitivity to student and community needs.”

But because both families and churches have lost strength in recent decades, she argues, only the schools “are guaranteed to get a shot at kids.”

“That’s why their current fumbling of anything smacking of right and wrong is so disastrous,” she writes.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as In the Press Column