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Unexpected Side Effects of the Best Intentions


Dear Diane,

What unites us I suspect is well said in an op-ed by John Goodlad recently. It ends this way: "Whatever became of the idea that representative democracy is the essential starting point for public education? One also might ask, 'whatever happened to the idea that public education is the essential starting point for addressing the well-being of our democracy?' Let the conversation begin.”

I’ve been thinking about my suggestion for concrete alternatives. Actually, a number are already out there, but none probably in “legislative” language that allows us to pin down their costs, their dilemmas, etc..

There are several groups out there that have come up with proposals that include the following: (1) some forms of sampled standardized testing on a national scale—such as the old NAEP, (2) other short-answer or multiple-choice standardized instruments selected by schools, locals, or state authorities at least in language arts and mathematics, (3) assessments that include graduation/dropout rates, attendance, hold-overs, etc., (4) forms of assessment that examine serious academic/intellectual achievement, focused on essays, presentations, exhibitions, and other attestable work in a broader array of subjects (see Mike Schmoker’s piece "Measuring What Matters,” in Educational Leadership), and (5) assessments that capture student, staff, family, and community input regarding a school’s reputation and contribution. None of these require starting from scratch since all are currently being practiced in some states and communities. These together offer a more rounded assessment of what’s happening out there and could probably be put together in some weighted formula. What would be “new” is a 6th: to study the relationship between schools and “real life” that looks at issues of their importance to our democracy, as well as our economy and the personal satisfaction of citizens. (See “Data Beyond High School.”) Let’s discuss them one by one?

With these in mind, I’m particularly concerned at the unexpected side effects of the best intentions, including my own, when we are not thoughtful. The Nation recently had a chilling piece on the effect on the Vietnam War of the decision to use “body count” (enemy dead) as the measure of the war’s success, each troop’s success, and each leader’s. Decent human beings were, over time, influenced by such goals to change the tactics of war they employed. Something similar, but less deadly, happens when we decide that only 4-year high school graduates “count.” Ditto for tests on literacy that discourage reading books thoroughly (vs. reading “passages” from books) as a response to testing pressures—especially in the absence of any counter-measures that value more thoughtful reading. And which barely value writing, much less verbal communication.

We need also to think carefully about what would happen if “high school graduation (were) truly universal and….college graduation routine” as Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in The New York Times. Would it substantially affect the nature of the jobs available to Americans—including pay scales and competitiveness? Does it mean turning college into work-prep? Where does it place the important old-fashioned task of preparing adults to tackle the ruling class’s complex decisionmaking role, not to mention our responsibility toward aspects of life that are at best tangential to the economy: museums, concerts, theater, park land, playgrounds, etc.? This is the discourse that’s nearly totally missing.

For those like Bob Herbert who fear that the young are amusing themselves to death, they are both right and wrong. For at least six hours a day, they’re not amused or even interested. For the other 12 hours, young people I know spend hours becoming experts at those parts of the world they find interesting. The two worlds rarely intersect and the young get precious little guidance and shared input from adult experts about the world they are fascinated by. What’s wrong with schools, and with the ways we measure them, is that we are ignoring what young people’s “interested minds” could accomplish if we re-examined this puzzle together.

Meanwhile, as one of my grandsons reminded me, high school and college alike are “means” for getting credits that can be turned into diplomas that can be turned into one’s improved job chances. The “school game” is set up to explore youth’s ingenuity at how to accomplish this task with the least energy and the least risk-taking—and the most money!* It’s a game that goes back centuries. “Unfortunately” it once affected only a tiny elite ruling class. “Fortunately,” today nearly all our youth spend 12-plus years devoted to this game, and “the best and brightest” 16 or more.


* Since a school’s reputation and tuition tend to be linked, the cost keeps growing. (Yes, amazingly, studies show that lowering tuition is counter-effective, and vice versa!)


Deb - your grandson's comment was amply demonstrated in my experience teaching final year college undergraduates a couple of years ago. At the end of class a couple of students approached, saying they wanted to withdraw from the course. When asked if they would share their reasons they explained that it looked unlikely they would receive A's and hence their GPAs would be adversely affected. The GPA was the bottom line, not the opportunity to learn. An attitude like that leads students to the easy courses, the soft options and causes them to avoid the challenging, the difficult, those pursuits that lead to intellectual struggle and growth - all the things I thought were part and parcel of university education. What have we done to our young people?

When I was young, I was a camper. Not the go out in the woods with a backpack and tent sort. I went to summer camp. I spent a lot of years in open air cabins in the woods--and followed this by many more years as an adult and camp counselor and administrator.

One thing that I learned about my self, in the course of many campfires, is that I prefer marshmallows golden brown. I am absolutely mystified and disgusted by people who place a marshmallow on a stick, touch it to a flame and watch the incendiary action. Then the blow it out and (horrors!) eat the cinder encrusted blob of cold chewy sponge. I only eat proper toasted marshmallows, which require a proper stick selection (forked is preferable to keep it from rotating when the insides get soft), patience, watching, a proper roasting spot, constant turning, and the risk that the whole thing will fall off before finished. The outer crust actually has a flavor of caramelized sugar, and the inside expands and becomes almost foamy with the heat. There is no short cut to quality. The burning napalm version in now way resembles the product of properly applied skill and patience. And there is precious little in between.

In this country, I expect we have nurtured a few lovers of the toasted marshmallow version of education. For the masses, we are handing out crusty napalm on a stick. Both have a product that might loosely be considered a cooked marshmallow--but there is really no comparison.

Deb, you are right--there are states, schools, districts that are measuring some of the things that you suggest. And certainly all of our measures are open to improvement. But what you are describing, I believe, is an integrated system of measures, focused on meaningful goals. I would suggest that we are not good at systems--we are not good at working together (consider Japanese style clusters of workers in comparison to American assembly lines) unless put together by some force of personality or other power from above. We are not good at democratically setting meaningful goals and setting about the meeting of them.

Joanne Jacombs has just posted today some new bit of research to indicate that low income kids suffer from the understimulation of some part of their brain that affects cognition. The good news is that there are effective countermeasures for children in the early school years. The bad news is that they include the kind of creative play and drama that we have yanked from the experience of many low income kids because we thought that the best route to better reading scores was to spend a whole lot more time on phonetics and consequently a whole lot less time on creativity. And we did it without much thought (although I sometimes suspect a bit of passive aggressive hostility infecting some decisions: "they want test scores--I'll give 'em test scores, but don't come crying to mean when kids can't draw flowers anymore!"). As a result, we have shot ourselves in the foot. Not only have the reading scores improved minimally if at all, but these same kids get minimal attention in the form of activities that nurture problem solving and other more creative applications of skills.

Truthfully, some of this was not new thinking. Many lower level kids have always had less in the way of the kinds of activities that foster creativity (they can get that later). And many upper SES kids will always have access to those kinds of things--whether they are available in schools or not.

What is it in us that fights complexity? Why do so many torch their marshmallows (and then eat them!)? Even McDonalds knows that they have to pay attention to the health department, their employees and their customers--who all have different concerns and measures--or the whole thing falls apart. Paying attention to any one, to the exclusion of all others, is a recipe for disaster.

The body count is a telling example of teh overuse of a single measure skewing the mission. But the current response (no pictures of American body bags returning home) doesn't help--and it is analogous to what many would like to return to regarding testing. The most meaningful sanction attached to testing is not removal of funding (a myth), or teachers fired, but making the things public. Telling the whole world that we don't do a very good job educating all the children (by whatever measures we use) is uncomfortable, embarrassing.

I am old enough to be a skeptic. Many days I don't think we really want the kinds of goals that Deb describes--education for democracy and all. Other days I think we simply don't know what it is, or have forgotten it. What we seem to be overlooking, as we ride our see-saw back and forth between teaching skills badly and teaching applications badly for some of our most disadvantaged kids is not only that we need both, but that we need to to both a whole lot better if we are going to be able to call ourselves educators for democracy.

Nothing "wrong" with the kids, Pat. Its just the way the human being is and has always been "wired"--to ingeniously seek the highest accessible award with the least energy necessary--it's the mother of invention! Fortunately we learn to walk, talzk and much much more in quite another way--to "award" ourselves. Nothing /wrong with them--just a foolish institution we've invented and insisted everyone has to "pass" to get to GO.
Margo, my own experience leads me to be suspicious of research on low-income kids. It may depend on what we're measuring vs what they've been stimulated by. I mention "body counts" because it's such an extreme; think how much easier, less against our nature, it is to be affected by bonuses and stars and so forth!



Of interest to the participants here (unlike the spam comment above) David Brooks writes in this morning's NYT about the next Secretary of Education...


Brooks is indicative of today's republican, a big government man that has no fundamental disagreements with the democrats. It should be condemning enough to know that Brooks was a big supporter for murder of innocent Iraqis before the war.

Brooks admits that the Sec Ed is now the single most important decider of the future prospects for special interests and school reform. He makes fun of the situation and likens the office to one in the Soviet Kremlin, but does not seek to abolish it!

Brooks, like most opinion written on this site, should be labeled "totalitarian liberal".


I am interested in probing what you call "the unexpected side effects of the best intentions, including my own, when we are not thoughtful." What makes a good idea go awry?

In the conclusion of Left Back (p. 453 ff), Diane points to the essence of the problem: "If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a ‘movement’ should be avoided like the plague. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths. It is a fundamental truth that children need well-educated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and willing to use different strategies depending on what works best for which children. It is another fundamental truth that adults must take responsibility for children and help them develop as good persons with worthy ideals."

What is the problem with "movements"? One must go past the surface of this statement, I think, in order to understand it properly. A "movement" may not be inherently bad. It may be based on noble ideas, but the very motion of enthusiasm tends to oversimplify those ideas and turn out crass versions. Many of Dewey's followers took his ideas to ridiculous extremes, to the point where he had to come back and chide them. A movement goes wrong at the very point where the thoughtfulness ends, where the followers forget the soul of an idea and instead glorify the rigid rule and the superficial attribute. We see this in intellectual, religious, and political fads. Is there any book about this phenomenon? There should be.

Demiashkevich writes at length about this tendency in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. It is the schools' responsibility, he argues, to teach young people to spot the logical errors and exaggerations of fanatical movements (what he calls the "witchery of words"). We must do this through intellectual training in the careful use of language and the thoughtful consideration of ideas. He writes (p. 278):

"Let it, therefore, be repeated that no small part of education for citizenship in a democracy lies, obviously, in the critical, discriminative use of words and in intellectual training, in general. Plato, intimately familiar with the ways of democracies, thought that the power of reasoning and discourse was 'truly the grestest good which gives men freedom in their own persons.' On the contrary, the lack of that power leaves men subject to tyranny over their minds and, by definition, over their persons. Where the majority is devoid of such an art and power, a situation can easily arise in which 'equality' disunites men, 'liberty' sends them to 'concentration camps' and 'fraternity' massacres them."

Today we have specific (if not new) dangers, in addition to those Demiashkevich cites: the danger of individual moral breakdown on a massive scale; of the tyranny of violent elements of popular culture; of ideological bondage in the workplace (including schools), of a rapid succession of failed fixes, of rising isolation and cruelty, of sound bytes and snap judgments, of commercialism that teaches people that success lies in money and possessions.

Diana Senechal

Gov't Bureaucrat,

Read the Brooks piece. What would you think of Michelle Obama as SOE, not Michelle Rhee, Michelle Obama?

JFK appointed his brother to Attorney general. Why couldn't Obama appoint his wife to SOE? Even though she has two young daughters to look after I cannot see her backing down to anyone on education, especially the NEA. I think she'd be a pistol.


Hah! I do not know much about Michelle Obama. It would certainly give folks like us much to talk about!

I noticed that discussions of education and the next SOE made at least two of the talk shows yesterday morning. It was mentioned on "Chris Matthews" and "This Week with George Stephanopoulos".

Seems like folks on these shows are betting on a "reform" SOE "to the disappointment of the NEA."

As for "Fox News Sunday," ummm, someone else will have to give us a report. I seem to have missed it (again.)


School is supposed to be a place for expanding the domains that interest kids.

Not the other way 'round.

International Herald Tribune...

"Obama education pick sparks conflict"


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