Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

The Golden Mean

By Patrick Mattimore — May 26, 2004 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
The voices of education reform do not speak to the majority of schools, parents, teachers, and students.

The Roman poet Horace coined the Latin phrase aurea mediocritas, which translated means the golden mean. The “golden mean” is a useful mathematical concept for expressing relationships between numbers. Linguists define the concept somewhat differently, as a sensible way of doing things or the avoidance of extremes. Educational theorists, unfortunately, are ignorant of the concept entirely.

I taught for 10 years at an average-performing urban high school in San Mateo County, Calif. During my years as a teacher, I followed the reform debate, looking for ways to inform and improve my own teaching. I found that theorists, regardless of their philosophical perspectives, often attacked the issue of education reform from the extremes. That is, the top-performing schools were offered as beacons to prescribe the educational path for the rest of us; the lowest-performing schools offered examples of what we should avoid. Occasionally, of course, we teachers were reminded by anecdotes of the truly remarkable schools that had shifted from lowest-performing to highest- performing by following a certain path. That path became the magic bullet.

One such magic bullet is provided by an editorial from this past fall in The San Jose Mercury News touting the performance of that city’s Alum Rock school district. The 24 schools in this relatively poor district raised their Academic Performance Index scores on statewide tests by an average of more than 45 points. The superintendent is pictured solemnly explaining the strategies the schools have used to achieve such phenomenal success.

Phenomenal, that is, until one considers some other factors. First, the district’s schools were well below the county average to begin with; thus, the principle of the golden mean would suggest that, over time, these schools will gravitate more closely to the middle. In fact, Alum Rock still has the lowest test scores of any elementary school district in Santa Clara County. Second, if one looks at scores for schools throughout the state and compares schools with similar populations of students with Alum Rock, one notices that comparable schools gained an average of approximately 36 points. In other words, the district’s “magical” relative gain per school is less than 10 points on an 800-point scale, or 1.25 percent per school. Encouraging, but hardly overwhelming. Moreover, Alum Rock’s similar schools’ average ranking is still below average when measured against comparable schools.

Educational nostrums rarely intrigued my teaching colleagues. Particularly the most experienced (and often the best) among them paid little heed to ongoing pedagogical debates. As I listened to the theorists, I began to understand why. These teachers were not burned out. They simply weren’t listening to the experts because the experts weren’t speaking to them.

The voices of education reform have not been speaking to the majority, the golden mean of schools, parents, teachers, and students. A majority of schools, including my high school, are neither blackboard jungles nor Harvard preparatory incubators. Reforms instituted at the edges and propelled from the extremes will not change the majority of our schools.

As a psychology teacher, I taught my students to beware of the persuasive power of vivid events. The schools at the edges make for much more interesting copy than the schools in the middle. Readers would prefer to read a story about, and investigators would prefer to do research on, a high school that is in the bottom or the top 1 percent of all high schools in the state, rather than a story about a high school performing at the 28th or the 76th percentile (schools in the middle two-thirds). When we hear about exceptional schools that vividly stir our imagination, we tend to overgeneralize and assume those schools are more typical of most high schools than they really are. When we mistakenly allow the exceptions to drive our policies, we neglect a majority of our students and schools.

It is both aesthetically pleasing and morally satisfying to imagine that we should pour our efforts into the lowest-performing schools and students. It is, perhaps, equally enticing to imagine that our highest performers can lead the rest by example. The federal government’s education policy proceeds on just such assumptions.

Reforms instituted at the edges and propelled from the extremes will not change the majority of our schools.

The logic of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is as follows: (1) The reading scores of our lowest-performing students have declined over the years, and (2) some schools have been able to improve scores of traditionally low-performing students, therefore (3) all schools should be able to improve the scores. Even assuming that we had the psychic and financial resolve to implement the policies (we don’t), and further assuming that test scores should be the sole measure of success (questionable), can we expect that because some schools improve, all schools should improve? Again, the implication is that we have found that proverbial magic bullet, and now all we have to do is use it. Just because some people can do something unexpected, it doesn’t follow that we should expect everyone to do it. In fact, we should expect the opposite—most still won’t be able to do it.

Federal policy becomes even murkier because Washington wishes to lead and, at the same time, wants the states to retain control of education. Hence, many schools in California, for example, reported huge gains in last spring’s statewide tests, yet still face sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal legislation is based on a system of rewards and punishments. Reward the best, punish the worst, and overlook the middle.

There is a sensible alternative for education policy. It is not flashy or vivid, but in the long term, it can work. Examine the “golden mean” of schools. Find out what they are doing. Invite average teachers, students, parents, and administrators into the decisionmaking process. Let them guide and inspire one another and be in the forefront of education reform, instead of chasing the two ends.

Patrick Mattimore is a former high school teacher. He retired as the chairman of the social studies department at South San Francisco High School, in San Francisco, in 2002.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as The Golden Mean

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Pandemic-Seasoned Principals Share Hard-Earned Leadership Lessons
The COVID crisis has tested principals’ resolve to an unprecedented degree, but many have gleaned valuable takeaways from the experience.
6 min read
Boat on the water with three people inside. Leader pointing  forward. In the water around them are coronavirus pathogens.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management This Intensive Internship Helps Principals Get Ready For the Job
A two-year program in Columbus City Schools gives aspiring principals the chance to dive deep into the job before actually taking the reins.
10 min read
Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School, talks with Katina Perry in Columbus, Ohio on November 30, 2021. Columbus City Schools has a program that lets principal “test out” the principal role, before actually fully taking it on. Through the program, they work in a school for two years under a mentor principal and fill in as principal at different schools during that time.
Katina Perry, right, principal of Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, meets with Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School and Perry's mentor in a school leader internship program.
Maddie McGarvey for Education Week
School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty