Whereas the history of education ought to be the history of outcomes, that is the story of the graduates and what their schooling has helped them to accomplish, instead it’s overwhelmingly the history of inputs, or the educational theories and reform ideas of the experts. We hear so much about what the school would do to its students, not so much, if anything, about what the school has actually done for them.
Well, that’s not quite altogether true. There are well documented outcomes in the form of test scores and graduation rates, but that’s probably as far as we go in determining the results of schooling. Furthermore, since the schools do not primarily see themselves in terms of test scores and dropout rates (others do), we have the present clash between the schools and the No Child Left Behind Law which does see test scores as the only reliable measure of success or failure.
In fact, there’s probably no area of human activity where input so dominates output as education.* Think of an agriculture where all the talk were of fertilizers, and not of corn or soybeans, or think of manufacturing where the assembly line became more important that the product at the end of that line. Well that’s what’s happened in our schools. The assembly line is all important. What the graduate, or the dropout, knows, what he has become thanks to his schooling, no one knows.
The history of education is a fascinating account of the history of educational ideas, both in regard to what should be taught and how it should be taught. We read Plato, Aquinas, Rousseau, Dewey, and more recently John Holt, Neil Postman and E. D. Hirsch and countless others, and we come away thoroughly enraptured by what education according to these wise men is all about.
We find ourselves participating in this fascinating history. We may join the progressive or the traditional school of thought. We will certainly become passionate over one or more of the many reform movements, such as school choice, merit pay, the longer school day.
But when all is said and done the child, and what the child is learning is nowhere to be reckoned with. I do believe that this situation of placing the cart before the horse came about when children were removed from the daily presence of grown-ups, in the shop, office, or on the field, and placed in school buildings by themselves with just a teacher or guardian. What they were now learning was no longer going on around them. Not a great situation in which to learn, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language in a typical public school classroom will know.
We throw all our very best thinking about education, of which there is no end, at our kids and they invariably react in one of three ways. The few follow orders and do what they’re told, becoming pets of the teachers.
The many are indifferent to what we throw at them, to our theories and philosophies and the resulting quarrels that rage among us as to this or that way of teaching, say, reading or mathematics, and they simply put up with school, and with us, and endure, while really reserving the best of themselves to activities and experiences that have little or no connection to the subject matters of their classes, such as popular culture, friends, and jobs.
The remaining few are probably the most interesting ones. They step out of the way of what we throw at them, but don't make a huge fuss about it. They will react in as many different ways as there are numbers of them. It is from them probably that the country will draw its inventors, entrepreneurs, leaders and other talents. But what they are and what they achieve will have little relationship to the things that their schools would have them do. For they learn pretty much outside of the organized activities of the classroom.
To make it even clearer what I mean by our inattention to outcomes here I give you the mission statement of the typical American public school, the outcomes that the school would obtain for its students:
Our mission is “to produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens who possess the self-esteem, initiative, skills, and wisdom to continue individual growth, pursue knowledge, develop aesthetic sensibilities, and value cultural diversity.”
And they would accomplish this by “providing intellectually challenging educational programs that celebrate change but affirm tradition and promote excellence through an active partnership with the community, a comprehensive and responsive curriculum, and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff.”
No mention is made of higher test scores or graduation rates. Instead the school is set up to produce (turn out) accomplished and productive citizens as well as life-long learners,
Yes, I know, you ask, and I ask, why doesn’t the school have as its primary mission things that are valuable, more valuable than high test scores, things such as fluency in a second language, the ability to manipulate mathematical symbols on up and through the calculus, enough knowledge of history, whatever history it be, to pass an oral examination in the subject, and also things such as the ability to lay pipe and electric circuits, play an instrument of music, be a member of a sports team, be a leader of others.
There is no end of valuable things that kids might learn, all things that could then be subject to external measures, a kind of quality control, no less important in school than in the factory. They would have to do a lot more with a lot less. Learning is a life long venture and you have to begin with this or that.
So, what is to be done? Well we could begin by getting a real answer to our question, “what did you do in school today?” This answer would force us to align, perhaps for the first time ever (or at least since the education of our young was separated from the work of adults), our inputs, our educational philosophies, with what the kids are actually doing and learning. The progressive, traditional, and reform laden inputs would rapidly disappear as the reality of whatr the kids were learning took the forground.
Kids, no less than the rest of us, learn (and here’s where Dewey is still right), by doing. How much of what goes on in school is Dewey's kind of “doing?”
Well the answer has to be not much because they are learning so little in the allotted time. It takes a whole year to master the times table?! Two whole years to learn how to ask directions in a foreign language?! Twelve whole school years to acquire just the bare rudiments of the country’s history?!
If we looked more at outcomes, if we seriously began to determine just what the kids are leaning in school, and how much of what they are learning results from our inputs, and how much results from things that kids do and of which which we are mostly ignorant well wouldn't that be the strong wind that sets everything right.
I remember attending a story reading class in a progressive elementary school in Boston. All I heard about from the teacher before the class was what a great story it was and that this was not the first time that she had read it out loud to her students. I heard from her nothing abaout her students. Actually I knew the story and I liked it. It was about that young Frenchman who strung a cord between the Twin Towers and walked across it.
But before the reading I saw nothing of the teacher’s appreciation of the story in the faces of the children. Were they excited about hearing it again? What was the story for them? They were mostly well behaved, but was anything really happening in their hearts and minds. They showed little reaction, sat quietly for the most part, fooled around a bit with their neighbors.
This is another example of adult input. What was the output? What was happening to the children? All the class time was given over to listening to a “great story.” Probably much if not most of children’s literature is one more example of adult input. Has anyone ever actually measured the outcome of children's literature on children? I know it works with adults. Does anyone have an inkling if the children have grown therefrom?
When one has looked at student outcomes, when one has taken the measure of what school has accomplished, the results have not been good. I think of the book I read some years back about what our seventeen year olds, our high school or almost high school graduates, didn’t know. The book made it clear that welve years of schooling had done little or nothing for their knowledge of history, and much else.
Then there are the community colleges. The outcome here is that only one in five students, and in some colleges even fewer, will stay and graduate in two years. Shouldn't we be talking more about this outcome?
In today’s NYTimes we learn that our soldiers in Iraq, large numbers of them, are ethically un-principled. For instance, "fewer than half of the marines and a little more than half of the soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian. More than 40 percent support the idea of torture in some cases, and 10 percent reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians…” Now these soldiers are graduates of our high schools, probably in many instances of high schools with mission statements similar to the one above, “to produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens..."
If you ask a kid what he did in school today, you’ll hear, if you hear anything at all, what the teacher did. What the kid did remains usually out of the asker’s, be it parent, older sibling, or other adult, ken. Just think what it might mean if the question to the kid was answered by in fact what the kid had done in school? They you would be seeing real outcomes of work in school, not as now another statement of teacher input.
Why is it that most of our discussions about education are all about inputs and hardly ever about outputs? There are probably two principal reasons for this situation. First of all we don’t talk the kids’ language, and we don’t talk it because we haven’t taken the trouble to learn it. Instead we force the child to talk ours and as a result, since kids are smart at knowing what we want, he talks our language of inputs.
Then second, educational outputs are only visible over long periods of time (other of course than test scores which now predominate our talk of outcomes). Furthermore, how on earth could these outcomes be measured? Could the school ever point to this or that student and say that he or she has acquired any or all of the admirable outcomes of our mission statement? I don’t think so. This is the sort of thing that can only be said, if at all, at the time of a person’s death.
Finally it should be stressed that schooling at best will do little or nothing to eliminate man’s imperfections —quick to anger, slothful, ungenerous — let alone provide him with the skills and knowledge necessary to continue to grow in goodness and wisdom throughout his life time. Our schools need to assume much more modest outcomes, such as I described above, outcomes that have some chance of being realized in school.
*This statement may be incorrect. Arnold Kling in a recent TCS article, The Real Solution to Poverty, points out that we are always addressing the problem of poverty in terms of input, in particular by "centralized, planned solutions," such as President Johnson's anti-poverty program of the 1960s. And in spite of these repeated centralized plananed solutions the problem of poverty is still very much with us. Kling wonders why government and think tank bureaucrats and experts continue to believe in such failed intiatives. He says it's because they focus only
on intentions. "If a program," he says, "is intended to reduce poverty, then it is
an anti-poverty program. [That of course is not enough.] Instead, I believe that anyone who sincerely
wants to do something about poverty needs to focus on outcomes."
I would say that anyone who sincerely wants to reform our system of education needs also to focus on outcomes.