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Best Schools

by Thomas Armstrong

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Academic Achievement Discourse

These are difficult times for educators who believe that learning is worth pursuing for its own sake and that the chief purpose of school is the nurturing of students as whole human beings. Higher test scores seem to be the order of the day. To accomplish this aim, administrators strain to meet political agendas, teachers respond by teaching to the test, and students in turn react by cheating, taking “learning steroids” (legal and illegal psychostimulants), or just not caring in order to cope with the demands placed on them in school. The adventure of learning, the wonder of nature and culture, the richness of human experience, and the delight in acquiring new abilities all seem to have been abandoned or severely curtailed in the classroom in this drive to meet quotas, deadlines, benchmarks, mandates, and targets.

The immediate cause of this crisis in education is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which greatly expanded the role of the federal government in determining what goes on in the classroom. Its many provisions include annual testing of students in reading and mathematics (and starting in 2007, testing in science as well), and the requirement that schools make adequate yearly progress (AYP) incrementally on a year-by-year basis until all students reach 100 percent proficiency in these areas by the year 2014. Failure of a school to maintain AYP will result in penalties for the school, including the right of students to receive special tutoring or to transfer to schools that do maintain AYP, and the eventual placement of a school on probation leading to possible government or commercial takeover. Although NCLB has been hailed by many groups as a major step toward narrowing the achievement gap for poor and minority populations, its actual implementation has revealed a significant cluster of difficulties (see for example, Archer, 2005; Karp, 2003; Klein, 2006; Lee, 2006; Olson, 2005).

Aside from any specific problems inherent in the law itself, however, what seems most troubling about NCLB is that it represents the culmination of a movement that has been gathering steam in American education for over 80 years. The most destructive legacy of NCLB may turn out to be that it hijacks the dialogue in education away from talking about the education of human beings (what I'm going to call in this book “Human Development Discourse”) and toward a focus on tests, standards, and accountability (what I will refer to as “Academic Achievement Discourse”). In this chapter, I will define the implicit assumptions of Academic Achievement Discourse, explore its history in U.S. education, and detail the way it sabotages the efforts of educators to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of students. In the next chapter, I will explore the assumptions, history, and positive consequences of engaging in Human Development Discourse. If we are to understand what conditions underlie the best schools in our country, we need to clarify whether we are talking about schools with the highest standardized test scores and adequate yearly progress, or whether there are other more human and humane elements that need to be taken into consideration.

Academic Achievement Discourse: A Definition

First let me explain what I mean by the term “discourse.” The word “discourse” as a noun is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “communication of thought by speech,” “the faculty of conversing,” or “a spoken or written treatment of a subject” (Simpson & Weiner, 1991, p. 444). In the field of philosophy and in the social sciences, the word has a more specific designation:

A discourse is considered to be an institutionalized way of thinking, a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic.... Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; in other words, it is not possible to escape discourse. For example, two distinctly different discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists.” In other words, the chosen discourse delivers the vocabulary, expressions, and perhaps also the style needed to communicate. (Wikipedia, n.d., para. 1)

In the field of education, one might engage in a “disability discourse” (seeing a child primarily in terms of what he or she can't do, through labels such as “learning disability” or “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”) or a “learning differences discourse” (seeing a child primarily in terms of how he or she learns, with an effort not to label but to describe the child's specific ways of thinking and learning as accurately and specifically as possible). In other words, two educators can be looking at the same student and engage in vastly different speech acts and written communications about that student.

In my previous writings, I have devoted a great deal of time to delineating the differences between these two particular kinds of discourse (see, for example, Armstrong, 1997, 2000a). In some of these writings, I've used the term “paradigm” to mean something equivalent to “discourse” (see, for example, Armstrong, 2003a). I've come to prefer the term “discourse,” however, because it more accurately specifies the actual speech acts and written communications that educators use to reveal their underlying assumptions about learning and education. The words that educators use to describe their students, the speeches made by politicians regarding education, and the laws that are written to enforce those beliefs are three examples of speech acts and written communications that have had immediate, practical, and significant impact on classroom practices. In this book, I will contrast two distinctly different educational discourses, Academic Achievement Discourse and Human Development Discourse. I will suggest that the types of speech acts and written communications, or discourses, engaged in by educators today—at least in public settings—are predominantly and increasingly Academic Achievement Discourse.

What do I mean by Academic Achievement Discourse? I use this term to designate the totality of speech acts and written communications that view the purpose of education primarily as supporting, encouraging, and facilitating a student's ability to obtain high grades and standardized test scores in school courses, especially in courses that are part of the core academic curriculum. Academic Achievement Discourse, however, means much more than this simple definition. There are several assumptions that help shape Academic Achievement Discourse:

Assumption #1: Academic content and skills are the most important things to be learned.

The first word in Academic Achievement Discourse tells us a great deal about what is valued in learning: academics. First and foremost in Academic Achievement Discourse is an emphasis on academic content (literature, science, and math) and academic skills (reading, writing, problem solving, and critical thinking). These are the areas, after all, that students are required to be proficient in by the year 2014 and that schools are expected to make adequate yearly progress on from year to year as part of the NCLB law. One could also be fairly confident in adding IT (information technology, including computer skills) to this pantheon.

Given an important but secondary status in Academic Achievement Discourse is the study of history, the social sciences, and foreign languages. Content and skill areas that are generally considered to be outside Academic Achievement Discourse (unless achievement in these areas can be tied statistically to academic achievement) include music, drama, art, physical education, vocational education of different types (e.g., auto mechanics, food preparation), and “life skills” (e.g., parenting skills or family studies, counseling and guidance, personal care, and health education). Thus, it is more important in the Academic Achievement Discourse to learn the vocabulary words for the sport of soccer than to be able to play soccer. It is more important to generate a timeline of the Civil War than to be able to dramatize significant events in that war. It is more important to know the names of the 206 bones in a human being than it is to know how to take care of those bones in one's own personal life through proper diet and exercise.

Assumption #2: Measurement of achievement occurs through grades and standardized testing.

The second word in Academic Achievement Discourse, achievement, tells us how educators want students to engage in academic content and skills. Educators want students to achieve in these areas. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “achievement” as “the act of achieving, completing, or attaining by exertion; completion, accomplishment, successful performance” (Simpson & Weiner, 1991, p. 12). Thus, in Academic Achievement Discourse, there needs to be a successful completion, through effort, of the acquisition of academic content and skills.

How does Academic Achievement Discourse define whether achievement has taken place? Its most highly valued method of determining whether a successful completion has taken place for each student is quantitative in nature. In other words, numbers (in the context of grading and testing) are used to indicate whether a student has been successful or unsuccessful in mastering academic content and skills. A student who receives a 4.0 grade point average (where 4 equals an A) is deemed to have achieved, whereas a student who has a 1.0 grade point average is deemed not to have achieved. A student who takes a standardized test in reading and scores at a 99th percentile is regarded as an achiever, while a student who scores at a 14th percentile is seen as a nonachiever.

Assumption #3: Academic Achievement Discourse favors an academic curriculum that is rigorous, uniform, and required for all students.

One phrase frequently heard in Academic Achievement Discourse is “raising the bar.” This phrasing implies that academic requirements are being made tougher and that academic courses are being created that are more rigorous than they were previously (through the addition, for example, of Advanced Placement courses or an International Baccalaureate program). Academic Achievement Discourse promotes a situation in which students are required to take courses deemed more difficult; listen to longer lectures; study harder; have more homework than they did before; and engage in more reading, writing, and problem-solving activities (as opposed to activities viewed as softer, such as interviewing, role playing, and taking field trips).

Similarly, Academic Achievement Discourse proponents prefer that all students in a school take the same coursework and engage in that coursework in the same way—through traditional methods such as note taking, raising hands for questions, and reading the same textbooks. Academic Achievement Discourse generally does not favor engaging in individualized instruction, taking into consideration individual learning styles, or giving students significant choices in their selection of material and methods used in learning.

Assumption #4: Academic Achievement Discourse is primarily future-oriented.

Learning in Academic Achievement Discourse is not generally valued for its own sake—that is, because learning itself is intrinsically worthwhile and satisfying. Rather, learning takes place as a preparation for the future. Educators want students to achieve academically so that they will be ready for something that will take place later (e.g., challenges, college, or jobs). Sometimes it is the near future that is the focus. For example, a kindergarten teacher might say something like, “I'd prefer not to have my students do so many worksheets, but I have to get them ready for the rigors of 1st grade.” A word frequently used in early childhood education, “readiness,” is a key indicator that Academic Achievement Discourse is being used. At other times it is the more distant future that is evoked. When a politician says, for example, “The low test scores in our nation's schools indicate that we are not adequately preparing our students for the challenges of the 21st century,” he is gesturing toward the future-oriented dimension of Academic Achievement Discourse.

Assumption #5: Academic Achievement Discourse is comparative in nature.

There is a distinct preference in Academic Achievement Discourse for making comparisons between students, schools, school districts, states, or even countries, as opposed to looking at the changes that take place over time within each of these groups. So, for example, an individual student's performance on a standardized test will be compared to the performance of a group of students who took the test under equivalent circumstances at another time and place (a “normative” measure). This approach is given preference in Academic Achievement Discourse to looking at that student's individual improvement over time (an “ipsative” measure). On an organizational level, test scores are used in Academic Achievement Discourse to compare the performance of individual schools or school districts in a state. Increasingly, these results are being posted in community newspapers or on Web sites, such as, so that parents can fully engage in this aspect of Academic Achievement Discourse.

The ultimate expression of this component of Academic Achievement Discourse occurs when the math, science, and reading scores of different nations of the world are compared to each other. Politicians can then engage in Academic Achievement Discourse with a statement such as one that is included in the Executive Summary of the No Child Left Behind Act: “Our high school seniors trail students in Cyprus and South Africa on international math tests” (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 1).

Assumption #6: Academic Achievement Discourse bases its claims for validity on scientifically based research.

When promoting its cause, educators and others who engage in Academic Achievement Discourse usually state that their teaching strategies and interventions, as well as their benchmarks and assessments, are backed up by scientifically based research data. Similarly, when defending their position, the accusation is frequently made that programs favored by critics usually lack support from scientifically based research. This term generally refers to statistical results obtained by qualified researchers with PhD, EdD, or MD degrees that are published in peer-reviewed educational, psychological, and scientific journals. The No Child Left Behind Act contains more than 100 references to scientifically based research or some approximation of it, and provides an even more specific definition of this term by recommending randomized controlled trials as the gold standard of educational research (Olson, 2002). To quote from a U.S. Department of Education (2003) booklet:

For example, suppose you want to test, in a randomized controlled trial, whether a new math curriculum for 3rd graders is more effective than your school's existing math curriculum for 3rd graders. You would randomly assign a large number of 3rd grade students to either an intervention group, which uses the new curriculum, or to a control group, which uses the existing curriculum. You would then measure the math achievement of both groups over time. The difference in math achievement between the two groups would represent the effect of the new curriculum compared to the existing curriculum. (p. 1)

Assumption #7: Academic Achievement Discourse generally takes place in a top-down environment in which individuals with greater political power impose programs, procedures, and policy on individuals with less power.

Much of the impetus for Academic Achievement Discourse comes not from educators working in the classroom but from individuals with political power—for example, the president, governors, legislators, or CEOs of large corporations. Based on their speech acts (e.g., “our children are falling behind in the international marketplace of ideas”) and their written communications (e.g., laws such as NCLB), they create a climate in which educators must engage in Academic Achievement Discourse. Those who are most committed to this discourse in the field of education are, similarly, individuals in positions of power—for example, state education officials, superintendents, principals, and other administrators. They in turn create an environment that requires those under them (teachers) to speak the same language, especially when they are in the presence of these supervisors and administrators. Other sources of power that generate Academic Achievement Discourse are parents, school boards, and members of the mass media, who report national test results on a regular basis. At the bottom of this food chain are the students themselves, who have little power but must nevertheless engage in Academic Achievement Discourse in their own way. For example, one student might ask another, “Whad'ja get on yesterday's test?”

Assumption #8: The bottom line in Academic Achievement Discourse hinges on grades, test scores, and ultimately, money.

In terms of education, the bottom line in Academic Achievement Discourse is based on grades and test scores. Students may not be permitted to graduate from high school, for example, if they are unable to maintain a specific grade point average or pass a highstakes graduation test. Similarly, schools can be penalized under the NCLB law if they fail to make adequate yearly progress in student proficiency on standardized test scores.

At a deeper level, however, it becomes apparent that the ultimate desired outcome of Academic Achievement Discourse is something like the following scenario: to have a student earn a 4.0 (or higher) grade point average on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses in high school; achieve a perfect 2400 score on the SAT; enter a prestigious college or university such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford; achieve the highest grades there; graduate summa cum laude; achieve the highest scores on a graduate or professional school test; attend a prestigious law school, medical school, business school, or other postgraduate institution; and then (and here comes the payoff) take the most lucrative positions in society—lawyer, doctor, business executive, research scientist, and so on.

This type of scenario represents the pinnacle of success in our corporate-influenced culture. However, as we will see in the next chapter, there are other aims of education that may be equal or superior in value to the goals of Academic Achievement Discourse.

A History of Academic Achievement Discourse

Although any history of Academic Achievement Discourse is bound to be somewhat subjective in its selection of key events, I believe it is possible to construct a general outline of a movement toward increasing engagement by U.S. educators in Academic Achievement Discourse (see Figure 1.1). If I were to pick a single event that precipitated Academic Achievement Discourse in the history of U.S. education, I would choose the recommendations of the Committee on Secondary School Studies (also known as the Committee of Ten) that were published in 1893. This group, created by the National Education Association and chaired by the president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, was convened in an attempt to bring order into an increasingly diverse student population and an increasingly disparate curriculum that had unfolded during the 19th century in America. Especially important was the question of how much the curriculum should reflect the needs of college-bound students as opposed to “terminal” students—that is, those who would not go on to college. The Committee of Ten acknowledged the differing needs of students who were college bound and those who were not, but ultimately recommended that both groups take an academic curriculum based almost entirely on a college preparatory format (Pulliam & Van Patten, 1998). In this way, academic achievement was made the cornerstone of U.S. education, a bias that continues to the present day.

Figure 1.1. Key Events in the History of Academic Achievement Discourse

Also significant to the early development of Academic Achievement Discourse was the creation and implementation of standardized testing programs in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. At the forefront of this movement was one of the world's first educational psychologists, Edward L. Thorndike. According to David Berliner (1993): “Thorndike promoted the belief that science and only science would save education. Indeed, he believed it would save all of society. His belief was that quantitative experiments were to be preferred over qualitative, clinical, or naturalistic observation” (p. 64). In 1909, Thorndike developed the first standardized achievement test popularly used in the public schools: the Thorndike Handwriting Scale. Another key event was the creation of the first intelligence test in 1905 by Alfred Binet. In 1916, Stanford professor Lewis Terman published a revised edition of the Binet-Simon Scale known as the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, and adopted German psychologist William Stern's suggestion to create a single intelligence quotient for the test. In this way, the I.Q. score was born. In May 1917, Terman and others developed the first mass intelligence tests given to millions of U.S. military recruits serving in World War I (see Gould, 1996). In 1919, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Terman a grant to develop a national intelligence test for children. Within a year, 400,000 tests were available for use in public elementary schools. In 1923, Terman developed the Stanford Achievement Test, the first of several comprehensive national achievement tests, including the Metropolitan Achievement Test published in 1932 and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 1935. These tests were given to tens of millions of school children over the next 80 years. Thorndike and Terman thereby unleashed the mass use of standardized tests that were to become the dynamic force behind Academic Achievement Discourse in the United States.

Fast forward to 1955, when an Austrian émigré named Rudolf Flesch published the national best-seller, Why Johnny Can't Read, which assailed the use of basal readers such as the Dick and Jane series and criticized the “whole word” or “look-say” method of reading instruction (Flesch, 1986). Flesch's book promoted the idea of phonics as the preferred method of teaching reading. As part of his critique, Flesch claimed that U.S. school children advanced more slowly than European school children in reading, and that the failure of public schools to educate children was a threat to democracy. Flesch thereby engaged in one of the first examples of Academic Achievement Discourse to be picked up by the newly established mass media empire, and it turned into a national debate on how to educate our children. Flesch articulated several assumptions of Academic Achievement Discourse in his crusade, including prioritizing reading over other school subjects, comparing U.S. students' academic performance to that of students in other countries, and connecting reading failure with a potential future event: the deterioration of democratic institutions.

These national concerns about the poor performance of U.S. school children were amplified considerably on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into outer space. The next month, the picture of the inventor of the hydrogen bomb, U.S. scientist Edward Teller, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and Teller warned in the accompanying article: “Many people are afraid we will be attacked by Russia. I am not free of such worry. But I do not think this is the most probable way in which they will defeat us. They will advance so fast in science and leave us so far behind that their way of doing things will be the way, and there will be nothing we can do about it” (“Knowledge Is Power,” 1957).

Congress responded to Sputnik in 1958 by passing the National Defense Education Act, which authorized $887 million over four years for college loans, scholarships, equipment, and research in the areas of math, science, and foreign languages (Bruccoli & Layman, 1994). An important result of the Russian space effort and the U.S. response was that math and science education joined reading instruction as the most valued and most highly funded subjects in schools across the United States.

As part of President Johnson's War on Poverty in the socially conscious 1960s, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which became the largest single act for K–12 education by the federal government ever instituted in the United States. It has provided billions of dollars of assistance annually over the past 40 years to poor schools, communities, and children, and has become the granddaddy of all subsequent federal programs in education, including Head Start, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), and the No Child Left Behind Act. The effect of this law was to vastly expand the role of the federal government in education and also to expand the scope of state educational bureaucracies in administering federal funds.

Once the federal government had assumed a major role in administering funds to schools, it was only a short jump to the development of a national assessment system that could monitor the effectiveness of government intervention. In 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the Nation's Report Card,” was first established with financial support provided by the Carnegie Foundation and other private sources, as well as by the federal government. The federal government later assumed full responsibility for its funding and administration (Vinovskis, 1998). The National Assessment of Educational Progress tested students ages 9, 13, and 17 in reading, mathematics, and science achievement. It was not long after this that the term “accountability” entered the discourse of educators. Wesleyan University professor Richard Ohmann (2000) explained:

In June 1970 “accountability” first showed up in the Education Index, the main general database for education, with reference to teaching. The Library of Congress introduced “educational accountability” as a subject heading two years later. A keyword search at the library I use (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) turned up 585 book titles, only 6 of them predating 1970 and none of those 6 about education. In 1970, Every Kid a Winner: Accountability in Education, by education professor Leon M. Lessinger, appeared; the book was soon characterized as the “bible of accountability.” Over the next five years, dozens of books were published with titles such as Accountability and Reading Instruction; Accountability and the Community College; Accountability for Educational Results; Accountability for Teachers and School Administrators.... Accountability had abruptly become an established idea joined at the hip to education, a recognized field of study, a movement.

In the late 1970s, the “back to basics” movement, initially established to counter the “negative” effects (i.e., falling test scores) of the open education movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, moved the national education agenda even closer to engagement with academic skills and higher academic standards. Another key event in the history of Academic Achievement Discourse was initiated in 1981, when President Reagan and Secretary of Education Terrell Bell convened the National Commission on Excellence in Education to investigate the quality of education in America's schools. The commission's 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, excoriated U.S. schools for their mediocre performance and recommended, among other things, the establishment of a common core curriculum and national academic standards. It declared that “all, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 1). Education historian Diane Ravitch (2003b) interpreted this phrase as follows:

Among educators, this message was translated to mean, “All children can learn.” This earnest maxim repudiated the long-established practice of separating children into different programs on the basis of their likelihood of going to college. “All children can learn” changed the rules of the game in American education; it shifted the debate from discussions about access and resources to discussion about results. It was no longer enough to provide equal facilities; it became necessary to justify programs and expenditures on the basis of whether students made genuine gains. The rhetoric and philosophy of “all children can learn” had a large impact on education issues, as it became increasingly clear that educators needed not only to set higher expectations, but also to devise methods and incentives to get almost all students to learn more and to exert greater effort. After Risk, every state and school district scrutinized its standards and curricula, changed high school graduation requirements, and insisted that students take more courses in academic subjects. (p. 38)

The 1990s saw the enactment into law of many of the recommendations for academic excellence that had been gaining ground during the previous two decades. In 1989, President Bush convened the nation's governors for the first National Education Summit. The governors established six objectives for educational improvement (dubbed America 2000) that were to be reached by the year 2000, including improving high school graduation rates to 90 percent; ensuring that students in grades 4, 8, and 12 demonstrated competency in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and making the U.S. number one in the world in math and science achievement. A national agenda was finally being fashioned for U.S. students based on tougher academic requirements. In 1990, the National Assessment of Educational Progress began to include state-by-state testing (a move that was initially opposed in 1968 by several educational organizations that feared that the results would be misused), thereby providing a more sophisticated means of monitoring academic progress and a way to compare performances of the 50 states with regard to these new objectives. In 1994, President Clinton signed into law a version of America 2000 called the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which established a commission to draw up national standards for academic achievement. That same year, Congress also passed the Improving America's School's Act, which required the states to develop performance standards, create assessments that were aligned to those standards, and establish benchmarks for improvement (known as adequate yearly progress). Legislative activity in the 1990s thereby created the national framework that ultimately led to the crowning achievement of Academic Achievement Discourse, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Negative Consequences of Academic Achievement Discourse

At this point in the chapter, some readers may be thinking: “I don't understand. I've always believed that academic achievement is a good thing! Don't we want our students to work hard, learn a lot, get good grades, and make something of themselves in life?” My answer is: “Of course we do.” The problem is that when the dialogue in education becomes limited to the narrow framework of grades, test scores, and scientifically based research, then a great deal of what education is about gets left behind. Moreover, the excessive concentration on developing uniform standards, implementing a rigorous curriculum, and raising test scores has several negative consequences that are creating more harm to students and teachers than benefits. What follows are some of the most serious negative consequences of Academic Achievement Discourse.

Negative Consequence #1: Academic Achievement Discourse results in a neglect of areas of the curriculum that are part of a well-rounded education students need in order to experience success and fulfillment in life.

Because the focus of Academic Achievement Discourse is on academics, vocational education, for example, is given less emphasis, even though many students will leave school and ultimately make their livelihood from vocational pursuits. Because the focus in academics is primarily on core academic subjects (reading, writing, mathematics, and science), those parts of the curriculum that are considered on the periphery (art, music, physical education, etc.) are neglected. A recent report commissioned by the Council for Basic Education, for example, found that the schools are becoming more committed to the core academic areas of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and secondary school social studies, and less committed to the arts, foreign languages, and elementary social studies, with the greatest erosion of the curriculum coming from schools with a high minority population (Von Zastrow & Janc, 2004).

Negative Consequence #2: Academic Achievement Discourse results in a neglect of positive instructional interventions that cannot be validated by scientifically based research data.

As noted above in the discussion of assumptions, Academic Achievement Discourse favors the adoption of educational programs that can be measured through random controlled trials and other so-called rigorous research methods. Thus, educational techniques and strategies that might work well for individual students, that are used by creative teachers on the spur of the moment to meet a specific teaching challenge, or that are best measured through qualitative research methods, cannot be considered valid because these approaches cannot be measured through random controlled trials or similar quantitative methods. It appears that the programs most likely to receive support and validation from scientifically based research data are those that actually look very much like the tests that are going to be used to validate them. Thus, for example, Direct Instruction (DI) has proved to be one of the instructional models with the greatest support from scientifically based research data. With DI, the teacher delivers carefully scripted lesson plans to students that break material down into small segments that need to be mastered before students move on. The use of worksheets containing problems that are similar to those that will be on the validating achievement tests suggests that Direct Instruction succeeds because it constitutes scripted preparation for those very same validating research instruments.

Instructional approaches that may result in students developing positive attitudes, life skills, or complex concepts that are not reflected in achievement test results will be less likely to receive funding and support. Reading expert Gerald Coles (2003), for example, commenting on the Reading First provisions of the NCLB Act, wrote: “With ‘Reading First’ a McCarthyist blacklist has emerged. Applicants for the legislation's funds have quickly learned which blacklisted concepts, terminology, publications, and scholars to avoid. Educators ... feel compelled to comply because educational funding is scarce” (para. 9).

Negative Consequence #3: Academic Achievement Discourse encourages teaching to the test.

Because achievement tests are made the sole or primary measure of student and school improvement in Academic Achievement Discourse, teachers turn their attention toward test preparation skills and away from learning for its own sake. The independent research body FairTest (2004) concluded: “‘Teaching to the test’ narrows the curriculum and forces teachers and students to concentrate on memorizing isolated facts” (p. 1). Instead of creating learning environments in which students are free to explore new concepts and problems in creative and unpredictable ways, students must now go through learning experiences that are essentially replicas of test conditions. One New York teacher reported: “‘We start preparing them in September. When I go through a lesson, I always connect it to what's in the exam. We know there's always letter-writing, so we give more of that. We know there's nonfiction, so we make sure we do it before the test.’ When she gives a writing assignment, she now sets a timer for 10 minutes to simulate testing conditions” (Winerip, 2005, p. B11). Increasingly, school districts are employing the services of test preparation consultants who can help coach teachers in ways to boost test scores.

Negative Consequence #4: Academic Achievement Discourse encourages student cheating and plagiarism.

Because success in school is tied so heavily to just a few highstakes tests given during the year, students use test-taking strategies that are not included as part of the test-preparation program. That is, they learn to cheat and plagiarize. In a survey conducted by Who's Who Among American High School Students, 80 percent of these high-achieving scholars said that they had cheated in school at least once. “Crib sheets and copying answers are nothing new,” observed Carolyn Kleiner and Mary Lord (1999). “What's changed, experts maintain, is the scope of the problem: the technology that opens new avenues to cheat, students' boldness in using it, and the erosion of conscience at every level of education” (p. 54).

Negative Consequence #5: Academic Achievement Discourse encourages manipulation of test results by teachers and administrators.

Because teachers, administrators, and state education officials are pressured into producing high test results to meet state and federal requirements, they begin creatively massaging the statistics and in some cases engage in outright cheating themselves. Educational statisticians now speak regularly of “the Lake Wobegon” effect (based on Garrison Keillor's mythical town of Lake Wobegon, “where all the children are above average”), a situation in which all states report above-average achievement data, even though this is statistically impossible. In the Houston school system, dropouts were conveniently left out of a report on improved Houston achievement test results. “The Houston school district reported a citywide dropout rate of 1.5 percent. But educators and experts 60 Minutes [the CBS television news program] checked with put Houston's true dropout rate somewhere between 25 and 50 percent” (CBS News, 2004, para. 14). In Illinois, a study by economics professor Steven Leavitt suggested that serious cases of teacher or principal cheating occurred in 5 percent of elementary classrooms in the Chicago School District (Leavitt & Dubner, 2005).

Negative Consequence #6: Academic Achievement Discourse encourages the student use of illegal substances as performance aids.

In order to cope with the mandate of tougher and more rigorous courses and school requirements, students are increasingly turning to stimulant drugs and other performance enhancers to help them stay alert while doing their homework or studying for an exam. In some cases, students who have been legitimately prescribed Ritalin, Adderall, or other psychostimulants for ADD/ADHD are giving or selling them to their peers for an “academic boost.” “It's like mental steroids,” said Becky Beacom, manager of health education at the Palo Alto [California] Medical Foundation. “Students think they need that extra edge to get into college.” Seven percent of 1,304 Palo Alto high school students surveyed said they had used such substances without a prescription at least once. “‘It's like caffeine or Red Bull,’ said a Los Altos [California] high school senior who said his friend gives him Adderall to help him focus on finals or major papers. ‘It's like any other pick-me-up’” (Patel, 2005). Unfortunately, these drugs come with dangers—especially to those for whom the drug has not been prescribed—including addiction, tics, and in rare instances, psychoses.

Negative Consequence #7: Academic Achievement Discourse transfers control of the curriculum away from educators in the classroom and toward the organizations that set the standards and exams.

Educators are the experts in teaching and learning, not politicians, government officials, or standardized test companies. Unfortunately, the increasing emphasis on using achievement tests to measure school improvement means that the power to control the structure and flow of learning is being handed over to bureaucrats who have little understanding of the process of teaching and learning. One middle school teacher who was attempting to implement an integrated curriculum in his school registered his shock when told that the school would have to spend less instructional time on social studies and science in the curriculum.

As a social studies teacher and member of an 8th grade interdisciplinary team, I could not believe what I was hearing. Yet, as the principal proceeded to explain to our team why we needed to add more time to English and mathematics at the expense of social studies and science, I could begrudgingly understand her logic: A high percentage of our students had failed previous administrations of our state's high-stakes test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) ... all students must pass the English and mathematics sections of the MCAS as a requirement for high school graduation. Therefore, more instructional time should be devoted to English and mathematics, and less instructional time should be spent on subjects such as social studies and science that are tested but do not have a MCAS passing score requirement for high school graduation. (Vogler, 2003, p. 5)

Negative Consequence #8: Academic Achievement Discourse produces harmful levels of stress in teachers and students.

As students are subjected to more and more pressure from harder course requirements, more homework, and test anxiety, those who are particularly vulnerable to stress develop stress-related symptoms such as sleep disturbances, irritability, difficulty concentrating, headaches or stomachaches, aggressiveness, and learning problems. As one Texas teacher says of her state's high-stakes test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS): “Practice TAKS tests are a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. I've seen 8-year-olds suffering from sleep deprivation due to stress and test anxiety” (Reyher, 2005, para. 5). Stanford professor Denis Clark Pope (2003) followed several high-achieving high school students and discovered the same thing: “To keep up her grades, Eve sleeps just two or three hours a night and lives in a constant state of stress. Kevin faces anxiety and frustration as he attempts to balance the high expectations of his father with his own desire ‘to have a life’ outside of school.... Both Teresa and Roberto resort to drastic actions when they worry they will not maintain the grades they need for future careers” (p. 3).

Forced to teach under conditions not of their own choosing and faced with sanctions for noncompliance with tougher requirements, teachers also undergo stress symptoms, and many eventually burn out and leave teaching. A 1996 survey by the National Education Association (Delisio, 2001) revealed that the majority of teachers who leave the profession do so because of stress-related factors. “I think stress levels [among teachers] are very high because expectations are high and demands are much higher,” said Albert Madden, a guidance counselor at Stevens Elementary School in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “Part of the reason teachers experience burnout symptoms is they do care so much and there is so much they can't control” (Delisio, 2001, para. 4).

Negative Consequence #9: Academic Achievement Discourse increases the chances that students will be retained from year to year and drop out before graduation.

Many students who are already in academic difficulty find their problems multiplied with the addition of more reading assignments, homework, and test pressure. As tests increasingly determine who can move on to the next grade level and eventually graduate, more and more students are being retained from grade to grade. As frustration mounts, there is increasing motivation for these individuals to drop out of school entirely. A recent Arizona State University study of the high-stakes pressures associated with the No Child Left Behind Act concluded that increases in testing pressures are not associated with improved academic achievement, but are associated with increased retention and dropout rates (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2005). Former teacher and education critic Susan Ohanian pointed to research findings on the relationship between retention and dropouts: “Hold ten students back a grade and only three will be around on graduation day; hold those students back twice and none will complete school. None. And African-American and Latino students are retained at twice the rate of white students” (Ohanian, 2003, p. 29).

Negative Consequence #10: Academic Achievement Discourse fails to take into consideration individual differences in cultural backgrounds, learning styles and rates, and other crucial factors in the lives of real children.

Academic Achievement Discourse favors a one-size-fits-all mentality when fashioning curricula, standards, and test requirements. This accords well with a belief in equity (all children can learn), but fails to consider the vast differences in students' backgrounds, preparedness for learning, social and emotional growth, learning abilities and difficulties, temperament, interests, and preferences. A Portland, Oregon, teacher reflected on how lock-step academic requirements failed to recognize the unique needs of her students:

Farida came to Roosevelt from a refugee camp in East Africa. Her heart is full of the deaths she witnessed—family members lined up and shot. She had never held a pen or pencil before coming to Roosevelt at age 15. As a newcomer to the United States, Farida was forced to take tests in English, a language she only just began learning three years ago. She needs time to recover, to learn to read and to write. She needs time.... Michael, at 17, reads at a 4th-grade level. Every paragraph holds undecipherable mysteries for his struggling mind. No wonder he gave up on the state standardized reading test, the test he has now tried and failed three times. (Ambrosio, 2003, para. 13–14)

Negative Consequence #11: Academic Achievement Discourse undercuts the intrinsic value of learning for its own sake.

Because Academic Achievement Discourse employs learning activities in the classroom that are designed to improve scores on academic achievement tests, the whole process of learning becomes devalued; students no longer learn simply for the joy of it but in order to obtain higher grades and test scores. As Kohn (1999) and others have pointed out, when students engage in classroom activities in order to be rewarded for them (with praise, gold stars, good grades, or high test scores), their intrinsic motivation suffers. Since intrinsic motivation is, arguably, the most important quality to be nurtured in the course of a child's education, the undermining of the joy of learning may be one of the most tragic unseen consequences of Academic Achievement Discourse (see, for example, Armstrong, 1991, 1998).

Negative Consequence #12: Academic Achievement Discourse results in the institution of developmentally inappropriate practices in the schools.

As a result of the focus on high standards, a tougher curriculum, and high-stakes tests, educators have begun to prepare students for the rigors of academia at earlier and earlier ages. Practices previously considered developmentally appropriate for 1st graders have now been pushed back to kindergarten. Increasingly, early childhood education is being invaded by homework, seat work, worksheets, computer time, a longer school day, less time for recess, and other developmentally inappropriate practices. (See Chapter 3 for a fuller discussion.) At the Malaika Early Learning Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, young children attend school from 9:00 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. “Twenty years ago, people would have said, ‘That's too much for a 4-year-old; we are pushing them too hard,’” Keona Jones, the director of the center, said. “Now we understand that to close the achievement gap, we have to have more minutes of instructional time” (Carr, 2004, para. 44).

In addition to impairing the quality of early childhood education programs, Academic Achievement Discourse has also resulted in an increase in the incidence of developmentally inappropriate practices at all levels of schooling, from preschool to high school. It will be the job of the rest of this book to examine exactly how this damage has occurred and detail what needs to be done to make sure that children and adolescents are educated not according to political agendas and testing timetables but according to their own natural patterns of growth and development. To begin this examination, we turn in the next chapter to an exploration of an alternative form of educational discourse, Human Development Discourse, which occurs far less frequently than it did in decades past but needs to be quickly resuscitated if our schools and our culture are going to have a chance of retaining their humanity.

For Further Study

  1. How often do you and your colleagues engage in Academic Achievement Discourse? Look at the following list of key words and phrases in Academic Achievement Discourse and notice during a typical school day how often these words are used in conversations or written communications with students, teachers, administrators, or parents.
    • Academic success or failure
    • Acceleration
    • Accountability
    • Adequate yearly (or sufficient) progress
    • Alignment (of curriculum) to standards
    • Annual assessments
    • Below or above grade level
    • Benchmarks
    • Calibrate
    • Closing the achievement gap
    • Consequences
    • Content
    • Data
    • Diagnostic instruments
    • Effectiveness
    • Excellence
    • Failure
    • Falling behind
    • Goals
    • High (or low) expectations
    • High-stakes tests
    • Implementation
    • Improvement
    • Low- or high-performing schools
    • Low- or high-performing students
    • Mandates
    • Mastery
    • Minimum requirements
    • Normative
    • Norms
    • Objectives
    • Outcomes
    • Percentiles
    • Performance
    • Progress
    • Raising the bar
    • Readiness
    • Remediation
    • Rewards
    • Rigorous curriculum
    • Rubrics
    • Sanctions
    • Scientifically based research
    • Standards
    • Targets
    Are there particular contexts in which these words are used more often (e.g., staff meetings, individualized education plan meetings, pre-test classroom situations)? Keep a one-day written record of every time a word or phrase on this list appears in your conversations or in communications that you've written or read. Discuss the results with colleagues. Add any words or phrases not found on the list that you believe also constitute a part of Academic Achievement Discourse.
  2. Discuss with your colleagues which particular negative consequences of Academic Achievement Discourse described in this chapter apply most to your own school setting. Give concrete examples from your school day. What other negative consequences not specifically mentioned in this chapter seem to occur in your school setting as a result of Academic Achievement Discourse?
  3. In your opinion, do the positive consequences of Academic Achievement Discourse outweigh the negative consequences, or vice versa? Discuss with colleagues the pluses and minuses of increased national emphasis on testing, a rigorous curriculum, uniform standards, No Child Left Behind, graduation requirements, and other similar educational trends. Do you see your own school moving closer to or farther away from these kinds of practices?
  4. Investigate the history of Academic Achievement Discourse by looking up the history of education in an encyclopedia, online search engine, or other reference guide. Explore the roots of Academic Achievement Discourse in the development of Western civilization (e.g., during the Enlightenment, in the medieval university system, in ancient Rome and Greece).


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