Out Of Order

November 01, 1999 4 min read

ONE SIZE FITS FEW: The Folly Of Educational Standards, by Susan Ohanian. (Heinemann, $16.95.) In this diatribe, longtime teacher and fervent progressive Ohanian comes across like a hectoring right-wing radio host. In a mere 150 pages, she lambastes--and this is a partial list--USA Today, Education Week, corporate greed, the California Department of Education, and everything and anything having to do with the movement to set curriculum standards.

In earlier books such as Who’s in Charge?, Ohanian emerged as an astute critic of educational folly. But One Size, with its self-righteous, sarcastic tone--particularly grating is her insistence on calling standards advocates “Standardistos"--is less analysis than an ad hominem riff, portraying standards as the dark machinations of Fortune 500 executives and conservative think tanks.

Of course, this generalization isn’t even halfway true. The standards movement was launched not by a cabal of elites but by popularly elected governors responding to public demand for greater school accountability. Much of this demand came from activist inner-city parents who wanted a better education for their children. But Ohanian doesn’t acknowledge anything that would dilute her argument that standards are the work of know-nothing elites, contemptuous of teachers and students alike. Standardistos, she tells us in no uncertain terms, are people with “a scope and sequence chart mentality” who say, “Let them eat cake; let them take calculus.”

It’s unfortunate that Ohanian takes such a dismissive approach because it undermines her legitimate, if often overstated, points. Ohanian smartly challenges, for example, the “let’s see how world class we can be” aspect of the standards movement, which in California has produced standards like this one: “Seventh graders will analyze St. Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of classical philosophy with Christian theology.” Sure they will. Ohanian is also right to ask why students should feel motivated to meet rigorous standards when many will end up in low-paying jobs that require only a minimal education.

But Ohanian loses credibility when she accuses advocates and policymakers of promoting standards as a “guarantee of educational equity.” Even the leaders of the California standards movement that Ohanian so ridicules--a whole chapter of her book is devoted to the insidious trend of “Californication"--make no such claims. And with all the ink she gives California, she fails to mention that test scores in the state have been steadily rising over the past few years, a development that more than a few observers attribute to standards and a strengthened core curriculum.

At the heart of Ohanian’s anti-standards progressivism is a belief that “teachers are the curriculum,” and she argues here that teachers can only be effective when they control what goes on in their classrooms, free from onerous outside directives. Though this view has been embraced by certain private schools, it’s fantasy to think it will ever hold sway in taxpayer-supported schools.

Ohanian writes that her experience teaching kids of all ages and abilities has demonstrated the ruse of standards. Few would deny that one person’s experiences and insights can have powerful societal and political implications. But sometimes, as in the case of this too-often spiteful work, the personal just seems all too personal.

The Failed Promise Of The American High School, by David Angus and Jeffrey Mirel. (Teachers College Press, $26.95.) School reform is always difficult, but at the high school level it sometimes seems impossible. The reason, scholars Angus and Mirel suggest in this impressively documented work, is that high school since the Great Depression has largely served a custodial function. Hence, reform is not really a matter of improving the academic program but putting a genuine one in place.

This might seem an overstatement, but the authors have drawn from extensive data on enrollment and course-taking trends over six decades to make their case. During the economic devastation of the 1930s, teenagers were shepherded into high school largely as a way to reduce competition for jobs. Ultimately, this led to the massive comprehensive high schools of the 1950s. These schools, the authors point out, had something of a dual mission. On the one hand, they had to produce an academic elite that could help the United States win the Cold War. On the other, they had to pacify the supposedly less intelligent students with football, cheerleading, and a slate of mindless courses like general math.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, with the barrage of reports detailing the shortcomings of American education, that this “differentiated high school,” as the authors call it, came under attack. Since then, the challenge has been to make high school academically demanding and fulfilling for all students. But to meet that challenge, Angus and Mirel argue, teachers, students, and parents alike must first embrace the radical idea that all kids are capable of high academic achievement.

--David Ruenzel