E Pluribus Unum

by Dr. Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University
This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the "International Education Week - 2017" symposium, hosted by ADA University in Baku, Azerbaijan. This is the transcript of my keynote talk.

Good morning friends, from the Ministry, the ADA University, my compatriots from the US embassy, and my colleagues from the US and specifically GW.

It is a pleasure and honor to be with you to think and work together toward the advancement of important educational goals here in Azerbaijan. I know I will learn much about Azerbaijan, and hope that the balance of trade in knowledge will be relatively even …

I was asked to spend 15 minutes on the history and current status of American educational reform. Luckily my dear colleague, Sevinj Mammadova, one of our great students at GW, offered me a generous extension – I now have exactly 16 minutes! This reminds me of when as a young student I finished a speed-reading course and proudly told my parents that I had just read the entire 635 pages of Moby Dick in 15 minutes! Mother asked me what it was about, and all I could come up with was, “… fishing…?”

With that memory as a caution, I will summarize two+ centuries of the grand American experiment in public education in my 16 minutes with three words: E PLURIBUS UNUM. Those are the words on the Great Seal of the United States, which you will see when you visit our Capitol. Translated from the Latin it means “from many, one,” a good approximation of the peculiar genius of American democracy and of our struggles with education reform.

From our beginnings the US was an experiment in peculiarities – protection of religious liberty via prohibition of government entanglement in religion, governmental protection of speech to enable dissent from government, separation of powers to assure the slow motion of “checks and balances,” commitment to celebration of multiple cultures with the aspiration toward a common culture, and, perhaps most significant to our purposes here, diffusion of power to states and localities as antidote to the feared accumulation of centralized authority.

At risk of oversimplification, I would argue that most of our big policy debates – in education and also more generally – center on tensions between the pluribus – diffusion and separation and celebration of differences – and the unum – the idea of a genuine “American” identity.

Our education system is arguably the most vibrant and at times frustrating manifestation of this challenge. Indeed, as the former president of Harvard once said, we don’t really have a “system,” but rather a “chaos,” and we seem to like it that way. Today we have roughly 14,000 school districts responsible for the governance and functioning of public schools attended by some 50 million children, living in 50+ states that make decisions about funding, curriculum, teacher policy, academic standards and assessments of student and teacher performance.

As you might imagine, establishing national norms in this situation – the elusive unum – has been problematic: it took us 214 years to attempt to codify in law a set of “national educational goals.”

But overall the system has done well, in spite of or perhaps because of the chaos. Compulsory education, for example, was implemented long before it became the norm in most other countries, and already by the early 1950s we were educating five times more children, in percentage terms, than our friends in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. Participation in postsecondary education, another arena of diffusion and confusion, was until recently the highest in the world and our colleges and universities have long been recognized for their greatness. Moreover, our decentralized arrangements required – and nurtured – an innovative agility that enabled schools to adapt to changing technologies and changing demographics. Between 1890 and 1920 some 25 million newcomers arrived, and their largely successful integration into American economic and social life is attributable in large part to the workings of our – chaotic – school system. Of course, it’s not all a rosy picture: a steep price we pay for all this fragmentation is the grotesque and growing inequality in educational opportunity and outcomes. That’s a topic for another 16 minutes – or maybe 16 hours.

In retrospect, it is tempting to argue that we eschewed national control of schooling for efficiency reasons: who could imagine trying to run a system with 45 million kids? (I suspect that for some people living in this part of the world, experience with large and cumbersome centralized bureaucracies has induced an appetite for disaggregation and locally-managed systems.) But it is not only a matter of efficiency: at the core of our preference for diffusion is an even deeper principle of democratic governance. America is about pluralism, which means that our national identity derives from the somewhat chaotic aggregation of individual and local preferences – and not the other way around.

How does the e pluribus unum tension play out in education? I will offer three very partial answers by focusing on accountability, measurement, and standards.

Accountability is not a new concept for education. The basic idea took root in the early 19th century during an era of tremendous expansion, when citizens wanted to know whether and how their cherished public schools were fulfilling their role. As the great historian of education, Lawrence Cremin, liked to point out, borrowing from Aristotle, education in America is political because it is what we value most. So it is natural that we seek indicators of how the system is performing. If there is something new about accountability in education it is the relatively recent switch, from emphasis on inputs to holding schools accountable for outcomes. What matters now is not only how much is spent and whether those in charge are behaving properly, but more importantly whether there are measurable returns. At least since the results of the so-called “Coleman Report” of the mid-1960s, we have sought to make our schools demonstrate that school inputs – teachers, curricula, instructional systems – are related to results. My very oversimplified message, then, is this: accountability systems that focus on results are intuitively appealing because of how much we value the goals and effects of education.

But moving from intuition to practice is a bit complicated. Which leads to my second point, about the predicaments of measurement. Here we have a remarkable example of a technology designed in large part to accomplish the twin goals of equity and efficiency, which also leads inevitably to what we economists call “externalities,” or unintended negative consequences, such as the perpetuation of the inequities that the testing was supposed to reduce or eliminate. One lesson from 150 years of our experiment with standardized testing and assessment is that even the best tests lead to damaging side effects, whether from over-use or misinterpretation or neglect of the myriad surrounding circumstances that need to be included in the application of test scores to sound policies. My second message, then, is that the legitimate demand for objective assessment is constrained by the realities of testing that prevent, rather than promote, genuine progress.

The possibility that even good technologies, like good tests, produce unwelcome effects, and what to do in such situations, brings me to my third point, which is about standards. The word has at least two meanings. First, it is about defining academic goals: How much and what kind of knowledge and skill do our children need, in mathematics, science, history, literature, and social behavior in order to succeed? That’s not a simple question in any context, and even in places where authority is not as challenged as in the US, coming to a consensus and then making it operational is not a trivial exercise. In fact, there may actually be no “solution,” in the conventional sense of that word, given lack of agreement about learning outcomes and the necessary intrusion of ideology and values. In the history of testing in the US, national norms of academic performance have mostly centered on the basics of reading and mathematics. When we have ventured into more sensitive areas, like the interpretation of history and literature or the ideal of intellectual inquiry, national norms have fallen victim to the forces of dissent, partisanship, and preference for locally inspired definitions.

Which leads to the second meaning of “standards.” The absence of a solution, in this case to the predicament of standardized assessment, should not cause us despair. Rather, it should compel us to rethink our standards, and as Voltaire might have advised, not let perfection be the enemy of good. A more sensible way to set standards for education reforms is not in terms of their “optimality” but rather by considering whether they are likely to do more good than harm and for whom, and whether they are based on a reasonable amount of data, evidence, and deliberation. This is what the great social scientist, Herbert Simon, meant by “procedural rationality,” and it may help us avoid swings of exuberance and despair that come from setting expectations for progress too high and expecting results too quickly.

I started with three Latin words, and will conclude now by summarizing my three messages that I hope are relevant to your situation here:

Accountability is a necessity of education, and how it is designed is a function of the choices a society makes about how to govern itself;
Measurement is a necessity of accountability, but imprecision requires sensible and empathic human judgment; and
• Setting educational standards is a necessity of academic progress, but it is complicated, and setting standards by which to gauge reform requires attention to the reasonable rather than obsession with the optimal.

Thank you for letting me share these ideas. I now hope you will hold me accountable with reasonable measures of my performance and that we will together set a new standard for cooperation and educational progress.