'Three Assassins of Excellence'

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One of the more memorable events associated with my 20-year tenure as the president of the Council for Basic Education was the opportunity in 1983 to address the members of the National Press Club at one of their lunchtime presentations broadcast throughout the country on National Public Radio. With the able assistance of my deputy, Dennis Gray, I decided to entitle the address "Three Assassins of Excellence." The assassins were disparity, minimum-competency testing, and misguided utilitarianism.

It is not difficult to find grotesque examples of disparity. From the time I first came to America in the 1950s, I was astonished to learn that per-pupil expenditures in Trenton, N.J., were exactly half those in Princeton, N.J., only 10 miles away. In the meantime, Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities underscores a veritable litany of similar situations, such as the glaring difference between East St. Louis, Ill., and Rye, N.Y. Furthermore, there has been a striking increase in the poverty rate among children, especially in the last decade. Regrettably enough, disparities of every kind--social, economic, and political--have vastly increased since 1983.

The gradual erosion of the traditional ballast of the middle class and the growth of the underclass remind us of the prescience of the Kerner Report's conclusions two decades earlier: The rich (predominantly majority) are getting infinitely richer, and the poor (predominantly minority) correspondingly poorer. This is reflected in the direct relationship between the perceived quality of school systems and the value of real estate. Thus, the double-tiered system first legalized by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 (separate but equal) has hardly been ameliorated by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), "thorough and efficient" legislation, and the various other judicial and legislative attempts (viz., Serrano v. Priest, 1972) to redress obvious disparities.

In terms of minimum-competency testing, our second assassin, this is a phenomenon which fortunately has come and gone. In retrospect, this particular approach to assessment did little more than recycle mediocrity. It clearly sanctioned a "lowest common multiple" approach to accountability.

But between 1983 and 1996, genuine progress has been made to develop a more rational approach to assessment. Participation in the College Board's Advanced Placement program has skyrocketed. The Stanford 9 test (recently used throughout the Boston city schools to establish a baseline for student achievement) is a vastly improved standardized test, with its emphasis on critical thinking as opposed to memorization. Even the clearly obsolescent SAT tests have been revised to require a writing sample; and the New York regents' examinations now accommodate a more flexible approach to reflect different modes of instruction. While we have not solved the dilemma of how to pay for the vastly increased cost of authentic assessment, there is no doubt we are making tangible advances in this arena.

However, the confusion about the essential mission of schooling, our third assassin, is as pervasive as ever. The country as a whole is still attuned to the shibboleth that education's prime responsibility is to prepare people for jobs, vocational-educational-style.In spite of the promise inherent in some of the new school-career programs, which emphasize the basic-education component far more than the old-style vocational training, nothing could be more misguided.

Indeed, given the economic uncertainty of a world informed by unprecedented change, there is no way that schools can graduate students with sufficient knowledge to respond to the multiple career changes which the student of the 21st century can logically anticipate. Rather, as the U. S. Department of Labor's SCANS report logically insists, schools should equip their graduates with skills that complement the capacity for lifelong learning, and the kind of civic virtue essential to productive participation in our unique system of democracy. Specifically, by focusing on a core curriculum rather than the traditional emphasis on vocational education for the non-college-bound, many more of our students will be able to think critically and accept ambiguity as the norm rather than the exception. Further, they will exemplify those character traits essential to success in the workplace--team cooperation, assessing alternative strategies, problem-solving, and informed judgment--attributes that the disciplines embraced by the liberal arts uniquely ensure. In a word, there is an essential distinction between education and training. As John Henry Newman put it, "The best vocational education is liberal education."

Of course, for our schools to be arsenals of liberal education, major changes will have to take place. The mission of schools will have to be much more sharply etched. Schools can no longer act as welfare stations for those economically or socially disadvantaged. Other entities will have to be developed to respond to this challenge. The level of discourse between teacher and student at every level, kindergarten through 12th grade, will have to be transformed. Requiring all teachers to be teachers of writing might be a logical first step. Insisting that all students be exposed to the Socratic-style seminar of the sort championed by the National Paideia Center would be a powerful complement. Breaking down the dysfunctional barriers that reinforce departmental fiefdoms would be another salutary change.

But no change would be more therapeutic than standards-based reform. Developing logical standards-setting procedures to determine what students should know and be able to do at every grade level is a prerequisite. Such efforts have to be supported by genuine community involvement. Because standards subvert the status quo, a whole series of revolutionary changes will result, not least of which is judging students on the basis of a predetermined level of expectation, not time spent in school.

These changes would include eliminating Carnegie units of credit, abandoning the 12-year lockstep for everybody, lengthening the school year and school day, and a revolution in both teacher training and in-service to accommodate the multiple intelligences of students whose diverse learning styles require a variety of teaching techniques. In addition, it will become mandatory to insist that principals be chosen not for their presumed managerial capacities, but for their instructional insights. Only then will the fortress mentality of schools divorced from their communities be eroded. Unless and until genuine connections are made between the classroom experience and the outside world will students begin to be motivated and enabled to compete successfully in an interconnected world, requiring the highest standards of academic performance.

Without these revolutionary changes, our schools will continue to fail our students. Our schools will cease to transmit those shared values so essential to the fabric of a diverse society. The sense of common good, now seriously eroded, will continue to diminish. Only by surgical transformation can we as a nation be assured of genuine educational equality of opportunity and a civilization where collective destiny and individual fulfillment are equally evident.

Vol. 16, Issue 05, Page 35

Published in Print: October 2, 1996, as 'Three Assassins of Excellence'
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