Education Letter to the Editor

The Flexner Report

October 14, 2008 5 min read
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To the Editor:

In his Commentary “The Case for National Standards and Testing” (Sept. 17, 2008), Walt Gardner acknowledges upfront that “it’s always risky to compare professional education with general education.” But then he ignores those risks and argues that K-12 schooling in 2008 demands the same kind of standardization that the education of physicians required a hundred years ago, when Abraham Flexner wrote his famous report on American medical education. This argument is blind to the fact that K-12 schooling includes the entire population, while medical education engages only a select, self-chosen group. It also pretends that we live in a society just like the industrial society of the early 20th century.

With medical education, you want all doctors in training to achieve at least the same minimum level of professional knowledge and skill. A common knowledge-and-skill base is what defines a profession and, thus, professional conduct, so standardization to a point makes sense.

Universal K-12 schooling is profoundly different. In a democracy in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are central to national promise, the idea that one set of academic standards is appropriate or useful for every young person in the country is absurd, given the enormous diversity of young people’s interests, gifts, and ambitions. National academic standards and testing also apply an authoritarian vise to young people’s lives that violates the concept of liberty, which ought to guide social policy in this nation.

Mr. Gardner argues that we need national-level standardization of schooling so we can have an education system that is fair to every child. His intention is admirable, but his proposed means is deeply misguided. Standardization is the central meme of industrial-paradigm schooling, which has shown itself for nearly a century to be incapable of educating all children well.

Rather than intensified standardization of schooling, we need to create a paradigm of personalization in education, of differentiation that is neither racist nor classist, but which values and supports the aspirations and ambitions of every child, whether she or he wants to become a physicist, a plumber, a software guru, a stay-at-home parent, an artist, a president, or whatever.

While we need to be wary of comparisons between American schools and those of other nations, we nonetheless can see some of the profound impact of highly personalized schools in Finland, a country with apparently very effective and equitable schooling and no compulsory standards or standardized tests.

The modern standards-and-testing movement, which is only another expression of the antiquated, early-20th-century industrial-efficiency movement, has now had almost two decades at the state level to “fix” schooling. Almost no one other than U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings argues that it is a success. Even staunch former supporters such as Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch have condemned the failures of the standards-and-testing movement. If this paradigm has fallen short at the state level, why would we want to install it nationally?

David Marshak

Bellingham, Wash.

To the Editor:

Walt Gardner cites the landmark Flexner Report on medical education to justify national standards in K-12 education. But a medical school, where all the students are on track to become physicians, is utterly different from a high school, where a very diverse group of students are on a number of different career tracks. Common or national standards are essential in the preparation of people who will be making life-and-death decisions wherever they may practice. But requiring everyone to take algebra in the 8th grade or master the history of the world from its beginnings to the present makes no sense.

Abraham Flexner
—Photo from the Library of Congress

Based on his actions and writing, I think Abraham Flexner would agree.

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, he started a private school based on his belief that schools should offer personalized education in small classes taught by teachers who focused on individual students. That’s hard to do in a uniform system of national standards. His students did well and were accepted at the leading colleges. He later started the Lincoln School, an experimental school at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Flexner was convinced that national standards were essential in professional education, and he argued for quality standards and intellectual rigor at the college level. But he sharply criticized the most common standard for high schools: college-admission standards.

In The American College, Flexner wrote: “The definite collegiate formulations of what is wanted in each subject have reacted on [secondary] schools, practically determining for them the spirit, method, and contents of their instruction.” The high school, he insisted, is “now largely controlled by the college in its interest.” And he added that the negative effect of that control filtered down through the elementary school.

Flexner argued that “narrowly intellectualistic admission machinery” makes precollegiate education “a narrow, monotonous grind.” If he were here today, he might ask whether national content standards would have the same effect.

Flexner was also highly critical of the use of standardized tests (the other side of the standards coin) to determine a student’s qualifications for college admission. “Is it not clear that the outcome will be to convert the secondary school into a cramming-machine?”

College-admission standards are not synonymous with national academic standards, but they come pretty close, given that the primary purpose of national academic standards is obviously to prepare young people for college.

Finally, in arguing for a national curriculum, Mr. Gardner notes the logic of a common curriculum in medical education and asks, “Why should location determine what students learn in 8th grade math?”

It may be that 8th grade math is so codified that it should be taught the same way at the same time to every student from coast to coast (though I doubt it). But that is not the case with literature, history, geography, art, or even science. To mandate that the content of the various disciplines be the same, organized by grade levels, and essentially taught at the same time across the land—irrespective of the condition of individual students—would be unacceptable to Abraham Flexner and should be unacceptable to anyone who believes in student-centered education.

Ronald A. Wolk

Warwick, R.I.

The writer is the founding editor of Education Week and the chair emeritus of the board of its nonprofit parent corporation, Editorial Projects in Education.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Flexner Report


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