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Schooling America: Achievement

by Patricia Albjerg Graham
During the last century, what we Americans wanted and what we got from our schools shifted through four distinct periods, which I call Assimilation, Adjustment, Access and Achievement. In previous posts in the series, we have looked at Assimilation, the period covering the early years of the 20th century; the Adjustment era of the middle years of the twentieth century, including WWII and the post-war years; and, last week, I discussed the era of Access, which comprises the period after Brown v. Board of Education until 1983. Today, I address the current era of education in America. I call it the era of Achievement and it runs from 1983 through to the current program put forth by the Bush Administration, “No Child Left Behind.” The following pictures help illustrate this tale of shifting assignments to America’s schools and their reluctance, sometimes wisely, to complete the new assignments as fully and promptly as the public and, later, policy-makers, wished.

Achievement: 1983-Present

During much of the Adjustment and Access eras, America paid very little attention to the academic achievement of average students. After World War II, the United States felt secure as a world power and despite the vitriolic critics of the 1950s who complained that “Johnny can’t read,” the pressure upon educators was to provide special programs for special needs. The ordinary student was largely ignored and left to the temptations of tv, adolescent culture, and, occasionally, sports. Academic study did not occupy much of their energy.

The creation of a US Department of Education in 1979 was highly controversial. “Too much federal control, and we don’t need it,” Republicans claimed. However, the newly-elected Republican president, Ronald Reagan, did have to appoint a secretary and his appointee, Terrel Bell, attempting to save his department and his own job, asked his Utah neighbor, David Gardner, to chair a commission to look at the state of American education. Most improbably, this group’s 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, startled the country. Exposing the academic deficiencies of American youth, the report forced the country to pay attention to its schools. Few federal reports have had such a profound effect on the general population.

Supporters of the critique of the schools came from many quarters, reminding Americans to take our schools seriously and exercise our right to tell them to do differently and to do better. One of the most unlikely and most thoughtful critics was Albert Shanker, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers. During Shanker’s tenure as head of the AFT New York affiliate, he led the teacher strikes of the 1960’s. Now, Shanker emerged as a spokesman for more academic rigor for students and even for teachers (though he admitted privately that the latter was “a heavy lift”).

“Competitive edge” became the new mantra. Business leaders proclaimed that America would lose its “competitive edge” if schools were not more effective in increasing the academic skills of its future work force. For parents, getting a “competitive edge” meant going to a good college and getting a good job and they looked to the schools to provide their children with the tools to secure both. Few sought to examine the influence of family and community on students’ aspirations or the pull of materialistic adolescent culture on their attitudes and behaviors. Again, the federal government sought to enforce policies on states and districts that it believed were beneficial for the nation.

Ironically, Republicans, who had vehemently opposed the creation of the Department of Education in 1979, were calling for national education reform in 2000. Their proposal, “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), mandated testing and improved performance for all students and schools. Democrats, on the other hand, believed that some of the measures in NCLB were too prescriptive. With the passage of NCLB, we now have both students and teachers taking lots of tests.

Sample Test Item: Middle School Mathematics Teachers

Which of the following situations represents 2 2/5 divided by ¼?
• A 2 2/5-acre lot needs to be plowed. If four workers split the plowing evenly, how many acres will each person plow?
• One side of a one-fourth-square-foot rectangle is 2 2/5 feet. How long is the other side?
• Alix sawed off one fourth of a 2 2/5-yard log. How many yards did Alix saw off?
• Terry picked 2 2/5 pounds of berries and put them into one-quarter pound containers. How many containers of berries did Terry fill?

And what do those tests tell us? Essentially they indicate that too many students and too many teachers do not perform academically as well as we would wish, although they probably do better than their predecessors. Today our schools face criticisms that they are becoming too rigid in their emphasis on increasing test performance at the expense of stimulating students’ curiosity and inventiveness. While few doubt that children need to learn more academic material, many believe that the strength of America lies in its citizens’ ingenuity, integrity, fair play, and hard work, both individually and collectively.

Unfortunately, our response to the dilemma in American schooling today looks too much like a doughnut. We are very good at explaining the periphery (the demographics of the students, the teachers, the funding), but we do not understand the hole in the center (what makes the child learn). The center is the essence of schooling, where the fundamental, but frequently unstated, priorities of education are generated, and our explicit understanding of that is a void. All the rest – student test scores, teacher pay, length of school term, attendance of students and teachers – are simply indicators on the periphery, mere proxies for the essence of the educational enterprise. We know that throughout the nation we can find marvelous schools, often exemplary ones, serving the most disadvantaged children. However, we do not know how to replicate the success of our best schools because the metrics we have to measure and evaluate schooling do not reach the void of the hole in the doughnut where the essence of learning occurs.

The American curriculum has typically been about both wit and character or knowledge and virtue, and the virtues have typically enjoyed broader support, in theory, at least, than the knowledge. Reliance on test scores as the single measure of schooling is unlikely to encourage wit and character or develop knowledge and virtue. The single-minded focus upon improving tests scores as national policy impoverishes the role of schooling in America. Ultimately our schools help our children to become responsible and productive citizens of our democracy. For that they need greater academic achievement than many now possess, but they also need imagination, honesty, fair play, teamwork, civic commitment and participation, including informed critique of government – not a regimented curriculum designed solely to improve test scores.

Patricia Albjerg Graham is the author of Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nations’s Changing Needs and the Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of American Education at Harvard University.

The final post in the Schooling America series, “Higher Education in America,” is now up! LINK

Photo and image credits: 1) Courtesy of Milton Goldberg
2) Photo by Russ Curtis/©American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
3) Courtesy of Kestrel Heights School
4) From the Massachusetts Department of Education website – the correct answer is “D”.

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