To the Editor:
The sight of two backpage Commentaries on the issue of standards sitting side by side raised, for just a fleeting moment, the possibility that two different positions on the issue might be heard ("Four Reasons Why Most 'Don't Cut the Mustard,'" and ("Don't Be Confused by the Rankings; Focus on Results," Nov. 11, 1998). But no: Both essays reflected the same basic perspective promoted by business groups and conservative academics as well as many politicians and journalists.
To write on this issue, apparently, all one has to do is reshuffle a handful of terms (tough, competitive, world-class, measurable, accountability, results, standards, raising the bar) and, by invoking the arrival of the 21st century, paint a modern facade on Frederick W. Taylor's old "scientific management" model.
The fundamental tenets are uncritically accepted: Teachers should be told exactly what to teach and when; harder is better; carrots and sticks will "motivate" people; and high scores on standardized tests constitute proof of success. Anyone who resists this viewpoint is accused of being satisfied with "fluff" (Chester E. Finn Jr. and his co-authors in the first essay) or of having "mushy" standards (Susan Pimentel and Leslye A. Arsht in the second). The only things left to debate are whether testing should occur at the state or national level, how exactly we should administer the bribes and threats to elicit compliance, and why various rankings of state standards aren't identical.
Fortunately for those of us in search of contrasting views on this question, the Commentary by Mr. Finn, Michael J. Petrilli, and Gregg Vanourek clashes with itself. First, they advocate "spelling out which books children should read in English class, which individuals and events to study in history, and so on. ... " Then, a few paragraphs later, they tell us that "[s]tandards, if done right, should not standardize what happens within schools." Rather, standards should "free the schools from top-down dictates" and enable a range of educational "models to emerge, from 'progressive' to 'traditional,' and everything in between. ... "
The latter sentiment is prompted by their concern that states will mandate whole-language instruction, a rather curious thing to be worried about in light of the fact that 67 pieces of state legislation were introduced just in 1996 and 1997 to require direct instruction of phonics--and none to require anything like whole language.
More important, though, the statement of support for diverse educational models is disingenuous. To adopt what might be called the "bunch o' facts" approach to education--let alone to specify which facts must be taught--is by definition to wipe out pedagogy that aims for more ambitious learning. Those who defend this version of school reform should be honest enough to admit that this in itself constitutes both a model of education and a top-down dictate.
John I. Goodlad
New York, N.Y.
Vol. 18, Issue 14, Page 41Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Letters