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January 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 1

Balance in the Balance

Schools need accountability systems that focus on more than basic skills to produce the outcomes necessary for success in work and life.

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Americans have long reflected on public education's purposes. Mostly, we've embraced a balanced set of goals that includes more than basic academic skills. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin recommended that public schools emphasize physical fitness because "exercise invigorates the soul as well as the body." As for academics, Franklin thought history particularly important, where "questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, will naturally arise." He believed students should learn logic and reasoning through debates about historical and current controversies (1749/1931).
  • To give citizens the information they need.
  • To enable citizens to calculate for themselves and to express their ideas and preserve their contracts and accounts in writing.
  • To improve, by reading, their morals and their mental faculties.
  • To understand their duties to their neighbors and country.
  • To know their rights; to choose with discretion their elected representatives and monitor their conduct with diligence, candor, and judgment.
  • To observe their social relations with intelligence and faithfulness.
Nineteenth-century educators Horace Mann and John Pierce—the first school superintendents of Massachusetts and Michigan, respectively—proclaimed similarly varied goals. Like Jefferson, they emphasized preparing voters to exercise wise judgment (Mann, 1848; Tyack & James, 1987). Twentieth-century reports—such as those by the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (1918), the Committee on Social-Economic Goals of America (1937), and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (1958)—likewise rejected holding schools accountable for basic skills alone. More recently, scholars like John Goodlad (1979) concluded that public education should educate the whole child and avoid rote teaching that may raise test scores but fail to produce healthy, fulfilled, and participating citizens.
  • Basic academic skills: in reading, writing, math, science, history, civics, geography, and a foreign language.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving: analyzing information, applying ideas to new situations, and developing knowledge using computers.
  • Social skills and work ethic: communication skills, personal responsibility, and getting along with others from varied backgrounds.
  • Citizenship: public ethics; knowing how government works; and participating by voting, volunteering, and becoming active in community life.
  • Physical health: good habits of exercise and nutrition.
  • Emotional health: self-confidence, respect for others, and the ability to resist peer pressure to engage in irresponsible personal behavior.
  • The arts and literature: participation in and appreciation of musical, visual, and performing arts as well as a love of literature.
  • Preparation for skilled employment: qualification for skilled employment for students not pursuing college education.
We recently surveyed a random sample of adults (1,297), school board members (377), and state legislators (191), asking respondents to weight each of the eight goals by the relative importance each should have in a comprehensive accountability system (see fig. 1). Although respondents considered basic skills more important than any other single goal, they didn't consider them more important than all other goals combined. If we combine the two academic categories—basic skills and critical thinking—these still have more importance (in combined percentage) than any other goal but not more importance than all other goals. So an accountability system that creates incentives that give too much importance to academic skills is not faithful to the education goals of Americans either today or in the past.

Figure 1. Which Education Goals Are Important?

Balance in the Balance-table


General public

School board members

State legislators

Basic academic skills192223
Critical thinking151818
Social skills and work ethic141211
Physical health1299
Emotional health1187
The arts and literature899
Preparation for skilled employment111111
Note: A random sample of three groups weighted these eight goals by the importance each should carry in school accountability measures.

This is the tragedy of contemporary education policy. Schools—especially those serving disadvantaged students—are creating more time for score-boosting drills in math and reading by reducing time in social studies, physical education, and the arts. The same accountability pressures lead schools to focus on easily tested basic skills in math and reading to the detriment of equally important critical-thinking skills.
Some defenders of current accountability systems argue that basic skills are fundamental and that unless students acquire these, they will be unable to reach any other goal. But with respect to some goals, this theory makes no sense. For example, if a decline in physical education contributes to an epidemic of diabetes among low-income minority graduates by raising the incidence of obesity, then surely schools should be held accountable for both academics and physical fitness. Schools should not have incentives to cut physical education to make room for more remedial work in math.
If we want students to develop specific habits—of democratic citizenship, for example—we should hold schools directly accountable for teaching these habits. Likewise, if we want students to become good critical thinkers, we need to teach critical-thinking skills rather than assume that students need to learn basic skills before they can engage in higher-order thinking. Success in basic academics does not necessarily lead to success in more complex skills, as evidenced by the fact that scores are now rising faster on state tests, which tend to emphasize basic skills, than on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which includes some items requiring more analytic thinking (Lee, 2006). This disparity suggests that schools should be held accountable for teaching both kinds of skills simultaneously.

Promoting a Balanced Curriculum

Holding schools accountable for each of the eight goal areas would create incentives for teaching a balanced curriculum. As part of the academic curriculum in reading, math, science, and history, schools should teach critical thinking, social skills, a work ethic, and civic responsibility. A balanced curriculum should be concerned not only with what subjects schools teach, but also with how schools teach them. Integrated project-based teaching should replace drill-and-practice techniques that aim to cover basic skills but leave students bored and without motivation to apply these skills to the lifelong tasks that really matter.
This is not a new idea. Reporting to the Massachusetts legislature, Horace Mann (1838) denounced the phonics-based approach (with "letters, taken separately . . . taught before words"), insisting that reading depends more on motivation than mechanics. He concluded that "knowledge cannot be poured into a child's mind. The pupil . . . is not a passive recipient, but an active, voluntary agent." Mann noted that his observations would likely surprise those readers who, like many policymakers today, falsely assumed that learning is a linear process in which the mechanical precedes the mental.
What if schools were held accountable, for example, not for whether students could recite historical facts, but for whether they actually registered and voted as young adults? This would establish incentives for creating a curriculum that balanced history instruction with service learning projects, mock elections, and classroom debates of contemporary and controversial policy—just as Benjamin Franklin urged.

Data on the Whole Child

Because existing accountability systems distort schooling by holding educators accountable solely for basic skills, few agencies have collected data on other important outcomes. Nevertheless, we can easily develop systems to detect whether the United States is moving toward success on broader education goals. Several surveys—such as the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, the Current Population Survey of the Census, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey of the National Center for Health Statistics, and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth of the National Center for Education Statistics—give us a great deal of good information.
These data show whether adolescents and young adults engage in regular physical exercise, are overweight or obese, attend museums or play musical instruments, read for pleasure, register and vote, participate in community organizations, contribute to charity, are law-abiding, enroll in higher education, or follow safe sexual practices. We could use this information to create incentives for schools to promote positive behaviors in each goal area.
Back in the 1960s, when NAEP was first designed, policymakers recognized that it made more sense to measure outcomes after schooling was completed—for only then can we know whether schools have been effective. So NAEP originally sampled young adults (at about age 26). In addition, NAEP tested 17-year-olds—even those who had left school—because its creators recognized that adolescent samples need to include more than just those adolescents taking tests in school (Hazlett, 1974; Jones, 1996). Testing only youth still in school, an approach we use today, generates higher scores if struggling students don't take the test and drop out instead. NAEP's original test for citizenship also included behavioral measures. Trained observers recorded and evaluated students' behaviors as they worked in problem-solving teams (Dochterman, 1970).
These crucial characteristics of NAEP—sampling young adults, sampling 17-year-olds both in and out of school, and including behavioral assessments—were dropped in the 1970s to save money. Our current accountability systems distort curriculums by overemphasizing basic skills—not because we don't know any better, but because we want accountability on the cheap.

What Schools and States Could Do

Measuring basic skills at a national or state level in core subjects should include assessing a sample of 17-year-olds, both in and out of school, in all academic subjects. Moreover, a balanced assessment system should include tests of critical thinking. Although measuring critical-thinking skills usually requires constructed responses in which students produce original work, multiple-choice questions can also assess such skills—for example, by asking youths to interpret a literary character's motivation by choosing from several alternatives.
NAEP includes some items like this. The Rainbow Project (Sternberg et al., 2004) has developed a test of analytical, practical, and creative skills to supplement college admissions tests. Examples of test items include determining the meanings of artificial words embedded in a paragraph, picking the correct missing option in a figural matrix, giving the best solution to an everyday problem in the life of an adolescent, and navigating effectively through an area on a map.
Some institutions of higher education currently use the newly developed Collegiate Learning Assessment to assess critical thinking (Council for Aid to Education, n.d.). This assessment engages students in a real-life activity by asking them to prepare a memo or policy recommendation using supplied documents and to support, oppose, or critique a statement through a well-articulated and well-reasoned response. Neither the Rainbow nor Collegiate Learning assessments are now given to representative samples of 17-year-olds or young adults, but educators could expand and adapt the sampling frames for use with these populations.
Employer surveys often report on whether young workers possess various traits, such as communication skills, personal responsibility, and the ability to work with and get along with others from different backgrounds (National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, 1994). Assessments that measure workplace readiness typically include hypothetical situational questions that measure respondents' work ethic and social skills (see ACT'sWorkKeys, 2007). States could expand such surveys to produce data that reflect the characteristics of each state's young adult workforce to see whether schools are effectively preparing students for skilled employment.
NAEP's early designers were correct in their assumption that the effectiveness of schooling could best be measured at the end of that process. Education is cumulative; skills build on prior skills. Thus, whether students leave high school with adequate citizenship skills doesn't just reflect the quality of their classes in the senior year of high school, but rather all school, family, and community effects leading up to and including that senior year. It is true that schools change; practices followed when a graduate was in elementary or middle school may no longer be followed today. Accountability systems must take into account whether practices that produce good or bad long-term outcomes are still in use. As difficult as it might be to develop, an effective accountability system needs to measure this cumulative effect of education.
But is it reasonable to hold schools accountable for skills and behaviors that families and communities also contribute to building? There is no other alternative. Just as families, as well as schools, develop children's literacy, so do they jointly develop children's citizenship. It is as reasonable to hold schools accountable for developing citizenship as it is to hold them accountable for teaching reading.
In recent years, states have rapidly moved to develop student-identifier systems that can help trace youth outcomes back to the schools and classrooms that educated these young adults (Data Quality Campaign, 2006). Systems like these might clarify why students who took social studies in one middle school, for example, systematically register and vote at higher rates than demographically similar students who took social studies in another.
Even in the absence of permanent student identifiers, some districts have contracted with firms, such as LifeTrack Services, to survey recent high school graduates (see www.lifetrack-services.com for the Advanced Graduate Survey). Data collected typically reveal students' thoughts about how well their school prepared them for the workforce, how safe their school was, how useful the high school counseling services were, and so on. Surveys also track graduates' current employment status. Districts could expand these contracts to gather data on young adult behaviors that educators need to evaluate their work, such as whether students read for pleasure or exercise regularly.
If we had fully developed ways to measure young adult outcomes, we would still want more contemporaneous evidence of school effectiveness. Parents and policymakers should not have to wait 10–15 years to learn whether particular schools are effectively implementing a balanced curriculum. Balanced accountability requires school inspections that, in addition to examining test scores, evaluate whether schools engage in activities likely to generate balanced outcomes. In designing such inspections for accountability, U.S. policymakers can learn from the experience of the New Zealand inspectorate system (see Fiske & Ladd, 2000) and the British inspectorate system (see Wilson, 1996). Wilson has developed a system partially modeled on the British inspectorate called School Accountability for Learning and Teaching (SALT), which is now used in Rhode Island. SALT was much more nuanced, however, before the advent of NCLB and its pressure on schools to focus more exclusively on math and reading.
School inspections should focus on how well schools are providing a balanced curriculum. For example, are teachers employing cooperative learning strategies, not only to obtain better cognitive results, but also to develop the interpersonal skills that employers need and democratic society depends on? Are the arts, health, and physical education given their due during the school day? Are students expected to reflect on what they learn? Do teachers provide adequate feedback on students' written work? Until we regularly ask such questions and document how schools perform on those measures, schools will have few incentives to provide an adequate and complete education to future generations.

A Role for Principals, Too

Although it may be tempting to invest in test preparation materials that might raise proficiency percentages on tests of basic skills, these materials do not promote teaching styles that integrate multiple goal areas. Instead, to achieve a balanced set of outcomes, principals should invest in staff development that enhances teachers' capacity to integrate social skills with academic content. Principals could also promote using report cards that assess student progress in such areas as work ethic and classroom citizenship, making teachers more likely to incorporate the development of these skills into daily classroom activities.
But principals also have a public role. Highly respected in their communities, they can use parent and staff meetings to explain how narrow accountability systems, such as No Child Left Behind, can compromise their professional obligation to develop a balanced set of outcomes in all students. Although principals must continue to work within the framework of today's accountability regime, those who advocate holding schools accountable for a broader set of education goals can be confident that their views are consistent with the historic mission of U.S. public education, as well as with contemporary preferences of the general public, school board members, and state legislators.

ACT Inc. (2007). WorkKeys. Retrieved January 4, 2007, from www.act.org/workkeys/index.html

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education (Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, Bulletin No. 35). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Committee on Social-Economic Goals of America. (1937). Implications of social-economic goals for education. Washington, DC: National Education Association of the United States.

Council for Aid to Education. (n.d.). Collegiate learning assessment (CLA) Project. Retrieved January 3, 2007, fromwww.cae.org/content/pro_collegiate.htm

Data Quality Campaign. (2006). Using data to improve student achievement. Retrieved January 4, 2007, from www.dataqualitycampaign.org

Dochterman, C. L. (1970). National Assessment of Educational Progress: Summary report 2. Citizenship: National results—partial. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. (ERIC No. ED043098)

Fiske, E. B., & Ladd, H. F. (2000). When schools compete: A cautionary tale. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Franklin, B. (1749/1931). Proposals relating to the education of youth in Pensilvania(Facsimile Reprint). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Original work published 1749)

Goodlad, J. I. (1979). What schools are for. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Hazlett, J. A. (1974). A history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1963–1973: A look at some conflicting ideas and issues in contemporary American history. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas.

Jefferson, T., et al. (1818/1964). Report of the commissioners appointed to fix the site of the University of Virginia, etc. In R. J. Honeywell (Ed.), The educational work of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Russell and Russell. (Original work published 1818)

Jones, L. V. (1996). A history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and some questions about its future. Educational Researcher, 25(7), 15–22.

Lee, J. (2006). Tracking achievement gaps and assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps: An in-depth look into national and state reading and math outcome trends. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Mann, H. (1838). Second annual report of the Board of Education together with the second annual report of the Secretary of the Board. Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, State Printers.

Mann, H. (1848). Twelfth annual report of the Board of Education together with the twelfth annual report of the Secretary of the Board. Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, State Printers.

National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce. (1994). National employer survey. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Nie, N. H., Junn, J., & Stehlik-Barry, K. (1996). Education and democratic citizenship in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rockefeller Brothers Fund. (1958). The pursuit of excellence: Education and the future of America. The "Rockefeller Report" on education (Special Studies Project Report V). New York: Author.

Sternberg, R., Rainbow Project Collaborators, & University of Michigan Business School Project Collaborators. (2004). Theory-based university admissions testing for a new millennium. Educational Psychologist, 39(3), 185–198.

Tyack, D., & James, T. (1987). Law and the shaping of public education, 1785–1954. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wilson, T. A. (1996). Reaching for a better standard: English school inspection and the dilemma of accountability for American public schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

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