Standards Opinion

Dead Horses, Buried Assumptions

By William A. Proefriedt — July 11, 2001 11 min read
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We set our standards, assume some moral deficiency in those who cannot meet them, and consign them to a well-deserved poverty.

Beneath the surface of the contemporary debate over standards and testing, a set of assumptions has congealed in which most of the participants are stuck. The assumptions were once themselves the subjects of lively argument, but have long since receded from the sunlight of contested propositions. They reflect disputes settled long ago, disputes no longer seen as worthy of debate. Perhaps revisiting these buried assumptions will help move us beyond the banalities of the current standards discussion.

Before I outline what these assumptions are, let me state, in unpardonably oversimplified terms, the nature of the current standards debate: The reformers argue that for a variety of reasons, since the 1960s, young people in our schools have failed to acquire appropriate knowledge as they moved through various grade levels. Graduates of our elementary and secondary schools have been unprepared for either college or the workplace. They have fallen behind students from other countries in comparative test scores. Our students are unable to function in the modern workplace, and our nation is unable to compete with other nations in the world economic marketplace. For two decades now, the reformers have argued that the nation is at risk; and the schools are at fault.

The solution offered is this: Let us set clear standards. By the 5th grade, all students will be able to do these and these things. Before they will be passed on to the next grade, they will demonstrate on external tests that they have met the standards. High schools will cease offering the sort of elective courses that students had previously taken to avoid challenging academic work. All students, and the details vary from state to state, will take more years of science, math, English, foreign languages, and social studies. Students who do not pass exams demonstrating they have met appropriate standards, and who do not complete specified sequences in these areas, will not receive high school diplomas.

Resistance to the standards-based-reform movement is scattered, often shrill, and for now at least, finds little resonance in places where public policy is made: at the White House, in the halls of Congress, in state legislatures, in governors’ offices, and in state education departments. In these places, the standards approach holds sway. The opposition says: Things are not as bad as they seem; the charges against the schools about lowered student achievement, about comparisons with other countries, about a failing economy due to school deficiencies are exaggerated, unproven, untrue, all part of an orchestrated attack on public education. Repeated high-impact external testing is detrimental to creative teaching and student learning. Teaching for the test narrows the curriculum and thereby harms the student. We test students on the wrong things. We raise the standards but do not provide schools with the resources needed to help the students reach the standards. And, for me the most telling criticism, though one which the decisionmakers continue to effectively ignore, that tremendous inequalities in school funding exist, and that the standards movement will result in punitive actions taken against the nation’s poorest children. They will never graduate from high school.

Allow me now to lay out the three interrelated assumptions that are largely shared by both the standards-based reformers and those few who challenge them: (a) the belief in the almost infinite plasticity of human beings over and against notions of any sort of natural social hierarchy; (b) the belief that school and economic success is achieved by force of will and stick-to-it-iveness, and that the vast income differences in our society are hence justified; and (c) the belief that the chief road to achievement and well- being in our present age is through a college education. This last is the least impregnable of my three assumptions, possibly because it is the most specific and also the latest to achieve mythic status. It’s the only one which would have seemed questionable a half-century ago.

There are some dissenters from these propositions; but they are not taken seriously by policymakers. Many of us would like to add some small qualification to one or more of the propositions. Both the policymakers and the critics, however, speak and act, legislate and regulate, as if each of these propositions were true.

  • The almost infinite plasticity of human beings. What an extraordinarily powerful notion this has been. Since the late 18th century, in Europe and America, the rear guard of the ancien régime had argued, in a desperate effort to hold on to its privileges, that the peasants and later the proles were by nature not able to assume social leadership. Hence, public expenditure on educational institutions, beyond the most elementary, made no sense. People were already assigned the place in which they belonged. But the revolutionary cat was out of the bag. And long-held beliefs about a natural social hierarchy collapsed under the weight of the ambitious and energetic citizens who hustled along the streets of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia and Samuel Johnson’s London. Members of this new class sloughed off no longer useful notions of a natural place in the community and invented their own futures. They formulated a new, dynamic view of human nature and an educational theory and practice that reflected their actions. John Locke, Claude Adrien Helvetius, and other educational theorists told us that human nature was pliable; nothing human was written in stone. By strength of will and the application of studied techniques, we could make what we wanted of ourselves; and our educational institutions could shape young people with no limits set by the notion of prior natural destiny. Schooling would free human beings to rise in the world.

We make a terrible mistake in insisting that some students follow an academic curriculum for which they have neither interest nor aptitude.

Late 20th-century arguments for significant differences in talent based on heredity do not enter in any serious way into the making of school policy. They are isolated not only because they have tied their conclusions about the significance of the hereditary factor in school and general success to arguments about hereditary differences between races, but also because they are at odds with our belief in educational opportunity and human possibility. Existing social mobility, the civil rights movement, huge increases in secondary school and college attendance, and a general economic prosperity have buried the Arthur Jensens and Richard J. Herrnsteins. The infinite capacity of human beings to invent themselves is a powerful and energizing notion. But it has a rarely explored darker side, which we need to take seriously.

A quarter of a century ago, I read a biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It contained an extraordinary image that revisits me whenever I try to think seriously about the issue of equality of educational opportunity in this country. Johnson, of course, with his championing of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, committed our national government to the support of the schooling of the poorest among us. Ms. Goodwin tells the story of how in 1928, not yet graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, the future shaper of the Great Society spent nine months running an elementary school in Cotulla, Texas, teaching Mexican-American children. She paints him as enormously energetic, compassionate, concerned, and demanding. He sponsored all sorts of competitive events—volleyball, baseball, track and field, public speaking, spelling bees—enlisting the parents, and spending his own money when necessary.

Ms. Goodwin quotes from Johnson’s conversations with her at his ranch after he had retired from the presidency: “Those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much. I was determined to spark something inside them, to fill their souls with ambition and interest and belief in the future. I was determined to give them what they needed to make it in this world, to help them finish their education. Then the rest would take care of itself.”

Ms. Goodwin then juxtaposes another of Johnson’s stories with this one. When he was a very young boy living on a farm with his parents, his closest playmate was a Mexican-American boy named Huisso. Young Lyndon wanted to race on horseback with Huisso. But Huisso’s horse was thin and weak. Johnson took feed from his own bins and doubled the intake of Huisso’s horse in an effort to make him stronger for the race. Twice they raced, and Johnson’s horse won easily. “So we tried one more time, and Huisso pushed his horse hard as he had ever pushed anything. This time the horse seemed to be moving much faster, but in the middle of the race it simply slipped out from under him. It had collapsed. It was dead. It was too much, I guess, too much running, too much food, too much care. It just didn’t seem fair after all we had done. We cried and cried and cried until I thought we would never stop.” Doris Kearns Goodwin reports no effort by Johnson to draw a meaning from this story.

The standards movement will result in punitive actions taken against the nation’s poorest children. They will never graduate from high school.

In truth, it’s an un-American story. It breaks with the whole sense of future possibility that is so much a part of the American dream, that Johnson so embodied in his own life, preached to the nation from the presidential bully pulpit, and tried to enact in his education and civil rights legislation. It’s a dangerous story because it might be used by those who would turn back the clock on whatever efforts the nation is presently making for the educational opportunity of our poorest children. It is a troubling story, to me, because however much I want to believe in the infinite possibilities for every American child, I keep seeing that image of Huisso’s dead horse.

  • Success achieved by force of will and stick-to-it-iveness. No one should underestimate the extraordinary mythic power of the celebration of the human will, of persistence, concentration on a goal and a program to achieve it, refusal to give up, and of the glory of victory. It is a story enacted daily in the popular media by athletes, executives, rock stars, and the guests of Oprah Winfrey. I’ve told it to myself, my children, and my grandchildren. The winner works hard and deserves the prize. Raising serious doubts about the meaning of the myth within the American dialogue about education is like raising questions about the purpose of horse racing among the fans at Churchill Downs. Folks won’t take to it. And yet, we need to ask questions about this central myth of effort, merit, and reward.

First, it is clearly not true that all students have an equal chance at educational and, hence, vocational success. Parental income continues to be a good predictor of both of these. But the standards debate refuses to take seriously the role of nonschool variables. Conservative educational theorists point to individuals and schools which overcome the odds, and the parents of poor children view economic explanations of school failure as taking schools and teachers off the hook, and as blaming the victim. The smug winners of the meritocratic scramble congratulate themselves on their performance and prepare their own offspring for the next running of the derby.

And what of the losers who seethe with resentment at what they perceive as societal unfairness or, worse yet, accept the race as a fair one and internalize society’s evaluation of them? We are a long way from the level playing field, but even if we were there, there would still be differences in performance. Our belief in our own merited success allows us to accept enormous and destructive differences in our reward structure. We are left with competition as the sole American virtue, and our sense of solidarity with our fellow citizens is lost by the wayside. We set our standards, assume some moral deficiency in those who cannot meet them, and consign them to a well-deserved poverty.

  • College as the chief road to achievement and well-being. Standards advocates like Diane Ravitch argue that all high school students should take a college-preparatory course of study. In a recent polemic against progressive education, she accuses all the progressives of being undemocratic for supporting a differentiated curriculum. Contemporary left-wing thinkers tend to join in the chorus of those who support an academic high school and encourage college-going for the whole population. They point out that, historically, student assignments to vocational tracks in high schools have been affected by a class and race bias. No doubt. But this flaw should not blind us to the fact that student interests and talents are quite varied.

We make a terrible mistake in insisting that some students follow an academic curriculum for which they have neither interest nor aptitude. Surely, the left is correct in pointing up past undemocratic uses of vocational tracks in our secondary schools; but we ought not to discount the possibility that present- day arguments against vocationalism in the high schools, often made by college professors, are themselves the product of undemocratic biases toward certain types of work, a bias reflected in the wage structures of the larger society.

I don’t think the policymakers will revisit these three assumptions. They are in the stands at the derby, cheering for the front-runners, entertaining no questions about the meaning and purpose of the race. Someone can bury the fallen horses later.

William A. Proefriedt is an emeritus professor of education at the City University of New York in New York City, where he teaches a course on the history of education.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Dead Horses, Buried Assumptions


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