Commentary | Education

A Test of Time: Unchanged Priorities for Student Outcomes


A Test of Time

Unchanged Priorities for Student Outcomes

By  Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen

Go to “ 100 Points, 8 Goals, Your Choice

As the nation emerged from the Great Depression and as the world hurtled toward a Second World War that would also consume us, the American Association of School Administrators re-examined the purposes of American education. AASA joined with the National Education Association to convene an Education Policies Commission that set forth “four great groups of objectives” for public education: self-realization, human relationships, economic efficiency and civic responsibility.

The commission’s 1938 report, deeply influenced by national and world crises, embraced basic math and literacy skills as key outcomes of schooling, but also said that educators should do much more, developing students’ morality, justice and fair dealings, honesty, truthfulness, maintenance of group understandings, proper respect for authority, tolerance and respect for others, habits of cooperation, and work habits such as industry and self-control, along with endurance and physical strength.

Some 70 years later, with new world crises confronting us, No Child Left Behind and similar state accountability plans hold public schools responsible only for test scores in basic academic skills. Ignoring the balanced list of outcomes generated in 1938 by the Education Policies Commission, today’s policies narrow the curriculum, placing such stress on basic academic skills that other important goals for public education are diminished. These curricular shifts have a disproportionate impact on economically and socially disadvantaged students — their schools, more likely to be labeled as failing, are also more likely to be under pressure to ignore those other instructional goals where poor performance provokes no legal sanction.

The Washington-based Center on Education Policy has surveyed superintendents about how they are implementing NCLB. Of low-poverty school districts, 55 percent have new minimum time requirements for reading, but of high-poverty districts, 97 percent have such policies. Not surprisingly, administrators in districts that have been forced to increase time for math and reading often report reduced time for other curricular areas.

One superintendent in Nebraska thought it likely he would have to cut the school district’s music program to make time for additional focus on mathematics and reading/language arts. A superintendent in Vermont reported improvement in reading instruction and test scores but complained this has left little time for social studies and science. Other superintendents reported reducing physical education requirements to carve out more time for remedial reading instruction, a particularly troublesome trend in high-poverty districts where obesity is a growing concern.

Neglected Purposes

Some notable civic leaders are alarmed. The historian David McCullough concluded, in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee: “Because of No Child Left Behind, sadly, history is being put on the backburner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools in favor of math or reading.” Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor co-chairs the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, whose mission statement laments that under NCLB, “as civic learning has been pushed aside, society has neglected a fundamental purpose of American education, putting the health of our democracy at risk.”

Accountability systems not only have incentives that affect what subjects are taught, but also how they are taught. Believing that students first must master basic skills before moving on to more complex problem solving, many states have standardized assessments that disproportionately include basic items, causing teachers (again, especially in schools serving disadvantaged students) to focus more on drill and rote learning.

The distortion is fueled further by test preparation booklets that are boring for both students and teachers. They may be effective at boosting test scores by a few points, often enough to cross a proficiency point and create the illusion of educational progress, but they also may dampen children’s enthusiasm to become lifelong learners. Rather than spending classroom time exploring ideas in depth, many classrooms now are so focused on test preparation there is little time for projects that promote critical and creative thinking skills.

The Education Policies Commission of 1938 would have been troubled by this development, but Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says, “[T]eaching to the test is fine and dandy, keep on.”

Structuring Accountability

While holding schools responsible for student outcomes is a reasonable goal, current accountability systems reduce the mission of schools to whatever is being tested. Yet many of public education’s goals cannot easily be assessed with stand-ardized exams. Superintendents, who have unique expertise in the needs of their students and communities, are called upon to fulfill the entire mission of public schools, not only test content.

Perhaps, however, superintendents no longer subscribe to the balanced goal system articulated by AASA in 1938. Times have changed. Have superintendents and their governing board members concluded that basic skills have grown dramatically in importance while other goals have diminished?

To explore whether this is the case, we recently surveyed a nationwide sample of superintendents and school board members, as well as the general public. We asked our respondents to assign relative importances to eight broadly defined goals of public education — those that, throughout American history, educators and policymakers have expected schools to pursue.

The survey results show that superintendents consider student competency in basic academic skills (literacy, mathematics, history, science) to be most important. Second is critical thinking and problem solving. But together, these two academic goals still represent less than half the total weight in a balanced school program, according to the representative group of superintendents we surveyed. More than half the weight is distributed among other goals, such as development of social skills and a work ethic, good citizenship, appreciation of the arts and literature, physical and emotional health, and preparation for skilled employment for students not bound for academic colleges.

Just as AASA members articulated a balanced set of goals in 1938, today’s members do the same. Nor are superintendents’ views those simply of education insiders, out of touch with a broader national consensus. Our survey shows conclusively that the education goals of today’s superintendents are broadly consistent with those of the general public and of school board members elected in districts around the country. Despite national and state policies that function to narrow the curriculum, members of each of these groups want the curriculum broadened.

Historical Goals

The Education Policies Commission report was not unique. While at various times throughout American history some goals have been emphasized more than others, there always has existed a consensus around a broad set of goals, a consensus that stands in stark contrast to the philosophy of No Child Left Behind.

When the Founding Fathers discussed creating a public education system, their motivation was mostly a desire t
o develop wise citizens who would be able to make sound political decisions and ensure the continuation and growth of democracy. It would never have occurred to the founders that, while important, reading and arithmetic alone would guarantee good citizenship.

In 1749 Benjamin Franklin proposed that Pennsylvania establish a public school that should, he said, place as much emphasis on physical as on intellectual fitness because “exercise invigorates the soul as well as the body.” As for academics, Franklin believed history instruction to be particularly important because “questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, will naturally arise” as students debate historical issues “in conversation and in writing.” While certainly, Franklin wanted the teaching of basic skills, he thought these were a means to an end, providing tools with which youths could develop a sense of justice and virtue.

George Washington, in his first state of the union message, urged Congress to promote schools to teach students “to value their own rights” and “to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority.” Because in a popular government the will of the people can influence policy, Washington believed “it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Washington also urged a public education system that could foster a sense of national identity when students from diverse backgrounds learned together under the same educational roof. A belief that schools play an important role in developing tolerance and appreciation of diversity is not a recent development.

Thomas Jefferson devoted much energy to developing a public education system in Virginia. In 1779, he proposed a bill to establish schools because (this written during the Revolutionary War) the best way to prevent tyranny was “to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.” In his post-presidential period, Jefferson worked extensively on a proposal that included elementary, secondary and higher public education. His system’s purposes included:

• To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;

• To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing;

• To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;

• To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;

• To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; and to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;

• And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

Reading and calculation were not ignored in Jefferson’s scheme, but students’ moral and political development was also essential.

A Balanced Set

Educators in the 19th century also urged a balanced set of educational goals. Horace Mann, the first superintendent of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education, wrote 12 annual reports to encourage support for public schools. In these, political goals maintained prominence but one report stressed the importance of vocal music. Another stressed the importance of sanitary (we would say “environmental”) awareness and public health policy. Another, following Mann’s tour of Europe, praised Prussian schools for students’ discipline and order, but warned that universal public education did not itself ensure democratic values. Prussian students, after all, became literate, but they nonetheless supported an autocratic government. Mann concluded that public schools in a democracy must explicitly inculcate democratic moral and political values, so literacy will not be misused: “[I]f Prussia can pervert the benign influences of education to the support of arbitrary power, we surely can employ them for the support and perpetuation of republican institutions.”

In his final report, Mann articulated a list of goals for education that included health and physical, intellectual, political, moral and religious education (which he defined as instruction in those ethical principles on which all religions agreed). Mann also thought schools should be judged not only on what students learned, but whether they excited children to continue to want to learn. He would today be termed a “constructivist,” cautioning that “knowledge cannot be poured into a child’s mind.” Mann noted that children who learn the rules of an intricate game in an evening on the playground can, if unmotivated, take six months to learn the alphabet.

Mann’s contemporary, John Pierce, Michigan’s first superintendent of public instruction, insisted in a report to his own legislature that the American political system could be preserved “only by the general diffusion of knowledge. Children of every name and age must be taught the qualifications and duties of American citizens and learn in early life the art of self-control — they must be educated.”

As schooling expanded in the early 20th century, the federal government commissioned a review of secondary education. In 1918, a 26-member committee issued its report, “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.” Continuing in the tradition of the Founding Fathers and 19th century educators, the committee demanded a balanced approach to education, urging schools to take responsibility for physical activity and health, academic skills, responsible family behavior and morality, vocational preparation, appreciation of the arts and training for democratic civic participation.

In 1958, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund convened leaders from many fields to make recommendations on school goals. The report supported academic testing to sort future scientists and leaders but denounced an exclusive use of test scores to evaluate educational outcomes. It warned that “[d]ecisions based on test scores must be made with the awareness of the … qualities of character that are a necessary ingredient of great performance[:]… aspiration or purpose … courage, vitality or determination.”

For the last 20 years, plaintiffs have argued that states have an obligation to finance an “adequate” education. Courts have thus attempted to define the goals of adequacy. The earliest decision in this line of cases was issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court that found, in 1976, a constitutional requirement for a “thorough and efficient education” where graduates become “citizens and competitors in the labor market.” The court later elaborated: “Thorough and efficient means more than teaching … skills needed to compete in the labor market. … It means being able to fulfill one’s role as a citizen, a role that encompasses far more than merely registering to vote. It means the ability to participate fully in society, in the life of one’s community, the ability to appreciate music, art and literature, and the ability to share all of that with friends.”

Of course, in every age dissenters have wanted to assert a near-exclusive priority for academic training in public schools. Yet most Americans usually have wanted both an academic focus and the social outcomes. Holding schools accountable only for math and reading is an extreme position that rarely has had significant support.

A Unique Place

Superintendents are in a unique position to influence education policy. Accountable to local school boards, they usually have expertise in child and adolescent development, pedagogical techniques and the history of educational reform. In the era of No Child Left Behind, as the federal and state governments demand a narrowed curriculum, superintendents can draw on their expertise to speak out about the policy process. Our survey demonstrates that superintendents believe strongly that a different direction is now needed.

Accountability for enhancing education
al equity is necessary, but the present system fails to consider the full range of goals for which equity should be achieved. The historic commitments of AASA members, expressed in 1938 and again in our survey, are the starting point for developing a public school system that is not evaluated by test scores alone.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Rebecca Jacobsen  is a doctoral candidate in politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.


100 Points, 8 Goals, Your Choice

By  Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen

Surveys can provide valuable information but results sometimes can mislead. Pollsters can manipulate results by suggestive wording of questions or sequence. For example, if we asked respondents whether schools should do more in the arts, most would say yes. And if we asked whether schools should do more in history and civics, most also would agree. But if we observed that time for the arts must come from reducing time for history and civics, or vice-versa, respondents’ answers might change.

We solved such problems by conducting our survey over a secure website, where a group of school superintendents, randomly selected from AASA’s membership, could use a computer to complete the survey. (We used similar technology to survey school board members and used a survey firm that provided web TV hardware to randomly selected members of the general public.) Additional support was provided via telephone. The computer software randomized question order to ensure that some goals were not given unintended prominence over others. Respondents were able to take as much time as needed to consider their answers.

Respondents were asked to allocate a total of 100 points across eight goals, to determine how much importance each should receive in an accountability system. Respondents could revise their answers until the relative importance of all goals equaled no more or less than 100 points.

The eight goals were:

• Basic Academic Skills in Core Subjects (reading, writing, math, science, history).

• Critical Thinking and Problem Solving (analysis, interpretation, applying ideas to new situations).

• Social Skills and Work Ethic (communication skills, personal responsibility, getting along with others).

• Citizenship and Community Responsibility (readiness to vote responsibly, to volunteer, to become active in communities).

• Physical Health (good habits of exercise and nutrition).

• Emotional Health (self-confidence, respect for others, responsible behavior).

• Arts and Literature (participation in and appreciation of the arts, love of literature).

• Vocational Education (qualifying the non-college bound for skilled employment).

Here is how superintendents, school board members and the general public ranked the eight goals, averaged nationally:

Table 1
Priorities of superintendents, school board members and the general public are very similar. None of these groups embraces goals that are consistent with accountability for standardized academic skills alone.

Complete methodological details about the survey will be reported in our forthcoming book.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Rebecca Jacobsen is a doctoral candidate in politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.


See related work on Student achievement | Education

See more work by Rebecca Jacobsen and Richard Rothstein