Nation at Risk Retrospective--Howard Gardner
This is a reprise of previous posts on the Nation at Risk retrospectives that have begun to appear 25 years after publication of that document. As always, I seek to expose various points of view. With that disclaimer let's look at Howard Gardner's critique of the trend towards centralized nationally imposed solutions that began, in part, with publication of Nation at Risk.
Howard Gardner is the Hobbs professor of cognition and education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. He is best known in education for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there is but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments. In a recent article in Education Week Gardner describes the evolution of his thinking on whether a single nationally imposed solution can best transform public education. He writes:
Gardner sees American education as harboring three quite separate systems "each with its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses."
He writes: Each system needs to strengthen one of the E’s [excellence, engagement, and ethics]. . Education for each system, accordingly, should be directed toward the E that needs to be bolstered.
The first system consists of the schools in our inner cities, featuring a population that is diverse and disadvantaged. Many of these students never finish secondary school, and many who do are not fully literate. The problem in system one is excellence in literacy and the disciplines. These schools succeed only if they are blessed with teachers of unusual quality, and human and technical resources well beyond those that are routinely available. The No Child left Behind law was designed with this target audience in mind. Its fatal weakness is that it is using the whole country to repair problems peculiar to inner-city Detroit, Hartford, Los Angeles, and their fellow, all-too-beleaguered metropolises.The second system, he generalizes, constitutes "the large rural areas in the center of the nation, as well as the working-class suburbs...."
If you are saying, "whoa," now wait a minute, I'm not ready to put schools, kids, and places in boxes like that, that's ok. Because that actually supports Gardners fundamental point--that a one size all approach to public education doesn't make sense. Different school systems have fundamentally different problems, but within those school districts, in varying proportions, we find many young people and famlies who actually fit the description that Gardner utilizes for another system. So it is a fair criticism of Gardners approach, that his categorization of systems into three is as flawed as the attempt to treat the entire American system as if it were just one system. But look, thinkers like Gardner perform a tremendous service when they try to organize information into categories and find basic organizing principles.
The third system, Gardner writes is
Gardner then suggests that the key to quality education differs depending on the community. "The key to quality education in the inner city may lie in bringing students to an excellent level of performance; in the heartland, in catalyzing a greater degree of engagement in learning; and in our affluent urban and suburban areas, in strengthening the ethical musculature of young people. Paraphrasing Plato, we might say that these three paths will help students want to do what they have to do.
Now you don't have to buy into Gardner's attempt to put communities in boxes, to recognize that Gardner has identified one of the problems with "A Nation at Risk" and the nationwide single mandate-based solutions that have ensued. From my vantage point in the heartland of the United States, I wouldn't have described the core issues in education the way Gardner has done. But the purpose of these blogs on Nation at Risk is to expose a variety of points of view. By the way, I strongly recommend that you take advantage of Education Week's full coverage of Nation at Risk. They offer 4 weeks of free online coverage, and I think you will find the articles stimulating and the education news timely.