When School Reform Goes Wrong
reviewed by Jal Mehta - October 23, 2008
Several years ago, I was talking about No Child Left Behind with a colleague of mine when he posed a thought experiment: What if Congress had proposed that by 2014 no patient would die? Doctors, he argued, would stand up and say that medical science rendered impossible any such thing. The problem with education, he continued, was that no one in the field had sufficient courage or credibility to offer this rejoinder when politicians proposed making all students proficient by 2014.
Nel Noddings wants to be that person. An emeritus professor at Stanford, she offers When School Reform Goes Wrong as an argument against an education system that is awash in standards and testing, but has lost all sense of what it might mean to provide humane, compassionate, and intellectually engaging education. Drawing on her former experience as a classroom math teacher, she thinks that the idea that all children will ever become proficient is malarkey propagated by policy wonks who know little about schools and children. Even worse, in pursuit of these abstract ideals policymakers have fetishized testing and accountability and neglected the needs of children and a broader vision of democratic schooling.
This short book is structured as a series of essays around six familiar topics (words, equality, accountability, standards, testing, and choice), with each seeking to examine the assumptions underlying each of these terms, with a particular emphasis on what is problematic about them. Noddings says in the introduction that the book is intended to be an argument rather than a work of research or even a review of empirical findings. While this approach allows her to advance some intriguing ideas, it also has some real drawbacks. Particularly when she is reprising largely familiar critiques of testing, the book seems a little thin, lacking the empirical detail or fresh observations that would demand readers attention.
Noddings arguments against testing will be well known to readers of Alfie Kohn, Debbie Meier, David Berliner, or Noddings earlier work. Testing dumbs down intellectual engagement; it unduly narrows learning; it stifles student and teacher creativity; and when it becomes the criteria by which schools are judged it can produce teacher demoralization and, in some cases, outright cheating. Similarly, Noddings arguments against focusing accountability demands on schools echo the work of Richard Rothstein and many other critics who see the problems lying more in American societys unwillingness to confront segregation and inequality than in the failings of its schools.
These are certainly critical matters for debate, but Noddings is treading well-worn ground here. One could certainly imagine the rejoinders of testing proponents: inner city schools were failing students before the testing and accountability movement; narrowed learning is better than no learning; an external impetus is needed to spur change in a moribund system; adults in schools should be responsible for improving outcomes even when facing difficult external circumstances. While Noddings work will be applauded by those who share her viewpoint, there is little here that is likely to change the minds of her critics.
More provocative is Noddings argument that equality is not equivalent to sameness. Drawing on one strand of a progressive tradition that goes back to the famous 1918 Cardinal principles, Noddings argues that the current emphasis on sending all students on an academic course towards higher education is fundamentally misguided. She offers a number of arguments in favor of this position, but they are built upon two basic premises: 1) that students differ in their aptitudes and their interests, and it is therefore unreasonable to expect that all students can be proficient in any particular subject; and 2) that students possess a range of talents, and that we should embrace and build upon these talents rather than focus on the areas in which they are not proficient. As she writes,
After many years of experience, I do not believe that all children can learn algebra to a level we might properly regard as proficient. Am I an irredeemable elitist? I am not. I respect and admire all sorts of talent, and I believe that no childs self-esteem or status in democratic schooling should depend on his or her proficiency in mathematics. (p. 76)
In Noddings view, there are significant costs to prescribing the academic course for all children. To do so is intellectually dishonest, in that it leads us to put weak math students in a course called algebra and proceed to teach mathematical trivia (p. 27). It is stigmatizing and elitist as wellit assumes that only one course of study is worthy of respect, and provides no alternative for those who are not headed to college. Under our purported respect for equality, she argues, we in fact condemn all students who are not like ourselves:
Perversely, mouthing equality, we show contempt for the many students who might proudly enter well-paying but nonacademic forms of work and study . The actual message, rarely voiced frankly, is Go to college or be nothing. Our students and our democratic way of life both suffer as a result. (p. 46)
Instead, she would prefer to see a system with a much wider array of viable alternatives to the traditional academic path. A former president of the John Dewey Society, Noddings sees considerable value in more applied and practical versions of classic academic subjects, which she thinks has the added value of captivating a wider array of students. She recognizes that such curricular differentiation in the past has led to pernicious tracking and reproduction of social inequality, but argues that this is a reason to create better alternate pathways, rather than to assume that the only way to remedy inequality is to send everyone through the same course of study.
While this is in one sense a familiar argumentreprising a theme that captured one stream of progressive school reformers at different points in the 20th centuryit is one that is particularly challenging to the current conventional wisdom. For different if overlapping reasons, civil rights advocates, business groups, pedagogical conservatives and equity liberals have all come together behind a vision of standards, testing, and college for all. None of these parties has had much to say about what to do for the many students for whom this is not working, and, in this light, Noddings alternative deserves to be seriously considered. A world that was more pluralistic in its choiceswith more schools for the arts and more schools organized around themes that interested studentsmight be a better world, but the question of how to create different but equal has thus far eluded us. I worry that the result of a renewed emphasis on curricular differentiation might be the same as the oldcollege prep for the advantaged, vocational education for the poor and working class.
There is also something disturbing about Noddings claim, made several times, that it is simply unreasonable to expect all students to achieve proficiency in the basic subjects. It may not be literally possible, but it has long been the guiding assumption in upper-middle class communities, and it is an important positive step to extend such a promise to all students. The gap between these ambitious ideals and our current efforts to achieve themboth in school and outdeserves our utmost attention. Noddings may be right that school reform has gone wrong in a number of respects, but here it is the reformers who are focused on the right problem, and Noddings who is leading us astray. With luck, the next phase of school reform will combine the best of current reforms and the best of Noddings critique: reformers would aim to create schools that are more humane, democratic, less test-centered and more engaging of students interests and talents, but they would also continue to search urgently for the mix of policies and practices that have the best chance of eliminating the fundamental gaps in skills between more and less advantaged students.