Thinking About Education

February 06, 1991 4 min read

Stanford University’s David Tyack, writing in the Winter Teachers College Record, takes a historical look at school restructuring and finds that what is perennially discredited as bureaucractic “bloat” often grows from the promise of specific benefits. While some have embraced deregulation and decentralization as cure-alls, he says, U.S. schools have moved steadily and inevitably toward more large districts and stronger federal laws:

With ritualistic regularity Americans have created and then bemoaned bureaucracies. A common pattern in the 1960’s, for example, was to identify some problem and then designate an administrator to take care of it. Americans have also been ambivalent about regulations, often deciding that “there ought to be a law,” then grousing about red tape.

Bureaucracies and regulations are not simply perverse and malign growths. In their origins they usually seemed reasonable responses to perceived problems. Much of the growth in nonteaching staff, for example, resulted from a conscientious desire to provide children with services--nutrition, day care, transportation, libraries, and counseling--that otherwise would have been absent. Today, indeed, some reformers talk about locating more, not fewer, social services in the schools, which would mean adding more nonteaching staff.

Regulation in American education has often aimed at correcting serious inequities such as segregation of blacks or neglect of disabled or immigrant children. Wholesale deregulation has the potential of reintroducing social injustices. As Americans have learned painfully in the savings-and-loan fiasco of the Reagan years, deregulation can have its not-so-hidden costs.

“In education, not to euphemize is to risk not being taken seriously,” laments John Holdren in the December issue of Basic Education. In “It’s Not Critical,” the director of intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Education Department points out the amusing, yet exasperating vagueness of one new phrase in “educationese":

The variety of definitions and emphases I gleaned from professional journals is reflected in the responses I got when I asked my colleagues at school, “What is critical thinking?” ... One waxed poetic: It’s “an active pursuit, a switching on all of our faculties and resources.” One expressed bewilderment: “Does it have something to do with values clarification?” One knew what it’s not: It’s “not memorizing vocabulary or mere sensory perception.” One offered these critical thoughts on critical thinking: “Is there uncritical thinking? Would that be thinking? Critical thinking is, I suppose, adding an adjective to the gerund to reinforce it.”

In a field so overgrown with jargon, it may seem futile to pluck at a single weed like “critical thinking.” But one has to begin somewhere, and why not with a term that has become so vague, imprecise, and common that it can describe anything from a five-minute writing activity to a spiritual disposition.

Yes, we can teach principles of logical analysis, or we can practice “questioning strategies,” or we can have students write “thought papers.” ... But let’s just accept these useful activities for what they are, and not disguise them behind a faddish euphemism. As my colleague suggested, it would be more precise just to speak of thinking.

In the current issue of The Public Interest, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York discusses the evolution of “output based” educational policy, which he traces back to the federally funded report by James S. Coleman in the 1960’s, which showed that the “input” of financial resources at certain schools was not necessarily correlated with the “output” in terms of student achievement. Ideas generated by that study have been reflected in the education goals set by President Bush and the governors, Senator Moynihan says, but without the analytical discipline of the original:

Through its emphasis on outputs, the Coleman Report had changed the terms in which political executives addressed the subject of education. What it did not do, and could not be expected to have done, was to invest these terms with an appropriate sense of accountability. For on no account could the President’s goals--the quantified, specific goals--reasonably be deemed capable of achievement.

It will readily be seen that some of the Presidential goals were essentially nonquantitative, such that we will never know for sure whether we have achieved them. By the year 2000 “every child must start school ready to learn.” Most of us would grant that readiness to learn is an elusive concept, although we are often surprised by what we learn to measure. Similarly, it is hard to be sure just what the President meant when he said that “every adult must be a skilled, literate worker and citizen.” We get the idea, of course, but measuring the outcome would seem to present difficulties. Just what do we mean by “skilled” or “literate”? But then again, we might very well find a measure of such qualities. When an employer advertises for a “skilled mechanic,” those concerned seem to know what is involved. Why not, then, a ''skilled citizen”?

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Thinking About Education