Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nation at Risk(2) Howard Gardiner

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:

I’ve come a long way from a reflection on the national or federal role in education. ... Too much of the talk and action about U.S. education has focused on issues of method—what to do about test scores, vouchers, charters, unions, teacher salaries. While not unimportant, these debates distract us from asking the important questions about the goals of education—and particularly goals that go beyond the instrumental ones of more and more competitiveness in the international marketplace. Historically and contemporaneously, the United States has done quite well as a nation, even without a “one best system.” Before rushing headlong toward uniformity, we ought to spend time debating the goals of education, and considering the various ways of achieving them, in light of the plurality of populations that constitute our land.

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...."

Here students do finish secondary school, for the most part, and their literacy, while far from stellar, is at least at the basic level. But the bulk of these students are distinguished by their disengagement from the learning requirements of school and, in all too many cases, from the constructive use of their minds in general. Asked to complete a two-word stem, most would readily respond, “School is … boring.” The challenge to educators in the heartland is to make the “stuff” of school sufficiently intriguing, so that students want to pursue their educations and have the disposition to do so, even when no one is twisting their arms.

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

"the system enveloping elites living in suburbs, often attending schools that are or could as well be independent, attending four-year colleges and having ambitious career goals and options." Some of these youngsters—and they are often our youngsters—are impressive in their goals and admirable in their means of achieving them. But as our research in the GoodWork Project has dramatically confirmed, too many of them do not take their ethical obligations seriously. They are quick to assert their rights, in a way that smacks of excess entitlement. But when asked about the responsible thing to do at work or as a citizen, and when their behaviors and actions are monitored, they emerge as a population that has rarely stretched in an ethical direction. All too often, members are engaged in compromised or even sheer bad work. The challenge with young people in the third system is to strengthen their ethical muscles, so to speak.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

comments welcome