Grading Education

by Harry on November 18, 2008

Richard Rothstein’s new book Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right
just got added to my short list of books about education that everyone should read. I presume that EPI has put it in the hands of everyone in Congress, but it might be worth, after reading it yourself, passing it on to a local school board member. Whereas a lot of criticism of NCLB amounts to little more than an unbalanced rant and I would say that most criticism is unconstructive, Grading Education offers a comprehensive, compelling, and constructive critique. It’s comprehensive in that it places NCLB within a (very interesting) discussion of the history of evaluation of schools, and constructive, not in the sense that it suggests a way to fix NCLB (that, the authors say, is impossible) but rather by offering a sensible alternative framework for “getting accountability right”. The authors believe (rightly) that accountability is important, and (again rightly) that the particular method of democratic accountability through locally elected school boards simply doesn’t work. (They do not ask whether NCLB, with all its flaws, when superimposed on a system of local democratic control is superior to local democratic control on its own, which I suspect it might be, but their aim is to influence future policy). The book ought to have a lot of influence over the debates around the re-authorisation, revision, or tacit abandonment of NCLB which, presumably, we’ll start to have at some point.

I hesitate to say too much about it, for fear of releasing you from the obligation of reading it. But the basic argument is as follows.

Whereas NCLB has focused very narrowly on reading and math test scores, not only have Americans historically cared about a much richer set of goals for education, but they (including parents, school board members, and politicians) still do. They offer 8 goals or aims of education: promoting basic academic schools, critical thinking skills, appreciation of arts and literature, social skills and work ethic, Citizenship and community responsibility, physical health, and emotional health, they and enlist various thinkers from Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, through Horace Mann to Eisenhower and Nelson Rockerfeller (and contemporary surveys) in support of this richer conception. (If I can be forgiven a bit of self-promotion, I’d welcome feedback on how these goals fit with the goals I set out and defend in On Education ). In contrast to this rich view of the aims of education, we have developed measurement tools that are very crude. As one well known defender of progressive educational causes from the seventies put it:

To achieve this fundamental reform it will be necessary to develop broader and more sensitive instruments of learning than we now have. The National Institute for Education would take the lead in developing these new measurements of educational output. In doing so it should pay as much heed to what are called “immeasurables” of schooling (largely because no one has yet learned to measure them) such as responsibility, wit, and humanity as it does to verbal and mathematical achievement… From these considerations we develop another new concept of accountability.

There’s a wonderful chapter on NAEP, which shows that in the early days NAEP, which is now a focused only on the measurables, attempted to measure the “immeasurables” (even emotional health) too (though sensibly without specifying what would count as proficiency), and there’s a nice, Diane Ravichy, account of how these became untenable – that the hostility of various political correctness groups of left and right to items that show any kind of bias make it impossible to include questions the right answers to which might suggest some sort of bias. (I started to giggle when I read the short list of factual questions torn out of NAEP by the sensitivity and bias committee, such as the passage abut how owls eat rodents which was left out because owls are associated with death in the Navajo culture).

It’s not just the relentless focus on the measurables that is problematic; the authors elaborate the long list of problems that are familiar from other critiques, offering actual studies that suggest these really are problems. What’s nice about these discussions is not just that they have mined the literature for real evidence, but that they are thoughtful about why this might be happening. Think about the problem with bubble kids – because schools are rewarded for increasing the numbers who achieve proficiency, they focus on kids who cluster around the level of proficiency to the detriment of the kids who are never going to get there. Now, this clearly happens, but technically there is an incentive not to do it, because the aim is to get EVERYONE to the level of proficiency by 2014. So why does it happen anyway? Well, because everyone knew that the target of 100% proficiency by 2014 was absurd, and everyone knew that the act would be revised, renewed, or abandoned by 2008 (well, you know what I mean), so everyone assumed that the goal, being absurd, would be abandoned at that time. Quite apart from the fact that it is hard to be thinking about goals that are a decade off when you have no idea whether you’ll still be working in the school at that time.

Now, some opponents of NCLB either think, or are just content to suggest by their silence, that accountability is bound to be a disaster or, worse, that accountability is some sort of impingement on the autonomy and freedom of teachers and principals. (I do think there is an interesting case against accountability, and will try to articulate it in a later post, but the main arguments I see and hear around me strike me as entirely wrongheaded). One refreshing thing about Grading Education is that the authors understand that a massive institution that consumes more public funding than any other project other than defense, everyone has a stake in ensuring sensible accountability (might be nice to have it for defence, too) Also refreshing is their observation that most other wealthy countries have longstanding systems of national accountability and their suggestion that Americans might learn something from both the successes and failures of those other countries. (I understand that some book reviewers have a code of disclosing when they are included in the acknowledgements of a book, so at this point I should probably do my disclosing: I am thanked in the back of the book, although I didn’t read a word of it in manuscript. I’m thanked for introducing Rothstein to my dad, interviews with whom helped with the long and very nice section on the OFSTED regime of 1993-2005). Rothstein and his co-authors recommend shifting responsibility for accountability onto the States, with the Federal government playing the role of creating fiscal equalization and gathering valid and reliable State-level information using the richer information provided by an updated version of “early NAEP” tests, and using representative, age-level, samples. They also argue for an inspection regime, adapted from OFSTED 1993-2005 (Brits reading this part of the recommendation will be surprised to learn that Rothstein is widely regarded as being on the left, and perhaps more surprised that he arrived at this recommendation after talking to Chris Woodhead’s bete noir.

So that is the argument in broad strokes. Two final things. First, there is a lovely chapter called “Accountability by the numbers” which skewers the claim that in other industries accountability using only quantitative data works well; they start with a nice summary of Ridley and Simon’s Measuring Municipal Activities, and run through a series of examples of perverse incentives introduced by, and gaming triggered by, crude accountability schemes not unlike that proposed in NCLB. Worth reading just for that.

Second, the authors make a revolutionary suggestion about the role of school boards, which particularly resonated with me after two recent local events. The less absurd of these was the last round of budget cuts, which consumed our local school board’s time and energy. For the key meetings each member brought in his or her own list of exactly what to cut, then they traded till the cuts worked out. It struck me at the time that nobody could seriously believe that the upshot was going to be superior in any way to a budget that the Superintendent would have recommended, and that the discussion was simply a waste of time; none of the board members is a fool, and I imagine that none of them thought their list was much better than anyone else’s, and that most of their lists were probably better than any compromise that they would forge; wouldn’t it have been better to pick a list out of the hat than to engage in endless detailed discussion? The more absurd, in fact semi-hilarious, event was the energy consumed by the problem of naming a school. A new school had been named after General Vang Pao, in order to represent the local Hmong community. Unfortunately, this was immediately before he was sought for trying to overthrow the government of Laos; it looks possible that, whatever the Hmong think about him, he is a less than savoury character. After meetings devoted to deciding whether to rename the school after someone who was not a war criminal, further meetings were devoted to deciding what rule to adopt about naming schools that would avoid future embarrassment (my suggestion, which was to name schools only after characters in AA Milne’s books, on the grounds that it is highly unlikely that any of them will turn out to be a war criminal, rapist, murderer, military coup-leader, or slave-owner (well, Christopher Robin should probably be excluded just in case) was not taken seriously for some reason). This consumed endless energy from our school board and community, and did nothing at all to improve anything happening in any school.

Rothstein, Jacobsen and Wilder’s revolutionary suggestion is that school boards should “concentrate their energies on insisting that these consensus outcomes be met, and in turn delegate administrative decisionmaking to superintendents, their staffs, and their teachers.” Boards meddle too much in administration (except where Superintendents are highly skilled at manipulating them, but in that case a lot of the time and energy of a capable Superintendent is absorbed by that task) and “abdicate” their responsibility to hold educators accountable for achieving the rich set of goals Rothstein et. al., and, ironically, most school board members, support.

My proposal: require that your school principal, your district superintendent, and anyone standing for your local school board, has read Grading Education.



Chris 11.19.08 at 1:50 am

It seems to me that while the NCLB testing program might possibly succeed in identifying the contours of the problem (i.e. which students are underperforming, and in which schools/regions/demographics are they concentrated?), the “accountability” parts of the program assume an etiology without attempting to derive it from the data (the administrators and teachers at that school just aren’t trying hard enough); that etiology is very likely bogus, or represents only a small part of the overall problem; and then the “remedy” applied based on that etiology (reduce the school’s funding, or fire the teacher and get a new one who will almost always be less experienced) is highly likely to make the problem worse.

Trying to give people a stronger motivation to do something only works if you have reason to believe that they weren’t particularly motivated to do it in the first place *and* that they know how to do it if they wanted to. Both assumptions fail horribly for education – the idea that teachers could fix the problems anytime if they weren’t just a bunch of lazy goldbrickers would be funnier if someone wasn’t (implicitly) trying to seriously advance it. (Oh wait, I forgot: lazy unionized goldbrickers. Can’t have a conservative initiative without unionbusting.) Sure, a few years of applying the “accountability” provisions will demonstrate their ineffectiveness (if you analyze the data right), but how much damage will be done before then?

Instead, it would have been far superior (IMO) to implement only the testing for a few years, then scrub personal information from the dataset (replacing it with arbitrary unique tracking numbers for each student, which allow the student to be tracked year-to-year, and translating both the performance and demographic data to the tracking number format) and unleash an army of statisticians and academics to data mine it. Then, and only then, does it start to make sense to believe that you have some idea what the causes of academic underperformance are, which ones might be addressable by government action, and what action to take. There’d be less motivation for, and therefore likelihood of, cheating, too – and therefore a cleaner dataset.

But I guess that’s because I’m a member of the reality-based community, approaching the issue as a problem to be understood and solved. What can you expect from the same people who think that private schools are “better” when they pick the most-likely-to-succeed students and subsequently find that they succeed more often?


Michael Turner 11.19.08 at 3:03 am

A new school had been named after General Vang Pao, in order to represent the local Hmong community. Unfortunately, this was immediately before he was sought for trying to overthrow the government of Laos . . . .

Now wait, you can’t rule out the possibility that the school naming actually emboldened Vang Pao. Or maybe it was part of a coordinated psy-ops propaganda strategy for the Laos takeover.

And there’s the flaw in your proposal to name schools based on characters in Winnie the Pooh. If you go and name a school after Eeyore, say, it could go to his head. That braying ass might try to topple the sovereign nation of Wind in the Willows.


joe koss 11.19.08 at 4:09 am

“my short list of books about education that everyone should read”

I know Class and Schools and Common Sense School Reform are on this list, but I would be interested in what the others are.


Dan Simon 11.19.08 at 5:33 am

Two points:

1) Your criticism of the focus on “measurables” would make a lot more sense if American public schools were in pretty good shape overall–say, like the typical industry–and risked being sidetracked and undermined by an an obsessive focus on a few narrow criteria. But given the abysmal job that the public schools overall are currently doing, focusing on improving measurables is an obvious and sensible place to start.

Your example of “bubble children” illustrates this point perfectly: it actually doesn’t argue at all against a focus on measurables, and merely suggests that the criterion for success might better be adjusted to include a more complete assessment of the whole achievement curve, rather than the percentage achieving a set proficiency level. This might be a major issue if public schools were generally doing a fine job with low-achieving students, and are now diverting resources away from that successful effort towards the narrower one of pushing more children over the proficiency threshold. But given that public schools were already doing a lousy job with low-achieving students, the diversion of effort from yet another failing element of public education isn’t likely to do much harm, and the increase in at least one measurable achievement seems like a very worthwhile tradeoff.

2) It’s simply not true that in “a massive institution that consumes more public funding than any other project other than defense, everyone has a stake in ensuring sensible accountability”. Put aside the obvious point that in any large, stable project with relative job security, all but the most idealistic participants benefit from a lack of accountability. The ugly fact is that in America (and perhaps elsewhere–I don’t really know), the constituency for successful, high-quality education is by no means an overwhelming majority, and possibly not even a majority at all. And for those for whom good education is simply not a goal, undermining accountability is an obvious way to divert education-directed resources to push priorities other than education–be they political, religious, economic or otherwise. I don’t doubt that your heart’s in the right place, Harry, but I can assure you that the motives of most of your fellow opponents of “the relentless focus on the measurables” are much less creditable.


Ambrose 11.19.08 at 6:35 am

NCLB is an attempt to inflict on teachers the same pain they inflicted on us by using a numerical grading system that had next to nothing to do with what we were learning. Humans are complex and choosing the right method of education for each student is a complex task. I com e from a generation that was blessed by being taught by a group of over qualified women who were forced to devote there time to teaching us, because there was little else that they were permitted to do. If we want our children to be taught by such highly qualified teachers, we must expect to pay for it. If you want to know how well a teacher is doing you must live with that teacher. You must evaluate how well trained the teacher is, the teachers temperament, the ability to communicate and the ability to motivate. These qualities will be influenced by the type of student. Fortunately, we have a device that is suited to do this type of evaluation. It is called a human being. If we are skillful in our evaluation of teachers, then we will experience good results. I doubt that a model could be created that could be used in this diverse culture that could handle all the variables necessary to assure good results. It is unlikely that the same model used to evaluate teachers in a community that does not believe in evolution would work in a university town. Then, there are the white, black, brown, Asian, Muslim, union, non-union, rich, middle class, poor communities and any number of other sub-cultures with all their permutations and combinations. All have their individual characteristics that must be accounted for and a good number may be present in one school. In addition teachers and their administrators will alter their behavior to fit the model created. If you try to simplify the model to the lowest common denominator, then you get the NCLB.


Tracy W 11.19.08 at 9:04 am

Then, and only then, does it start to make sense to believe that you have some idea what the causes of academic underperformance are, which ones might be addressable by government action, and what action to take.

Chris, there have been ample databases developed of student performance and how it is linked to demographic data. The Coleman Report, which did what you suggest here, was published in 1966. In the 1970s, researchers went beyond merely looking into the causes of academic underperformance, and instead investigated in a large-scale study what educational programmes could increase the performance of low-income kids, in a multi-year investigation. This report was called Project Followthrough. It found that one programme – Direct Instruction – improved the educational performance of low-income kids relative to the control group in terms of academic, cognitive and affective (ie self-esteem) skills. See

But I guess that’s because I’m a member of the reality-based community, approaching the issue as a problem to be understood and solved.

The problem of educating the vast majority of kids is already understood and solved. But schools for some reason aren’t implementing it. How many kids are doomed to illiteracy by ignoring educational solutions we already know, in the name of endless studies of what has already been studied endlessly. I have no objections to basic research (apart from the ethical concerns with investigations on small children), but I think it is entirely possible to a member of the reality-based community and to think we should actually implement whatever research shows to be the best solution.

What can you expect from the same people who think that private schools are “better” when they pick the most-likely-to-succeed students and subsequently find that they succeed more often?

Out of curiousity, can you please name these people who think these things? I have never run across a policy-maker who has fallen for such an obvious statistical flaw, and I’ve read some pretty daft things written by policy-makers.


harry b 11.19.08 at 12:54 pm

Well, I can’t immediately name, still less, quote anyone who does exactly that. But, just about everybody who defends selective grammar schools in the UK does exactly that; watch, for example, The Economist, whose education/UK correspondent seems to spend a lot of time at dinner parties with people who went to grammar schools. (My impression, incidentally, is that the same newspapers education/US correspondent actually knows a lot about schools in the US).

Joe: I’ll do a separate post, and make sure that everyone I recommend to the ed school reads them all beforehand. One book is Shopping Mall High School, which I’ve intended to post about for years, and will, soon.

Dan S: I appreciate the second point and your confidence in me. I’ve a good response to the first, and will give it when I have more time


harry b 11.19.08 at 12:55 pm

By “good”, I mean something like “interesting but don’t expect it to persuade you and am not sure if I’m persuaded myself”.


James Wimberley 11.19.08 at 2:19 pm

Tracy W: could you please expand on this self-esteem thingy? I mean, if kids think of themselves as useless turds they aren’t going to learn much or make a success of their lives, so it’s desirable for them to think of themselves as normally valuable and interesting young people. But is it really a good idea to go beyond this and encourage them to think of themselves as fantastically interesting and valuable people like Britney Spears? “Knowing yourself” traditionally means realizing that you are both valuable etc and at other times a useless turd. A single-valued scale seems to reward the inculcation of moral obtuseness.


robertdfeinman 11.19.08 at 3:02 pm

Notice that under NCLB there is no plan on how to improve “failing” schools. There are required steps to punish the administrators and teachers, and to throw some random amounts of money into these schools, but no actual pedagogical plans.

As was mentioned above poor students come from poor neighborhoods and their problems are related to those in the general society. Schools cannot fix problems like this, which is why they have failed to do so in over 100 years of successive fads. The purpose of NCLB is to weaken the public school system and the teacher’s unions. It’s that simple and pretending otherwise is just giving in to rightwing spin.

There are some simple (simple to state, not to do) steps that improve the performance of those in the lower socio-economic classes. These includes spending more money in their school districts, eliminating segregation (both racial and economic) by changing school boundaries, and raising the status of educators as a career choice.

That none of these things ever happens is because the majority of the population (or at least those with political clout) like things as they are. My school district spend about $18K per student, while the black district 5 miles away spends about $12K. If anyone suggested mixing these student bodies together there would be riots and the pols suggesting it would be kicked out of office so fast they wouldn’t know what hit them.

We get the schools in this country that we demand, and what we demand are good suburban schools for the well-off and to hell with everyone else.


harry b 11.19.08 at 3:04 pm

James — no, absolutely not, but that’s not what Tracy is talking about. When kids develop the opinion that they are capable of doing X by getting clear evidence that they can do something that falls short of X very slightly, by actually doing something that falls short of X very slightly, then that seems to me to be justified slef-esteem, and what we should aim for. There IS a problem in some kids, that my father-in-law calls “suffering from a surfeit of self-esteem”, but you find it in fancy suburban and private schools, and elite colleges, not among the kids about whom tracy is thinking.

A wonderful paper on this, by the way, by my former student Matt Ferkany, called ‘The Educational Importance of Self-Esteem,’ in the Journal of Philosophy of Education earlier this year.


Ralph Hitchens 11.19.08 at 4:02 pm

Looks like a good book to Read Right Now. Of course you’re not going to get rid of or get around “democratic accountability through locally elected school boards” in this century, and the NCLB notion of accountability is clearly the wrong one. My own feeling is that standardized tests ought to support school systems, not evaluate them or their output. Why not have students take standardized tests based on the learning objectives in the core curriculum at the beginning of the school year and at the end, which should yield a measurable difference that will answer, to some degree, George W. Bush’s immortal question: “Is our children learning?” These tests would have nothing to do with graduation eligibility, which would revert to simply passing the courses. So we wouldn’t see what we’re seeing in Maryland this year, where something like one in six graduating seniors failed the “high stakes testing” and will not receive diplomas.


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 4:24 pm


From your post you seem to be of my generation (or nearly so, I’m 64) and taught by the same sort of women in grade school I was. And I indeed wholeheartedly concur with the gist of your post–especially the bit about “teachers and administrators will alter their behavior to fit the model created.”


Tracy W 11.19.08 at 4:41 pm

James Wimberley, as I understand it, the Direct Instruction curriculum merely inspired a belief in kids that they were successful at school because the curriculum was set up so that nearly every kid was successful at school. The designers’ beliefs were that kids are fundamentally logical, so if they see themselves learning they will conclude that they can learn, and this tends to be a nice thing to believe about yourself.
I think this could be a result of the DI curriculum that would not scale up if the curriculum was implemented everywhere, as to some extent the kids were seeing themselves doing things their older siblings couldn’t, but if everyone was getting high-quality teaching then this effect wouldn’t happen.

robertdfeinman: Schools cannot fix problems like this, which is why they have failed to do so in over 100 years of successive fads.

Schools can however successfully teach the vast majority of kids despite those problems caused by the kids’ external circumstances. May I refer you again to Project Followthrough, and the results therein from a curriculum called Direct Instruction?

We get the schools in this country that we demand, and what we demand are good suburban schools for the well-off and to hell with everyone else.

One of the results of NCLB is that the suburban schools are not noticeably better at teaching low-income kids than inner-city urban schools. See for example As far as I can tell, the average suburban school is coasting on their good intake (my apologies for the US bias in all this research, Americans seem to do about 5 times more social science research than any other English-speaking country).

Harry B – the words “private school” misled me, I had thought that British grammar schools were state schools. Kids whose parents can afford to pay private school fees statistically tend to be the ones who do well at school regardless of whether their parents send them to private schools or state ones, I thought Chris was talking about policy-makers who thought that the greater academic success of private schools was due to them being “better” rather than to these selection effects. As for grammer schools themselves, it seems plausible to me that selecting kids on academic ability could be better for those kids who were selected, even if the schools themselves offered no better teaching than any other school. I went to a state high school that was way out of my home zone and drew mostly on a high socio-economic area, and it was fun to have some challenges academically from the other students. It also made for an easier social life.


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 4:56 pm


Much of what you say is true, but ever since that Supreme Court case stopping the Detroit school systems’ attempt to expand school boundaries to include the affluent, white suburbs, the “easy” way has been blocked. Attempts like Kentucky’s constitutional court challenge approach to provided”equal” funding for all school districts runs has run into a buzz saw of tax-payer resentment state-wide and also run afoul of competing State budget priorities and put the legislature (with the Governor caught in the middle) at odds with the courts–so in those states that have tried this approach to say that it is very much a work in progress would be an understatement


harry b 11.19.08 at 5:47 pm

Tracy – yes, they are state schools, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, just commenting that the stupid thing that I can’t attribute to anyone talking about private schools I can attribute to many people talking about similarly selective schools.


sg 11.19.08 at 5:47 pm

I’m interested in the similarities between these debates in education and the new move in the NHS towards exactly the same sorts of methods and ideologies discussed critically here – local control and accountability, grading hospitals and doctors, etc. I wonder how much the good and bad lessons of these education programs could be used to short-circuit a whole bunch of disastrous reforms that may or may not be about to happen along similar lines in the NHS…


joel 11.19.08 at 5:50 pm

I have spent 14 years teaching high school in a small rural school in NY. It is a career I very much enjoy and doing it well is exceptionally important to me. Here are my disclaimers: The vast majority of my educational experience (at least at the high school level) has been at one district. I have not conducted any formal research so everything that follows is simply based on my own day to day experiences as a high school educator in my little slice of the education world.

1) Our educational system is in shambles. Believe me when I tell you a high school diploma today is little more than a statement of regular attendance.

2) I know this is blasphemy of the worst kind, and I know I am a heretic for saying so and there was time in my life when I never thought I would say it, but it has become increasingly clear to me that teacher unions do have far too much power. So much so, that it has become detrimental to education. I am not anti-union and I am not suggesting that unions do not perform a valuable service, but I am convinced that the power they have attained is a detriment to education. The issues that most concern union members are not in any way issues that pertain to educating children; they just aren’t. Unions do not have as their primary concern the education of students or the implementation of sound educational policy. Their main concern is the concern of all unions, maximizing benefits for labor. This is NOT a bad thing at all, in fact, I appreciate it, but realizing this goal does not typically translate to edcuational benefits for our students.

3) The job of a school board is to set policy for a district, however, many (and in my own district, none) of the board members have absolutely no experience or background in education whatsoever. This is not to suggest that they are not intelligent people, but it is to suggest that they are not necessarily qualified to set educational policy for a distirct. In my school district we had a parent successfully run whose child was on the baseball team. His incentive for running was to keep the baseball program from being cut out of the budget during a stretch of financial difficulty for the district. Another board member is a former state trooper who was fired from his job after he was convicted of stealing cocaine from evidence lockers. Another ran on the platform that he will vote against raises for teachers. And these are just three examples. Board members very frequently have their own agenda, and far too often it has nothing to do with setting sound educational policy.

4) As for the issue of accountability, I do not think there is an easy solution here, mostly because I think student performance is so deeply influenced by factors that are beyond the teacher’s control. But for christ’s sake there has to be something that resembles accountability and unions tend to resist that.

After 14 years in education, it is my opinion that there has to be nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we approach education and develop/implement educational standards. As for the book that is the subject of this post, I will definitely read it.


robertdfeinman 11.19.08 at 6:23 pm

Tracy W:
Your pet solution just gets added to all the others. Each has shown benefits (Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) yet they don’t provide a total solution. That’s because the wrong things are being addressed.

The most fundamental is as to the purpose of education in the first place. One school of thought thinks that education is stuffing key facts into kid’s heads and uses authority as the basis of what is to be learned. This is the mode popular with parents who send their kids to parochial schools or home school. Obedience, tradition and loyalty are also valued.

The other school thinks that the primary goal is to produce adults who can think for themselves. The facts that are learned are mostly forgotten (as the “Are you smarter that a fifth grader?” proves), but a student who learns how to learn and questions received wisdom is the goal. This is the philosophy of John Dewey who thought that this type of person was essential if democracy was to work.

Now, obviously, curricula for these different viewpoints will differ greatly as will the ideas of those making educational policy. In France, for example, the state imposes uniform standards on all the schools which has led to friction with the new Muslim immigrants who don’t have the history of the French Enlightenment (and the religious wars) as a basis for understanding why this policy was put in place.

Parents and authoritarian leaders understand the risk of letting the young grow up thinking for themselves which is why the more radical a sect is the more likely it is to shelter their children from exposure to outside ideas. Hence the cloistered lives of the Amish, Hasidim and other groups.

If even the objectives of education can’t be agreed upon how do you expect there to be progress in the areas of social engineering that many favor?


joe koss 11.19.08 at 7:18 pm

“and make sure that everyone I recommend to the ed school reads them all beforehand”

ha. also, be sure to prepare those to whom you suggest this about the emphasis on ‘group work’…


virgil xenophon 11.19.08 at 10:19 pm


The two schools of thought you delineate exist alright, but the best approach is taken by school systems that combine them. Most university Lab Schools do, for example, (or at least once did when I attended some fifty years ago.) Lets face it, some things that form the foundation of basic learning skills are not “fun” to learn and perforce have to be “conned by rote” before more sophisticated progress may be made on the “critical thinking” front. Why so many think it impossible to walk and chew gum at the same time by combining the two approaches as most Lab Schools did in my day is beyond
me. I know that as a freshman in college I not only felt, but initially was, fairly superior
to many (but certainly not all, I hasten to add, my ego may be huge, but I DO know my limitations–of which I have many) of my contemporaries not because I was intrinsicly more intelligent, but because of my superior secondary education which gave me an decided initial advantage. I not only knew how to “critically analyze”–but my range of factual knowledge was greater also.

Here again in things educational, “size matters” –in the form of numbers–in that it seems obvious that an evenly divided balkanized social structure in which large numbers of “minorities” can, by dint of the political power of numbers, opt out of the prevailing social ethos established by the majority–or even cause there to be no “majority ethos” at all through the pressure of numbers–in effect, create anew a Tower of Babel in which no one can agree on any common educational objectives whatsoever. In this regard there is much to be said for a homogenized society, or at least one where the minorities are small in number and more easily assimilated. The trouble Europe is now having with it’s Moselm population is proof positive of this–the same with the US and the Latin absorption rate. The Minister of Education in Japan may have many things to worry about when he rolls out of bed each morning, but massaging the system to get the correct racial “balance” in each school isn’t one of them–nor is deciding “which” or “whose” history to teach–no time wasted in the spinning of wheels there. Already some teachers in France are eliminating the teaching of the Holocaust from their classrooms for fear of offending Moslem students and causing classroom disruptions–a picture coming soon to a theater near us. So much for agreement on educational objectives…….


harold 11.19.08 at 10:44 pm

One of the main purposes of education has been to provide cultural continuity. In this sense the conservatives are correct, though they are far too rigid and narrow about it. To avoid having to re-invent the wheel, coming generations need to be conversant with the history and the achievements of the past — both in history, politics, and science. They need to be given linguistic and literary tools to do this, including foreign and even dead languages. Our reluctance to confront our history and that of the rest of world is where our education fails, as opposed to that of other countries. The past is prologue, as Senator Biden said.


Chris 11.20.08 at 1:33 am

virgil xenophon:

The Minister of Education in Japan may have many things to worry about when he rolls out of bed each morning, but massaging the system to get the correct racial “balance” in each school isn’t one of them—nor is deciding “which” or “whose” history to teach

The Ainu would beg to differ, I think. Nobody’s history is *that* simple. Although there certainly is a difference, it’s one of degree. (And what are you going to teach about WWII? How much do you discuss Japanese actions – which some call atrocities – in China? What about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and its effects on the overall progress of the war? The U.S. use of nuclear weapons: do you condemn it, knowing that the U.S. is a present ally of Japan? Etc… Furthermore, class issues don’t go away in Japan just because they’re not mixed with race issues, although they might at least not have the unfortunate tradition of local funding for schools that makes schools in poor areas poor.)

In any case, if you happen to be a country with high diversity and a more-than-usually speckled past, it’s no good sighing for the simplicity of homogeneity; you might get it in a few centuries of mixing, but in the meantime you have to address the education issues of the present generation. And that may include the fact that a significant fraction of parents and the community are actively hostile to accurate biology curricula, a culture that values athletics highly and is strongly anti-intellectual, periodic attempts to defund the system in the name of lower taxes, or even all three.

@Tracy W: AFAIK, the main “argument” for school vouchers is that private schools are Just Better (usually because of the lack of government “interference”). This is “proven” by the fact that their (carefully selected) students perform better on standardized tests. Failure to control for socioeconomic class and selection bias on the incoming students is handwaved away by pro-voucher advocates and it’s difficult to explain to non-statistician voters in 30 second soundbites. You can probably tell by the scare quotes what I think of such arguments.

If there’s a better argument for vouchers, I haven’t seen it yet.


harry b 11.20.08 at 2:05 am

No Chris, that’s not the main argument for school vouchers; not even one of the main arguments. Read Capitalism and Freedom chapter 6; or John Witte’s A Market Approach to Education; or… really, I know that some local politicians and I know only too well that some of their followers are highly unsophisticated, but there are much more compelling arguments for vouchers that are worth taking seriously (and, maybe, rejecting).


Tracy W 11.20.08 at 8:55 am

Robertdfeniman: Each has shown benefits (Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) yet they don’t provide a total solution. That’s because the wrong things are being addressed.

I have cited evidence that Direct Instruction is effective with a wide range of low-income students from a large study utilising control groups, and a variety of other curriculum interventions, at teaching reading, writing and mathematics. Can you please cite similar research for Montessori, Waldorf? If there is no such similar evidence then they are not comparable.

And as for the wrong things being addressed – how is it wrong to teach kids how to read and write English, and to do basic maths? Yes, there are different schools of thought about what schools should teach, but reading, writing, and arithmetic strike me as fundamentals that everyone favours. (Leaving aside a lot of debate in some places about what languages kids should be taught to read and write in, eg the Welsh language movement).

Finally, the debate between stuffing kids heads with key facts and producing adults who can think for themselves is a false dichotomy. You produce adults who can think for themselves by stuffing students with key facts about whatever you want the adults to be thinking critically about – it’s hard to think for yourself if you don’t have anything to actually think about. See

If even the objectives of education can’t be agreed upon how do you expect there to be progress in the areas of social engineering that many favor?

I don’t expect there to be such progress. I already have a hope that we can get education systems to adopt the existing proven methods of teaching kids to read and write and do basic maths. I don’t actually expect that this will happen, in the mathematical sense of “expect”, I only hope.


Tracy W 11.20.08 at 9:23 am

Chris – Can you please cite the names of the people who have made such arguments? Because I still have my doubts as to whether they exist – selection effects are really well-known in the educational research community and amongst educational policy makers.

As for the better arguments for charter vouchers, Caroline Hoxby has done a lot of work on them, a report written by her and Sonali Murarka is available at The New York school system uses random lotteries to assign children to charter schools, thus getting around the concerns about selection that you quote. This sort of research is why I am so skeptical about your claims that there are people out there ignoring selection effects in their arguments for vouchers – why do so when there is research that takes this into account and still shows a positive benefit from charters?

Personally I find the evidence on charter schools disappointing, while there many have been gains, they are not substantial. (Also, evidence that private schools offer a better education on average than state schools, once you control for student effects, is rather minimal). It’s possible that more gains will occur in the future, but at the moment I’m skeptical. I still favour school choice, but mostly on the basis that the ability to get a kid away from a school that is bad for that kid is very valuable in and of itself – kids have committed suicide over bullying.


Tracy W 11.20.08 at 9:32 am

Oh Chris, also, why are you calling charter schools “private”? I thought charter schools were paid for by government money, and thus were public schools, or in British terminology, state schools?


virgil xenophon 11.20.08 at 7:30 pm

Tracy W has made some very good points. It seems to me that everyone is hung up on our preferred ideologies. Our own children went to a mixture of private and public schools with mixed results in both areas. Once student background has been controlled, one finds, it seems to me, that the make or break factor is the principal and teaching staff, and the degree to which they are hamstrung by State and local boards of education–both public and private–the source of funding and/or “legitimacy” being a distant secondary factor.


virgil xenophon 11.20.08 at 8:20 pm


LOL. As soon as I typed the bit about the Japanese minister I realized the WWII problem would be brought up, but didn’t have the mental energy to qualify my broad-brush take.

And all you say in your 2nd para. about dealing with the present generation as it is with all the attendant problems, is absolutely true. What I was trying to do, I guess, is say that in a society which already has all the philosophical divides you mention in that same 2nd para, why should we (or any other country) additionally burden ourselves by allowing unfettered immigration of people whose background is so anthetical to everything our culture believes in? (in grosso mondo) And in numbers that mitigate against the necessity of assimilation? And these problems of immigration as they impinge of education are indeed in the here and now–and increasing in intensity with each passing day. And these problems really speak to what the very essence of our cultural/historical identity should be, and thus to what is taught in the schools. Which is why I am also so disturbed that someone like William Ayers has such a position of influence at the national level over school curriculum content and approach through his membership as head of a key committee that oversees such things in one of the more influencial national educational institutions.


reagankid 11.21.08 at 4:00 am

Friends in education have lamented over the lack of success that “No Child Left Behind” has in their classrooms.

I do think it’s important, though, to emphasize not only accountability but the measure of objective knowledge learned; I’m not referring to standardized testing, but rather appreciation for education basics over and above politically correct, ideological curricula. The leftist illuminati may value teaching kindergartners about tolerance for all sexual orientations, but somehow I think the five year olds just need to get their writing down.

The other day I spoke with a friend, and we both yearned for the return of a more localized teaching venue, rather than gargantuan, prison-facade central schools that bus kids in from all across a county. I think this, in itself, would help in maintaining accountability and redistributing the power to the parents in the community rather than the centralized educational bureaucracy.


BillCinSD 11.21.08 at 4:04 am

While I’m not Chris, that voucher schools are better and for the reasons Chris has given are the primary reasons given by the people pushing vouchers in my area. As far as I can remember that is the only reason I have ever seen given, well that and my education tax money should go to fund the church schools my children attend. if the names of small town politicians mean anything to you, I guess i can find them.


Michael Turner 11.21.08 at 5:39 am

As soon as I typed the bit about the Japanese minister I realized the WWII problem would be brought up, but didn’t have the mental energy to qualify my broad-brush take.

How much energy can it take to erase some text? You sure put a lot of energy into the next 200 words or so.

“Broad-brush take”? How about “abysmal ignorance”? I live in Japan. In Japan, when rightwing revisionists get their version of WW II into a Ministry-certified history textbook, and the book goes into any kind of circulation, somehow most of the copies get distributed to schools for the mentally retarded, where students struggle at Dick and Jane level of reading and thus never get exposed to the revisionism. And of course, both the controversy and the ultimate fate of the book gets widely reported, and people snicker at both the revisionists and at an Education Ministry that still coddles them too much.

You just don’t know what you’re talking about with this one. Stick to what you know. Make sure you actually know it.


bemused 11.21.08 at 7:31 am

Tracy — Project Followthrough appears to be a study of the teaching of reading in lower elementary grades, and the comparison methods cited are rather vaguely described. It doesn’t seem to merit such a blanket endorsement as you have given it. Surely we have other things we wish to teach our children beyond elementary reading skills.


virgil xenophon 11.21.08 at 8:11 am

Michael Turner

It does no good to spend more time qualifying an exception , however large, than to spotlighting the main point itself–especially when the exception still doesn’t negate the larger point. Do you think only people who live in Japan know whats going on there? You don’t have to fly to the surface of the sun to know that it’s hot, MT, so please spare me the lectures.


Tracy W 11.21.08 at 9:15 am


A fuller description of the research on DI is available at

Another study is at

A more detailed description of the DI curriculum is available at

Surely we have other things we wish to teach our children beyond elementary reading skills.

Well firstly, DI also does well at teaching elementary maths skills.

Secondly, for the academic subjects, reading skills are fundamental (and they’re very helpful for practical skills too). If we want to prepare kids to be responsible voters and otherwise participate in the political process, elementary reading skills are vital pre-requisites.

Thirdly, the Direct Instruction guys have published a rubric of what an authentic DI program should look like, available at
This rubric looks like a good start for developing curriculum to teach more advanced skills than elementary reading and maths to students who are not well-reached by the traditional curriculum (eg students starting school with a limited vocabulary, students with low IQ, etc). Of course any new curriculum should be field-tested as part of the development process, but a good starting base is important. And it’s hard to see how you could have an effective programme for teaching anything to mentally-disabled students that didn’t follow such rubrics as:
“1 d. The presentation is truthful and not misleading.”
“2 j. If the presentation introduces new vocabulary, the task
should incorporate that vocabulary, or should require the
student to produce responses that incorporate that
“3 g. The examples in the set do not have spurious cues or
patterns (such as a pattern of correct responses, yes, no,
yes, no, yes, no).”


Chris 11.21.08 at 3:38 pm

Tracy W @ 27:

Oh Chris, also, why are you calling charter schools “private”?

I don’t recall having ever done so. Maybe we are talking about different kinds of voucher programs? The ones I’m talking about take money out of the public school system to pay part of the tuition of a private (i.e. not government-run, sometimes for-profit, sometimes church-run) school. In essence, subsidizing parents who choose to take their children out of free government-run schools. The alleged justification is that some of the parents couldn’t afford to do so otherwise – although the actual policy proposals advanced under this argument are not necessarily means-tested – and that they should have the opportunity to, because as mentioned upthread, non-government schools are supposedly Just Better without the interfering hand of the state.

The likely effect (in the opinion of public school defenders) is to subsidize upper- and middle-class school choices, while leaving poor children trapped, along with the most learning-disabled and unruly students no private school wants, in crumbling public schools with even worse financial problems than they already have now (because the voucher funds are deducted from the public schools’ budgets).

Charter schools have little or nothing to do with this whole phenomenon, unless they charge tuition. Although they might provide evidence for the idea that some schools can produce better results without cherrypicking students or having more funding – if they indeed don’t have more funding, and if they don’t cheat on the lottery by excluding learning disabled, disciplinary problem or otherwise undesirable students – comparing one set of government schools to another will not produce evidence for the assertion that non-government-run schools are superior and that’s why funding should be siphoned to them in the process of aiding students’ “escape” from the “failing” public school system.

It might, however, provide evidence that the educational methods in use at the charter school are better than the methods used at the other schools, which could provide a genuine improvement in educational results, rather than voucher snake oil.


Tracy W 11.21.08 at 10:01 pm

Chris – ah, I see the confusion. I’ve gotten stuck on charter schools being the same as voucher schools. My apologies.
May I ask again that you name some of the people who are making these arguments that non-government schools are Just Better?

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