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Teaching to Higher Standards--From Managing to Imagining the Purposes of Education

by Kay Johnston & Heidi Ross - August 13, 2001

This essays argues that U.S. society has lost track of a crucial conversation regarding the purposes of education in favor of one focused on high standards. The result is a failure to see the complex connections between school and society.

We write this essay as the former and current chairs of the Department of Educational Studies at Colgate University. Three years of revising Colgate's teacher education program have left us with serious reservations regarding our national conversation about education. Simply put, national discourse on education has narrowed to a single-minded focus on testable standards. Our concern about the poverty of this measure for educational excellence grows from our challenge to align our liberal arts approach to educating future teachers with new State of New York requirements for teacher certification. This struggle has made clear to us that standards discourse obscures what in fact should be our primary conversation-the purposes of education. Separated from sustained debate about the ends of education, our public conversation about high standards has been narrow, instrumentally conceived, and isolated from the diverse needs and resources of school communities.

Since 1996, the New York State Department of Education has mandated the gradual implementation of sweeping reforms in student learning standards and standards for teacher preparation. Requirements for teacher education programs, which went into effect beginning in autumn 2000, are linked to student learning standards that are assessed through statewide examinations.

We have been revising our teacher education program from a position of strong institutional support. In fact, the preparation of teachers at Colgate University is recognized as integral to the liberal arts mission and an all-university responsibility. How is it then, when flexibility, risk-taking, tolerance, and global vision are the qualities of the post-modern knowledge worker, educating teachers through a liberal arts curriculum has become so difficult?

A careful reading of the Regents' Task Force on Teaching report, Teaching to Higher Standards: New York's Commitment (1998), the most recent statement of strategy for the year 2000, provides part of the answer. The document neither requests nor inspires reflection upon the purposes of education. Substituting discrete outcomes for educative purpose, both direct us toward "setting higher standards, building capacity, and accounting for results." The instrumentalism of this charge reflects the managerial control and economic rationalism that have been used to restructure other public services. Higher standards are presented as not only desirable but separable from serious deliberation about the multiple ways they might be achieved and from serious attention to the resources, both human and financial, necessary for that end.

The poverty of ideas about the purpose of education that results from standards discourse deprives our educational conversation and imagination of complexity and nuance. Consider three stark examples. First, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York City suggests tying merit pay for teachers to the test scores their students achieve. Second, schools eliminate recess from their daily schedules so that children have more time for "academics." Third, legislators identify specific liberal arts majors as acceptable for elementary certification students, assuming knowledge of a single discipline as the best and only preparation for teaching children "subjects." English, math, and history are acceptable majors, while sociology, philosophy, and psychology are not.

The first of these schemes proved so controversial that it was abandoned. The second provokes us to ask what children are expected to do and to be in school. Doing away with recess flies in the face of all we know about child development, the importance of play in children's learning, and even comparative data that suggest recess enhances students' willingness and ability to engage in concentrated study. And, finally, why would legislators narrow the range of acceptable majors for students who wish to become teachers at the same time they criticize teacher preparation for its lack of both breadth and depth in interdisciplinary and disciplinary training? Certainly, subjects matter. But all liberal arts majors help students to think deeply, reflectively, and rationally; to learn in communities; to innovate, communicate, and share ideas through many media. The intensity of questioning, deliberating, and understanding that anchors all good liberal arts programs also erects the scaffolding for reflective elementary school teaching.

Each of these examples reflects a lack of recognition that what serves one child, one teacher, or one school district may not serve another. There is little room for that recognition in our discourse or our imagination as measurement and accountability creep into public and higher education as high stakes testing--students and teachers pass or fail. Rather than insuring that assessment serves the needs of children, teachers, and schools, children, teachers, and schools spend tremendous energy and time serving the procedures of assessment.

The question that we ask as educators is how might we retrieve the complexity and expand the focus of our conversations about education. How can we engage each other about the purposes of education and be willing to answer that question with complexity?

There is a bumper sticker that reads, "Childhood is a journey, not a race." Kolhberg and Mayer (1981) argued what many psychologists and educational philosophers have argued-that education should be concerned with the development of a child into a young adult. We would add that development should attend not only to the development of the child as an individual, but also to the development of the individual as a responsible member of a community. This fairly obvious purpose is sidetracked by New York State reforms that are, in theory, designed to promote quality. Quality operationalized through testing divides individuals by ranking children and their teachers. The argument for doing so is that we are not doing well enough by our students. We aren't, but we are not going to do better by coupling high standards of learning, which we support, with high stakes testing. Such a connection will fuel an education race whose singular and reified end is a passing test score.

One of the purposes of education should be to sustain complexity in an increasingly complex world. First, higher learning standards must be defined within the context of helping students and teachers develop their powers of thinking and reflecting. Without the capacity and practice to ask why such standards are important, toward what ends such standards should be directed, we fail. We also need to be clear that one of the purposes of the educational experiment in the United States is to educate everyone. As we put children and adolescents through their "test paces" and withhold adequate resources for all children to meet the established standards, we lose track of education for everyone.

At first glance, efforts to consider the ends of education worldwide seem inspired by an impetus at odds with State of New York reforms. Punctuated by watchwords such as child-centered, flexibility, and education for all, educational policies from South Korea to Sweden use progressive vocabulary to describe the final rejection of industrial modes of education and information sharing. Entrance examinations into high school and college are falling by the wayside, and ministries of education are becoming ministries of life-long learning (Cheng, 2002).

A closer examination of this shift in discourse, however, reveals that most educators and policy makers who are quoting John Dewey read The Child and the Curriculum, not The School and Society. What survives, even thrives, of the progressive legacy is the focus on the child, the student-centered school or program, with precious little if any mention of community. This omission reflects increasingly world-wide assumptions about the purpose of information and knowledge and a narrowing conceptualization of the purpose of school. Schools, now conceived as part of the service sector, are to train and socialize individuals who will provide the pool of flexible labor for global capitalism. Relinquished is any serious ambition to cultivate citizens; schools educate clients and consumers. Thus, the school's fragile space for enhancing civil society is being squeezed by two distinct forces: tightened standards imposed by a managerial state and an expanding "market for credit" for life-long learners.

What is eroded is sustained conversation about the purpose of schools as a public space in which we seek ideas of community and community action that might lessen social hierarchies. The social purposes of education in this sense cannot be engendered by special interest groups alone. They must emerge from community conversation, the one public space in our society that schools not only occupy but sustain.

We want to make one point clear. Our argument is not with higher teaching and learning standards. We are concerned, however, that a narrow definition of standards has diminished our ability to imagine and articulate the ends of schooling and education. Our primary recommendation is to keep at the forefront of educational reform a conversation about the purposes of education and who should benefit from public education. Toward this end we must retrieve from our progressive heritage a focus on the child and a focus on the transformative power of education for the world in which we live.

In a lecture delivered just over a century ago at the University of Chicago Elementary School, John Dewey (1902, p. 7) noted that, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy." Dewey's insight that the school and society share a generative relationship remains a resource that helps us understand that schools are genuinely educative only if they embody communicative as well as instrumental purposes. Teaching and learning must not be seen simply as an exchange of information, but also as a way to develop understanding and responsibility. Schooling for high standards needs to support all children to meet those standards, not deny a diploma to those who don't make the grade.


Cheng, Kaiming. (2000). Schools into the new millennium: In quest of a new paradigm. Paper Presented at the International Council for School Effectiveness and Improvement, Hong Kong.

Dewey, John. (1902, reprint 1990) The school andsSociety/The child and the curriculum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kohlberg, Lawrence with Rochelle Mayer. (1981). Development as the aim of education: The Dewey view. In Lawrence Kohlberg, The philosophy of moral development: Moral stages and the idea of justice (pp. 49-97). San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Regents Task Force on Teaching (1998). Teaching to higher Standards: New York's commitment. State Education Department. Albany: The University of the State of New York. [http://www.highered.nysed.gov/pdf/highstand.pdf]

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 13, 2001
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10804, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:13:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Kay Johnston
    Colgate University
    E-mail Author
    Kay Johnston is an associate professor of educational studies at Colgate University. She has chaired the Educational Studies Department and directed the Women's Studies Program. She has most recently written about cheating and the limits of individual integrity.
  • Heidi Ross
    Colgate University
    E-mail Author
    Heidi Ross is professor of educational studies and current chair of Educational Studies at Colgate University, and is President of the Comparative and International Education Society. Her most recent book, (co-edited with Judith Liu and Donald Kelly) The Ethnographic Eye (Falmer Press, 2000), features the challenges of conducting interpretive research in the Peoples' Republic of China.
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