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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

On Setting the Highest Standards: A Conversation with Ralph Tyler

As ASCD celebrates its 50th anniversary, it's a good time to reflect with one of this century's most important educators. Considered the father of educational evaluation, Ralph Tyler was the principal architect of national assessment and was instrumental in creating the General Education Development (GED) Test. His book Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction is a classic in curriculum study. Behind the professional credentials, though, we find a man who has been deeply dedicated to service since his youth. In this interview with Educational Leadership, Tyler discusses his achievements and some of the fundamental values that have guided his life.
I am interested in how you grew up, how you became a teacher...
I was born in Chicago in 1902 while my father was attending a theological seminary. My father had been a doctor; but as he worked, he found many of the problems people brought to him were not really physical but spiritual. He decided he would do more good by being a minister than by being a doctor. So he gave up medicine, borrowed some additional money, and he and mother went to Chicago to get training at the Biblical Institute of Northwestern.
When I was 2, they moved back to Nebraska, and he had ministries in various small towns over the years. When I was 18, my family moved to Lincoln, but I stayed in Crete, where I graduated from Doane College in 1921.
I had always wanted to be a teacher because as a minister my father was in effect a teacher and my mother always was a teacher to me. So when I graduated, I was able to get a job teaching science and mathematics at a high school in Pierre, South Dakota.
There I encountered problems I had not seen before. We had the children of Indians and of migrant farm workers coming up from Mexico to work in the beet fields and also the children of Norwegian immigrants. We had a great variety of students, and I was figuring out how to teach them.
What attracted me to it most was what happened the first day. I went to the building, and two Indians came in and said, “Oh, you're here. We want to beat you up.”
I said, “Why do you want to beat me up?”
“We don't want to go to school,” they said.
“You can beat me up, but you still have to go to school. You want to play football, don't you?” I asked.
“Sure, that's the only reason we go to high school.”
“You can't play football unless you are eligible.”
“You mean to say if we beat you up we aren't going to be eligible? We'll still have to study?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then what the hell is the use of beating you up?”
I said, “I don't know. Let's go to the laboratory and get out the equipment. ” And as time went by, they got interested in going to school.
About two years ago at AERA [American Educational Research Association], a man came up after I had told this story, and he said, “I am the grandson of the man who wanted to beat you up.” And then he said, “You got him so interested in school that he became a teacher and now I am a teacher, too.”
This is a great story. It reminds me of Jesse Stuart's stories about teaching in Kentucky.
It was very exciting to me when I was going to get beaten up!
You were part of a family that was very much dedicated to ideals of service and progress.
Always after breakfast, Dad would read us portions of the scripture and say to each of us, “What does that mean? What can you do about it? What are you planning to do?” And the next day we would report what we had done, so that continually we were asked to apply what we were learning from the Bible and see that we had done something about it.
So you grew up with your actions determined by your beliefs.
You always have a real belief inside you. You have to be guided by something, but the question is what are you guided by? People don't just run aimlessly. They always have some kind of model in mind. The danger is they will try and be like other people—for example, Madeline Hunter—rather than themselves. You can't be Madeline Hunter. You should ask what she is doing that you would like to try—to develop an idea for yourself—that is compatible with what you are like.
One of the ways you've lived out those beliefs is in the ways you've helped others. Can you tell me a little about that?
Delores Harrell is the woman who owns this house; she takes care of me. I thought one of her nieces who graduated from high school ought to go to college. So I arranged for her to get into Northeastern University in Boston, which has a work-study program, and I paid what is required to get there. She graduated from there and worked for New England Mutual Life Insurance as an accountant during the college years in her cooperative program. Then she stayed on when she graduated, and now she is the group leader of the Massachusetts Social Security System.
Or I could tell you about John Goodlad. He had been working in a school for the emotionally disturbed in British Columbia. He came to Chicago to study further, and he got interested in curriculum, and I helped him become an assistant to the National Commission on Teacher Education. He worked in one of our research centers in the Atlanta area and went on from that. This is the kind of thing I do. I feel that my role is to try to find people and help them develop their talents more fully.
You still see yourself as a teacher, encouraging students.
That's what you should do: Encourage people to set the highest possible standards for themselves. Encourage them! I remember the difference in two families I was working with in Puerto Rico when the head of education in Puerto Rico was a graduate student of ours at the University of Chicago.
One mother said to her child, “We are poor, we have nothing, we are never going to get out of this damn situation except by your getting an education. Now you work hard.” And he achieved and became a great leader.
Another mother with the same sort of life said, “Don't try to do anything; you will never get anything out of it.” And that made a great difference in what he became.
The kind of encouragement you give helps people to discover what their potential is—helps them to get confidence they can do it, keeps them trying when they fail and fall down. This is the kind of thing you can do to help many people achieve something.
Let's talk about your own many professional achievements. For example, you were involved in the famous Eight Year Study. Just what was that about?
In the early 1930s, many people began to be concerned that college entrance requirements were not an effective basis for the high school curriculum. After the Depression began, suddenly the high schools began to fill up as there were no jobs available. But high school programs were not adapted to serving such a range of students.
The question was what the high schools should teach to be attractive to all these students. And after a good deal of discussion among educators, high school and college level, we agreed that for a period of eight years, high schools that chose to participate in the study could give their students what they thought was good for them and see how well they did in college without meeting college entrance requirements exactly. And we would compare their results with the results from high schools that did follow college entrance requirements.
That was the Eight Year Study. I was in charge of evaluation, and we followed the students up to college and on into occupations. We found that students from schools that adapted their programs to the needs of students did just as well in the colleges as those from schools that emphasized the usual college requirements—and they did better in their employment opportunities in general.
How did the participating schools adjust their programs?
They had to know their students. Suppose you had a group of students who came largely from Mexico, say, a first-generation group. What they were ready to do would depend on where they were. So the effort in the school would be to figure out what the students needed. This made the schools, rather than the state departments or the colleges, responsible for what the kids would learn in high school.
There's a parallel for that same kind of effort today—to meet the needs of the diverse youngsters entering our schools.
Of course. In the U.S., the states are responsible for education. In most states they turn it over to the local district, and yes, a good many local schools do adapt their programs to the needs of their students. There are others who try to follow strictly what they believe to be state requirements, but schools that are effective have to consider their students' needs and work with them. That's what good teachers do.
How would you defend your position about the centrality of human relationships in the face of E. D. Hirsch's ideas about cultural literacy or any other arguments based on the centrality of content or the disciplines?
I am not sure that Hirsch or anyone else would deny that content must be relevant to helping kids understand something. What do you remember in content? You remember things that help you with your work. The important thing is for children to discover content that is useful and meaningful to them.
You're familiar with the curriculum standards coming from the content area associations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and so forth. I've been encouraged that these frameworks support student interests and hands-on learning, active learning projects, and so forth.
Well, if you ask an expert what a child should learn about mathematics, you get a variety of suggestions. But a teacher has to sort out whether any of those things would be meaningful to her children. So the subject matter person cannot tell you, the teacher, what you should teach that child.
Subject matter people can suggest sources. But the subject matter expert can't suggest the knowledge and understanding, skills, attitudes, and interests that could be useful to the child. And, as the teacher, you have to work with the child to see what the child's needs are, in order to decipher what content may be helpful.
Do you see any value in these frameworks?
That is a question to ask the teachers, because I don't find them useful. I don't feel I need them, but perhaps I am too arrogant about that. The way to find out whether something is useful is to go to the consumer, which is what any good salesperson does. Do not ask the person who made it whether it is a good thing. Just find out from the consumer whether it is helpful.
My work has always been with particular schools. Now I am working at the University of Massachusetts with a coalition of schools working toward school improvement. We are working together—the parents, the teachers, and the children—in 93 individual schools in 39 school districts. There, when problems arise, the parents and teachers consider them together and decide what they can do about them.
So there's not really one overall approach to reform in the program in Massachusetts?
Not really. If you are going to be effective, you have to begin with problems people want to work on. They can be told what they should be doing, but the question is whether you can help them with their problems.
As I have reviewed the history of education in my lifetime—I began to teach in 1921, 72 years ago—it has always been working on problems step by step, solving those problems, rather than some grand nostrum that solves everything, that makes a difference to people.
That sense of real problem solving is close to school practitioners' hearts.
That is the way those who are effective do it. If school people start with some notion of how they should teach multicultural groups or something of that sort, that may help. But as soon as they encounter problems, they're likely to give up unless they learn to say, “That's natural. Now let's see what the problem is and go back and work on it.”
But recent education reforms, like the ones I saw in Tennessee under Lamar Alexander, have been the “grand nostrum” sort.
How do you know they are reforms until you see how they solve the problems? The people who are most likely to know what needs to be done are those that are right down where the children are.
All this is politics, you know, to say “I am a good education President” or governor or something. The problem really is “What can I do to help teachers learn how better to deal with their children?” Teachers are going to solve the problems; no one has the solution for them.
But nowadays a lot of school administrators think they have to move very rapidly, indeed, are pressured to prescribe policies and remedies and set direction quickly.
They are politicians. They do what they can to give the impression that they are really running the schools, but they aren't. What the teacher does, once the teacher closes the classroom door, is largely what he or she feels is the right thing to do. If he or she is a good teacher, she does not listen too much to what is said by the public, except to help the public understand what the real problems are.
What can policymakers do that would truly support the efforts of teachers?
Help teachers feel important, give them opportunities for continued advancement and training, and keep emphasizing the importance of education to the community so that they are highly valued.
Suppose you were a new principal, how would you begin your work in a school today?
I would say, “As your principal I want to help you with your problems. Are children having difficulty learning? Let's see what we can find out about them. Let's see whether we can understand what their difficulty may imply. Maybe the problem is partly the way we set up our school. Maybe the curriculum is not working for them. Maybe we have to identify problems and work from there.”
That is the way a doctor works. He does not start with telling you what is going to be done to improve your health. He starts with your problems.
But wouldn't it be fair for the physician to assess your lifestyle, to ask you broad general questions about whether you smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, sleep, eat well, and exercise?
Yea, after he had first found out what your problem was.
What brought you into his office—is that what you mean?
You don't get what you need if the doctor starts out with a question that is not related to your problem. The doctor does not start with the lifestyle things. He starts out with, “Tell me about your problems. Where does it bother you?”
How do you identify and solve problems in the schools in Massachusetts?
Each year we select a committee to include teachers, parents, and one or two of the high school students. These committees are continually raising questions about what difficulties the children may be having and how can we attack them. We start with the idea that the understanding of problems will come from the parents and the children and the teachers, and not from above.
You bring up an interesting point about everyone working together on the problem. As ASCD honors its 50th anniversary, we're celebrating the fact that ASCD membership is open to everyone. Weren't you a part of ASCD's beginning?
I was a member of the Society for Curriculum Study, a group of about 20 people who wanted to meet to study curriculum, which later amalgamated with the NEA's supervisors and directors of instruction to become ASCD.
So you are really a founding father of ASCD. Do you have any comments about how ASCD has evolved, the course it has taken, or its direction? Some sort of message, some encouragement for ASCD?
I hope ASCD will continue with what it is now doing, seek to identify problems interfering with ASCD development, and do something about them, instead of the new people coming in with a whole program developed without consulting the people who have to implement it. Build something from the grass roots up. That is what makes ASCD so strong now.
Anything else?
I believe that ASCD is an outstanding organization that is meeting the needs of its members, and I hope it will continue to do so. And it works from the grass roots up rather than the top down, and I hope it will continue that way.

Anne Meek has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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