Skip to Content


LATEST ISSUE | TABLE OF CONTENTS | BACK ISSUES | ABOUT VJE |  SUBMIT AN ARTICLE

Virginia Journal of Education


REAL Accountability

The historic role of the NEA in defining the true missions of public education.


by Richard Rothstein

If any institution has multiple goals and is held accountable only for some, it will shift resources to goals for which it is held accountable. No Child Left Behind's accountability for math and reading alone creates incentives for schools to reduce other areas (physical education, social studies, science, the arts) to make more time for math and reading.

This goal displacement increases achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children because disadvantaged children are most affected by it. In other words, contemporary accountability not only provides incentives to drop the arts, history, science, health and other aspects of a diverse curriculum, it also creates incentives to widen achievement gaps in these areas.

Teachers surveyed a few years ago in Kansas, Massachusetts and Michigan reported that standardized testing had improved their reading and math instruction, but they had had to drop other important curricular activities to make time. Urban and rural teachers were more likely than suburban teachers to report such a shift, causing greater inequity in these other curricular areas. A survey of principals in other states found that those in high-minority schools were more likely to have reduced time for history, civics, geography, the arts and foreign languages in order to devote more time to math and reading.

The growing national diabetes epidemic also shows how accountability for math and reading alone can exacerbate inequity in other important aspects of schooling. African-Americans are 60 percent more likely than whites to have diabetes. One cause is the disproportionate decline in physical activity of minority youth, partly because math and reading test preparation has substituted for gym classes. African-American elementary school children are 50 percent more likely to be overweight as whites, who are twice as likely to have organized daily physical activity.

From colonial times through the 1920s, Americans wanted schools to teach basic academic skills, but they wanted more as well. If anything, preparation for democratic citizenship was the primary goal of public education. The NEA has played a role in articulating the multiple goals of American education. One of its well known forays into this debate was a report called the "Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education" issued in 1918.

Following the lead of American education thinkers in the previous 150 years, from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Horace Mann, the Cardinal Principles listed health as the first goal, including physical activity for students, instruction in personal hygiene, and instruction in public health. The second goal was academic skills. Third was preparation for the traditional, gendered household division of labor. Fourth was vocational education, including the selection of jobs appropriate to each student's abilities and interests, as well as maintenance of good relations with fellow workers.

Fifth was civic education, preparation to participate in the neighborhood, town or city, state and nation. The Cardinal Principles report devoted more space to civic education than to any other goal, stressing that schools should teach "good judgment" in political matters and that students can only learn democratic habits if classrooms and schools are run using democratic methods. Even the study of literature should "kindle social ideals."

The sixth goal was "worthy use of leisure," meaning student appreciation of literature, art and music. Schools should also provide social activities in which students of different economic and ethnic backgrounds might establish "bonds of friendship and common understanding." The seventh goal, ethical character, was described as paramount in a democratic society. It included developing a sense of personal responsibility, initiative and the "spirit of service."

The Cardinal Principles report has come under attack recently by academic historians, most notably by Diane Ravitch in her book, Left Back. Her account goes something like this. In 1893, a committee of educators led by Harvard president Charles Eliot set out a framework for American education. This "Committee of Ten" insisted that all students follow a college-preparatory curriculum of Latin, Greek, English, German or French; math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, ancient mythology, government, and geography; and the history of America, Greece, Rome, France and England. Instruction in each of these subjects should begin in elementary schools.

But, Professor Ravitch's account goes, instead of implementing this wise plan, educators became frightened by the influx of immigrants, by the expansion of high school enrollment beyond the 6 percent of all 14-17 year olds who had attended high school in the early 1890s, and by the need for schools to take up some of the responsibilities for socialization that had been borne by families when parents remained at home in rural America. So, in 1918, the new Cardinal Principles report demanded a watered-down curriculum.

According to this narrative, policies like No Child Left Behind only restore academics to their rightful pre-eminence.

I don't subscribe to this view. Many criticisms of progressive education are fair, but an examination of the history of American educational thought must lead to the conclusion, I think, that it was the Committee of Ten's report, giving academics a monopoly position, that was an aberration. The Cardinal Principles' attempt to restore non-academic goals to importance, not to replace but to accompany academics was, in fact, the reclaiming of a philosophy that had guided American education since the Revolution.

In 1931 the NEA, at the time a quasi-governmental collection of all educators and education policymakers, established a committee to propose how public schools should respond to the Great Depression then engulfing the nation. Most recommendations were consistent with the broad historical consensus on public education's goals. Schools should improve Americans' health by teaching hygiene, nutrition, first-aid and healthful sexual practices.

The committee emphasized the importance of schools teaching basic math and literacy skills, but it defined such skills somewhat more broadly than do our contemporary education policies. It's not only the techniques of reading that schools should be responsible for developing, but the habit of reading and, even more important, good judgment in selecting what to read. Also considered essential was the ability to distinguish between the "demagogue and the statesman. This demands the ability to read accurately, to organize facts, to weigh evidence, and to separate truth from falsehood."

And the committee expected schools to develop students' oral, as well as written, communication skills, including social communication skills such as introductions, apologies, compliments and criticisms. Science, art, music, drama and history should also be part of the curriculum. Schools, the report continued, should develop students' morality, justice and fair dealing, 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 personal characteristics such as endurance and physical strength.

School time for social studies should be increased, including a broad background in social and economic history, as well as ongoing discussion of current affairs. "Good teaching demands that pupils be habituated in weighing the evidence on all sides of a question." Schools should also develop democratic habits, a commitment to promote social welfare and ideals of racial equality. School-sponsored extracurricular and community activities might be the most effective way of reaching these goals, the report concluded.

With school funding cut back in the Depression, with war gathering in Europe, and with fascism and communism gaining ground, the NEA, together with the American Association of School Administrators, established an Educational Policies Commission (EPC) in 1935 to make proposals that could defend public education against critics and promote its role in the defense of democracy. One of the EPC's first tasks was to examine the civic, as opposed to social-economic, goals of American education.

"The safety of democracy will not be assured," the EPC wrote, "merely by making education universal," meaning simply by making all Americans literate. "The task is not so easy as that. The dictatorships [Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union] have universal schooling and use this very means to prevent the spread of democratic doctrines and institutions." The most important purpose of our schools is to teach "five ideals of democratic conduct"-

. Broad humanitarianism, a feeling of kinship to other people more or less fortunate than oneself;
. Respect for the moral rights and feelings of others;
. Assent of the people in matters of social control and the participation of all concerned in arriving at important decisions;
. Peaceful and orderly methods of settling controversial [national, international and private] disputes; and
. The pursuit of happiness, or judging the effectiveness of other policies by whether they contribute to human happiness.

As did so many previous experts, this commission insisted that democratic ideals could only be taught by methods that encouraged learners' active participation. And, echoing the theme of an NEA report one year earlier on social and economic goals, it also asserted that schools must "encourage a continuing and critical appraisal of the suitability of all social institutions to the needs of the people. . .The ballot is a travesty unless it is cast by a citizen who is not only free to vote as he pleases but also informed and intelligent with respect to the issues involved."

Later in its report, the commission set forth a second set of education goals in which political, social and economic purposes were only a part. In this taxonomy, public schools should have four broad purposes. First was "personal development," including students' basic academic skills of reading, writing, mathematics, listening, observation, public speaking and an "appetite for learning," as well as health habits, a commitment to public health policies and a "personal philosophy" that includes the ability to produce or consume art and music in leisure time as well as the attainment of a "personally satisfying religions philosophy." "To teach the mechanics of reading without giving guidance in the selection of reading material and without developing reading habits is. wasteful on a colossal scale." And a "shallow respect for false and harmful [academic] 'standards' has in the past kept the recreative arts in the place of the poor relation. It is time to place them in a position of honor."

The second purpose was "human relationship," including democratic participation in communities and the ability to carry on a family life without rigid gender roles and authoritarian behaviors. Third was "economic efficiency," the skills needed to be an effective worker, consumer and investor, and particularly the vocational knowledge needed to choose a suitable occupation. And the fourth purpose was "civic responsibility," including the knowledge, values and behavioral characteristics that had earlier been set forth as requirements for education in a democracy.

Finally, the Commission took note of the infatuation, even in 1938, with using basic academic skills tests as a way of measuring the outcomes of schools: "Most of the standardized testing instruments [and written examinations] used in schools today deal largely with information.There should be a much greater concern with the development of attitudes, interests, ideals and habits. To focus tests exclusively on the acquisition and retention of information may recognize objectives of education which are relatively unimportant. Measuring the results of education must be increasingly concerned with such questions as these: Are the children growing in their ability to work together for a common end? Do they show greater skill in collecting and weighing evidence? Are they learning to be fair and tolerant in situations where conflicts arise? Are they sympathetic in the presence of suffering and indignant in the presence of injustice? Do they show greater concern about questions of civic, social and economic importance? Are they using their spending money wisely? Are they becoming more skillful in doing some useful type of work? Are they more honest, more reliable, more temperate, more humane? Are they finding happiness in their present family life? Are they living in accordance with the rules of health? Are they acquiring skills in using all of the fundamental tools of learning? Are they curious about the natural world around them? Do they appreciate, each to the fullest degree possible, their rich inheritance in art, literature and music? Do they balk at being led around by their prejudices?"

Unless we hold schools accountable for each of the goals set forth by the NEA in 1938, accountability policies must inevitably distort the curriculum in their implicit effort to ensure that only basic academic skills be taught in schools. My present research and writing is devoted to exploring whether it is possible to develop an accountability system that fulfills the balanced goals that Americans, and the NEA in particular, have always valued.


Richard Rothstein, author of numerous education books, is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. From 1999 to 2002 he was the national education columnist of The New York Times. This article is drawn from a presentation he made at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as part of the NEA Visiting Scholars Series.

 


TAKE ACTION

Virginia Capital

Become a Cyberlobbyist







Check out our products!

 


Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard