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School & District Management Opinion

The Golden Mean

By Patrick Mattimore — May 26, 2004 5 min read
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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.

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

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