I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Racist Simpsons and other stories that came across our desks this week…

The White House Bible study group, at BBC. HT: MC

  • A “high-protein diet” of conservative evangelical Christianity for the Cabinet.

Much Apu about Something: The Simpsons punts on its racial stereotypes, at EW. HT: MM

How much public school can you buy for $25 million? Not as much as this billionaire wanted, at PI. HT: MM.

The “free-speech crisis” is worst at evangelical colleges, says Sarah Jones at NR.

Peter Greene asks: Why are we still giving Big Standardized Tests?

“Teaching for homecoming:” Why Wendell Berry thinks education is dangerous, at Forma.

  • “I know you all are learning a lot of methods about how to teach, and I’ll tell you something: None of them will work.”

Pro-choice “callous and violent,” says Ross Douthat at NYT.

The progressive perfidy of “dialogue:” Rod Dreher at AC.

A Field Test for Progressive Education

I’ve spent the past few years of my life trying to figure it out.  What has it meant to be “conservative” about American education? It’s not as obvious as it might look. Similarly, it can be extremely tricky to figure out what makes something educationally “progressive.” Peter Greene offers what might be a handy field test.

A test for the tests...?

A test for the tests…?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, my recent book argues that an identifiable tradition of “educational conservatism” emerged in the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, educational conservatives mixed free-market structures with Christian morality; they mixed traditional pedagogy with traditionalist social norms. Jesus and phonics, Friedman and fundamentalism. Time and again, conservative activists successfully asserted their right to be heard about textbooks, school rules, and classroom practices.

In recent months, I’ve been expanding my reading list to include more non-conservative arguments about education. One of my favorite progressive anti-testers has been Peter Greene at Curmudgucation.

Greene repeated his argument recently that there is an easy way to find out if any evaluation is authentic. Or, more precisely, he offers a quick way to decide if one is inauthentic:

The hallmark of inauthentic assessment is that it’s easy to cheat, because you don’t have to be good at what you’re allegedly being judged for– you just have to be good at the assessment task which, because it’s inauthentic, consists of faking proxies for the real deal anyway. What it really measures is the proxy-faking skills.

If we want a handy-dandy field guide to progressive education—a notoriously slippery concept to define—perhaps Greene’s warning might help.

We might call classroom practices “progressive” if they fundamentally make it impossible for students to cheat. Not by eagle-eyed watchfulness or elaborate security precautions, but because of the nature of the tasks themselves.

In a traditional classroom, for instance, information is transferred from teacher and textbook to student. The student is expected to incorporate this knowledge. At some point, a “test” will be administered, in which said student repeats back the knowledge. He is measured by how much and how well he repeats back the knowledge.

In a progressive classroom, in contrast, students will not have tests of that sort. Rather, they will be expected to make something, perform something, achieve something. Since the parameters are not set up in advance, it is impossible for a student to cheat.

For instance, if assessment is based on a student’s performance in a research-informed discussion, she is free to bring in as many notes as she wishes. If she is able to use that information in a coherent and convincing way, she will have done well on the project.

In a traditional classroom, methods of cheating are as traditional as the lectures themselves. Students cheat by writing facts on their arms, by copying answers from another student, or by any of an enormous corpus of tried-and-true methods.

Pssst...I find these methods of assessment inauthentic....

Pssst…I find these methods of assessment inauthentic….

Indeed, we might conclude that the overwhelming political support for traditionalist policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top results from the fact that progressive education has sunk such shallow roots in the United States. Even the most ardent fans of progressive education admit that it is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.”

By and large, progressive education—as classroom practice, not as political decision—has crashed on the reefs of testing. By and large, American parents and voters cling to the notion that “real” education means acquisition of knowledge. We cling to the idea that “real” education can be evaluated by “real” tests.

Is it true? I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH include self-styled progressives as well as self-styled conservatives. Do the “progressives” out there yearn for evaluations that simply can’t be cheated? And do conservatives agree that the heart and soul of real education can be measured with a good test?


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).

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).