Education Opinion

Unexpected Side Effects of the Best Intentions

By Deborah Meier — December 04, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

What unites us I suspect is well said in an op-ed by John Goodlad recently. It ends this way: “Whatever became of the idea that representative democracy is the essential starting point for public education? One also might ask, ‘whatever happened to the idea that public education is the essential starting point for addressing the well-being of our democracy?’ Let the conversation begin.”

I’ve been thinking about my suggestion for concrete alternatives. Actually, a number are already out there, but none probably in “legislative” language that allows us to pin down their costs, their dilemmas, etc..

There are several groups out there that have come up with proposals that include the following: (1) some forms of sampled standardized testing on a national scale—such as the old NAEP, (2) other short-answer or multiple-choice standardized instruments selected by schools, locals, or state authorities at least in language arts and mathematics, (3) assessments that include graduation/dropout rates, attendance, hold-overs, etc., (4) forms of assessment that examine serious academic/intellectual achievement, focused on essays, presentations, exhibitions, and other attestable work in a broader array of subjects (see Mike Schmoker’s piece “Measuring What Matters,” in Educational Leadership), and (5) assessments that capture student, staff, family, and community input regarding a school’s reputation and contribution. None of these require starting from scratch since all are currently being practiced in some states and communities. These together offer a more rounded assessment of what’s happening out there and could probably be put together in some weighted formula. What would be “new” is a 6th: to study the relationship between schools and “real life” that looks at issues of their importance to our democracy, as well as our economy and the personal satisfaction of citizens. (See “Data Beyond High School.”) Let’s discuss them one by one?

With these in mind, I’m particularly concerned at the unexpected side effects of the best intentions, including my own, when we are not thoughtful. The Nation recently had a chilling piece on the effect on the Vietnam War of the decision to use “body count” (enemy dead) as the measure of the war’s success, each troop’s success, and each leader’s. Decent human beings were, over time, influenced by such goals to change the tactics of war they employed. Something similar, but less deadly, happens when we decide that only 4-year high school graduates “count.” Ditto for tests on literacy that discourage reading books thoroughly (vs. reading “passages” from books) as a response to testing pressures—especially in the absence of any counter-measures that value more thoughtful reading. And which barely value writing, much less verbal communication.

We need also to think carefully about what would happen if “high school graduation (were) truly universal and….college graduation routine” as Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in The New York Times. Would it substantially affect the nature of the jobs available to Americans—including pay scales and competitiveness? Does it mean turning college into work-prep? Where does it place the important old-fashioned task of preparing adults to tackle the ruling class’s complex decisionmaking role, not to mention our responsibility toward aspects of life that are at best tangential to the economy: museums, concerts, theater, park land, playgrounds, etc.? This is the discourse that’s nearly totally missing.

For those like Bob Herbert who fear that the young are amusing themselves to death, they are both right and wrong. For at least six hours a day, they’re not amused or even interested. For the other 12 hours, young people I know spend hours becoming experts at those parts of the world they find interesting. The two worlds rarely intersect and the young get precious little guidance and shared input from adult experts about the world they are fascinated by. What’s wrong with schools, and with the ways we measure them, is that we are ignoring what young people’s “interested minds” could accomplish if we re-examined this puzzle together.

Meanwhile, as one of my grandsons reminded me, high school and college alike are “means” for getting credits that can be turned into diplomas that can be turned into one’s improved job chances. The “school game” is set up to explore youth’s ingenuity at how to accomplish this task with the least energy and the least risk-taking—and the most money!* It’s a game that goes back centuries. “Unfortunately” it once affected only a tiny elite ruling class. “Fortunately,” today nearly all our youth spend 12-plus years devoted to this game, and “the best and brightest” 16 or more.


* Since a school’s reputation and tuition tend to be linked, the cost keeps growing. (Yes, amazingly, studies show that lowering tuition is counter-effective, and vice versa!)

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.