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Coming Soon: The Original Sin of American Education Science

America’s education reformers have always tied themselves closely to the fashions in social science.
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America’s education reformers have always tied themselves closely to the fashions in social science. The first “science” of American public education was phrenology. After that came IQ testing, achievement testing, and today's data-driven techniques of value-added measurement. The quality of these methods of analysis has, of course, improved over time, but one peculiar thing has been held constant between them all. In the latest issue of Pacific Standard, Dana Goldstein identifies the original sin of American education science. For 150 years, it has focused, again and again, on devising ways to sort and rank people, rather than focus on what might seem the more sensible goal: to figure out how best to teach children what they don’t know.

Dana Goldstein's Pacific Standard column is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Tuesday, January 13. Until then, an excerpt:

Education policy shifted decisively away from IQ after the 1960s. But the IQ movement’s adherents, many of whom would significantly influence policy in the decades that followed, developed a passion for its successor science, standardized achievement testing, which was supposed to measure not aptitude but learning. An important proponent of achievement testing was Terrel (Ted) Bell, a Utah school administrator who, after coming of age in the IQ era and gaining a national reputation as a data-driven reformer, became President Reagan’s first secretary of education in 1981. (As a youth, Bell was so taken with intelligence testing that, while serving in the Marines during World War II, he mouthed off to a commanding officer by saying that he would register as a “moron” on an IQ test—for which Bell served time in solitary confinement.)

As education secretary, Bell appointed a commission to produce an inspirational plan for school reform that, he hoped, would unite both political parties, the media, and the public behind efforts to improve education. The commission produced a hugely influential report called “A Nation at Risk,” which, in succinct and readable prose, described the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education, as made clear by, among other things, a 20-year decline in SAT scores. (What the report didn’t acknowledge was that a more economically and racially diverse group of students than ever before was sitting for the SAT.)

“A Nation at Risk” recommended a variety of policy fixes, among them higher pay and stiffer accountability for teachers; more challenging math, science, and foreign-language classes; a school day that was one hour longer and a school year that was 40 days longer; and a larger role for the federal government in setting and funding the national education agenda. These were noble and ambitious goals, but politically they were unobtainable: The nation was in the grip of a budget-cutting fervor and the budding culture wars. New state-level achievement testing programs turned out to be the only major course of action that policymakers were able to agree on, because they were relatively inexpensive and uncontroversial. If scores were low, politicians could describe school funding as an emergency necessity; if scores improved, they could claim that the investments were working.

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