I will demonstrate the problem and point in the direction of the solution by taking the example of the current battles about assessment and accountability in our schools. I could have chosen many other ways of exemplifying the problem, but this one should suffice, and is useful because it is disruptive for many people in education. Here are three local and recent events that will be familiar to anyone currently involved in education as typical of what is occurring nearly everywhere. First is a section of an e-mail I received a few days ago from someone who was organizing a teachers’ conference I was to speak at:
“I hope that your talk can be inspiring to our teachers. As is the case all over, [our state] has been mired in an accountability-driven school improvement rut for over a quarter of a century. Teachers have long been viewed by promoters of educational reform as interchangeable automatons whose value lies solely in how well they fit into whichever “system of accountability” is being promoted or imposed. This view of teaching is demoralizing. Teachers are smart, giving, dedicated professionals. I believe it is in our collective interest to treat them as such.”
Second is the case of a teacher who refused to give a reading test that was required by the ministry of education to her Grade 3 students. The teacher was called before her local school board and given a “letter of discipline” for insubordination. Matters became more contentious when the Dean of a nearby university Faculty of Education, in addressing three hundred graduating students, praised the teacher for protecting her students from “psychological and educational vandalism.” This added fuel to the fire of the debate that was already raging there, as nearly everywhere, about the value of standardized tests and the policies of high-stakes testing. The Minister of Education called the Dean irresponsible. She described the teacher’s behavior as civil disobedience. In turn the Dean was defended by the local teachers’ union, which said it was “heartening” for teachers to have him so forthrightly defend their position with regard to mandatory testing.
Third is the result of a survey by what is usually called a “right-wing think-tank” that indicated most parents are in favor of standardized testing of their children in schools and they favor the use of the test results to rank schools and they favor making the rankings public. Less than a quarter of the parents thought there was too much testing in schools. In releasing the results, a representative of the “think-tank” said that “the teachers’ union has fought tooth and nail” to ensure that no one should be able to use these data to compare schools or teachers’ performance. A representative of the teachers’ union said that this survey and the use of the results to rank schools is a part of “the right-wing agenda to undermine public education,” in part because the criteria used in the survey ensured that most of the leading positions in the “league table” were won by private schools.
No doubt many readers will be familiar with more dramatic examples than these of the conflict between teachers, administrators, and other social agencies about student assessment and the uses of the results. The conflict is due in part to teachers feeling that the drive for increasingly rigorous and more frequent assessment is a constraint on their teaching. They know this, of course, from their daily experience and also because it is the explicit and avowed purpose of those who govern and administer the school system. The governors of the system respond to calls from the business world, from politicians, from universities, and others, for better student performance and conclude that only by more tightly constraining what teachers do can they be sure to increase student performance, as measured by the tests available. Teachers also tend to resist demands for increasing assessment of students because they suspect that it is the teachers’ performance that is the real target of such testing, with the expectation that the better performing teachers and schools will then be beneficiaries of increasing financial and other resources. Teachers also feel constant dissatisfaction with externally imposed testing because they recognize that in some way it is undercutting their ability to teach in ways they think are more educationally valuable to their students.
If we look at the entrenched sides of this conflict from above, as it were, and see how the more energetic combatants represent it, we see, in one view, simple-minded administrators imposing crude and inappropriate testing that is gutting the heart out of good teaching and proper education, and, in another view, turf-defending teachers wanting to disguise their incompetence by fighting against precisely the instruments that can make education more efficient. It is a battle in which the center is not heavily populated and in which neither side seems ready to recognize much virtue in the position of their opponents. It is also a battle in which teachers represent themselves as defending education and humane values against cold-hearted technocrats who are wedded to pseudo-scientific, pseudo-evidence-based procedures—a version of humanity fighting the Frankenstein monster of testing that is now ready to destroy everything of educational value. The administrators, on the other hand, represent themselves as defending education and humane values against inefficient and defensive unionized workers resisting efficiencies in producing competent students ready for the workplaces of tomorrow—a version of clear-eyed, forward-thinking strategists fighting stick-in-the-mud Luddites wedded to their old fashioned and ineffective ways that undermine efficiency and good schooling.
What are we to make of this contentious battle, whose lines are drawn across the educational world and both sides of which are locked in often quite bitter conflict? Maybe I’m overdoing the rhetoric? I don’t really think so. Though its time is past, the sense among teachers’ organizations in schools across the U.S. that the No Child Left Behind initiative was an affront to civilization and represented the enemy who had broken down the gates and was marauding across the educational landscape, is no exaggeration. Similar government-driven programs to increase “accountability,” in England and other countries, have led to the same familiar battles. Which side is right or more right? How do we assess the arguments?
My aim in this chapter is to show that both sides are right, but they are unnecessarily set in conflict because of the confusion of aims built into the school system in the beginning. If we divide the socializing activities of schools from the academic activities, we may conclude that it is entirely appropriate to assess socializing activities precisely and continually because testing can deliver the information we need to prepare students for appropriate social roles, but that it makes no sense to assess academic activities in this way, because they are neither amenable to the kinds of testing currently used on them nor can such testing deliver the kind of information administrators seek to extract from them. By confusing the two purposes of schooling, we are being inefficient in locating the appropriate information we need about students to direct them into effective social roles, and we are wrecking the purpose and value of academic activities: parallel to the cinema example. The combatants battle on, thinking that they are fighting each other on behalf of good education, but they are fighting for different things, like ancient armies clashing at night. If we unravel the Gordian knot, or cut it in two, we might be able to save a lot of fruitless arguing and better achieve both of our somewhat distinct and reasonable purposes.
Well, this might sound promising—though perhaps a bit self-righteous with more than a touch of megalomania, and, so, rather suspiciously promising. It promises what may seem too neat and simple a solution to a massively complicated problem. But to make the case begin to sound half-way plausible, it will first be necessary to show that the distinction I am making between socializing aims and activities and academic aims and activities makes sense in the way I make it and that it reasonably leads in the direction I am suggesting to the practical conclusion of dividing the school in two. While many may have made more or less the same distinction, no one seems to have followed it to the radical conclusion I am suggesting. That doesn’t, of course, make the conclusion wrong, but it does give one—including the author—pause. The conclusion is that the founding of the public schools in the mid/late nineteenth century built in a confusion of purposes that has not served the institution of the school well, and we can repair some of the worst of the problems by re-thinking the school and separating out some of the activities that are currently confused within it.
Hang on a minute!—you might be inclined to say, if you’re still with me. All that educational legislation, the high-stakes testing, those battles by politicians, administrators, testing companies, teachers’ organizations, the rhetorical warfare that has been centered on the No Child Left Behind program, the conflict between experts arguing the need for accountability and those demanding freedom of expression for teachers and students, the intricate arguments marshaled by psychologists and philosophers of education, the crisis in our schools and the bitterness evident in newspaper and TV accounts of the damage done by, or the absolute necessity of, frequent assessment of children’s school performance—all that is a product of some conceptual confusion that can be relatively easily resolved!? Yes.
And the confusion that has led to fruitless battles about high-stakes testing, assessment, and accountability can be found at the root of many of the current dissatisfactions and controversies about educational systems throughout the world.
When some people think about education they focus on things like the prerequisites of good citizenship and the skills and understanding students will need in the future to sustain a social life and satisfying job that contribute also to the good of the society as a whole. It is a vision of social harmony in which individuals are knowledgeable in ways relevant to their time and place. Others focus first on the minds of students and what needs to be done to develop their minds as fully as possible. It is an educational vision in which deep meaning, understanding of various forms of knowledge, and stimulating the imagination allow students’ minds to transcend the conventions of their time and place.
Now these caricatures suggest a bifurcated world, where in fact we have a continuum. And for most people there is no incompatibility evident in the two positions sketched above; they are just different starting points or focuses, each of which can encompass the other. A focus on citizenship doesn’t exclude acknowledging the importance of academic disciplines, and vice versa, and being attuned to one’s time and place doesn’t preclude one from being able to transcend current conventions, and vice versa. It makes you wonder why people argue so bitterly about education. Well, why do they?