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Repudiating Voodoo Edunomics

Publication Date: 2003-10-27

Jeffrey Zorn, a lecturer in English at Santa Clara University, offers an update on Nation at Risk as he counters a book out of the Hoover Institution with Martin Bickman's Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning. You're going to want to read the book.

Our Schools and Our Future?Are We Still at Risk?, edited by Paul E. Peterson and published by Stanford's Hoover Institution, updates the influential 1983 report A Nation at Risk. Representing a narrow ideological interest in education, the book's contributors build on Risk?s case that our schools? ?rising tide of mediocrity? has put United States businesses?and so the entire nation-- at a serious competitive disadvantage. In response, the authors push for back-to-basics curriculum reform and higher performance standards for students and teachers, kindergarten through graduate school. Tellingly, their goal for American education reads as little more than producing effective functionaries, with bits of skill and knowledge added on but otherwise left untouched by their educational experience.
That this book is shoddy and misdirected could have been easily predicted, given that the Report it seeks to update was itself shoddy and misdirected. In 2003, the proper response to A Nation at Risk would be to try hard to forget it. If forced to comment, one might remember it as the first cousin of Reaganistic "Voodoo Economics" and express shock that, after eighteen months of well subsidized investigation, this was the best its authors could do. The next step would be to build off its deficiencies to articulate a vision of better for American schools that certainly do need bettering.
Martin Bickman's Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (2003) provides an excellent jumping-off place for that endeavor to make better. Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Bickman criticizes with learned vigor the curriculum of drill-to-skill and fact-memorization and also speaks eloquently against the faddish academic Leftism that ?tough-minded? conservatives lampoon so persuasively. Bickman's favorites--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, John Dewey, et al.-- are not so easily written off, and his concern for stimulating deep understanding in students is not easily mistaken for a disdain for scholarly standards.

Beyond his far greater sophistication in the psychology of learning, Bickman wins the debate against the Hooverites with his richer, more nuanced, and more deeply American sense of democracy. His concern for building and sustaining democratic life highlights how authoritarian classrooms thwart independent, creative thinking of the sort championed for citizenship by Jefferson, Tocqueville, Webster, Mill, Emerson, Dewey, Holt, Gutmann, and McClung. Bickman understands that offering parents ?choice? of which mind-numbing, test-crazed school to send their child to is no more a furthering of democratic option than giving them a chance to pay by check, cash, or credit card for something they never purchased.
Our schools? proper business is not to fit students to pre-established slots in the workforce but rather to prepare them to thrive in whatever economic, cultural, and political institutions they choose to join or can themselves devise. Taking present arrangements as the major premises of rigid deductive arguments, the Hooverites don't "get" that; moreover, they don't "get" children, or liberal education, or the life of the mind. Their major policy-recommendations--greater accountability (via standardized tests), greater transparency (via more standardized tests), and a strong move toward privatizing schools (via vouchers)-- suggest a reformed management of schooling, but in classrooms it?s the same-old, same-old, only harsher. In the end, all they offer to students and teachers is the insistence to just shape up, damn it, or else.


The U.S. Department of Education convened the National Commission on Excellence in Education in August, 1981, received and published its findings in 1983, and then oversaw its dissemination for state-level treatment. Ironically, Ronald Reagan had made the dissolution of the federal Department of Education a major theme in his campaign for the Presidency in 1980. Reluctantly installing Terrell H. Bell as Secretary of Education, President Reagan and his staff soon realized the potential of that office to effect changes they longed for, and said no more about killing it off.

To read Still at Risk, one would get the idea that Risk was a news-flash bombshell, letting the American people in on a decline in school achievement that they had no previous idea of. The truth is that by 1983 all this was old hat. Big-splash studies like the College Board's On Further Examination (1975), Merrill Sheils' 1975 Newsweek article "Why Johnny Can't Write" (1975), and Paul Copperman's The Literacy Hoax (1977) themselves were old hat to educators and anyone else with eyes wide open. In a season full of books and reports lamenting the state of American education, A Nation at Risk was easily the worst.

In The Schools Our Children Deserve (1998), Alfie Kohn suggests exactly the right perspective from which to observe schooling and plan for its reform. He urges us to ?make a habit of seeing things from the perspective of that student sitting right over there? (25). To learn to see things this way is to come to recognize how passive the role of student is in traditional schooling, how tedious to be consistently the lecturee, the instructee or drillee, how demeaning to be given only the aim of avoiding punishment for completing task after task. Risk is at its most thoughtless and useless at this level, offering Kohn?s student as positive motivation only the hope that American corporations will dominate their economic domain and that their success will trickle down to her in the distant future.

The risk setting all this backward-looking "reform" in motion is defined in details like these: "[T]he Japanese make automobiles more efficiently than Americans?the South Koreans recently built the world?s most efficient steel mill ?American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being displaced by German products." But nothing connects the problems of these American industries to the measured loss of achievement in American primary and secondary schools. While Risk, for example, would blame less scholastically accomplished assembly-line workers for Detroit?s losses to Toyota and Nissan, it was the clinging to old designs and then the begrudging, miserable attempts to change product-lines that made American automobiles unbuyable. In effect, Risk simply let Lee Iacocca off the hook for putting out gas-guzzling boats and piece-of-crap K-cars.

Since 1983, national scholastic achievement has stayed near-constant while the economy has skyrocketed and then plummeted. Obviously there is a connection between a nation's prosperity and educational factors like near-universal literacy, the personal discipline associated with regular school attendance, and the mastery of specific information and skill. But to explain short-term economic decline with reference to short-term scholastic loss is to look in the wrong part of town.
The problem of explanation here builds on Risk's presenting the 1960s-'70s academic decline as alarmingly qualitative rather than a matter of smallish degree. There has been no Golden Age of American Education, and it was nonsense for Risk?s authors to claim in their opening paragraph, ?What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur?others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.? Admiral Hyman Rickover (hardly a liberal progressive) had imagined, even proven, just that for schools in Russia, England, and Switzerland during the exact time-period that Risk identified as our glory years. Books like Richard Hofstadter?s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Henry Steele Commager?s The American Mind afford a perspective on long-term patterns of national scholastic underachievement that is entirely missing in Risk and Still at Risk.

A second, decidedly minor theme introduced in Risk clearly should have been its first, major theme. Going ?well beyond matters of industry and commerce,? this theme spoke to ?the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people? and ?the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.? Here at last are issues that liberal education can address on its own terms.

Unfortunately, nowhere did Risk invest energies in this theme that it had in the attempt to blame low test scores for mercantile problems. Pursuing the minor theme would have led to far more profitable domains to explore, most notably the changes over time in American paideia, or child-rearing. Questions like these had to be asked and answered: What are kids today like? What do they think, and how do they think? What is shaping them at home, on the streets, and at play to become less knowledgeable, skilled, and eager than their predecessors? Businessmen might be able to afford reducing people to faceless ?performers? up to a certain level of productivity; educators, and classroom teachers in particular, cannot.

One measure of the ideological extremeness of Our Children and Our Future?Are We Still at Risk? is that it comments almost not at all on Risk's second theme. Its crass ?trained manpower? goal statements translate directly into impoverished curriculum, mean-spirited pedagogy, and inappropriate merit pay schemes for teachers. In many places, despite the charts, despite the tables, a reader feels uncomfortably in the presence of outsiders and amateurs who neither know much nor care much about classrooms. The inescapable image is of owners of baseball teams who never played the game, don?t particularly like it or even watch it much, but who scrutinize the standings and odd statistics about it and then presume to boss around the professionals in the organization.
The book consists of a report of the findings and recommendations of the Koret Foundation Task Force on K-12 Education, then eleven essays by Task Force members, some (Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn) familiar commentators on American schools, others apparently chosen only for ideological compatibility. It puzzles many of the authors why such a powerful and insightful report as A Nation at Risk has not led to greater positive change in American schools. Their general answer?teachers unions and other selfish interests have blocked the reform efforts?is less interesting than their drastic overrating of Risk and their callow assumptions concerning the psychology of learning and the worth of both teachers and education itself.

Still at Risk has only one significant mention of low student motivation,
unquestionably our schools? biggest problem today. In trying to help readers understand results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Ravitch cautions that ?there are genuine questions about the motivation of high school seniors who take this no-stakes examination in which no one will ever know the score of any individual test-taker? (35). Elsewhere, the Hooverites take as a given, a priori, that students work their hardest and perform their best, no matter what they are asked to do, if threatened with severe punishment. Such a foolish assumption absolves them from thinking creatively about what and how to teach and disqualifies all their interpretations of test results.

Terry M. Moe, perhaps today's best known advocate of vouchers and the business model for schooling, writes in Still at Risk: ?For business leaders, the general guidelines for effective management?setting goals, measuring performance, attaching consequences and incentives to performance?are an integral part of their everyday lives? (188-189). However Moe intends them, all these words show is how different business and education are. Owners of a factory or firm cannot expect employees to develop an intrinsic motivation to labor for the company?s profitability. The company demands what it takes to be an honest day?s work and uses behaviorism to train employees to produce it. Elementary-secondary education, by contrast, properly centers on developing love of learning in the arts and sciences and then guiding students to the next stages of understanding. Any ?training? in schools is tied to higher-order goals stated in terms of students? personal fulfillment and the needs of a participatory democracy.

In this context, the business model?s carrot-and-stick behaviorism is both offensive and self-defeating. Trading throughout in intellectual conformity and passivity, the Hooverites seek to break learning down into the smallest component parts, make faceless teachers drill the components, test faceless students? mastery thereof (?transparency?), and then hold the teachers strictly accountable for test results. But academic learning is never simplistically atomistic and additive, and so neither curriculum nor evaluation can be this piecemeal, this restricted to crumbs of ?data.? Again, Moe: ?[M]ost business leaders tend to think of education reform in terms of management, because management is essentially what they do for a living?? (197). But academic learning is never simplistically atomistic and additive, and so neither curriculum nor evaluation can be this piecemeal, this restricted to crumbs of ?data.? Again, Moe: ?[M]ost business leaders tend to think of education reform in terms of management, because management is essentially what they do for a living?? (197). But it is of no benefit to ?manage? education out of its proper aims and procedures just to put data in hand that businessmen and other outsiders can fathom.

A ?mistake,? almost by definition unprofitable in business, is the educator?s greatest resource. Setting meaningful tasks for students above their present level of comfort, the educator expects them to come to less than full success. Then he or she can see what each student needs help with and deliver appropriate instruction. The opposite approach insists on right answers all the time, and students bent on giving them will often do so at great expense: self-awareness, intellectual autonomy, long-term mastery, long-term understanding, and ethical integrity. To treasure mistakes, then, is no Romantic indulgence but the very center of any sound plan for academic growth.
Nor is it a weasling out of accountability when teachers insist that their work be judged in intimate relation to what students bring with them to school: knowledge, attitudes, learning styles, work habits, self-image, cultural exposure, life-goals, worries, even hunger-pangs. The Still at Risk authors treat teaching as operating irrespective of who is being taught, a one-way transmission. Deaf to the stories of classroom life, they miss the changes in American culture that have made teaching our young a pervasively harder job. They recognize almost nothing of the demands on teachers to stand against what students take from home, the street, television, movies, magazines, radio, and now the Internet about the low value of academic learning.

For this miseducative influence there is plenty of blame to go around, but a goodly share has to be directed at the very ?business leaders? before whom Risk and Still at Risk kneel in obeisance. Chasing the lures of pliant labor and miniscule taxes, industrialists abandoned the urban North and rural South, leaving desperation and alienation everywhere in their wake. Others pumped the entertainment media full of poison to mind and character, hooking kids on bogus stimulation. Still others trumpeted a "greed is good" ideology that established norms for the successful life wholly antithetical to those of liberal education.

Offering blanket support to "business leaders," Still at Risk contributors seem maliciously gleeful to reduce the noble profession of teaching the young to so much test-prep. The new flow-chart puts teachers many rungs below where they have been, as Chester Finn writes:

However much one may wish it were not so, the skills-and-knowledge view of student learning is best advanced by treating teachers as expert technicians who are skillful at implementing others' designs. They also must be held accountable to others outside the profession for educational outcomes that are largely shaped outside the priesthood of experts. (228)

To de-skill teaching in this way is to rob it of its creativity, intellectual potential, and attractiveness as a career. The good teachers will flee; the ?technicians? that remain will have less feel for children's education than for the gamesmanship of objective testing, psyching out what the test-makers were looking for and giving it to them. Everyone who has been inspired by a teacher will understand immediately the loss in moving to a Stanley Kaplan model of professional instruction.

Finishing Risk and Still at Risk, one reads Bickman's Minding American
with something of the relief that Virgil describes in Book VI of the Aeneid as Aeneas and the Sibyl turn from the pathway through Styx toward the Elysian Fields:

?They came
To places of delight, to green park land,
Where souls take ease among the Blessed Groves.
Wider expanses of high air endow
Each vista with a wealth of light.

The quotation from Virgil here is particularly apposite in that Bickman attended Boston Latin School and writes quite critically of it, despite its regularly producing high scorers on standardized tests. Describing Latin School as intellectually deadening, Bickman recalls how the genius of a poet like Virgil would be entirely missed by teachers bent on extracting lessons on grammar, vocabulary, and prosody from the verses. Such lessons now threaten to crowd out every other kind of learning under the legislation of standards-based "objective" tests, state by state.

Beginning with a sharp analysis of the philosophical split between Horace Mann and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bickman consistently argues for centering curriculum on the child's active learning. Teachers should strive not to impose the "correct" adult view from the lectern but to accelerate students' reconstruction of their "perpetual interaction with the world" (18). Mann, seeking to extend the benefits of schooling to a wider public and organize the effort carefully, instead welcomed "a rage for order" into the provisions. Bureaucratic consistency eased into a lockstep program of drills and recitations that gave no play whatever to children?s individual understandings of the world. This would prove disastrous ?in a fluid, democratic culture? like our own (10).

Bickman locates the origin of the American tradition of active learning in Emerson?s Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard on August 31, 1837. Titled ?The American Scholar,? Emerson?s speech distinguished between the true scholar and the false: ?In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to be a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men?s thinking? (Bickman 10-11). ?Parroting? is precisely the activity enshrined in both Risk and Still at Risk; the student demonstrates proficiency and potential for further study by spewing out what the textbooks have said. All these bits and pieces of learning are ripe for fast forgetting, anchored to no overarching cognitive schema and no heart-felt project of concentrated study.

Emerson and his followers kept as little separation as possible between scholarship and action on the world. Impatient with theory, allergic to pedantry, nineteenth century Progressives were practical-minded makers, doers, and builders. In their impatience to accomplish, pragmatic epistemology came naturally to them: What difference does it make if we suppose this rather than that? What benefit will accrue to us if we succeed in comprehending this book or mastering this skill? If no difference, no benefit, then it?s all moot and a waste of time. We accept certain theories provisionally, as good for now, but need to be ready to change our minds in the light of refuting experience. In classrooms designed with such testing-out in mind, students keep constructing and re-constructing their ideas as they strive to account for all they hear, see, and feel.

Bickman suggests that students thriving in Progressive classrooms will score high on proficiency tests, but this success will come in passing, as a by-product of becoming an educated person. In this context, a particularly valuable service Bickman provides is to clarify the educational thinking of John Dewey. As modeled in his famous Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, Dewey sought to prepare young Americans for democratic citizenship in the running of their own classrooms. Academic lessons would be grounded in the perceived need to act in ways that solve present problems and prompt further reflection, research, and action. This dynamic is ?educative? in three clear ways: accelerating students' understanding, guiding them to efficacious action on the world, and equipping them to accept both intellectual and practical responsibilities maturely.

A professor of English and an excellent writer (sadly, one is tempted now to add
?despite this? here), Bickman is especially acute in applying Deweyan precepts to language-use by students and teachers. Expository writing, for instance, is most valuable in affording students the opportunity to work out lines of thought and thereby deepen their command. But as the medium least conducive to standardized testing, exposition is regularly reduced to so many "component parts" like spelling and punctuation. Even the proficiency examinations like the NAEP that ask students for a writing sample must provide a broadly general topic that every student can be presumed to have equal access to (e.g., "Tell a tall tale") and can develop in a few minutes to the satisfaction of readers trained to look mostly for formal proficiency. The rhetorical and intellectual skimpiness if not outright fraudulence here is obvious, and many of the same considerations apply to ?objective? tests of reading comprehension.

Bickman's literary acumen informs the most interesting chapter in the book, Education by Poetry: Pedagogy and the Arts in Early Modernism. Moving easily between the philosophical, the poetic, and the pedagogical, Bickman centers the chapter on the twin possibilities of language to bring order to the chaos of particular impressions but also to freeze thinking and limit vision, crushing the particular under the dead weight of preconception written into familiar metaphor. Modernist poets played their verses off against too-familiar, too-constricting forms of discourse, and many like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams explicitly applied this poetical praxis to education.

Frost taught school for years, read William James closely, and even instructed at the New Hampshire State Normal School, where he assigned readings in Rousseau and Pestalozzi. In his poems, Frost worked both within and against the iambic pentameter line and the sonnet form, inserting a much more natural speaking voice than earlier American poets like Longfellow and Lanier. Bickman connects the two interests of Frost memorably: "The conventional practice of verse takes these rhythms and overregularizes them to the point of creating too extreme a difference between poetry and the spoken language, just as school has removed the process of learning so far from what happens outside that any resemblance becomes coincidental" (121).

Williams proves an especially useful poet for Bickman to teach in his undergraduate classes, as his work is both intrinsically interesting and pitched at a perfect level of complexity and difficulty; Stevens himself had suggested that ?Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.? Prompting the intelligence of his students with carefully worded leading questions, Bickman writes:
The questions ask the students not simply to find out what the poem means, to get to some bottom line, but to immerse themselves in it imaginatively. Questions about individual words and images are intentionally meant to make the reading more deliberate, to slow it down enough to allow the poem to resonate through the imagination. (157)

Not surprisingly, Bickman and his teaching assistants find the students? journal-writing on the poems more interesting and lively than their formal essays, finished products written in ?a style that is stilted, tentative, wordy, and vacuous? (158). The students have learned all too well to compose ?winningly? over-organized, thought- but error-free papers, safely removed from ?complexities and contradictions, the hard work of thinking? (159). The tutelage of Bickman and his assistants restores rhetorical honesty and probing intelligence to the process of composing.

Finishing with reflections on Sixties thinkers like Holt and Dennison, then a report on his own classroom work, Bickman makes an outstanding case for his side. Pitting his work against Still at Risk, however, one sees areas that his next book will need to explore in far greater depth.
Agreeing with George Dennison that "the present quagmire of public education is entirely the result of unworkable centralization and the lust for control that permeates every bureaucratic institution," Bickman must first note that neo-conservatives would agree with every word here, and then explain why the neo-conservatives are wrong to try to minimize centralization and bureaucracy through vouchers and privatization. If, moreover, flexibility and experimentalism are central Progressive concepts, how can Bickman be sure in advance that traditional classrooms are not right for some students? NAEP data indicate, for example, that the most academically proficient group of African-American students attend schools sponsored by the U.S. military. Perhaps what upper middle class children and parents experience as repressive over-regularization, these "Army brats" experience as calming discipline and usefully direct instruction. More generally, with Black and Latino students lagging far behind whites and Asian-Americans academically, specific application of Progressive thinking to their schooling seems much needed.

Bickman also needs to probe more fully how he would find and train enough teachers like himself. Bickman is rigorously, scrupulously clear about how tough it is to teach well in the Progressive style--never a matter of just sitting back and letting the kids do whatever. The philosophical/professional range acceptable to Bickman is narrow, and the numbers of students attending U.S. schools and colleges is huge. How then to staff so many schools? And how to measure the teachers' success, evaluate their competence? And what special demands are placed on Progressive teachers at the different levels of education from kindergarten to graduate school?
Bickman surely has answers for challenges like these, and one would read them with great interest. He does convince in the present volume that the tradition of active learning is worth keeping alive. No second volume of Still at Risk has the potential of doing the good that Bickman can do in refining his discussion of the practical, institutional arrangements needed for contemporary Progressivism to thrive.

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