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Our Overarching Disagreements


Dear Deborah,

Maybe I should not have thrown George Counts’ famous challenge into the mix. I sometimes have to remind myself that most people—even most educators—know very little education history and never read about why Counts asked “Dare the schools build a new social order?” At the time (1932), Counts was in his most radical phase, openly admiring the Soviet Union; his address was delivered to the Progressive Education Association, which at the time was enraptured with child-centered individualism. Counts said, in effect, dare to indoctrinate children, dare to throw aside your anachronistic beliefs in individualized education, dare to join the revolution, dare to demand a collectivist society. The convention was convulsed with discussion and debate, and for years educators argued about the role of schools in “building a new social order.”

By the end of the 1930s, Counts turned against the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party; he was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, and he continued to write important books about education and society.

On the whole, I would say that the judgment of wise heads about the question he asked was not dissimilar from the one you offered: The schools cannot get too far ahead of the culture; they are not, by their nature, revolutionary organizations. Indeed, we look to the schools to pass on the wisdom, knowledge, and skills that have been accumulated over the years, and, in that sense, they are a conservative agency. And yes, they can change the social order by making us wiser, more civilized, smarter and better able to collaborate with others. But they can't improve the social order if they do no more than reflect what is.

Where I do disagree most vehemently with you is in your statement that the schools “must include ‘the street’ and the ‘popular culture’ if they are to influence it.” No! No! No! I respect your right to believe that, but I think it is a truly horrible idea. Parents do not send their children to school to learn the vulgar language, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes, racism, violence, and crude behavior that are common on “the street,” but to learn language, values, and behavior that is better than what they encounter outside school. Kids have plenty of time to indulge in the highs and lows of popular culture without wasting precious time in school. Maybe there are parents out there who do want their kids to go to school to find “the street” and “popular culture,” but I suspect they would be a small minority.

I speak for myself here, as do we all, when I contend that schools have the responsibility to introduce children and youth to the behavior, language, values, knowledge, and skills that they need to improve their lot in life, to prepare for college or the modern workplace. I also think that character-formation and citizenship are important goals of schooling. Schools cannot accept rudeness and crudeness and bullying, even if it is acceptable on “the street.” I do think schools exist to raise our sights, to make us better citizens, to encourage us to understand our rights and responsibilities, and to take charge of our lives as individuals. And, yes, I would like them to teach “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”

Now, can we reach agreement on what students should learn?

I certainly agree with the importance of preparing young people for citizenship, as voters, jurors, and members of the larger political society. To me, that implies a knowledge of American history, world history, civics, and government. A friend who teaches in a private university told me that his students have no idea what a grand jury is, or where the state of Illinois is located in the U.S. I think that preparation for good citizenship implies knowledge of the Constitution, our political institutions, and our history.

And I endorse every other recommendation you offer, except that I don’t agree with your statement that “we not try to mandate any course specifics [in science] or define levels of competence.” Both Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate courses do mandate course specifics; that is what most people find valuable in both approaches. Instead of a generic “biology” or “chemistry” or “U.S. history” course, there is actually a syllabus that is understood by the teachers and the students. I think that is a good idea that is helpful to everyone concerned. Of course, people who don’t want to do A.P. or I.B. don’t do them.

I guess where we disagree is on that phrase “with the details and assessment left to those closest to the students.” I think there is value in establishing a state framework for courses and for end-of-course exams. Teachers are usually the best judges of whether their students are learning and how well they are learning. Yet there is value, I contend, in external assessments. Just as we do not expect people to judge their own worthiness to practice law or medicine or to drive a car, we should accept external measurements of classroom learning.

I grant you that in the current atmosphere, testing has a bad odor. Under pressure from NCLB to produce dramatic results, states and districts are over-testing, are emphasizing basic skills to the exclusion of almost everything else, and are really missing the opportunity to use testing to help inform teaching and learning. Now, there are districts that are using test scores to judge students, teachers, principals, and schools, even though the tests are not built to sustain these weighty judgments.

We must somehow develop the educational leadership to put testing into perspective and use it more wisely. So long as we have school systems run by non-educators, that is not likely to happen. But I do not think the day will ever come—or should ever come—when every teacher and every school will decide what to teach and how to assess themselves. No other profession does it. No public institution gets public dollars without some form of public accountability. The question that must somehow be solved is how to provide public accountability while ditching the stupid and non-educative regime of sanctions and incentives that is now being fastened around the necks of American educators.



How do we define "the street" and "popular culture"? Dante and Chaucer were radical in their use of the vernacular. Shakespeare brings the language of the "street" into his plays. Gogol and Dostoevsky bring "high" and "low" language into contact and collision in their work. Certain songwriters today (such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) sweep up elements of the street into brilliant creations. Those are just a few scattered, off-the-cuff examples--but it's clear that the "street" is indispensable to literature and art. In that regard, it does belong in the curriculum.

On the other hand, there is considerable pressure (from various interest groups such as the technology companies) to cater to "where the kids are coming from" or "what they want." That's where the danger lies--this idea that we should offer them what they already have. We must resist doing that, unless there is something within the popular culture that is so interesting and complex that it can be understood at many levels.

Call it elitism, but I believe teachers are there to help kids distinguish excellence from mediocrity--in their own work as well as that of others. We must not abdicate our responsibility to select excellent work for the students to read, hear, see, and ponder--even if we do not always agree on what "excellent" is. Relativizing culture is an insult to the kids and to education. Yes, there are some beautiful, nuanced, and compelling popular songs. If we are to offer them, it should be because they have those qualities, not because they are popular per se.

The more confidently I go ahead and teach something, the more kids will be drawn in by it. Right now I have a large contingent of (ESL) students who love the Shakespeare sonnets we have been studying. They recite the sonnets for me (from memory) over and over, and talk about their favorite parts. They come by my room on the way to lunch, just to recite a sonnet again. If I had hesitated to "impose" these sonnets on them, they never would have had the experience. I don't reach all kids this way, and I wrestle with that problem daily. I don't excuse that imbalance in my teaching. But even if I chose something they could all "relate to" (if that were even possible), that would be of little value if there were nowhere to go from there.


"Teachers are usually the best judges of whether their students are learning and how well they are learning. Yet there is value, I contend, in external assessments." I agree.

What led US public schools to NCLB in the first place? The public was very dissatisfied with the "graduates" our schools were producing.

Public schools have demonstrated over and over that assessments that are not impartial, objective, and quantitative will unfortunately be unrealistic. To put it bluntly – teachers and schools have historically demonstrated they are incapable of accurately and impartially assessing what’s actually going on in their classrooms.

It’s human nature. After spending a year with a class the teacher becomes close to his/her students. Teachers wind up rooting for their kids to do well, almost to the point of too often giving them the benefit of the doubt. Again, this is simply human nature. No teacher should be taken to the woodshed for these feelings. What human being could ever be faulted for these emotions?

However, this is why, pre-ed reform, so many schools were graduating students who were reading at a third or fourth grade level (or lower) and were essentially incapable of making change from a simple retail transaction. This is also why the business community and most state legislatures insisted on impartial assessments from our public schools. If NCLB did nothing else, it has attempted to give parents and taxpayers a realistic view as to how our students and schools are really performing.

Unfortunately, the direction the law, and especially its tests, has morphed into has been an enormous disappointment. Exacerbating the problem - too many states have prostituted the legislation with feel good tests and anemic and misleading definitions of 'proficient' in an attempt to meet the law's deadline of 2013-2014.

Just in case it was not obvious--my statement "call it elitist," etc., was meant rhetorically and was not addressed to anyone in particular.

I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, Diane, about the "street" and "popular culture," with that one qualification, with which you might agree: that some excellent work comes from or is inspired by the street--but its value lies in its excellence, not its streetiness.


Teachers should be rooting for their students!

A teacher who actually invests his/her time into their students would want to see them succeed. We should be encouraging that positive, pro-active relationship.

While teachers do know their students' strengths and abilities the best, why should we demand that teachers betray their students' trust by evaluating them? Teachers need to focus their insight and understanding on how to move their students into a better place, not in judging them for the benefit of the external world.

Evaluations are for other people outside the classroom (colleges, future employers, etc...) not for teacher nor for student. Because the evaluations are for external people, the evaluations themselves should be done outside of the class.

But for external evaluations to work well, there has to be clear communication between student expectations (test acheivement, project requirements, etc...) and what happens in the classroom. This can only happen with a clearly defined class syllabus as Diane mentioned in her post.

A clearly defined syllabus should be the road map to allow our children to succeed.

But a clearly defined syllabus does not mean that every child should be forced to endure the same class schedule. For those students who wish to learn subjects based on their interests and ideas, our school system should allow the flexibility of different, defined "road maps." We do this in college with great success. Lock-step uniformity of direction does not define a quality education!

How difficult would it be to develop a flexible, external evaluation system that would foster the quality learning environment needed to enable our students to learn better with more personal satisfaction?

Erin Johnson

PLain and simple IB is a scam!


You have made a similar point before about how evaluation is a betrayal of trust. I am befuddled. Let me count the ways.

1. How on earth could evaluation damage the trust between teacher and student? Doesn't it offer clarity, and isn't clarity a necessary component of trust?

2. How could a teacher possibly avoid evaluating students, even if this were the desired course of action?

3. If evaluation is treated as a hostile and external thing, how will students develop an internal critical voice and learn to face external criticism without fear?


Great questions. Many of the problems with our schools are because we are stuck within our own cultural reference and can not see the complications/problems inherent in our school system.

1. Evaluation and clarity are not synonymous. Telling children that they did a “B” job on their paper is not the same thing as saying “your essay would work better if you included a few more details about why you think that Captain Ahab pursued Moby Dick with such single-mindedness.”

To learn, children need to put in tremendous effort. So how do we compel/encourage all children to put in that effort?

In years gone past, teachers could use physical punishment (spanking, etc…) to ensure that their children stayed on task. Currently, teachers can/do use threats (bad grades, detention, etc…) which are fairly ineffective at motivating students to learn. (Can lead a horse to water but can not make him drink!) None of these negative motivators can enable learning as much as the teacher saying and the children truly believing: I am here to help you.

It is that student trust in the teacher’s motivation for being there that enables children to exert themselves to do the difficult work required to learn.

2. Teachers will/should always evaluate their students for their quality of work and where they can improve. But how should they use that judgment? Should they use that information to help their students to learn more or to provide information to somebody outside the class?

Where should our teachers’ focus be? What is their #1 priority? Is it student learning or student evaluation? Our teachers’ #1 and only priority needs to be student learning. It is fairly easy to evaluate; much more difficult to teach.

3. That internal critical voice is rarely developed in a harsh judgmental environment. Would you say that our schools currently excel at developing that voice? Or do they excel at labeling/limiting our children? (Schools are good at telling kids: You’re a “C” student.)

It takes skill and gentle candor from engaged, knowledgeable teachers to enable children to be confident in the face of external criticism.

Additionally, when the competition for grades is eliminated within the classroom, students are more likely to see each other as resources and allies in learning. The learning environment becomes richer and student relationships become more amicable.

External evaluations allow children to know/believe that their teacher is in the classroom to be only their advocate. That trust and belief in their teacher is critical in enabling our children to learn well.

Erin Johnson

We have here, I think, two good rationales for external assessments of students. Both involve "trust" of a sort.

Paul articulates the argument for the external assessment as a way to ensure public trust that schools are actually accomplishing what they say that they are accomplishing. This is the argument that I have spent the most time thinking about and I believe that it is a valid one.

I do worry that, in my own community, some of the people who should be the biggest advocates for excellent public education are abandoning it. People who, in another era, would have been at school board meetings and pushing state legislators for better school funding have left for private or parochial education. Now, this is not a stampede that I am reporting, but the experience has happened enough that I am starting to worry. If a community's most powerful and best connected advocates abandon public schools, what will happen to them?

Erin raises another intriguing issue of trust. That between student and teacher. She has made this argument here several times and I am I beginning to be convinced of its merits. Her latest post sent me looking for Deanna Kuhn's book Education for Thinking looking for something that I read there.

Professor Kuhn describes her experience in a "Struggling School" and a "Best-Practice School". In the Struggling School the students are wary of their teachers...

"They either never had or had lost their trust in teachers as adults who had their interests at heart and could be counted on not to waste their time with pointless activities...Teachers did not serve as the leaders, guides, or role models that we would have wished them to be along a path of learning."

At the Best-Practice School...

"...high performance expectations were made explicit both at home and at school, and the large majority of students accepted the word of the adults around them that the effort was worth it. In sharp contrast to the skeptical adolescents at the struggling school, who regarded adults largely as obstacles to their agendas, students at the best-practice school accepted that their parents and teachers had their best interests at hear and were guiding them along the path to success. Students, parents, and teachers were all on the same team, working toward the same goals, despite intense competition among students to reach and stay at the front of the pack."

I don't want to suggest that an externally administered assessment would change a Struggling School into a Best Practice School all by itself, but I think that Erin's argument that it would help is worthy of serious consideration.


Thank you for your compelling and thorough answers to my questions. I agree with some of your points, disagree with others, and need to ponder others still. Also, I wonder if we are defining "evaluation" differently. To me, evaluation does not have to involve judgment of the person at all. But that's a big subject for another time and place.

In response to one piece of your argument (not the whole by any means): you state that we need to earn the students' trust so that they will be motivated to learn. I see some dangers in that supposition.

Kids are not always the best judges of what they need, and they do not always trust the right people. On the "street" they are seduced by gangsters, cons, and others who appeal to their immediate urges and needs. They don't always recognize an advocate when they see one. I didn't, at their age. It took me years in some cases to understand who really merited my trust.

Winning their trust (over the short span of time we usually have with them) is hit or miss. Some kids love the distant, strict teacher; others prefer the nurturing, sympathetic one. Some want frequent tests, quizzes, and grades; others don't. If we try to win the kids over, we give up some of the integrity of teaching. This doesn't mean we have to be dull and harsh--we should be neither! It just means we should take their own judgments (positive and negative) in stride. Students, for their part, need to figure out that school is not a popularity contest--not for them, not for the teachers. There is something bigger at stake than being liked.

Diana - To clarify: I use the term evaluation for the giving of grades, either for papers, projects or end of the term grades.

In discussing the issue of trust between student and teacher, I do not mean that teachers need/should cater to their students' every whim. Regardless of personality, students should all be able to trust that their teachers are looking out for them and trying their best to enable student success.

Why would we give up teaching integrity if teachers developed a strong trusting relationship with their students that enabled children to learn more/better?

Govt. Bureaucrat - Your illustration well captures the problems with a distrustful relationship between teacher and student. In those school systems that do use external exams the gap between Struggling Schools and Best-Practice Schools narrows quite dramatically. Incidently, the quality/quantity of learning in all schools increases including the Best-Practice Schools as well.

Erin Johnson


"While teachers do know their students' strengths and abilities the best, why should we demand that teachers betray their students' trust by evaluating them?"

I honestly believe teachers can bond with their students in such a way as to foster an environment of trust AND still effectively evaluate these same kids. I also firmly believe they should not be the only evaluators of their students and that's where my spiel about the need for impartial, objective and quantitative tests (from an outside agent) kicks in.

In an individualized classroom teachers need to be the evaluators capable of determining whether to move a student along to the next skill, concept or unit in the sequence of learning for a particular discipline. Here, the teacher is not betraying anyone through these ad hoc assessments. They are working together with each student to bring them as far along as possible. This is a partnership developed from the first day of school where the teacher convinces each student they are in this together and that together "they" can succeed in developing that student's cognitive abilities to the fullest. The teacher and the student are on the same team working collaboratively for the same purpose.

At some point toward the end of the school year an outside agent, usually the state, can step in and administer an appropriate assessment to determine how much each student has progressed over the course of the year. This is an additional opportunity where the teacher is truly rooting for each student.

I find it sad to believe the teacher needs to be viewed on an opposing side of any student.


Relationships between people (let alone student and teacher) are always different if there is an evaluation involved.

No matter how caring or warm a teacher may be, children always know if the teacher's main goal is to teach or evaluate them.

Honestly, why would any teacher really *want* to evaluate/grade their students? Isn't teaching enough work already?

Erin Johnson

Teachers should be trustworthy in their interactions with children. That does not guarantee that the children will trust them, nor can it be a precondition for learning.

By middle school (or even earlier), many children's trust has been damaged. They have soured toward adults, yet they will pledge allegiance to the peer who offers them affection, drugs, or membership in a group.

(Not all are like this--but I have a contingent of cynical yet gullible kids in every class.)

Yes, we can show them a different kind of trust, but it may take years to sink in. In the meantime, they have to learn to put their serious and not-so-serious concerns aside and pay attention to the lesson. Only with that kind of mutual respect can learning happen and trust shape itself. In other words, the act of respect precedes and underlies the feeling of trust.

I wanted to respond to Govt Bureaucrat's comments regarding trust and the struggling vs best practice school. Bronfenbrenner makes a point about the debilitating effect on development from antagonisms in secondary relationships. He was particularly looking at children of divorce and the effect of the absent father. Where there was antagonism between the parents (these kids were all with mothers), developmental effects--especially for boys--was profound. Where the absent father was supportive of the mother's childrearing ability and authority, there was an initial developmental interruption, that abated.

I think of this often with regard to school-home relationships. I know that teachers frequently decry the lack of parental support that they perceive. But I also wonder about the effect on students of teacher perception (particularly in struggling schools that seem always to be poor neighborhoods) of ineffective parenting. Is it possible that a big component in the lack of trust has to do with home-school antagonism? As a teen pulling away from dependence on adults, what reason is there to trust either the incompetent parents, or the teachers to whom these incompetents send them every day?


You're going to have to help me through this. What readings would you recommend for successful models of extrnal evaluators of schools/students? It sounds feasible/possible but many questions remain for me.

Paul Hoss


There is quite a bit of very technical papers discussing this issue but a good overview is John Bishop's Education Next article in Winter 2001:


Some more technical papers that you may want to read are:

Woessman 2001


Let me know if you need more.

Erin Johnson


I responded to you yesterday, but I think that the links to some papers that I included held up my post.

John Bishop wrote a good overview piece of how external exams can facilitate better learning in Education Next, Winter 2001 "A Steeper, Better Road to Graduation"

Hopefully, my other post will show up with the links to the other 2 papers.

While these papers show that external exams greatly facilitate learning and contribute to better classroom interactions, we would not need to adopt some other country's school system without quality reflection on how external evaluations would be best implemented here.

In particular, some countries use a single end-of-high school exam. I suspect that end-of-course exams would work better in our country.

Additionally, there is great benefit of having students write at length or solve complex problems that are ill-suited to an exam environment.

I would suspect that a performance requirement would work better than a graded paper/project in these circumstances. That is, students would be required to perform a project/paper to fulfill the requirements of the class. The role of the teacher in papers/projects would be to assist their students in producing their best possible work.

But most importantly, neither the project/paper nor the student should be "graded" by the teacher.

The teacher should be allowed to focus all of his/her time on helping the students to learn and engage with the material.

Erin Johnson.


In the Bishop sources you cite, it appears that teacher evaluations complement (rather than replace) the final external exam. Bishop writes, "The
nature and the magnitude of the rewards vary. In many educational systems exam results are averaged with teacher assessments to generate final grades for specific courses." And later: "Teachers can be given responsibility for evaluating dimensions of performance that cannot be reliably assessed by external means." He even states that "quizzes and tests were more common" in jurisdictions with external exams.

Thus, I see your point about the teacher's role as advocate with respect to the external exam, in systems that administer such an exam. However, from what I can glean, teachers in such systems still evaluate their students' performance, even vigorously and frequently. Please correct me if I am wrong!



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