Common Sense in School Reform: Too Common by Far

When you hear it out loud, it sounds so obvious it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree. When Diane Ravitch called recently for a return to “common sense” in education policy, it seemed like an obvious winner. Yet as Ravitch knows as well as anyone, sensible school reform has always been incredibly difficult to pull off. Why? It’s not because “common sense” is uncommon. Rather, it’s because the things that make sense in schools are often directly opposed to one another.slaying goliath

Ravitch was plugging her new book, Slaying Goliath. In her short piece at Time, she lambasted the “Bush-Obama-Trump” idea of high-stakes testing as an educational panacea. It didn’t work. It wasn’t ever going to work. Instead, Ravitch wrote, we need to return to “reforms that work.” They aren’t mysterious. As Ravitch put it,

Children and schools need stability, not disruption. They need experienced teachers and well-maintained schools. All children need schools that have a nurse, counselors, and a library with a librarian. Children need time to play every day. They need nutrition and regular medical check-ups.

All of this is common sense.

It’s hard to disagree. So why are these common-sense reforms so difficult to achieve? The first and most obvious explanation is the oldest story in American school reform. Yes, people want good schools, but they always want to do it on the cheap.

But it’s not just cheapness. Even when reformers have been willing to put money into it, school reform has suffered from an over-abundance of common sense. Ravitch’s vision of common-sense reform is obviously true, but too often, so is its opposite.

I think the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban put it best in 1997 in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia. America’s schools have always carried heavy expectations—expectations that often contradicted one another.tyack cuban tinkering

As Tyack and Cuban wrote, schools have always been expected to combine the uncombinable. As they put it, schools have been expected

to socialize [children] to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;
to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;
to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;
to stress basic skills but also to encourage creativity and higher-order thinking;
to focus on the academic ‘basics’ yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses.

Why don’t more schools and more education policy-makers recognize the obvious truth of Ravitch’s call for common sense? It’s not because common sense is uncommon, but because there are too many competing common-senses out there.

For a lot of Americans, it’s common sense to think that high-stakes tests will be a good measure of school effectiveness.

  • But it’s also common sense to notice that one-size-fits-all tests won’t work with America’s diverse educational landscape.

For a lot of Americans, it’s common sense to assume that more school choices will be good for families.

  • But it’s also common sense that creating competing schools will divert scarce tax dollars away from hard-up public schools.

We could go on all day. For every obvious reform, there has always been an equally plausible yet opposite reform. In the end we don’t suffer from a lack of common sense. We suffer from a lack of agreement about which common sense actually makes sense for our children.


Ed Mystery: Why Don’t More Democrats Like It?

I understand why more Democrats don’t like the Ed Department right now, governed as it is by Michigan’s Evil Queen Betsy. But I’m surprised to find out that the Ed Department has garnered only minority support during the last ten years. There’s one obvious explanation, but are there more reasons?Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Here’s what we know: New results from Pew show us that the Ed Department is one of the federal government’s least favorite agencies, with 48% of respondents feeling favorable and 48% unfavorable.

No surprise there. Ever since Jimmy Carter instigated the department it has been the target of conservative fury. Reagan’s first appointed secretary, Terrel Bell, was given the unusual mission to dismantle the department which he headed.

More recently, conservatives such as Texas’s Rick Perry have remembered that they wanted to eliminate the Ed Department, even if he couldn’t remember the other department he wanted to get rid of.

So there’s no surprise for the department’s low favorability among GOP respondents. But why do so many Democrats dislike it? Was something happening in 2010 that led a majority of Democratic respondents to say they didn’t like the Ed Dept?

Here’s my hunch: Back in 2010, teachers and schools were still trying to cope with the strictures of the No Child Left Behind act and the unmanageable requirements NCLB mandated for high-stakes testing. By 2015, those testing requirements were tamped down. Among Democrats, at least, the popularity of the Ed Department went up (in fits and spurts) until the ascension of Queen Betsy.

Is there another explanation I’m missing?

The One Thing We Know for Sure about Schools…

This week’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores prove it. When it comes to education, there is one reliable truth out there. It’s not news; any educational historian worth his or her mortarboard could tell you about it.

But first, the news: NAEP, the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows stagnant or declining scores in math and reading. A bummer, after fifteen years of emphasis on jacked-up standards and high-stakes testing in public schools.

Up, up, up, ... and down.

Up, up, up, … and down.

Understandably, teacher activists who have derided the latest test-heavy reform efforts have offered bitter I-told-you-sos. The test-hungry reformers have scrambled to explain the decline. Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute retreats to the obvious explanation: It’s complicated. It might be due to non-testing factors such as classroom confusion, Petrilli explains. It might be due to the declining economy. Most important, Petrilli says, we need to remember that this decline might be only a “blip,” not a “trend.”

But anyone who knows the first thing about educational history knows it’s simple. There is one reliable constant in American education.

We can see it in bombshell cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Reformers hoped that ending legal racial segregation in schools could go a long way toward healing racism in this country. Sixty-plus years later, those assumptions seem painfully naïve. Schools are still segregated by race; cities even more so.

We can see it all the way back in the roots of urban school systems. Two hundred years ago, school reformer Joseph Lancaster promised a new method of organizing schools that would solve America’s poverty problem. Hundreds of low-income students could be educated with a cheap and simple monitorial system.

How schools can save society, 1815.

How schools can save society, 1815.

Guess what? It didn’t work. As long as there have been public school systems in this country, there have been eager reformers who have offered one idea or another as a silver bullet. Each reform, we’ve heard, will be the ticket to healing America’s schools and society. We’ve been told for hundreds of years that America’s schools will FINALLY fulfill their promise to end poverty, fix the economy, and etc. etc.

It’s just not that simple. Today’s round of high-stakes testing made elaborate promises. No Child, we heard, would be Left Behind. Schools, we heard, could now finally fix social inequalities and heal society’s injustices.

Would that it were so.

What we have instead is another reminder of the one thing we can count on in schooling, the one reliable truth about education.

Ready for it?

Here it is: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

The Bible and Atlanta’s Cheating Teachers

What made them do it?  Those dozens of teachers in Atlanta indicted for cheating?  Do they need more Bible?

Some commentators have blamed the high-stakes testing regime itself.  As David Callahan wrote for the Huffington Post, the culture of testing pushes teachers and superintendents to doctor test results.  According to Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers blamed America’s “test-crazed policies.”

Arch-creationist Ken Ham takes a different approach. The problem, Ham insists, is America’s Godless culture.  In a Facebook post yesterday, Ham indicted the schools themselves.  America’s public schools, Ham wrote, “take billions of dollars of your tax money for education,” but they fail to recognize the truths about human nature clearly explained in the Bible.  Most teachers, Ham argued, “are hatched from the same cultural eggs as much of the rest of society,” and that society kicked the Bible out of public life back in the 1960s.

As a result, Ham concluded, “it should NOT be a surprise to us when they try and cheat the testing system in order to make themselves look good!”

For Ham, the problem behind the Atlanta cheating scandal was not the way the tests encouraged teachers to lie.  The problem, instead, was the secularized culture of public life and public schooling.  Without the guidance of the Bible, teachers—like all Americans—will sink into the degrading morass of cheating and lying.


In the News: Tennessee Two-Step

Tennessee’s lawmakers recently passed a law that—according to supporters—will allow teachers to work with more academic freedom.  It will encourage students, supporters insist, to explore ideas beyond the surface.  Opponents argue that the new law is only a sneak-attack by creationists and intelligent designers.  The law speaks in the language of academic freedom, opponents say, only to mask its true creationist intent.

The law itself claims to want to “help students develop critical thinking skills.”  Since the teaching of “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the law asserts that Tennessee teachers need clarification and assistance in teaching such issues.  The law mandates that school districts allow and encourage teachers to teach such controversial issues.  The law states that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”  Finally, the new law notes that this law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

In presenting the issue as one of academic freedom, Tennessee lawmakers apparently hope to overcome constitutional objections that have overwhelmed other anti-evolution laws.  The inspiration seems to have come from the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the teaching of intelligent design.  In 2007, the Discovery Institute offered a similar-sounding model Academic Freedom bill.

Tennessee is not the first state to enact such a law.  In 2008 Louisiana lawmakers passed a similar “academic freedom” law.  Even earlier, in 2001, then-Senator Rick Santorum inserted a non-binding note into the No Child Left Behind Act that recommended teaching a full range of ideas whenever “controversial issues” were taught.

The Tennessee law has attracted more than its share of journalistic attention because of the easy connection to the 1925 Scopes trial.  The editors of the New York Times, for example, began their objection to the Tennessee law by intoning, “Eighty-seven years after Tennessee was nationally embarrassed for criminally prosecuting the teaching of evolution, the state government is at it again.”

Nearly all the news coverage of the new law insists on connecting it to the famous 1925 trial.  Coverage in USA Today and the Huffington Post offer a sample of the way every journalist seems obliged to mention Scopes.

However, as perspicacious observers have noted, this new law represents something very different from the 1925 event.  Today’s laws demonstrate a remarkable shift in the strategy and nature of anti-evolution activism.  As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center pointed out, today “the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.”

Haynes is right.  The power in public schools has shifted decisively.  Anti-evolution activists today do not try to ban evolution from public schools.  Rather, anti-evolutionists these days struggle to insert wedges into school curricula.  They hope to create opportunities for teachers and students to question the scientific claims of evolution.  At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, anti-evolutionists had a much different agenda.

In my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback edition, pre-order today!), I explore the ways so-called “anti-evolution” laws in the 1920s included much more than simply the teaching of evolution or creation.  The laws themselves, including Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, usually preserved a special role for Protestant theology in public schools.  Other bills considered “anti-evolution” made much more sweeping claims.  In 1924, Representative John W. Summers of Washington successfully inserted an amendment banning “disrespect of the Holy Bible” among Washington D.C. teachers.  In a similar vein, one so-called anti-evolution bill in North Carolina (1927) actually would have banned any teaching that would “contradict the fundamental truth of the Holy Bible.”  A proposed bill in West Virginia cut an even broader swath.  That bill would have banned the teaching of “any nefarious matter in our public schools.”  In Florida, a 1927 bill hoped to prohibit teaching and textbooks that promoted “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter.”

These bills were about more than just prohibiting evolution. They asserted ideological and theological control over public schools.  Public schools, in the vision of these bill’s supporters, ought to do more than just ban evolution.  They ought to be purged of any notion that might challenge the traditional evangelical morality of students.
Today’s laws are also about more than the teaching of evolution, but in a very different way.  Rick Santorum’s non-binding rider to NCLB was more about making a statement about the nature of science, culture, and education than about transforming education.  It didn’t and couldn’t actually change the way teaching happened.  Some observers have suggested that Tennessee’s law will also not change a thing.

But such laws do change something.  For one thing, laws like the ones in Tennessee and Louisiana demonstrate the political power of anti-evolutionism.  These laws show that significant numbers of voters in those states agree with this kind of cultural statement against the claims of mainstream science.  Laws like these also tell us something about the ways schooling is controlled.  If mainstream scientists cannot simply decide what will be the best sort of science education, then we can see that schooling is not simply a neutral institution in which knowledge is disseminated.  Rather, laws like this show clearly that knowledge is political.  Schools do not simply teach what is true.  Schools teach what culture decides children should know.

In the News: Schooling, Poverty, and the Educational Culture Wars

In a recent piece in the New York Times, (Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It?)  policy professor Helen Ladd and journalist/college-guide writer Edward Fiske offered a strong argument for the close link between social class and school performance.

Poorer children tend to do worse in school.  As Ladd and Fiske point out, this is not news.  Nor is this only an American dilemma.  Other countries face similar situations.
The point of Ladd’s and Fiske’s piece is that federal policy has obstinately and deliberately ignored this important aspect of education policy.

For those interested in the continuing culture wars over education, the more interesting question is this: how have the progressives/liberals/Left come to embrace the position that fixing only schools can not fix education, while the traditionalists/conservatives/Right has taken to heart the idea that schools can be fixed by more rigorous testing and standards?

After all, the notion that schools are only one educational institution among many has long conservative roots.  For generations, educational conservatives have argued that the educational rights of family, church, and other non-school institutions must be respected.

Similarly, for a long time the notion that schools must find ways to test every student to determine individual capability and performance has a long and respectable progressive history.

Yet these days, the notion that schools alone can’t be held responsible for students’ total education has become a favorite on the educational left.

My hunch is that there are two main reasons for this development.

First of all, ten years of No Child Left Behind has shifted the ideological weight of “testing” squarely from left to right.  But this did not come out of Right field.  The progressive appeal of testing faded when the cultural biases of IQ tests were clearly established in the middle of the twentieth century.  When progressives called for more testing, they did so in the hope that such tests would allow schools to tailor education more closely to individual strengths and interests.  When traditionalists call for more testing, they do it as an appeal to the long American tradition of educational exhibitionism.  In the American tradition, schools, teachers, and students are all expected to make public displays of their learning. Today’s high-stakes tests are only an updated version of the old tradition of calling the schoolmaster out on the rug, forcing students to “toe the line,” to show off their learning in ways the community finds acceptable.

In addition, the argument that schools alone can’t fix education comes from a progressive notion that any social improvement must be more than just a policy band-aid.  That is, in order to fix schools, we must fix the more basic injustices of our society.  In order to improve students’ performance, we need to address the fundamental economic imbalance of society.  This would shift the discussion in markedly progressive directions.  Instead of labeling poor children and schools in less affluent areas as ‘failing,’ we would need to start talking about reducing the Gini coefficient, about reducing the growing chasm between the few rich and the many poor.  Instead of blaming schools and teachers for cheating on high-stakes tests, we would need to find ways to improve the economic well-being of huge numbers of poor people.

The ideological baggage that comes along with each of these educational positions points out the difficulty of speaking calmly and clearly about education reform.  Each side hopes to seize the moral high ground, even while claiming to argue in practical, non-ideological terms.  But the very terms we use frame the discussion in ways that are difficult to overcome.  Are we talking about a redistribution of income?  Or are we talking about improving individual performance in reading and math?


Let’s continue the argument in favor of a more progressive understanding of schooling.  In the last post, we discussed an analogy to schooling: giving and receiving directions.  The traditionalist understanding of education is like a mere list of directions to students, directions in an area students are unfamiliar with and to somewhere they have no desire to go.  A more progressive schooling would be sure students were familiar with the area first, then allow them to practice getting there.  When we understand schooling in this “progressive” way, the need for repeated testing falls apart like toilet paper in a rain storm.  You can still use it if you want, but it won’t have the effect you’re after, and you’re likely to make a mess in the process.

Let’s stick with the directions analogy for a minute: if our goal is to help students get from point A to point B, a standardized test is the equivalent of making students write out a list of the directions they have heard.  It only provides a way to check if they had memorized the list of directions.  It does not test whether or not they understood why they were going to point B in the first place, or whether or not they could actually get there in real life.

This is a meaningless game.  Students recognize that.  Instead of providing an evaluation of how much students are learning, repeated standardized tests merely test to see how many students in any given school are willing to compete in the game.  This is why test scores are so unshakeably tied to race and class.  When schooling conditions are pleasant and the meaningless school game seems to be a game that must be played, a higher proportion of students will work to master the lists of information provided.  They will try to perform well on the regurgitative tests.  When schooling in unpleasant and there is less family and peer pressure to do well at the school game, a higher proportion of students will not bother.

Standardized tests promise to provide a dipstick measurement of student learning.  What they provide instead is a measure of cultural compliance.

What would truly provide a check of student learning would be a system in which students are allowed to drive from point A to point B.  Can they navigate the difficulties of real life conditions to perform at an important adult skill?  Do they have the imagination, knowledge, and experience to get there?  There are two main reasons why this kind of authentic testing is not attractive to those who shout for increased testing and “accountability.”  First, these kinds of tests would cost a great deal of money.  Second, these tests would force schools to loosen their coercive grip on young people.  In short, these kinds of authentic tests would disrupt two of the important functions of institutional schooling.  They would release students from the economically designed control offered by our current school model.

Let’s see how it would work in practice:  To see if students really had mastered an authentic skill, such as driving cross town from point A to point B, a teacher would need to spend time with each individual student.  The teacher would need to help the student with some maps and written directions.  The teacher would have to gauge when each student was ready to move to the next step in the learning process.  Finally, the student would have to be allowed to authentically test her skills.  She would have to get from point A to point B, first with some teacher guidance, then finally on her own.  Such a test would provide real information about the intelligence, knowledge, imagination, and skills of students.  It would keep teachers accountable for the authentic learning of their students.

But imagine the financial price.  In essence, each student would need her own adult teacher.  Instead of the current model that provides one salaried adult teacher for twenty to thirty kids, this model would multiply that salary cost by at least twenty times.

Second, this kind of testing would shatter the implicit coercive wall of schools.  It would force schools to abdicate their implicit role as containment for the majority of young people during the traditional work day.  If schools were to attempt to give students an authentic education, one that consisted of helping them master the skills and knowledge that they will need as adults in our society, they would have to allow students to try out those ideas outside of the institution.  Young people would no longer be (more or less) reliably contained and separated from adult society.  They could engage in the delinquency that has been such a feared part of youth for centuries.

If the goal is to force schools, teachers, and administrators to be accountable for student learning, standardized tests are only a convenient figleaf.  They do not check to see if students are actually mastering any intellectual or practical skills and knowledge.  They only check to see how willing they are to play the game of memorizing lists of seemingly haphazard information.  Teachers and schools can pack such lists of information into more appealing forms.  They can increase material incentives for students to play the testing game.  They can limit the functions of their school to drill students in the peculiar skills necessary to master this meaningless game.  But they do not have to provide any authentic education.

Such tests and testing regimes remove any accountability from teachers and schools.  They allow teachers and schools to spend their time on the testing game itself instead of on helping students master real adult challenges.

Consider the difference in the questions teachers and schools face when they are faced with a standardized testing regime, as opposed to when they are trying to help students authentically master ideas:

Teacher’s questions   for himself in testing regime: Teacher’s questions   for himself in authentic education:
Will the student remember what I told her about the plot   of Hamlet? How can I help students understand Hamlet’s existential   dilemma?
What tricks can I show students to help them get a good   score on a reading-comprehension question? Can students read a voter-information bulletin?
What do they need to know for the test about the   Pythagorean theorem? Do my students understand the relationship between the   sides of right triangles?
How can I entice them to try their hardest on the test so   that I do not get my salary docked? Can they function as competent, caring, informed adults?


Which column puts more pressure on teachers?  Which column has more difficult questions?  Which column reflects a teacher who puts more effort into true education for students?

The answer is obvious: testing merely elevates the meaningless game of random information repetition into the only measure of education.  It gives students and teachers a free pass to sidestep the difficult work of real education.  It gives students no reason to play along.  And it forces schools and school districts to enforce the vision of education that is least productive.  It pushes those districts to increase the coercive and regurgitative nature of institutional schooling, when those are the factors that had pushed students to evade the meaningless game of standardized testing in the first place.

In other words, an educational regime that emphasizes standardized testing will discourage all the elements of education itself.  It decreases teacher responsibility, removes local control of schooling decisions, and restricts students from developing their skills as the intelligent citizens necessary to a democracy.


FURTHER READING: Theodore Sizer, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (Mariner, 2004); John Holt, How Children Learn (1969).

IS There an Education Culture War?

People disagree about the nature and proper direction for American schools.  But do those disagreements rise to the level of culture war?  Unlike the evolution/creation divide, there is a lot of room in the middle.

For instance, are charter schools ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’  Some scholars suggest that charter schools are an attempt to privatize education and undermine the power of teachers’ unions.  They suggest
that charter schools tend to function regressively.

Other charter-school advocates say that charter schools give students and families a fairer chance at a quality
education.  This “Waiting for Superman” crowd promotes charter schools as the ‘progressive’ solution for poor people.

The same could be said for other educational ideas.  For instance, where does the notion of testing fit in?  For most of the twentieth century, the idea that tests could determine the individual strengths and weaknesses of students led the pack of progressive ideology.  With the proper array of tests, progressives believed, schooling could be tailored to each particular student.  The procrustean bed of institutional schooling could be shattered with a more individualized sense of personal experiences and beliefs.

Today, some educational thinkers promote the progressive possibilities of high-stakes standardized testing.  They argue that kids from lower-incomefamilies have been allowed to slip through the educational cracks.  For too long, they argue, such kids have been subjected to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   High-stakes testing promised to turn that around.  Embedded in the language of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was the notion that schools must improve test scores for all kids, including those from groups that historically underperformed on academic

Other education thinkers disagree.  They dismiss such talk as mere window-dressing for conservative attempts to seize school power.  Famously, New York University professor Diane Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate over the meanings and implication of high-stakes testing.  Ravitch helped design the original testing
megalith.  Now she argues that the focus on tests undermines the proper goals of schooling for all students, especially those from the most vulnerable categories.

This broad expanse of room in the middle for disagreement and debate about foundational ideas in the field of education suggests that there is no real culture war at work.  If people can agree on basic terms and notions, even if they disagree about policy and practice, then they must share fundamental ideas about the proper form and
purpose of schooling.  The fact that issues such as testing and charter schools attract different arguments from
conservatives and progressives implies that each side shares most of the notions of its opposition.  The
disagreements are more prosaic than in the starkly defined ideologies and theologies of creation or evolution.

More telling, I have had only a handful of firsthand encounters with culture-war clashes in my career in education.  We all have heard stories of teachers getting fired for offending people’s religious or political beliefs, but in my
experience parents are far more concerned with grades and achievement than in creeping secularism or dictatorial preachiness in schools.

On the other hand, one could argue that education is the ultimate culture-war battleground, since it forces Americans to define their values and rank the importance of foundational notions such as social inequality, race, religion, and the relationship between family and state.

For example, it is difficult to think of a culture-war issue that has not become a clash over schooling.  For instance, the forum for most disagreements over beliefs in creation and evolution has always been schooling.  Should schools teach evolution?  Creation?

Similarly, clashes over the role of race in American culture have been framed as questions about schooling.
Brown v. Board focused on the legitimacy of educational segregation.  George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school, the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama in 1963 to proclaim “Segregation now, segregation
tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Schools also are the field in which activists contend over fundamental notions of social and economic justice.  Schools in poor neighborhoods look, feel, and are funded in very different ways than schools in affluent ones.  Nicholas Kristof’s recent plea for more equalized funding for early-education programs only rehashes generations of
arguments about the power of schooling to combat the great inequalities of American life.

So IS there a culture war in education?  Do Americans fundamentally disagree with one another about the basic premises of schooling?  As with evolution and creation, do the two sides have such different worldviews that they claim not to be able even to understand the other side’s view?  Or is education an embodiment of Louis Hartz’ famous claim in 1955 that America really only has one fundamental political tradition, that of a general liberalism?

If you are a teacher, parent, or school administrator, have you had experiences with culture wars in your schools?  Or is this more evidence to back up Morris Fiorina’s claim that culture-war rhetoric is merely the creation of a myopic chattering class?


In the last “progressive education” post, we discussed the notion that most students don’t come to school primarily to learn.  They are often willing to learn, but their main reason for going to school is because they have to.

Schools for less affluent kids wear the compulsion more nakedly.  Some schools resemble nothing so much as  prisons.  Students are processed like prisoners, by armed guards.  They have very little freedom in the school, and the fact that they are in school because they have to be is starkly evident.  Evident largely from the fact that many
students evade the requirement.  Do they want to learn?  By and large, yes.  But they do not connect their desire to learn with school.  They do not see school as the place to do their learning.  They see school as a requirement that they can evade.

Sometimes the evasion is internal.  That is, kids will be physically present in their schools, but they will not agree to master the mind-numbing tasks set before them.  They will not work to memorize the information that teachers attempt to transmit to them.  Thus, when the time comes for students to regurgitate that information on a high-stakes test, they cannot do it very well.  When large numbers of students in a given school don’t repeat back transmitted information successfully, it shows up in these NCLB days as a school that is not making “Adequate Yearly Progress.”  It shows up with a dunce cap on the school in the form of a label of “School in Need of Improvement.”

What does that mean for education?  Too often, it is assumed that new educational methods must be tried only in those schools that show the compulsion of attendance more nakedly.  In those schools where large numbers of students do not agree to the social contract.  Where students do not agree to work to memorize and repeat back chunks of information.

Educators say that they need to try new methods for “these kids” who aren’t succeeding in the traditional school environment.  The assumption is that students who come to school regularly and willingly, students who sit docilely through transmission-style classes and submit to tests of their reception of that information, the assumption is that such students are doing well in the traditional system.  But that’s not good enough.  All students, whether they are
willing to submit to school or not, must first really come to school tolearn.  If we start by assuming that those students who can repeat back transmitted information can do so because they’ve come to school to learn, we’ve put the cart before the horse.

A traditionalist might object at this point that we can’t sap the students’ responsibility for their own education.  If we don’t assume that students come to school to learn, a traditionalist might say, in the end we’re weakening them
even further.  We can’t do everything for a student.  They are not hothouse flowers.  It is a good point.  But it represents a misunderstanding.  Schools and teachers must not coddle students.  That is counterproductive in
both the short term and the long term.  But dismissing the simple assumption that students come to school to learn does not mean that we will turn school into what students desire; we will not turn school into a purely social event, where they can meet and mingle and enjoy themselves and one another.  A traditionalist might object that if we assume that students don’t come to school to learn, we have to radically decrease our expectations of student motivation.  But there is another solution.  Instead of making the tasks easier in order to encourage student buy-in, we must increase the responsibility we assign to students.  We need to begin our thinking about education by assuming that we must engage students in learning.  We must get students—even students that weren’t protesting too loudly against schooling as it was—to connect schooling with learning.  In short, we must convince students to come to school to learn.  What will that mean?

Progressive Education I: Why Come to School?

Why should students go to school?  At the most basic level, the traditional answer is that students go to school to learn. That learning—in the traditional understanding—consists of the transmission of information from adults (teachers) into children (students).  The more intelligent and hard-working a
student is, the more he or she will retain of that transmitted information.  To complete the process, the adult will measure how much the student has learned by asking him or her to repeat back certain parts.

This testing, in the traditional way of thinking abouteducation and schooling, is like the old game of telephone, except not fun.  There is an assumed degradation of the information transmitted.  The student
is more or less successful—achieves a higher or lower grade—based on how much he or she can repeat back accurately.  On how well she can battle that inevitable degradation.

It may sound a little silly when it’s spelled out like that, but that understanding of the basic principle of schooling still has overwhelming cultural support.  It is one of the most basic foundations of our institutional education system.  For instance, when I pick up my fourth-grade daughter from school, I still ask the same dumb questions:

–“How was school today?”

–“Good.”  Or –“Okay.”

A pause.  Then,
–“What’d you learn about?”

–Shrug and non-committal noise.

It’s not just me.  I overhear every other parent and child having similar conversations at the end of the school day.  Maybe it is just a way for us to look like caring parents in front of the other parents.  Or to look like we are invested in our kids’ education.  Or to demonstrate to the teachers who are also standing around that we support their attempts to transmit information into our kids.  But at the back of that question are some big assumptions about what is supposed to go on in schools: “What did you learn about today?”  Assuming that each school day should include some measure of information transmitted from adult—or video, or book made and selected by adults—to kid.  And that the school should be prompting each student to build up a storehouse of information on a variety of subjects.

It is not only awkward after-school conversations that show this.  As we have all seen for the last ten years, the political power of the cultural idea of testing is hard to match.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 did not create the idea of testing.  It introduced a regime of high-stakes tests that would evaluate all
students’ abilities to read and perform mathematical processes.  Those tests were not just of interest to the individual students and their families.  They did not merely collate into a report card of progress for each
student.  In the new universe of NCLB, the test scores of individual students had practical implications for the funding of entire school districts.  If enough students failed to improve their test scores for three years in a row, school districts risked being forced to close schools and fire staff unless they came up with big ways to improve student scores fast.

The hinge of this regime remained the notion of testing as a way to evaluate the success of education.  The makers of NCLB did not invent this.  They merely tapped into dominant notions about the nature of
education.  Proponents of the NCLB regime did not need to explain that these tests would give good information about the process of learning at each school.  Everyone already agreed that testing could do that.  All NCLB did was build on this notion of testing to enforce a new scheme of funding and bureaucracy.

Americans already agreed that testing is the primary measure of school performance.  And behind the
notion of testing is the assumption that students go to school to receive transmitted information.  A formal testis a way to test how successful that transmission was.  This would only seem so important if that
transmission were assumed to be the main reason for going to school.  Not that NCLB or the regime of high-stakes testing hasn’t been controversial.  It has.  But the controversies have largely focused on the nature of the testing regime, or on the consequences of poor performance on tests.  The notion that students go to school primarily to receive transmitted information is not generally questioned.  That is the general understanding of what a student should be doing within those walls.

It does not take a very sophisticated understanding of sociological theory to see some holes in those assumptions.  Every teacher, every parent, every adult who works in a school sees it right away.  It is inescapable: This shared consensus about the reasons for going to school is only shared among adults.

For their part, students come to school for all sorts of reasons.  Some of them may come to school primarily to receive transmitted information.  But the leading reason why students come to school—from the  students’ perspective—is because they have to.  In different schools, that requirement is more or less coerced.  Many students don’t mind the coercion.  Yes, they have to go.  But the school also represents to them their entire social universe.  And many of them even share the general adult expectations about the reasons for school.  They agree without thinking about it too much that school is the proper place for them.

Perhaps a comparison to other kinds of learning institutions might help.  Think about piano lessons
from when you were ten.  At that age, at that stage, parents make their children go to lessons.  And children go because they have to.  Some of them might enjoy it.  Some of them might complain about it.  But very few kids at that age go to piano lessons because they are seeking to receive transmitted information and skills about music and piano-playing.  Plus, the upcoming “test” is generally not of very much interest to piano students.  In these kinds of private lessons, the “test” will traditionally be a painful recital, in which parents and siblings and grandparents gather to hear the terrible piano playing that their ten-year-olds
can produce.

These assumptions are similar to those of most school experiences.  Students go because they are told to.  They are judged on the level at which they are able to reproduce the musical lessons their teacher has
transmitted to them.  For our purposes,the important point is that the student did not go to the lesson to learn piano.  He went because his mom dropped him off there at four.

Compare that learning experience to a different kind.  Consider a sixteen-year-old kid who is taking guitar lessons.  In my town growing up, there was a guy who taught guitar in a little basement down under where the supermarket used to be, just next to the railroad tracks.  Students went to him because they wanted to
learn to play awesome guitar.  His selling point was that he was awesome.  He played guitar really well, hung out with his friends in the smelly basement “studio,” and smoked a lot of pot.

If a sixteen-year-old boy—and it was almost always boys that seemed drawn to this guy—went to take guitar lessons, it was because the student really wanted to learn what the teacher could teach.  The student saved some money or asked his parents for money to pay this teacher to share his accumulated knowledge of how to play that guitar.  In this case, the student went to school to learn.  The student hoped that the teacher would successfully transmit a certain type of information to the student.

Just having a desire to receive transmitted skills or information is not a magic bullet.  Not every teenage guitar student ends up learning guitar.  But I think this example illuminates what is NOT the norm in regular schools.  Students went to take those guitar lessons because they wanted to learn guitar.  They wanted the teacher to transmit information to them.  That is a different attitude than most students take to their regular school.   In contrast to the most basic assumption of traditional schooling, most students do not go to school to learn.  They go because they have to.    These conditions have been in place for at least the last fifty years.  Sociologist James Coleman noted in 1961 that students do not go to high schools in order to learn.  In fact, he found that the most intelligent students were not the ones that received the best grades.  Rather, Coleman found in 1961 that the best students, gradewise, were those who accepted the game of transmission-and-testing the most unquestioningly, the ones who were “willing to work hard at a relatively unrewarded activity.”  The most intelligent young people, in contrast, took the transmission of information as something to be tolerated.  They went to school for social reasons.  They hoped school would provide them with an exciting and stimulating social environment.  But they did not go to school in order to receive information.  They put up with that as the cost of admission.



James Coleman with John WC Johnstone and Kurt Jonassohn, The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).