Curriculum Opinion

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

By Rona Wilensky — May 09, 2001 10 min read
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We have spent 18 years trying to remake schools in order to serve rather fanciful visions of the future economy.

As a principal of a small, innovative public high school of choice and as a trained economist, I’ve read with great interest the current Education Week series on reform efforts at the high school level. But I have found myself in profound disagreement with most of the points made and the experts quoted. As a report on the current state of policy debate in the field, the articles are accurate. But as a description of the reality of American education and economic life, the picture drawn is unrelated to the everyday realities of schools or the needs and desires of the American people.

To see how fundamentally flawed the debate over high school change is, we need only look at three of the assumptions behind proposals cited by the experts. The first two concern the relationship between educational achievement and the economy; the last treats the relationship between schools and economic inequality. These assumptions have entered the national dialogue as compelling, if mistaken, stories that serve as the foundation of the current mythology of school reform.

The first erroneous assumption comes directly from the 1983 report that set the education reform movement in motion, A Nation at Risk. This report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education put its conclusions in the most alarming terms: The United States must educate its citizens to much higher levels in order for the economy to remain competitive with the rest of the world. The Japanese, the Europeans, the Soviets, and the Asians all produce workers who are better educated and therefore more competitive in the global marketplace. For two decades, we have been told that countries with better-educated workers will bury us.

The events of the 18 years since the publication of A Nation at Risk have irrefutably disproved the central thesis of that document. From the vantage point of the new millennium, we can look back on the catastrophic decline of the Japanese economy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lukewarm performance of Europe, and the unprecedented economic growth of the U.S. economy in the 1990s. Not one of these events was remotely connected to the educational systems of the nations involved.

As pointed out in the opening article of this newspaper’s high school series, some changes in graduation requirements were made in response to A Nation at Risk. (“Getting Serious About High School,” April 11, 2001.) All the national and international assessments of high school learning since that time, however, have shown that there is no significant change in American high school achievement. Clearly, our recent prosperity has been unrelated to the education of our students. Significantly, the short-term labor shortages that prosperity created have been easily resolved by importing highly educated workers from countries that have invested in education, but have been unable to create sufficient jobs. (This is a primary reason that low unemployment was accompanied by low inflation and few wage gains.)

Not surprisingly, most of the experts no longer emphasize the argument connecting educational achievement and national economic prosperity. Instead, in a recent revision of the “nation at risk” theme, they make the linkage between educational achievement and economic well-being at the level of the individual student. That leads to the next erroneous assumption.

There is no doubt that for any individual person entering the contemporary job market, the higher the level of education and skills the better the job and salary he or she will obtain. Aggregate data support the assertion that higher incomes accrue to higher education. But it does not therefore follow that all students will be better off if they are all better educated.

The college-preparatory curriculum was invented to sort students into those who would succeed through the “meritocracy” and those who would not. This sorting function is in fact the principal role of algebra in that curriculum. It is an important function and it works well, whether we like it or not. This explains its persistence in spite of the fact that the vast majority of highly trained and highly paid adults never use algebra after they finish taking the SATs.

I remain a true believer in educational change. To accomplish these goals, we must be honest about what we want and why we want it.

Families and students come to school with vast inequalities in social, economic, and educational opportunities. Given these inequalities, only those who already “have” (plus a handful of the “have-nots” with extraordinary talents or unusual opportunities) will make it past the algebra gate. It is one thing to survey the current economic winners and note that most have taken a college-preparatory curriculum that includes such courses as algebra. But it is illogical and irresponsible to then turn around and say that if only we teach algebra to all students, then everyone will have access to the most rewarding jobs. There aren’t that many high-skilled, high-paying jobs now, and there won’t be in any known future.

In fact, data from the U.S. Department of Labor show two interrelated aspects of the future that point in the opposite direction. First, the categories in which the largest number of new jobs are being created (not the fastest-growing jobs) are also the lowest-paying. Second, forecasts for 2020 show that only 20 percent of new jobs will require a four-year college degree. Significantly, the vast majority of these jobs are found in the professions (teaching, medicine, law, architecture, and so forth) where we have required college diplomas as entrance conditions. The vast majority of remaining jobs will require some sort of technical training, ranging from a few months to a few years. Meeting the growing needs for technical education cannot be readily accommodated if the overriding national priority is providing a college-preparatory curriculum for each child. These are competing, if not contradictory goals.

The simple fact of economic life is that job opportunities are made through the investment choices of businesses and the policy decisions of government. In both cases, the decisions are framed by the beliefs our society holds about the social role of economic equality. As every bit of data on wealth and income attests, we, as a society, are committed to economic inequality as a fact of life. Until this framework changes, the creation of jobs (and their attendant salaries) will always ensure that the vast majority of Americans will live at the bottom of the economic pyramid, barely making ends meet. That we lack the political will even to raise the minimum wage to a living wage is clear indication of the insurmountable obstacles to a program of economic advancement for all of our most disadvantaged citizens.

That educational levels do not drive job creation is amply demonstrated across the world in countries which have created highly educated but underemployed workforces. This has been as true of Africa, India, and Asia as it has been of the Netherlands, Argentina, and Ireland. For society as a whole, high levels of education are not the solution to the lack of economic well-being for the nation or for its individual citizens.

Leaving aside these arguments, the final fallacy of the new reform movement is the notion that schools can be the principal engine of social equalization. Indeed, given the extent of social, economic, and educational inequality in the United States, it is simply preposterous to assume that public schools can bring everyone to college-entrance standards, even if this were a desirable goal. As reports on exit exams around the country show, we cannot even bring all students to 8th grade standards.

Since the Coleman Report of the 1960s (which found that the schools made very little difference in students’ academic achievement), we have developed more subtle evidence that shows that in fact most schools can make some difference in kids’ learning that is not attributable to family background. We also have innumerable examples that great schools can make a significant difference. But we have no research or anecdotal evidence to prove the implicit assumption of those who maintain that we can level the economic playing field by expecting higher academic performance out of everyone.

Individual schools across the country have shown that poverty and/or race and ethnicity are not insuperable barriers to achievement for those whom past generations have written off. Small, innovative schools with motivated and dedicated staffs have proven beyond a doubt that schools can raise student performance and even send students off to succeed in college who would not have gone before.

Schools can and should deal overtly with all the values that once were grouped under the quaint name ‘virtue.’

As someone whose school has shared in some of these successes, I have a practical understanding of what it takes to create them. What would be needed to extend these success stories to all students in all schools is beyond the reach of our current political culture. There is no reason to believe that as a society we want to eliminate the inequality that most of our schools ratify on a daily basis. Absent that will, there is no way to adequately fund and staff all of our high schools to carry off what small, self-selected bands of zealots in particular circumstances have accomplished.

Working as I do in an affluent, highly educated community, I can attest to the fact that those who currently are well served by American high schools will do all in their considerable power to sustain their relative educational and economic position. Even if we manage to pull off the goal of having everyone leave high school ready for postsecondary education, society will organize itself into a new hierarchy that makes college preparation simply the bottom of a new economic ladder.

By all means, let’s have a national debate about the proper subjects of an education for all students. But let’s begin at the beginning. The Japanese, the Germans, and the Indians can skunk us on standardized math tests. That doesn’t tell us anything about how our schools should look. Those who choose to study algebra should have the best algebra classes possible. But it is silly to demand that every student be proficient in skills that few adults use.

I remain a true believer in educational change. Like other reformers, I want schools where every kid is valued, where high expectations are set for everyone, where graduates have the skills to shape their lives according to their values and talents, and where preparation for citizenship is a robust undertaking.

To accomplish these goals, we must be honest about what we want and why we want it. Because corporate leaders and their foundations fund the policy debate, we have spent 18 years trying to remake schools in order to serve rather fanciful visions of the future economy. As the events of the recent past have shown, this is an unnecessary task in the service of an unrealistic vision.

Schools can and should take as their mission the effort to create and maintain political liberty and equality.

There are many good reasons to reform schools. As Thomas Jefferson taught us, schools are rightfully the training ground for democracy. The issues of citizenship, of the relationships among racial and ethnic groups, of the desire for equality between men and women—these are just a few of the proper subjects that our schools are turning away from in the race to catch the Japanese geometry scores.

Of equal importance, schools are our collective effort in human development. What kind of people do we want to be? How shall we live? What is the nature of responsibility, of caring, of initiative, of integrity? Schools are about all those characteristics that make individuals good and bad. Schools can and should deal overtly with all the values that once were grouped under the quaint name “virtue.”

In describing the current policy debate, I have used the word “myth” in a pejorative sense, to mean compelling but false stories by which we live. Stories and myths can also be used to tell basic truths from which we can take guidance. Thomas Jefferson plays a key role in our national mythology. His two greatest contributions were the Declaration of Independence and the creation of the first public university. To Jefferson, public schooling was the necessary condition for the continuation of liberty. Jefferson’s famous statement that “all men are created equal” was a statement of personal and political equality, not social or economic equality.

Schools can and should take as their mission the effort to create and maintain political liberty and equality. They are unable to create economic or social equality. Let us not sacrifice our true mission for an illusionary one.

Rona Wilensky is the founding principal of New Vista High School in Boulder, Colo. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Wrong, Wrong, Wrong


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