Monday, January 27, 2003

A Fate Worse Than Being Left Behind

There is much to applaud in the movement for tougher educational standards. The emphasis is now on improving what happens in the classroom – which is where formal education primarily takes place – and not on creating new bureaucracies, an exercise that is akin to moving the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

But the “Be Tough” chorus is too unanimous. We need to listen to other voices, to question whether educational improvement is simply a matter of more testing and demands for greater teacher and school official accountability. Children do not do well in school for a score of reasons, some of them having little or nothing to do with their classroom experience. Within the classroom, there is an obvious need for tests, grades, assessment, standards. There are ways to succeed in school other than doing well on test scores and there can be failure even when students appear to be doing well on standardized tests.

When Washington makes a statement about a difficult social problem, it seeks language that conveys virtue and the perception of success, as if tackling a social pathology is a marketing issue. We now have the “No Child Left Behind Act,” sponsored by President Bush and enacted by Congress with bi-partisan acclaim. The statute imposes assessment and standards throughout all public elementary and secondary education. Inevitably, it will have an impact on non-public education as well because this sector relies to an extent on public funding and also because states are mandating testing requirements for all schools.

It’s easy to be for tests and standards, if only as a corrective to the laxity that has routinely been accepted within the educational establishment, often to the detriment of students. Besides, tests and grades are essential components of formal education. The fact that they are dispensed with in some places hardly reduces their importance. Still, I have reservations about the new law and the rush to be tough.

Schools exist to teach subject matter and to develop cognitive skills, in short to further the intellectual development of children, the obvious aim being to maximize the prospect for a fruitful adulthood. There are other responsibilities and while they may be of lesser importance, they cannot be disregarded, such things as the development of social skills, discipline, respect for others and for properly expressed authority and loyalty to one’s country. It may be that these attributes of formal education are not regarded as essential because we take them for granted. In this period of abundant social breakdown, when all kinds of pathologies enter the lives of youngsters and limit their capacity to study and learn and when contemporary culture is often destructive, greater attention needs to be given to these responsibilities.

Some of the criticism of the testing/standards mania is familiar fare: classes and other educational activity are increasingly geared to produce good test scores, at the expense of other learning experiences; when test performance is the dominant criterion for judging how well schools, teachers and administrators are doing, inevitably there will be pressure to make tests easier (it’s already happening) and also to manipulate test results; it is well to insist on performance, but at schools whose students are from homes that are awash in social pathologies, we may be asking for more than can be accomplished; educators are being pressured to show improved test results without being given the resources they need to accomplish society’s goals; and school officials and teachers are too often being made scapegoats for failures that are beyond their reach to prevent.

As relevant as these criticisms are, I have another complaint. I do not know whether a child’s life is harder today than it used to be. In key respects – economic and physical health are two examples – it certainly is not. What is certain is that many children seem to be lost in a sea of self-doubt, worrying about their image, friends, relationship with parents, how they look, how they do in school, sexuality and nearly everything else that enters their lives. Too many children appear to regard themselves as failures. The fragility of the mental state of young people is a serious problem, not some psycho-babble. Those who doubt this should examine teenage suicide rates.

We cannot abandon tests to accommodate lack of self-esteem among students, but we also must not stress tests to the neglect of nearly all else. Students need to be encouraged in what they do well, which may be in art or music or athletics or acting or leadership or other skills. They need to be taught subject matter and educational skills, primarily to read and write. However, if they do well in X subject and poorly in Y, there’s no good reason why they should be regarded as failures. They need to be encouraged and praised, at times even gratuitously. We must not add to their self-doubts. Inevitably, the trumpeting of standardized tests does just that in too many instances.

We need to reconsider the wisdom of being tough, of being one-dimensional in the multi-dimensional universe of universal education. It’s possible to be serious about classroom performance and to reject the anything goes attitude without losing sight of the uniqueness of each child. We must remember that there are students who blossom later, that most students are better in certain subjects than others, that some do poorly in school but well in life, while others sadly experience the reverse. Simply put, tests may be standardized; students must never be.

I am reminded of what my very good friend, Arthur W. Fried, formerly the administrative head of the Rothschild Foundation and now chairman of Avi Chai, has repeated in the name of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the eminent British political philosopher who was a Rothschild trustee. Sir Isaiah would say that while philanthropy could not always achieve its noble goals, it always needed to strive to avoid doing harm. This is also true of education. We must make sure that in the name of educational reform we do not do harm.