Education Commentary

Mistaking the Periphery for the Center

By Joseph P. McDonald — May 20, 1992 8 min read

A national problem demands a national solution. I agree again. That is, it demands a nationally concerted effort to ratchet up standards for all kids, to transform “common-sense’’ attitudes about what intelligence is and about how intellectual interests and practical matters relate, to tune the intimate practices of hundreds of thousands of classrooms to new conceptions of knowledge and of learning, and to “rewire’’ tens of thousands of schools--that is, utterly revamp how they go about the exchange of energy and information.

But how may we best pursue such a solution? Here’s where I disagree. I think the current proposals for a national assessment system--those of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, the America 2000 strategy, the latest SCANS Report, the New Standards Project, and Educate America Inc.--represent exactly the wrong approach. That is because these proposals pursue a national solution by means of a spuriously central mechanism. They mean to drive innovation from where they are--which they take to be the center of the American educational system--to where schools are--which they take to be the periphery. In fact, in the lives of teachers and kids--and of parents and communities--schools are at the center of American education. And at this center, they filter all policies through complex cultures. Ultimately, they are responsive only in perverse ways to incentives which discount their complexity and their centrality. A national examination--even elegantly realized in regional variations and alternative formats--may well drive schools toward mindless accountability. As George Madaus has warned, no exam, however “authentic,’' can be considered immune from corruption when stakes rise. And as Linda Darling-Hammond has argued, an accountability system which only assesses kids, but which fails to assess the quality of the school’s efforts to teach these kids, will be corrupted. Scores will rise as teachers reduce what they teach to just what the assessments assess and as principals manage to push out the kids whom they perceive as drags on their school’s average. There is abundant evidence that in this fashion well-intentioned assessment hurts many kids now. Well-intentioned national assessment may enormously increase the extent of such injury.

This is not to argue that there is no good role for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for nationally focused research and development efforts in assessment, or for nationally articulated goals and curriculum frameworks in the pursuit of higher standards for all kids. On the contrary, sensible accountability policy for the 1990’s and beyond requires these initiatives. It is just that they must take care to avoid diminishing actual accountability by aiming too far and by inadvertently squelching local efforts. This will happen especially if they preempt the painstaking and difficult work of building local commitment and local capacity.

I want to see an accountability system that is rooted in local efforts to take stock--efforts that are networked with others, that are supported and audited by the states, and that are fed by perspectives on achievement and equity developed and refined on the national level. To my mind, such a system would constitute a real national solution to our national problem. It would require of each school that it open itself to inspection by stakeholders near and far; disclose what all its indicators of achievement reveal--including longitudinal and other locally constructed indicators; report annually to its community like a corporation to its stockholders; and equip itself with whatever internal systems it needs to take continuously corrective action in the interests of ensuring all its kids’ achievement at genuinely higher levels. It would also require, of course, a revolution at the center of American education--that is, in each American school’s sense of purpose and in each one’s design.

Advocates of national assessment schemes may well regard what I call a real national solution as a romantic and unattainable one. But I hurl the charge back at them. I think it is their vision that is romantic and unattainable--a kind of Napoleanic vision, whereby an authoritarian focus blurs out a historic opportunity for democracy. Their vision presumes that most Americans cannot be trusted to discern what is good--or bad--for their own children. Chester Finn, for example, cites the evidence of polls that document most Americans’ satisfaction with their own children’s schools (urban parents notably excepted). You obviously can’t trust bottom-up reform schemes if people’s taste is that bad, he argues. But his argument--particularly curious coming from an advocate of school choice--lacks empathy for the polls’ respondents. When faced with the stark question--"What do you think about the quality of your school?’'--people closest to kids will color their response with an intuition: namely that kids derive much of the energy they bring to learning in school from their parents’ and their teachers’ investment in the value of that learning. To doubt one’s own school is thus to seem to put one’s own children at risk.

Yet I think most parents and teachers do harbor doubts, which then surface in their responses to the easier question: What do you think of the quality of other people’s schools? That’s when the fears tumble out--fears that are well warranted. That is also when the opportunity presents itself: Perhaps, after all, local commitment to genuine school reform is conceivable. In fact, I believe that many local American communities yearn for a 21st-century version of the Hoosier spelling bees, when whole prairie villages of the 19th century turned up at the schoolhouse once a year to verify that the year’s school funds had been well spent. Of course, it is undeniable that many of these same communities have at best an inchoate sense of what achievement standards may be worthy of the 21st century. Some still seem to care more that their kids memorize the list of state capitals than that they acquire intellectually powerful habits of mind. It will be an exceedingly difficult task to awaken them to worthier standards than this, but to drive them there will be impossible.

Meanwhile, I take heart from the recent revolution in the standards of American cuisine. Fairly recently, we had only two choices in American dining: either narrowly ethnic--red-sauce Italian, fried-rice Chinese; or else pot roast with salt and pepper. Today, however, our cuisine is among the most varied, the most inventive, the most dynamic in the world. We owe this result not to any effort to drive us toward the consumption of croissants and arrugula--certainly not to the influence of a national gustatory exam--but, rather, to the confluence of several diverse factors, all of them with potential analogues in the effort to improve schools. First, there was an unprecedented opportunity--product of simultaneous surges in the nation’s ethnic diversity, in its health consciousness, and in its media-based connectedness. Second, there was and is national leadership--Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, the Silver Palate ladies, even C. Everett Koop. Next, a national cadre of chefs trained by a handful of restaurants and cooking schools, patronized by increasingly dispersed cosmopolitan taste, cultivated in turn by good writing and television. Finally--and perhaps most importantly--a great growth in appreciation of the value of local cuisines and of the freshness of locally available ingredients.

Like better tastes in dining, higher expectations for kids’ achievement are inevitably entangled with values, and values legitimately vary somewhat from one American community to another. To ignore this preeminence of local interest in the overall effort to create change is to take a great ethical and political risk--and so to endanger a crucial mission. In the matter of transforming our tastes in schooling, I think we have no choice but to tolerate each community’s painstaking effort to cultivate taste. We outsiders can play a vital role in this process--though not a decisive one--through the provision of national expectations, the provocation of richly constructed assessment models, the enhancement of communication among schools (for example, by means of the electronic network that the National Science Foundation is working on), and, of course, an insistence on the entitlement of every American child to a good education.

Happily, there is plenty of innovation in assessment and accountability that has been launched and is now proceeding well without benefit of national driving--in Vermont, California, Kentucky, San Diego, Pittsburgh, the Center for Collaborative Education in
New York City, Sullivan High School in Chicago, Thayer High School in New Hampshire, English High School in Boston, to single out only a few state and local examples. In order to build a national solution to the national problem in American education, I think we need much experimentation with new accountability schemes and new kinds of assessment, and we need it at all levels of educational policy--from NAEP to Jefferson County, Ky., to Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Southern California. We need it in such diversity and breadth as to match the enormous enterprise it seeks to serve, but we need it especially at the center of that enterprise. If we don’t have it there, then all the scholarly and political talent we now have working at the periphery will be worth little. In fact, it is likely to cause a lot of trouble.