America's School Policy Challenged
by Edward L. Thorndike - 1932
Teachers College in the News. From the New York Times Education Page.
Professor Thorndike Asserts Compulsory Education Laws Are Defeating Their Aims
In all lands and at all times education has been distributed unequally. . . . With the aid of the Commonwealth Fund the Institute of Educational Research of Teachers College has followed the educational careers of 785 boys, constituting a representative sample of eighth-grade pupils in New York City in November, 1922. The years of schooling (of approximately 180 days each) varied from 6½ to 16½. . . . The age of leaving school permanently varied from 13 to 25. If the sampling had been taken for an age or for a much lower grade, the variation would have been even greater. Even in our sample, some boys have two and one-half times as many years of schooling as others have.
The inequalities become even more striking if we make allowance for the fact that a day's schooling at age 6 means something very different from a day's schooling at age 16, and something of much less importance, at least for intellectual education. Those who have the least education have it at the youngest ages and so are at a double disadvantage.
The general spirit of our country for the past 100 years has been to make great efforts to increase the amount of education, but to pay relatively little attention to its distribution. The plea of reformers has been for more education, regardless of who received it. There has been an indiscriminate urge toward more schools, longer school years, and later compulsory ages. Education of any sort for any person has been recommended as a national investment without much consideration of the differences in safety and income which may attach to the investment in certain boys and girls rather than in others. The mere volume of education has been taken as a measure of idealism, somewhat as the mere volume of gifts to beggars of all sorts used to be taken as a measure of philanthropy and charity. . . .
It may be doubted whether either the policy of striving for indiscriminate increase in the volume of education, or the policy of favoring especially those who would otherwise have very little schooling, was ever the best for the general welfare. A very strong argument could have been made at any time in the last half-century for exercising careful discrimination in the distribution of education, giving the most to those who would use it best for the common good.
And a fairly strong argument could have been made that those who would use more education best for the common good would be those who already had a great deal of itfor example, promising young students of science who, with more education, might make discoveries of great benefit to the world, or promising young physicians, clergymen, engineers, and the like, who, with more education, might serve their communities much better. . . .
The question "Who are receiving the most education?" is not answered adequately by answering the questions "Who go to college?" "Who go to high school?" "Who attend medical schools?" or any other questions that ask who receive certain higher levels of education. . . .
Let us consider the 785 boys that are a fair sampling of all boys in grade 8B in public schools in New York City ten years ago. . . .
I have examined the later school careers of the forty boys who had the forty highest scores of the entire 785 in abstract intellect and early school achievement, and also the school careers of the forty boys who had the forty lowest records of the 785. The ablest twentieth averaged only four months older than the least able twentieth when they left school. The ablest twentieth had three semesters (i.e., a year and a half) more schooling, of which roughly one year is due to their entering school earlier and a half-year to their staying to an age four months older. . . .
The ablest twentieth reaches a status four full-year grades in advance of the least able twentieth at an age only four months greater. Their average is high school graduation; that of the low twentieth is graduation from the eighth grade. Twenty-nine of the ablest forty graduated from high school; only one of the low forty did.
The findings should force a thoroughgoing consideration of policies regarding the distribution of education. There are no adequate reasons for supposing that the case for the country at large is notably better than that for New York City. ... I believe that New York has been ahead of the country at large in providing educational opportunities and encouragement for able boys and girls. So I fear that the general status of distribution may be worse. Present distributions are surely bad.
It certainly is not reasonable that the intellectually ablest 5 per cent of boys should be kept in school to an age only four months beyond that to which the least able are kept. Suppose that we had 80 years of schooling to distribute among these 80 boys. Surely, it would be wasteful and essentially unjust to give each boy one year more. More schooling of the sort they have had will make the low twentieth very little happier or more useful. But it can be guaranteed that two years more for some of the top twentieth would enrich their individual lives and produce substantial benefits to the community. Indiscriminate advances in the compulsory school age beyond 16 seem, in view of the actual facts, a weak and wasteful procedure.
And what shall we say of laws or customs which systematically and emphatically distribute the most schooling to those least able to get profit by it for themselves or for the community? Are they not intolerably unwise and unjust? Yet they have been very common. Thus, a child of a certain age, say 14, is allowed to go to work if he has reached a certain advanced stage, say graduation from grade 8; but if he has only reached, say grade 5, he must be given more schooling. Of our 40 specially able boys, five left school before they were 15; not one of the dull 40 did. We need laws to prevent greedy or perverse parents from depriving gifted children of schooling, not laws to force them to keep in school children who have neither the ability nor the interest to profit thereby.
The problem of providing schooling in some reasonable relation to the intellectual ability of the recipients is only one part of the general problem of the quantitative distribution of education. It would be a very inadequate treatment of the matter to use intellectual superiority alone as the measure of fitness for more education. Moreover, the problems of the qualitative distribution of education are at least as important as those of quantity. We have to ask not only "How much schooling shall each sort of individual receive?" but also "What kind of schooling shall it be?" . . .
Zeal to produce more schoolingthat is, to increase the amount of schooling given in our countryhas been one of America's fine idealisms. Such zeal should be maintained, but with it there should be equal zeal to distribute this education so that those will have most who can use it best. What evidence we now have indicates that the ablest receive very little more than the least able.
For every boy in the top 40 of our 785 who stayed in school beyond the age of 18 there were nearly ten boys below average ability who did so. The passion for equalization which had a certain nobility when a large percentage of children barely learned to read and write becomes unwise, almost ridiculous, when the question is of spending our resources to keep in school boys of 16 or 17 or 18 who would be happier and more useful at work or at play. Our increased resources should be used first to aid young men and women whom nature and nurture have chosen to profit from schooling.
Doubtless great ability will often manage to get education outside of schools or get along without it. But those who can do so much for the world with so little are the very ones who should be given more. In the wars we are incessantly waging against disease, misery, depravity, injustice, and ugliness, we should not provide our best marksmen with the poorest weapons nor ask our bravest to fight with their naked hands.