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October 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 2

Letter from Washington / All Children Can Learn

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Each education era has its symbols and mantras. In the 1950s, it was Sputnik, prompting President Eisenhower to enact the National Defense Education Act, establishing the first federal education role in modern times.
In the 1960s, LBJ proclaimed a War on Poverty with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as its centerpiece. In the 1970s, President Ford signed (somewhat reluctantly) Public Law 94-142—revolutionary legislation that made special education a right, not a privilege.
Not to be outdone, in the 1980s, Ernie Boyer wistfully wished that the Japanese would put a Toyota in orbit so as to encourage a more ambitious federal role in education (which Jimmy Carter secured by taking the “E” out of HEW and creating a separate department of education). By the 1990s, the reform mantra had become, All children can learn.
What are we to make of the claim that all children can learn? Is it just one more slogan? As an empirical statement, it either means too much or too little. Of course all children can learn, but the tough questions are, What can they learn, when can they learn it, and what format is best suited to learning.
Does anyone really believe that all children can learn to play the violin? Japan's Dr. Suzuki did, although few could ever play well enough to perform Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, the Violin Concerto in D Major. (When it was first performed in the 19th century, it was thought to be beyond the reach of all but the most talented. It was featured in the Chinese film Together, the story of a child prodigy's trials and tribulations.)
Neither can all children master differential equations or read Shakespeare fluently. But that's the point. All children can learn something, most can learn a good deal (certainly more than most do now), and some can learn to very high levels indeed.
But if children have different abilities, it is nonetheless true that in the global economy all children must be educated to high levels—if not in differential equations, at least in algebra and plane geometry. (According to a College Board study, the last two courses—if taken and completed successfully—have high predictive power. Students of all regions, races, and ethnic groups who complete algebra and geometry are equally likely to go to college.)
As it happens, there is some empirical evidence to draw on. Examples of mass education from Japan, France, and the United States are instructive. Japanese standards and test scores are among the highest in the world. Interestingly, Japanese students cluster around the mean, with few outliers. In layman's language, that means that nearly everyone does well. History is destiny in Japan as elsewhere, and Japanese social traditions are reflected in their schools. In the 19th century, when Perry opened Japan to the West, the country developed elite schools for hard-charging boys. When General MacArthur insisted on mass education, the Japanese had no choice but to agree, but they would not lower their standards.
The Japanese emphasize hard work and hustle. Not surprisingly, Japanese public opinion polls reflect the view that school is too easy and that Japanese students are not learning enough. (By contrast, U.S. polls reveal that our students think they know more than they do—scientific evidence that ignorance is bliss.)
By contrast, the French offer a demanding education to anyone with the energy and enterprise to seize it. The French believe in hard work and talent. Indeed, the French baccalaureate degree is so finely calibrated and so uniform that transcripts of record are not maintained; it is enough to know whether a student's Bac was earned bien, assez bien, or trés bien. The French system might be best described as “build it and they will come.”
And then there is the U.S. system. To cite only three thoughtful books—The One Best System, The Shopping Mall High School, and Horace's Compromise—U.S. schools share a common thread. They emphasize talent and ability as the keys to academic success. Only in athletics does effort really count, and there talent tells, too. But Americans now recognize that we ask too little of ourselves and must redress the balance. We can draw creatively on our Japanese and French compatriots. In doing so, the most reasonable interpretation of the mantra, All children can learn, then, is as a normative proposition, an ethical statement about how the world should be, not how it is. This may explain why, by the turn of the 21st century, the mantra has become the rallying cry, No child left behind.

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