Education Opinion

‘What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?': A Critique

By William Ayers — November 25, 1987 9 min read
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Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr. have written an illusory account of the state of literacy and historical knowledge among the nation’s students. With its inflated title, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature, and the stingiest of disclaimers ("[the assessment] tests a representative sampling of knowledge but does not claim to test everything worth knowing in these two major fields”), this book is merely the latest bleak offering in this dismal season of school reform.

Ms. Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Mr. Finn, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department, apply the patina of scholarship to an all-too-familiar political agenda. There is, in fact, much less here than meets the eye.

The assessment itself amounts to a trivia quiz, a test of disconnected names and dates and facts. If we may judge from the few items Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn share with us, the test is filled with culturally bound and value-laden questions (reasons for U.S. entry into World War I include “rights of neutrality and submarine warfare"; “causes and characteristics of the Great Depression” are listed as, “e.g., stock-market crash, collapse of economy, Dust Bowl”).

Noting that multiple-choice tests have built-in limitations, the authors claim essentially that this is the best we can do for now, and they put their faith in a brighter future when testing technocrats will have solved the problems of assessing more subtle and complex thinking. In the meantime, school people who take this report seriously will be lured in a direction Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn disclaim: teaching (more minutiae) to the test.

Casting their project in the broader framework of general deterioration in what children know, as exemplified for them in the declining national average of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores revealed in 1975, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn speculate that one cause of this overall trend might be a softening of what is offered to students as history and literature.

Surely the authors know that sat scores are woefully inadequate as a gauge of student knowledge or intelligence. And they must certainly be aware that as more and more colleges require sat scores and increasing numbers of students who never before would have considered either attending college or taking the sats are now doing both, there is a different population being tested, rendering comparisons absurd.

Rather than deal seriously with problems, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn mask the methodological shortcomings of their assessment with discussions of clusters of questions checked and cross-checked in complex ways, and with lengthy descriptions of the committees of scholars they assembled.

The fatal flaw in an assessment of this type is that it in fact tests little more than class background. The authors themselves note “the importance of family background as a factor in student achievement.” They even point out, for example, that the higher scores on this test of students who had computers in the home might be more a function of wealth and classbackground than of any inherent value in the machines. They fail, however, to draw any serious link between the inherent inequity of this situation and the responsibility of schools and government to acknowledge and redress it.

The broad outlines of this report adhere to the stock framework established in 1983 by A Nation at Risk, the pre-eminent pamphlet of the National Commission on Excellence in Education: Children are ignorant of the basic knowledge required to function in society; teachers are untested, often witless, and largely responsible for the obtuseness of their students; the collapse of the schools is having disastrous consequences for the gross national product and our competitive position in the world.

The alleged causes of this sorry situation, implied but never seriously probed, include the takeover of our schools by well-intentioned social reformers who have diluted the content of the curriculum to meaninglessness, and the efforts of dark forces (literally and figuratively) to impose a radically misguided vision of equality onto our schools. The prescriptions follow the same hackneyed pattern: Teachers must be trained in the classics; students need to work harder and be held accountable to a higher standard; and we all need to strive for a return to the proven values of a bygone Golden Age, that rosy period preceding the turbulent 1960’s.

With the most hollow apology, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn describe the collapse of the “professional consensus that supported the established literary curriculum ... as a result of criticism” from blacks, feminists, and “those who on principle opposed the very idea of a canon.”

The authors similarly link the lack of a firm foundation in history to the erosion of a sense of shared tradition and an intellectual cowardice--the fear of “offending some group or individual, those who prefer a different version of history or different works of literature.”

Academic failures, then, emanate from the social turmoil of the 1960’s. The destruction of a “professional consensus” has led to cultural illiteracy as a mass phenomenon. Where once students were expected to work hard and study the classics of our culture, they are now allowed to drift in a murky swamp of cultural relativity.

The framework constructed by Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn contains two structural flaws. First, the Golden Age they imagine, when “every schoolchild” read the classics and shared in our cultural heritage, springs from a nostalgia for a time that never was. It is convenient for many today to forget or ignore the brutality, injustice, and ignorance inherent in our segregated public-school system.

The “every schoolchild” of their dreams is in fact the privileged child for whom school was a logically connected extension of family and community. What of those left out of their dreams? What of the children excluded from their common world?

One of the abiding accomplishments of the civil-rights movement was its challenge to the common-sense view of who “every schoolchild” is or might be, its opening up of our sense of who the public is and what democracy ought to be. By demanding an extension of the public-school mission to include black and other minority children, the civil-rights struggle raised the issue of fairness and broadened our understanding of simple justice. In the aftermath it is impossible to see issues such as ability and disability, gender, accidents of birth or circumstance, questions of national origin or language proficiency, indeed literacy or illiteracy, as groundless and context-free. It is important, rather, to see all of these factors as contingent.

Furthermore, it is once again possible to conceive of educators as activists in addressing and redressing disadvantages. Educators tend to think in terms of opening and extending, and not of closing or narrowing. As the social upheaval of recent times has challenged our sense of legitimacy and possibility, it has also opened the way for other voices to be heard, for women’s voices and black voices, for Native American mythology to be heard along with “classical mythology,” which, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn claim, “was once taught in all American schools to all children.”

The second structural flaw in their framework is the notion that powerful forces in the schools disdain academic content. The authors contend that "[t]here is a tendency in the education profession to believe ... that content is in fact irrelevant, so long as the proper skills are developed and exercised.”

While failing to identify any of the protagonists of this “tendency’’ in professional education, Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn hint that the ascendency of this group is linked to recent social upheaval. They fail to take into account evidence from a number of recent studies indicating that in spite of inflated claims and inflammatory rhetoric, public-school classrooms remain overwhelmingly tradition-bound, curriculum-centered, and teacher-dominated. Their view of what ought to be in schools consists largely of what is already in schools: Teachers attempt to convey large bodies of inert information to passive students who are periodically assessed on a hodgepodge of trivial-pursuit-type tests.

Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn hold a particularly barren vision of what teaching is or can be: “explaining, questioning, coaching, and cajoling until children understand what adults want them to understand.” They are not interested in teaching as an activity that empowers the young to ask their own questions and seek their own answers. They are not concerned with teaching for self-determination, teaching for invention, teaching for transformation. They are not interested in teaching as a dialectical interplay of content and experience, past and present.

Like stern parents, they assert that “children are often not the best judges of what they need to do and know.” Of course not, but they fail to note that children often are powerfully interested in their own learning and consciously engaged in their own growth, and that successful teaching involves connection with that interest and intention, that consciousness and purpose.

The problem with this report, then, is that it uses the presumed failures of an imagined progressive thrust in education to promote an educational agenda that perpetuates much of what already exists. A flawed design and specious methods lead to stretched conclusions that fit nicely with the goals and purposes they share with, among others, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the champion of the right-wing restoration in education.

None of this is to argue that there are not problems in our schools, nor even in the abilities of vast numbers of students who pass through them. But to begin to genuinely address this situation, one would need to start with social and historical context, an area of apparent illiteracy for Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn.

Millions of children--primarily, although not exclusively, urban, poor, black or third world--each year in this country come to schools that are not prepared to teach them. Vast numbers of these children will drop out. Millions more will receive little of value from their encounter with formal education.

The problem is enormous, and it is growing. What is to be done? Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn optimistically assert that “educators, parents, librarians, television producers, and all the rest” have the capacity to solve the problem of cultural illiteracy. Interestingly, their list does not include government and skirts the delicate question, widely despised within the Reagan Administration, of who pays. This question goes to the heart of the issue of public priority and social responsibility.

We all know the elements needed to create successful schools; we simply don’t yet have the collective will or power to create them.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as ‘What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?': A Critique


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