03/02/2008 03:47 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Schools Are For

What Schools Are For.

That's the title of a book by John Goodlad, first published in 1979 and revised in 1994 and again in 2006. It was brought to mind by an email fight I had recently which left me saying "So it's come to this."

I had mentioned the chapter in Linda Perlstein's book Tested where she contrasts the education received by the students in her impoverished school, Tyler Heights, with that obtained in a nearby affluent school, Crofton (the names are real). At Crofton, third graders created fairy tales on computers, posted staff biographies, wrote ten persuasive letters, proofread one another's work. Fifth graders wrote biographies and described the political stances of politicians, ran an actual bank where students had savings accounts, created business plans on PowerPoint and budgets on Excel. They wrote essays about the winter Olympics (some had actually been).

Meanwhile the teachers at Tyler Heights focused on the state test and fretted over a scripted curriculum than they felt beneath their professionalism. "Why did I go to college for four years," asked one. "Why did I get a Master's?" (In some quarters, deprofessionalism is the point -- cheap, non-union teachers, the goal). In fact, they concentrated on the test so much that a slightly higher percentage of their students passed the state test than at Crofton.

My antagonist, a lawyer, took this to mean that Crofton had "squandered its advantages with their rainbow and lollipop curriculum." He didn't seem to realize that a test must match what people have been learning for them to do well. He was willing to conclude that a high score on a state-developed, low-level test of unknown predictive validity, was a better measure of real education. At the Key school in Indianapolis, everyone learns a foreign language and a musical instrument from grade 1. Those skills don't raise test scores, either, but they're still worthwhile in many people's estimation.

Goodlad espoused a broad range of goals for schooling. These included mastery of basic skills, career education-vocational goals, intellectual development goals, enculturation goals, the development of autonomy in the individual citizenship goals, creativity and aesthetic perception, self-concept, emotional and physical well-being, moral and ethical character, and self-realization.

These were the broad goals. Under each, Goodlad listed some four to ten more specific goals that amplified the meaning of the general goal. For example, the specific goals under Intellectual Development look like this.

3.1 Develop the ability to think rationally; that is thinking and problem-solving skills, use of reasoning and application of principles of logic, and skill using different modes of inquiry.
3.2 Develop the ability to use and evaluate knowledge; that is, critical and independent thinking that enables on to make judgments and decisions in a wide variety of life roles (for example, citizen, consumer, worker, etc.) as well as in intellectual activities.
3.3 3.3 Accumulate a general fund of knowledge, including information and concepts in mathematics, literature, natural science, and social science.
3.4 Develop the ability to make use of knowledge sources, utilizing technology to gain access to needed information.
3.5 Develop positive attitudes toward intellectual activity including intellectual curiosity and a desire for further learning.

How rich such an approach seems. And how alien to the sterile "100% of students will be proficient in reading and math by 2014," stupidly narrow goal (and unattainable in any case unless one has a meaningless definition of "proficient").

Perhaps there is hope. I believe I have mentioned in these spaces that former assistant secretaries of education Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch have looked back in horror at what the standards-testing movement (which they pioneered) has wrought and said "we were wrong." (Literally, that's what they said). The latest issue of Finn's newsletter "The Gadfly" lists 12 "lessons learned" which also indicate a much-broadened view (although I don't consider his exemplars like Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander to be worthy of praise; his mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is, though). Ravitch has now teamed with AFT's Toni Cortese to form a new organization, Common Core, to promote a well-rounded education in the liberal arts and sciences for all.

Small steps, perhaps, but welcome.

In a YouTube video I appeared in last summer, I said I could only hope that one day we would look back at programs such as NCLB and say, "What were we
thinking?" Now I'm hoping that time might be soon.