Assessment Opinion

Substituting Pay for Passion

By Diane Ravitch — June 22, 2007 3 min read

Dear Deb,

Apparently your trip to China has in no way dimmed your energy or your imagination. Imagine filing two pieces almost instantly!

What knowledge is of most worth? I don’t think we would answer the question very differently. Despite some argumentativeness around the margins, we agree on “habits of mind,” and we also (I think) agree that math, literacy, history, the sciences, the arts, and physical education are essential elements in education. You prefer to have the teachers in each school decide what the content of each year’s curriculum is; I believe that it is valuable and indeed necessary to have curricular guidelines for the district, the state, even the nation. I think—and I may be wrong—that when it is left to individual schools to write their own curriculum, there is enormous variation. Some schools do it well, others do it poorly or not at all; most will tend to rely on the textbooks and the tests to determine their curriculum. Those who do it well tend to be located in the most affluent districts, which reinforces the inequities from district to district.

And there is another reason why it would be valuable to have a good state or national curriculum: Student mobility. Families move from state to state, and from district to district. Many years ago, I heard from a student who told me that her family had moved twice in three years, all in the state of New Jersey. Consequently, she had been assigned to study New Jersey state history three years in a row, in fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade. That is wacky.

As to your point about hard work, I don’t know the data any more than you, but I have read that Americans work harder and more productively than people in most other nations. A couple of years ago, Michael Barone wrote a book about the difference between life in school and life in the workplace, which he described as “Hard America, Soft America.” Barone argued that the competition and accountability that typified the workplace made it very different from the schools. Maybe what we are seeing in schools today is a push to make the schools more like the workplace, in the sense of injecting competition and accountability.

I must say, before I get a barrage of comments from readers, that I am conflicted about all the stuff that is happening in schools today. I believe in the value of a national or at least a state curriculum, but I am very uneasy about the degeneration of the “standards movement” into the testing movement and the proliferation of test-prep activities. As someone who cares passionately about the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum, I deplore the narrowing of the curriculum that has been caused by NCLB.

You may have noticed in Tuesday’s New York Times that Mayor Bloomberg intends to launch a program to pay kids to get higher test scores. This is, it seems to me, the quintessence of absurdity. You and I agree that kids should become passionate about something; dinosaurs or space travel or archaeology or sports or music. But that assumes that they are willing to do something or pursue something or investigate something or practice something for the joy of it, for the sheer pleasure of doing it, not because somebody is going to pay them $5 or $50 to do it.

So here we are, having forgotten about curriculum, forgotten about “what knowledge is of most worth,” forgotten about the goals of education, forgotten about the superiority of awakening intrinsic motivation...just figuring out what to pay kids to get higher scores. And if it “works,” is there enough money in the world to pay everyone to do what they should do as a matter of commonsense, self-preservation, and civic duty?


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