The Illusion of Technique

A technique is a standard method that can be taught. It is a recipe that can be fully conveyed from one person to another. A recipe lays down a certain number of steps which, if followed to the letter, ought to lead invariably to the end desired.

—William Barrett

Education becomes emancipatory when it emphasizes communicative interaction and the force of a better idea in deciding the truth of things.

—Robert Bullough

The hallmark of a professional is their special ability to apply general rules to particular situations in ways that not only provide helpful courses of action, but new understandings of the relationship between the means and ends of a problematic situation —what the Greeks termed practical wisdom or phronesis. What made practical know-how special for the Greeks was judgment —the unique talent for solving a problem or explaining a phenomena without resorting to the application of an accepted technique or the application of a fixed principle. The end result of practical wisdom was always a transformation of customary ways of doing things—the how—and customary understandings of valued results—the what. From the Greek standpoint, all professionals were expected to possess the knowledge (epistme) and the skills (techne) to render competent service, but very few professionals possessed the practical wisdom to radically alter the relationship between routine performances and values outcomes.

The development of practical wisdom in a profession is composed of three types of understandings: (1) Knowing the theoretical and general principles that govern the explanatory discourses of a profession; (2) Having opportunities to apply theories and general principles to the particulars of a profession under the watchful eye of an experienced practitioner; (3) Mastering the techniques and tools that minimize the thought and effort devoted to tasks that must be performed repeatedly. Studies of professional expertise conclude that novices and advanced beginners always attempt to apply an accepted technique or rule to what they perceive is a like situation; experts, on the other hand, see no “like situations.” For experts, every situation is different and thus, at a minimum, may require the reinterpretation of accepted rules and techniques or may demand the creation of new rules and new techniques for truly new phenomena.

The problem of technique, or what some authors have come to identify as the illusion of technique (Barrett, 1978), comes about when a profession “detaches” (Raitz, 1993) techniques from traditions established to further the valued ends of a society. The sole function of a technique is to increase the decision-making capabilities of a professional by reducing the amount of time, thought, and effort spent on mechanical tasks. In a society that values the “cult of efficiency”, techniques are honored for efficiently dealing with the mundane tasks of life. The danger, however, is when a technique becomes divorced from the decision-making processes and moral purposes of a tradition which serves as its home. No technique is neutral (Raitz, 1993, p. 168)  — techniques are always woven into the moral purposes of a tradition. Without being firmly anchored in a tradition, a technique is capable of distorting moral purposes in the name of promptness or rationality or cost-benefit. When an organization or an individual adopts a technique merely to make life easier or to produce a product more efficiently, they may at the same time significantly change or lose sight of the valued ends of a company or social endeavors.

Unlike other professions, which possess a set of clear norms for defining acceptable practice, the profession of teaching historically lacks a “viable and reliable technology of instruction” (Labaree, 2004, p. 12). Without clear goals for instruction, clear ways of measuring learning, and a clear definition of the clientele served, the profession of teaching is particularly vulnerable to being colonized by techniques borrowed from other traditions —psychology, sociology, history, statistics, philosophy, and psychometrics. Faculties in schools of education willingly accepted these hostile takeovers by other traditions as a tactic for refuting the belief that the knowledge base for teaching is too “soft” and too “applied” to be considered a legitimate discipline within the academy (Labaree, 2004, p. 12). In the mind of educators, the adoption of positivistic techniques from other professions would elevate the status and exchange value of the profession of teaching.

Becoming a “data-driven” profession has not elevated the status of teaching, within or without the academy and, regrettably, has corrupted the moral purposes of the teaching profession—purposes designed to protect children from pure instrumentalism such as scripted lesson plans, managed curricula, norm referenced tests, abolition of recess, behavioral objectives, grade retention, time-on-task, the Carnegie Unit, and Tyler Rationale. What were the theories, ideas, and beliefs that formed the moral purposes of teaching? This subject of this blog posting does not permit a full elaboration on the ideas and beliefs that guided the tradition of teaching. In future blogs, I provide a brief outline of the core ideas and beliefs that serve as the foundation for the “tradition of teaching.”

Barrett, W. (1978). The illusion of technique: a search for meaning in a technological civilization. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.

Bullough, R. V. (2006). Developing interdisciplinary researchers: What ever happened to the humanities in education? Educational Researcher, (35) 8, 3 – 10.

Bullough, R. V., Goldstein, S. L., & Holt, L. (1984). Human interests in the curriculum: teaching and learning in a technological society. New York: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Labaree, D. F. (2004). The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Raitz, K. L. (1993). On the detachment of technique. Studies in philosophy and education. 12, 165 – 177.




He Likes to Dive

Recently I was involved in a conversation with friend who made the off-handed statement that his son “likes to dive.” That was it, “my son likes to dive.” Because of this love, the father and wife were taking their son to the pool each day so he could dive. I found the statement of my friend refreshing because it was not accompanied by what I term the “world class standards” conversation. We all have experienced such a conversation. It occurs anytime an adult is provided the opportunity to describe the gifts of a family member or some other relationship. The conversation typically begins with an activity that a child appears to enjoy at an early age. Parents or close relationships view the proclivities of their offspring as a sign of great things to come. Today a child likes to dive, likes to hit a ball, likes to run, likes to play chess, likes to sing; and tomorrow, parents will find themselves proudly sitting in stadiums with thousands of other people cheering the achievements of their son or daughter.

For parents, close relatives, and unfortunately those who should know better (i.e. educators and coaches) kids just aren’t encouraged to simply like to dive, or like to play baseball, or like to ski or like to read. In our contemporary “culture of excellence” kids are expected to transform a proclivity into a world-class skill. A skill that has the potential for adulation or cash value.

Even the most sensible parents seem to lose a sense of proportion if their son or daughter displays a spurt of giftedness somewhere in their youth. Such a display of talent is a call to action. Parents quickly respond to the “call” by seeking out the best camps and coaches that will provide the knowledge and skills necessary for their son or daughter to become world class athletes or scholars.

In addition to providing the best talent and environments to support their child, parents engage in intense political and social maneuverings to make sure that their son or daughter is “selected” for competitive venues (i.e. traveling teams) that will further develop and exhibit innate abilities.

One does not have to read the sports pages or, for that matter, the front pages of any newspaper to understand the “upsides” and “downsides” of this pursuit of excellence. The upsides for select individuals are apparent. Americans are willing to pay a lot of money and spent a great deal of time attending, watching, and talking about professional and collegial athletics. For the athlete who has attained world class status the financial and social rewards are enormous.

The “downsides” of pursuing excellence are as well known as the upsides — they are just in different sections of the newspaper. The most obvious dyfunctionality of such a pursuit is the single-mindedness required of the adults and young people who decide to journey down the road of excellence. To be truly world class demands a 24 – 7 commitment. There is no time in one’s schedule to pursue other interests or experiences. The narrowness can result in poor moral, financial, or social choices that ultimately end badly for the wunderkind. In addition to questionable life-style choices, the physical and mental toll of becoming world class can be literally “crippling.”

As a tragic as the personal toll of a narrow pursuit of excellence might be, the concern I have as an educator is how our society’s infatuation with athletics and to a lesser extent, academic excellence is distorting the values and goals of our institutions of learning. Principals as well as university presidents will tell you privately that they are spending far too much time on issues associated with athletics and far too little time with issues associated with teaching and learning. At the end of day, when you count up the number of athletes or scholars served by varsity or gifted programs, a very small percentage of the student population consumes a great deal of time and resources. What we all know in schools is that our “feeder” programs are founded on a pyramid concept of participation. Such a system encourages wide participation at an early age — the bottom of pyramid — and understands that only a few will remain at the end — the top of the pyramid. Every year, for example, thousands of young boys and girls participate in community baseball or softball leagues. By the junior year in high school there are only twenty boys and girls left who are playing varsity baseball or softball. Along the way a lot has happened to all the young people who “liked to dive.” This is how the system works; this is how the pursuit of excellence works.

As educators should we be satisfied with this outcome? After all alumni, board members, and those parent groups that have a voice in a community like to have winning teams and a gifted program for their son or daughter. From a school administrator’s viewpoint, to oppose the “pyramid” structure of athletics or academics appears to be un-American. After all that is how the real world works. But does it?

Societies that are dynamic or continue to grow have the ability to replace the pyramid picture of excellence with a concentric circle of personal best. The latter picture provides young people with many levels of participation in activities that they have an interest in and are allowed to develop — what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow experiences.” The concentric circles recognize that some young people will become more expert in an activity — they will gravitate to the center of the circle. Those of us, however, who are less talented, are still permitted to participate in the expanding circles of the activity rather than being given our walking papers at an early age.

In addition to supporting many levels of ideas and skills as source of new ideas and skills in a society, the concentric model of “meritocracy” is able to accommodate both the development of personal meaning as well as public displays of excellence. The personal self represents our privately held knowledge and skills. The public is what we are called upon to do at work or in some other public arena. When one goes public, there is a certain level of knowledge and skills which we must possess to perform our job or participate in civic functions. Our private self, however, is that realm of activities which provide all us with a means of addressing questions of personal meaning and expression. The most fortunate of us are those whose pursuit of personal meaning also provides us with a decent livelihood. Tiger Woods, for example, plays a game that is meaningful to him and also provides him with a very good living.

From an educator’s standpoint what significance do pyramids or concentric circles have to do with schooling? The beliefs, ideas, and practices associated with pyramids support our current emphasis on standards and excellence. A concentric circle also accommodates and encourages standards and excellence, but there is a significant difference. If you develop talent within a pyramid you narrow the levels of excellence and restrict the definition of standards. In a concentric approach, you accept many levels of excellence and expand the definition of standards. Instead of pursuing excellence or a standard, which is at the center of the circle, you are able to pursue many levels of excellence and definitions of standards in the outer rings of the concentric circle.

We all have had experiences participating in a variety of activities (i.e. golf, working out at the local health club, participating in book group, repairing our house) where we know what excellence is and what the standard would look like, but we neither possess the talent, the time, the money, the physiology, to reach that the level of excellence or the standard. Does that mean we stop playing golf, or working out, or reading? I would hope the answer is no —for those of us in schools the answer should be no.

If schools are to support a society that encourages the constant infusion of new ideas and ways to solve problems and at the same time the public and private pursuits of meaning, then we must think very differently about how we view talent in our classrooms. The present call for all students to achieve a standard or to realize excellence will marginalize ideas and approaches to problem solving that exist on the outer periphery of the concentric circle and alienate those who privately think and feel that the current public good is mistaken.

The other approach is to honor the many levels of talents and interests that lie outside the center of what is accepted as the standard of excellence. What would that look like in schools? First, the definition of extracurricular activities would have to be broadened to include all those activities that students have an interest in and would like to pursue at a more complex level. For most schools, this would mean a radical restructuring of budgets, coaching qualifications, and facilities — most schools, unfortunately, have built facilities and employed coaches that align with a pyramid approach to talent development.

Secondly, the definition of achievement must be broadened to include the many levels of growth that occur when individuals pursue something they find intriguing. The current practice of yelling at young people “to be the best” raises the bar so high that most give up or worse develop an antipathy for an activity that might provide an added dimension to their private world.

Increasing the breadth of activities and broadening the definition of achievement would create an inclusive school environment where the talents of all young people are respected and provided an environment to grow. Such an environment would also result in an increase in participation of young people instead of the rapid exclusion of students whose interests conflict with the current sports and activities profile which thrive on a pyramid approach to talent development.

The goal of schooling which is repeatedly announced by educators and parents is preparation for the real world. Of course, the real world for these educators and parents is a pyramid — a lot will try, but only the best will reach the top of pyramid. This is not what John Dewey meant by growth in education. Dewey had an expanded vision of schooling that required schools to grow talent and to grow ideas. For Dewey, just “liking to dive,” was a good beginning. The sacred obligation of schools, from Dewey’s perspective, was to continually work at growing what people like to do or find meaningful —to build on “a good beginning.”  Dewey would find the goals of schooling seriously distorted in schools and communities where “liking to dive” was viewed as a terminal activity for most.

Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, The Evolving Self, provides a portrait of what happens to societies that “provide room for growth,” and societies which establish a narrow pathway for young people to find personal meaning and public achievement. The “task of a good society,” according to Csikszentmihalyi “is not to enshrine the creative solutions of the past into permanent institutions; it is, rather to make possible for creativity to keep asserting itself.”

The End of Schooling

For the last three decades public schools have been subjected to a continual barrage of reform initiatives that promise to fundamentally change the way students learn in American classrooms. While policy makers can claim that reform mandates have made the performance of schools more transparent, they would admit that they have not fundamentally changed the way students learn in America: Teachers are still standing in front of classrooms talking a lot; students are still sitting at desks listening a lot; teachers and students are still copying information from textbooks a lot. How do public schools maintain the appearance of making fundamental changes to classroom instruction that, decade after decade, remain fundamentally the same?

The answer to the resilience of the assign and assess model of classroom instruction begins with the public perception of what schools should look like and what school personnel should be doing and ends with efficiently performing the institutional goals of schooling: granting of grades, credits, and diplomas. School administrators and teachers satisfy public perceptions of what schooling should look like by performing the daily routines of schooling well. Buses arrive on time, student schedules are correct, open house runs smoothly, and their son or daughters name is found on the appropriate honor roll. The public believes that school administrators and teachers are doing their jobs when they are rigorously pursuing high academic standards. Rigor in schools is defined as reading lengthy textbooks, taking notes, taking tests, and receiving a grade on a report card. Although this definition of rigor promotes an instructional delivery model that is in direct opposition to the fundamental changes school reformers are calling for, the assign and assess model of schooling makes sense to policy makers and parents.
Finally the sameness of public schooling is maintained by satisfying the demands of parents who aggressively pursue access to curricular and extra-curricular programs that will advance the educational and career goals of their children. School administrators balance the favored treatment of privileged groups in the schools by offering safety net programs—special education— for students who backgrounds, interests, and talents disqualify them for the “race to the top.” The consequences of the standoff between legitimate calls for fundamental changes to the traditional model of doing school in America and the appearance of racing to the top are school systems that are not only stuck in mediocrity, but are also are forced into institutional behaviors that accelerate the downward spiral of student performance. Among those dysfunctional behaviors are rigid rules for maintaining access to favored school programs, spreading resources too thinly to have any affect, and adopting the latest reform initiative without attention to organizational capacity or program coherence.

How do we end the schooling game that parents, administrators, teachers, and policy makers are playing with each other? How do we truly reform schools that are stuck in an instructional system that will not to optimize the diverse abilities, talents, and interests of children and adolescents or equip them with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economy? The answer lies in ending schooling, as the public knows it. The disruptive changes to traditional schools described below will eliminate the possibility of “reforming without changing” and force the entire infrastructure of schooling—administrators, teachers, schools of education, textbook publishers, test publishers, consultants—to either dissolve or develop a truly reformed platforms for teaching and learning.

Separate Academic from Non-Academic Programs

If schools are to become serious about teaching academics well, then school administrators and teachers should spend entire day focused on creating classrooms that are intellectually engaging. They should not be spending any part of their day rearranging time schedules for pep-assemblies, shortening the week for homecoming, or spending countless hours before and after school supervising extra-curricular activities. Creating engaging intellectual environments in our schools is a demanding job that requires hours of reading, planning, and on-going professional conversations. For the last century schools have hidden the academic goals of schooling behind a multitude of athletic and extra-curricular offerings that have become the tail wagging the academic dog. Aside from the money, time, and instructional personnel wasted on planning and supervising extra-curricular activities, schools send the not-so-subtle message that academic training are mere sideshows to what really counts in schools—what occurs after school and on weekends.

The customary response to this reform proposal is the legitimate observation that students enter our schools with diverse talents, abilities, and interests. Thus, schools should offer an expansive curriculum that includes interscholastic sports and a rich variety of special interest activities. While I agree with the first premise—students enter schools with diverse talents, abilities, and interests—I do not agree that schools should assume the responsibility for developing those diverse talents, abilities, and interests. School systems throughout the world delegate the responsibility for developing the diverse talents, abilities, and interests of their student bodies to public and private entities that have no connection with a school system. Our global competitors make it clear to parents and students that academic and technical training is the central mission of their countries school system.

Expand the Definition of Intelligence
For the last two decades policy makers and the schooling establishment have admitted that traditional measure of intelligence—the I.Q. tests—fail to measure the diverse abilities and talents of students and are poor indicators of how an individual will perform in the real world. School legislators and school administrators have enacted policies and procedures that have all but eliminated the use of a single test of intelligence from appearing on a student’s transcript or used to make any decisions about a student’s educational future. While policy mandates have removed single measures of intelligence from school records, they have not removed the knowledge and skills they measure from school curricula or classroom instruction. School textbooks, teaching routines, and the traditional test on Friday, continue to value narrow demonstrations of learning: rapidly answering textbook problems or a facility for unraveling puzzles in logic. Both demonstrations of learning guarantee high scores on college entrance tests and measures of school learning, but are poor measures of the kind of adaptive decision making skills students will confront in their private lives and public performances. Simply put, our schools continue to adopt curriculum materials and value instructional repertories that graduate very smart people who act foolish in their private and public lives.

I do not have room in this article to elaborate on the knowledge and skills that would result in the kind of adaptive decision making that will result in success in the real world. Suffice it to say, that the curriculum materials and instructional routines that are now dedicated to teaching students to be smart must be redirected to teaching students how to think rationally.

Reorganize School Subjects Around Big Ideas/Big Question
The first step to constructing a curriculum designed for teaching rational thinking is the elimination of school subjects. The subject-centered curriculum is designed primarily to efficiently implement the institutional goals of schooling: scheduling students, recording grades, granting credits, packaging content, and identifying smart students. The school community’s unquestioned acceptance of a curriculum designed for textbook manufactures, bell schedules and honor rolls is founded on the flawed belief that the theories, ideas, and concepts that allow us to function each day originate from a subject. The public search for what works and the private search for meaning did not begin by consulting a textbook –it began by asking the right questions. The messy stories behind how those questions originated and how each generation negotiated the answers to these messy questions have no place textbooks designed for storing information that can be easily tested on Friday.

Without the messy story that explains the context of a societal problem and its eventual resolution, students and teachers will continue to dance around the most unanswered question of schools as we know them: Why should I study this subject? Subjects, textbooks, and standardized tests only exist in the world of schooling. In the real world of public performances and the private search for meaning, “answers” begin with asking the right questions, selecting the right knowledge, and expertly connecting right questions with right knowledge. Such a process can only occur in classrooms where knowledge is organized around big questions that can only be answered by ad hoc arrangements of theories, ideas, and concepts from multiple disciplines. The recent publication of the common core learning standards is small recognition that twenty-first century thinking begins with big questions not little answers.

Expand the School Calendar
Although this proposal has been around for decades, parents continue to deeply believe in a school year that begins late, ends early and is continually interrupted by some state or national holiday. To articulate the obvious, how can American students attending school for 180 days possibly learn as much or as well as students in other nations who sit in classrooms for 240 days. A school calendar designed around long summer vacations and frequent holidays, forces teachers into a disjointed instructional routine that alternates between reviewing what students forgot over the last break and racing through new material before the next break. Policy makers at the federal and state level must provide schools with the incentives and resources to not only lengthen the school calendar, but to do so in a way that inverts the relationship between review and learning new material.

Reorganize Schools Around the Normal Development Levels of Children
The final recommendation that would end schooling as we know it would require the restructuring of K – 12 grade configurations in a way that acknowledges the fact that the age of a child tells us noting about how that child functions socially, emotionally, or intellectually. From an institutional perspective, graded schools and their organizational divisions (elementary, middle school, high school) make perfect sense. Age-graded schools are efficient systems for publishing textbooks, offering subjects, assigning grades, awarding credits, and issuing diplomas. From an educational perspective, age-graded schools do not travel well into classrooms. The simple truth that all parents know, the research confirms, and schools ignore are the vastly different levels at which children and adolescents mature socially, emotionally, and intellectually. The research is also clear about the adverse academic and behavioral effects occur when the rigidity of age-graded school is joined with the continual transitioning of children from one level of schooling to another. Returning the K – 8 configuration of schooling would be the first step in organizing schooling around the normal social, emotional, and intellectual development of children and adolescents. I would extend that configuration to K- 9 with tenth grade becoming the transition year for admission into a more expansive high school curriculum that offers multiple pathways for career exploration and training. A return to configuration of schooling that honors the developmental needs of children would also provide a welcome home for expanded definitions of intelligence, thematic approaches to curriculum and instruction, and an expanded school calendar.

The disruptive changes described above have in some fashion been tried before, but each proposal has failed to gain the traction in the world of traditional schooling. The failure of each recommendation has been attributed to overly utopian visions of how children learn and how institutional schooling ought to function. In reality, most of these “utopian visions” of schooling failed because they proved too sophisticated for administrators and teachers to implement or violated deeply held public beliefs about how schools should look and what they should be doing.

What decades of school reform measures have failed to acknowledge is the resilience of a model of schooling designed to assign grades, grant credits, house textbooks, and memorize large amounts of information. Instead of disrupting the goals and methods of institutional schooling, policy makers and educators continue to double-down on the model with more tests, larger textbooks, and a narrower curriculum. The five changes to institutional schooling put forth in the article would end schooling as we know it and begin a new model of schooling designed for learning instead of credentialing.

The Myths of Schooling

Schools are designed for learning

Sit in any classroom in America and you will see little evidence of what most school mission statements term: “engaged learning.” What you do see is a lot of teacher talk, a lot of listening, a lot of worksheets, and a lot of superficial learning. The organizational configuration of schooling —right down to the architecture of the buildings—is designed to document the transmission of large amounts of information to large amounts of children in a cost-effective way. The accomplishment of the institutional goals of schooling leaves little time for children and adolescents to engage in kinds of instructional activities that develop the knowledge and skills stated in school mission statements and no time to develop individual interests, abilities, and talents.

Schools can make students learn and teachers to teach well

The theoretical engine that drives in situational schooling are crude interpretations of behaviorism: given the right incentives—rewards and punishments–children, adolescents, and teachers will conform to institutional goals and practices. The basic truth about learning and performance is all young people and teachers come from some place—they are agents—possessing diverse interest, abilities, and talents. Achieving the educational goals in school mission statements lies in who a student or teacher is, not what you can do to a student or teacher.

Schools can control learning outcomes

The real-world engine that drives institutional schooling is the belief that schools can deliver on whatever institutional outcomes are prescribed in governmental mandates or education outcomes listed in school mission statements. The entire accountability movement is founded on the belief that internal mechanisms of schooling can produce some quantifiable outcome—higher test scores. The countless number of social, cultural, political, emotional, intellectual, biological variables that swirl around classrooms each day make it impossible to connect particular pedagogies to particular quantifiable outcomes. At best, administrators and teacher can create instructional conditions stimulating the kinds of thinking, discourse, and dispositions stated in school mission statements.

Schools are simple organizations

 The entire configuration of institutional schooling is founded on the belief that schools are simple organizations composed of identifiable parts that can be described, classified, and fit into fixed organizational and instructional systems. When a school part breaks—low test scores— the part is replaced—new reading program—or redesigned—modified performance review template. Although the surface features of schooling appear to represent production line organizations—self-contained classrooms, grades, textbooks—the interaction between the diverse composition of schooling—students and teachers—and the open-ended goals of schooling—social, emotional, and intellectual—embody the qualities of complex organizations characterized by unpredictability, ambiguity, and novelty. Efforts at imposing some form of institutional order over complex organizations may result in an organizational fix, but, more often than not, will result in fixes that temporary, superficial, and will probably make the situation worse.

School mission statements value the life of the mind

All school mission statements are composed of vocabularies promoting three schooling values: 1) our school is child centered (“where children feel joy, satisfaction, and purpose”); 2) our school offers a path to cultivation (“we value the life of the mind and intellectual challenge”); 3) our school prepares young people for occupational success (“well prepared for college and career pathways”). The first two goals have been brief appearances in schools over the years. The third goal — preparation for a job or post-secondary schooling—has been the dominate goal of schooling for decades. While public relations pamphlets, school administrators, and parents extol the virtues of the life of the mind, what school communities want their school is to deliver credentialing pathways leading to good paying jobs.


“Grandpa, they are grading it downtown?”

Recently, my wife and I babysat for her two grandchildren while their parents took a brief vacation. The oldest grandchild is in first grade in what is considered a good school district.

Among the list of tasks my daughter in law leaves for us is assisting my grandson with the completion of daily homework assignments. That first afternoon I sat down with my grandson to get homework out of the way so he could go out and play with his friends. We I asked for his assignments, he responded: “Grandpa, I don’t have any homework tonight. We were doing tests all day.”

As a former teacher, principal, and university professor, I asked: “All day.”

“Yea, they go most of the day”

“How did you do on these tests.”

“Grandpa, I don’t know, they grade them downtown.”

I will leave it to the educators who read this blog to comment on what my grandson’s response says about schooling in general in this country and the accountability movement in particular. Let me begin…

Level One: Validity and Reliability

Any course in test and measurements would immediately question the validity and reliability of testing first graders. Putting aside the assumption that was being tested has been taught—validity—asking a first grader to sit for four or more hours filling in bubbles raisers all kinds of red flags on the test reliability: in the words of my other grandson in another state—“Grandpa I didn’t do so well on the last test. I got tired—so I just stopped doing the test.”


Where Have All the Strong Poets Gone?

Jonathan Kozol’s latest book, Shame of the Nation, documents the curricular and instructional landscapes of the two educational systems in America. One educational system in our country is located in the suburbs where mostly white students sit in classrooms with teachers who possess the content knowledge to construct lessons that are engaging and accurately reflect the content and structure of the discipline that they teach. The breadth and depth of the curriculum in these suburban schools provide all of their students with the knowledge and skills to do well in a post-secondary setting. Finally, these suburban schools are housed on sprawling campuses that possess all the accoutrements of ivy league universities —a quality library, computer labs outfitted with the latest technology, state of the art science labs, and a rich variety of support services that will enhance the social and emotional development of young people as they progress through their primary and secondary school experiences.

At the very same time that white suburban students are being prepared to become the future bosses in our country, African-American and Hispanics students sit in classrooms with young, inexperienced teachers whose minimum training in their content areas leave them with little ability to construct lessons that would reflect the kinds of thinking and methods of inquiry that would prepare them adequately for post-secondary schooling. Instead of engaging lessons that reflect state-of- the-art approaches to curriculum and instruction, students in our urban and rural areas are subjected to an instructional program that Kozol terms, “a test preparation boot camp.” Inductees in this boot camp are expected to listen to scripted lesson plans, complete practice test-preparation exercises, and take an endless stream of tests. The facilities in these “boot camps” are as deplorable as the instructional program. Students sit in classrooms without windows, go to bathrooms that do not function, and work in labs without chemicals or specimens.

Why has the resegregation of our nation’s schools into two systems —one poor and urban and one well-off and suburban— remained unnoticed by the public and our policy makers? The parents of poor urban students have never possessed the political or economic capital to generate outrage, much less awareness, of the dilapidated buildings and dead-end curriculum that their children are subjected to every day of the week. Suburban parents, who do possess the political and economic power to call attention to the deplorable conditions in our urban schools, remain silent because they simply have the schools they want. White suburban schools, especially the elite white suburban schools, have it all—why talk of funding formulas and social policies that would then require them to share the resources that are presently being lavished on their children?

As for state and national policy-makers, they have camouflaged the deep political, social, and economic forces that have conspired to segregate our schools, our neighborhoods and the futures of our children behind the high-sounding rhetoric of equal educational opportunities for all children —“all children can learn” and “no child left behind”—and the vocabulary of business accountability measures—test, inspect, and reconstitute. The relentless use of a vocabulary of equality married to a whole host of school accountability measures has proven to be a potent strategy for dodging thorny policy issues that might actually develop the conditions that “no child left behind” was meant to achieve —equal-funding formulas, scattered site housing, universal health care and a quality child-care system. The cruelty of this policy shell game is to sanction the schools that serve the poor and voiceless in our society and to reward the schools that serve the wealthiest and most powerful.

I understand why state and national policy-makers and their suburban constituencies have adopted a vocabulary and an ideology that masks gross inequalities in our nation’s schools behind the vices of big city schools and the virtues of suburban schools. Sadly, the general tenor of our nation appears to have forsaken the social justice concerns that motivated our young people during the sixties and the civil rights movement for a “gated-community” mentality that aggressively fights any encroachment on the rights and privileges that wealth and power have bestowed on their sons and daughters.

However, what I do not understand is why our nation’s professional educational organizations and the academic community have not only remained silent about the conditions, the facilities, the pedagogy, the curriculum that urban children are subjected to on a daily basis, but have supported and pursued accountability measures that can only worsen the educational futures of urban youth. A brief visit to an educational convention, an urban school, or flipping through a popular educational journal would quickly confirm how the educational establishment in our country has all but surrendered the high ground of the ideals expressed in Brown vs. Board of Education. Rather than pursue policies, curriculum, and instructional strategies that would provide all children with rich instructional environments, educational consultants, professors of education, school administrators, and state and national educational leaders, have stood by in silence or actively supported punitive strategies for holding students, teachers, and school administrators responsible for student achievement or, even worse, promoted “how to” approaches for implementing accountability measures that straight-jacket teachers and systematically destroy whatever self-esteem urban school children have left when they enter the school house doors.

What we need in today’s educational climate, are school leaders in the tradition of John Dewey, George S. Counts, and Paulo Freire who possessed the intellectual power and rhetorical skill to make everything in the field of education look new and to change the way the public and educators look at schools. Richard Rorty refers to such individuals as “strong poets.” By strong poet, Rorty does not mean literally “a poet,” but rather individuals who possess the imagination to create a new story about what teaching and learning should look like in our urban schools and the courage to develop an oppositional vocabulary that critiques the motives and the consequences of wealth and power.

What message and course of action should our Strong Professors of Education be pursuing in a country that has all but accepted a school system segregated by race and income? Strong Professors of Education should be using their classrooms, the educational media, and their research interests to identify and provide rationale for curricular approaches and pedagogical techniques that are harmful to urban young people and expose the gross inequalities which now exist in our public-school systems. Strong Deans of Education should use their positional and expert authority base to voice opposition to accreditation measures and policy initiatives that intensify punitive accountability measures and continue to promote inequalities in how we fund our schools. Both Strong Professors of Education and Strong Deans of Education should be teaching, writing, and creating courses of study that not only provide best practice in the field of teaching and learning for urban youth but should also be providing future teachers with methodologies and forums to study and discuss the relationship between the most vexing problems of our time—racism, poverty, sexism, violence, prejudice—and the routines of institutional schooling which historically have shown little awareness of the injustices perpetuated by these routines.

Most importantly, Strong Poets in the Academy must refocus the public’s attention on the real causes of poor achievement in our urban school systems. For too long the academy has allowed policy-makers to shift attention away from the effects racism and poverty have on the communities where urban schools reside to bogus accountability measures—data-driven schools, retention, high-stakes testing—that have no effect on the long-term achievement of urban school children and do great harm to the social and emotional well being of these same children. Race and poverty have never been neutral when it comes to schooling—the academy must stop treating race and poverty as silent variables in urban school achievement.

Finally, what should our Strong School Administrators be doing in the urban schools they lead? First, school administrators must have the courage and skill to become Strong Educational Leaders. It is dishonest for school administrators to portray themselves as “pawns” in the hands of powerful political interests and then disappear behind the curtain of the management functions of their job while the children in their schools languish in crumbling facilities and “drill and kill” classrooms. School administrators will always have control over the important allocation of time, resources, and instructional approaches in the buildings they lead. Strong Educational Leaders exercise that control in a way that provides teachers in their buildings with the time, the resources, and the instructional skills to make differences in the way urban young people read, write, compute and think.

Secondly, as with medical doctors, Strong Educational Leaders should “do no harm.” Many of the accountability measures—retention policies, special education placements, suspensions and expulsions, remedial services of all kinds— that are currently being visited on urban youth are destructive to the intellects and souls of urban youth. Strong Educational Leaders should be actively opposing these policies and making every effort to ameliorate institutional policies and accountability measures that are hurtful to urban young people.

The foundation of the efforts by Strong Educational Leaders to provide a more caring and intellectually challenging environment in their schools is a strong understanding of the theories, ideas, and practices that govern teaching and learning in our schools. Much of the destructiveness of current “comprehensive reform proposals” occurs because there is no one in a leadership capacity that is mediating the effects of pure theory on young people’s learning. No theory of learning—no matter how “scientific”– should be unleashed in a learning environment without the components of that theory being reformulated in a way that is sensitive to the social context of the school. The important process of reformulating theories that enter a school can only be accomplished by school administrators who are knowledgeable themselves about the theories, ideas, and practices that are grounding a particular school reform proposal.

Each year in our urban school systems we lose a generation of young people that have the potential to become productive citizens in our country. The substandard physical and educational condition of our urban schools which house each lost generation tragically remains out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. Professional educators, however, are morally bound to give voice to those students and teachers who go to school each day in physical facilities that are crumbling and educational environments that are debilitating. Strong Poets, as described by Rorty, possess a message that deflates accepted ways of seeing the world and, most importantly, the courage to voice the message in hostile settings. We, as professional educators, do possess strong messages of what needs to be done in urban schools and, certainly, we find ourselves in a hostile setting—what we are missing are Strong Poets.


High school students nationwide appear to be on to something that a whole decade of school reformers, legislators, and professional educators continue to ignore. In a recent nation wide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association, students state that the high schools they are attending are not very demanding, not very interesting, and not preparing for kinds of thinking or occupational skills they will need when they graduate. The really bad news is that one-third of students who enter ninth grade do not participate in the survey because they have already left school (dropped out). These reports confirm John Goodlad’s observation that high schools are places where students have become emotionally deadened by the routines of schooling and intellectually morbid by an institutional curriculum that prizes completion of work rather understanding and reflection (Goodlad, 1984).

These reports take on greater significance in a world which will demand a highly educated populace to solve the complex problems that are the products of growing global competition, growing association with diverse cultures, and the impact of industrial and technological growth on our natural habitats. Why then are our high schools, whose aim is to provide young people with a proper introduction to the symbol systems, theories, ideas, and elements of argumentation, unable to develop approaches to curriculum and instruction that reflect the kinds of critical thinking and knowledge of subject matters associated with higher levels of intellectual thought? The answer to this important question lies with the institutional nature of schooling in America and the transformation of the disciplines by schools from methods of inquiry to the memorization of unrelated fragments of theories, facts, and ideas.

In the last one-hundred years the goal of the American High School has been transformed from “what is an educated person” to the institutional functions of certification, preparation, and custodial care. In order to accomplish these institutional goals, schools configured themselves in a way to accurately account for daily attendance, to monitor the whereabouts of students on an hourly basis, and to efficiently process students through a prescribed number of credit hours. Today’s schools do these functions very well. The school’s schedule, the supervisory functions of teaching, the subject-centered curriculum, and the assign and assess delivery model of instruction are efficient means of accomplishing the institutional goals of schooling.

Teachers find themselves trapped in schools where the goals of schooling —jobs, high test scores, and admission to college—and the means of schooling—large classes, standardized curriculum, and large amounts of testing— are antithetical to a practice that requires creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity to uniqueness. Teenagers find themselves in classrooms where the goals of schooling—promotion, good grades, and following rules —and the routines of schooling —sitting quietly, listening, waiting to be called on, completing worksheets —are hostile to the social need to be known, the emotional need to be interested, and the intellectual need to make sense out of their experiences.

The organizational structures of institutional schooling induce a passivity towards knowledge and thinking. The disconnect between the emotional, social, and intellectual sources of growth becomes total, however, when high school students are required to master information contained in prescribed subjects that bear little resemblance to the methods of inquiry and levels of thought found in the disciplines of the arts and sciences.

The goals of a school subject are to provide a vehicle for scheduling, assigning daily class work, reproducing information on a test and to certify to institutions of higher learning that a student has completed a prescribed curriculum. Subject matter in such a curriculum consists of catalogues of names, dates, places, definitions, events, and procedures which have been removed from the social and historical context in which the discipline evolved and the problems they were designed to solve.

Not only has the intellectual and aesthetic power of the disciplines been reduced to catalogues of information, but policymakers have deemed only the “core” subjects of English, social studies, mathematics, and science worthy of study. Other ways of knowing the world are considered “electives.” Only a minority of students in our schools possess the social, emotional, and intellectual profile to succeed within such a configuration of schooling.

The daily challenge administrators and teachers confront in schools whose goals and functions are institutional is the minute by minute effort to reduce the tensions created by a configuration of schooling that is openly hostile to the diversity of talents, emotions, and cultures of the student bodies they serve. Administrators and teachers respond to this challenge by employing a combination of special events, routines, techniques, sanctions and broad interpretations of academic achievement to entertain, manage, control, and move along their student bodies.

Administrators and teachers intuitively know that the current configuration of schooling is not working. Things remain the same, however, because the assumptions of institutional schooling are never questioned. In fact, school administrators have intensified the goals of institutional schooling by replacing programs and course sequences that once provided groups of students with course options recognizing multiple talents, abilities, and interests with the one size fits all college bound curriculum. It is no surprise, then, that two-thirds of our students go through the motions of institutional schooling but show little joy, little emotion, and little learning and tragically, one-third of our high school students exercise the option of walking away from school before their senior year.

My effort to resolve the conflict between the institutional goals of schooling and the needs of the whole child began ten years ago when a group of freshman students, who, in the words of the Director of Pupil Personnel Services, “refused to do school.” Students in this group were fourteen and fifteen years old. All members of the group had missed over thirty days of school by November and were failing every subject. The achievement profile of each member of the group did not qualify them for special education services.

My journey into school reconfiguration began with a brainstorming session with our school’s truant officer. After I described the profile of our missing freshman students, Sarah, our truant officer made the following comment: “I know what will work with these kids, but you won’t do it.”
“No, Sarah, I am willing to try anything to help these kids through school.”
“Anything?” Sarah asked.

Sarah proceeded to describe a school configuration that would work for students who “refused to do school.” Students would begin school at ten o’clock. The course of study would be designed by the students in consultation with the director of the program. The physical education program, which was a constant nemesis for these students, was redesigned to be more user friendly to students who disliked “dressing” for gym and traditional activity structures emphasizing competition and team sports. The maximum class size for the program was set at fifteen. The classroom for the program was to be located away from the normal distractions of the high school day.

As I listened to Sarah’s “demands” my thoughts alternated between a resentment towards students who would not go along with the program and a respect for the wisdom of a teacher who had worked with these students for many years. My institutional self was saying no the program. My educational self said that my options resided outside the boundaries of institutional schooling. The traditional configuration of the high school was not working; more of the same was not an option.

Project STARS (Success Through Accepting Responsibility) began that day in my office. I was able to secure money for materials and a salary for the teacher. I found a room in a remote part of the building. I worked with the physical education chairperson to modify the program for these students. I felt a bit more assured about the success of the program when Sarah volunteered to teach and direct the program.

There were parameters for Project STARS. Students, along with their parents, had to sign a contract stipulating that they would attend school on a regular basis, would behave appropriately in class, and would complete assigned school work. Parents and students were also informed that they would not receive a diploma from the school unless they completed all required courses. Students who were unable to comply with these rules would immediately be dropped from the program.

STARS became a huge success. By the end of the first semester, students who were virtual drop-outs were now attending school on a regular basis, were arriving on time to the program and were successfully completing self-selected correspondence courses in academic and elective courses. Over the next seventeen years I was principal I handed out seven hundred and seven diplomas to students who, without the STARS program, would have become a number on a dropout report. In that same period of time, our school’s average graduation rate increased by 9.62%.

The years that I worked with staff and students in the STARS program taught me that traditional institutional approaches to improving achievement that do more of the same, only harder, or the endless search for pathologies in students only alienated the student further from purposeful approaches to learning. Both strategies ignore the fundamental disconnect between the knowledge, interests, and capacities of young people and the institutional goals of schooling.

The other lesson I learned in working with teachers and administrators on different configurations of schooling is the distinctive change in their attitudes towards students who were not doing well in school. Freed from the constraints of institutional schooling, professional staff stopped the blame game—if only students would, if only parents would, if only the administration would. Now staff focused on asking the right question: “How can we make this student successful in our school.”

Goodlad, J.I. (1984). A place called school: prospects for the future. A Study of schooling in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.