An influential American educator would say we've forgotten the larger purpose of public education in a democratic society.
What would Ernest L. Boyer say about the condition of American education in the 21st century? As an educator—and his son—I ponder this question often and think I know the answer. He would find a few kind words to say about the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But then he would assert, in measured tones, that the nation has almost completely forgotten the larger purpose of public education in a democratic society.
Ernie Boyer, as he was universally known, was one the most influential American educators from the late 1970s, when he was the U.S. commissioner of education, through the mid-1990s, when he served as the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In the latter post, he became a founding father of the school reform movement and remained an influential leader in all levels of education until his death in 1995.
During his lifetime, many of the proposals he championed—from service learning in high schools to more educational programming on television—were implemented. But 10 years after his death, I think he would find the work of school reform unfinished. Indeed, he would probably say it is slipping off track. We are no closer to the kind of education he advocated than we were 20 years ago.
It was my father’s approach as a writer and public speaker, however, to first acknowledge evidence of progress. So as he surveyed the landscape of American education in 2005, he would certainly observe with approval that the cause of education reform has, at last, become a national priority. In 1983, when the report A Nation at Risk was released and the reform movement gained momentum, my father often argued that if America was truly a “nation at risk” then a national response was required.
But the need for school reform was recognized before there was a mandate for federal leadership. Speaking to a gathering of education writers in 1993, he observed: “As recently as the 1970s, when I was U.S. commissioner of education, the words ‘national’ and ‘education’ simply could not be connected. In those days, if I even whispered the words ‘national standards,’ I would have been driven out of town.”
Ernie Boyer saw attitudes change during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since his death, federal leadership is not only accepted, it is expected. He would, I think, see this as a sign of progress. Against the harshest critics of public education, he always insisted that American education was not a wholesale failure. The best public schools—the top 10 percent to 15 percent, he estimated—were the best in the world. But his greatest concern was for the bottom third. These schools were, he said, “in desperately bad shape,” yet were bypassed by most reformers. He supported federal involvement in school reform because only Washington could address this shameful inequity.
When testing comes to define excellence, rather than be a path toward excellence, it no longer serves the role my father envisioned. It prevents what he ultimately hoped to achieve.
But as the reform movement progressed in its ragged, herky-jerky way, he observed that it had achieved “only limited progress” by the early 1990s. The problem, he felt, was that it lacked a unifying vision: Failure was defined broadly; solutions were piecemeal; the reform effort was fragmented by competing programs and ideologies. In this climate, by the end of his life, he endorsed the emerging movement for national education standards and testing. Assessment of students in basic subjects would focus national attention and resources on a clear and measurable goal, he believed. “Such an effort, properly directed, could give the reform movement precisely the focus that’s been lacking,” he said in 1993.
So here, too, he could find reason for hope. The No Child Left Behind law has, indeed, brought purpose and focus to the reform effort and is now the driving force in American education. This nearly 4-year-old federal legislation has become, as my father predicted, “the fulcrum of reform.” All this, as he might say, is a cause for celebration. Quality education is now the nation’s responsibility, and schools are focusing on the pragmatic goal of excellence in the basics.
But here my father would grow alarmed. Testing has a role to play in the reform movement, but, for him, testing was not an end in itself. Standardized assessment was merely the first step—a way to spotlight weakness and compel more equitable funding. From this, the real task of reform could begin. He hoped that testing would spur creativity and innovation within schools, leading to more community engagement and, especially, a more integrated curriculum. “I urgently hope we can move beyond the old Carnegie units,” he wrote. “I find it disturbing that students can complete the required courses, receive a high school diploma, and still fail to gain a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life.”
Academic rigor, when detached from any larger educational purpose, is “an exercise in trivial pursuit,” my father believed. Instead, the most meaningful education revealed connections—between subjects, between people, and between cultures. “To be truly educated means going beyond the isolated facts, putting learning in a larger context and, above all, it means discovering the connectedness of things,” he argued. In his view, art and music were as important as math and science because they were all expressions of human achievement and powerful means of communication. Likewise, service learning was not a distraction from academic study, but an integral part of becoming an engaged citizen. Putting all this, and more, together into a coherent whole was what a good school was all about.
Ernie Boyer’s support of testing was conditional. Even as he saw its power to unify the reform movement, he worried that it could also stifle innovation. “Critics worry, quite correctly I believe, that the national standards and assessment movement could impose rigid testing on all schools and suffocate reform,” he cautioned.
A dozen years later, his fears proved justified. As I talk with teachers and administrators across the country, I see that many desire a more coherent, integrated curriculum. I also see many examples of innovation in individual classrooms. But good schools and dedicated teachers work in a political climate that fails to recognize, or even support, their efforts. Testing, as it is now implemented, acts as a powerful current, pulling American education not toward coherence, but toward a constricted and fragmented curriculum. By focusing with the intensity of a laser beam on test scores and narrow, short-term strategies to raise them, the deeper purpose of education is cast in shadows and slowly forgotten.
I think my father would say that testing is only one part of the reform tool kit.
No question, testing makes schools and their teachers more accountable. State assessment scores inevitably make headlines, and low-performing schools feel the weight of disapproval, both from legislators and from parents. In poor, minority-serving schools—precisely the schools my father was most concerned about—it is no longer possible to write off historically underachieving students. This is progress worth noting.
But I think my father would say that testing is only one part of the reform tool kit. When testing comes to define excellence, rather than be a path toward excellence, it no longer serves the role my father envisioned. It prevents what he ultimately hoped to achieve. He described his vision, with characteristic passion, a couple of years before his death:
“I know how idealistic it may sound, but it is my urgent hope that in the century ahead students in the nation’s schools will be judged not by their performance on a single test but by the quality of their lives. It’s my hope that students in the classrooms of tomorrow will be encouraged to be creative, not conforming, learning to cooperate rather than compete.”
Talking with educators across the country, I sense a growing frustration, not only with the No Child Left Behind Act, but also with the limitations of today’s education debate. Tinkering with the “No Child” law is not enough. We need a new generation of leaders willing to give voice to the deeper role teachers and schools play in society. Otherwise, America’s schools will be impoverished by a definition of “excellence” that fails to recognize the full potential of children and the larger needs of the nation. n