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Assessment Opinion

Leave No Child Unsuccessful?

By Sara L. Matthews — January 09, 2002 3 min read
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Why do we as a society assume that some must always do less well than others—even at Harvard?

A newspaper article I read recently on Harvard University’s problem with “grade inflation” has left me at a crossroads in my thinking and in my work. Having deemed some 90 percent of its students worthy of its honor roll, Harvard, the country’s oldest institution of learning, has come under fire from within and without. As a schoolteacher, I’ve found this response puzzling.

Why would great success among students at Harvard be so difficult for us to believe? That university is probably the most competitive in the nation in admissions. Not only is it privileged to enroll our most sought-after students, but it also has a large endowment that assures well-financed programs and attracts a very highly esteemed faculty. Only a small fraction of those who apply to Harvard are accepted, and only scholars at the top of their field win appointments to its faculty. Why, then, would not the excellence of Harvard’s students be attributed to the talent of those students, the excellence of their teachers, and the skill of the university’s admissions department in carefully selecting students who will thrive at Harvard?

The answer, of course, is that conventional thinking deems such a thing impossible—even at Harvard. As a society, we assume that some students will thrive and others must fail. This assumption prevails, even as our president exhorts teachers nationwide to “leave no child behind.” Like others, I have assumed this rallying cry to mean that teachers should work to help each and every student be successful in school. Yet, even as we are embracing the goal of having every student be successful, we are willing to heap ridicule and disbelief on Harvard when it claims to have done just this.

Even as we are embracing the goal of having every student be successful, we are willing to heap ridicule and disbelief on Harvard when it claims to have done just this.

As a teacher, I am a servant of society and thus need its direction as I work to teach our students. How should I respond to the apparent contradictions in society’s expectations of education? To “leave no child behind” yet, at the same time, to deem relatively few students as successful? How do I put those contradictory expectations into play in my teaching?

And, moreover, how is it that two such contradictory expectations of education have come to live live side by side in our society? The answer, it seems to me, is this: We look to our schools to be places of judgment. With each level of education, a new and more rigorous gantlet is to be run, and our expectation is that some will thrive and some will fail. Indeed, some must fail, as their failure is apparently what is needed to validate the success of others. Logic demands, then, that our schools are thus directed to be places where some students need to be “weeded out” even as we cry out, “leave no student behind!”

The first of many questions to which I need an answer, then, would be this one: Why do we as a society assume that some must always do less well than others— even at Harvard? Why do we constantly look to schools to establish a pecking order of the highly successful, the less successful, and the failures, while at the same time telling teachers to “leave no student behind”?

Why do we constantly look to schools to establish a pecking order of the highly successful, the less successful, and the failures, while at the same time telling teachers to ‘leave no student behind’?

What is it we want from America’s schools? Do we really want excellence in instruction for all students? Do we want all students to be successful, or is it necessary that some must fail so that the success of others may seem real?

Until this inherent contradiction can be resolved in the future, I need my country’s help as a teacher now. What is the magic ratio of success to failure in our schools with which the media and the American people will be happy? Exactly how many students may I deem worthy of honors? And how many may I leave behind?

The criticism directed at Harvard is simply the most recent foray in a struggle over the meaning of excellence that started long ago. The latest wave of criticism directed at America’s schools began in 1983, with the publication of A Nation at Risk. For nearly 20 years, it has continued unabated, while teachers reel from the blows. And now, it reaches even the hallowed halls of Harvard.

Perhaps that’s only fitting. After all, in addition to its educational legacy, Massachusetts is also the place where witch hunts first began.

Sara Matthews teaches at a Quaker school and lives in Newtown, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Leave No Child Unsuccessful?


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