Education’s Endless, Erroneous Either-Ors

The K–12 education world brims with debates and dichotomies that get us into all manner of needless quarrels and cul-de-sacs, thus messing up every reform initiative and retarding progress. In every case, both sides are certain that they speak the whole truth; convinced that opposing views are misguided, perhaps even evil; and insistent that changes the system needs will go awry unless their side prevails.

These philosophical tug-of-wars lead to paralysis akin to what we witness today in Congress and many legislatures. Of them we ask, “Why can’t you compromise, split the difference, make a deal, take the best of both positions, and get something done?”

The ten education dichotomies outlined below should be seen in similar light: neither side owns the truth—and what would do kids the greatest good is an intelligent middle ground that melds the best of both views.

1. Skills vs. Knowledge

Back in 1987, in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and I tackled a pair of overlapping “false dichotomies”: skills vs. content and concepts vs. facts. They were prevalent in the education profession then and remain front and center today—indeed, are highlighted by the challenges of implementing (and assessing) the Common Core State Standards, which at first look skills-centric but which also make clear that success hinges on the deployment of a rich, sequential, content-focused curriculum. Already influenced by the analysis of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the cognitive science that he had exhaustively mined, Diane and I wrote, “It is neither possible nor desirable to teach reading skills without regard to background knowledge.” For a more recent discussion of the inseparability of “deep learning” and “content knowledge,” see Robert Pondiscio’s fine essay.

2. “Sage on the Stage” vs. “Guide on the Side”

The wording of this faux dilemma is cute, but the intimation that it’s a choice teachers must make does their pupils no favor. The implication of “sage on stage” is that a teacher knows all—that she’s a jug brimming with knowledge and skills to be poured into the heads of essentially passive students. “Guide on the side” implies that children must figure things out for themselves (it’s frequently called “discovery learning”) and often that they must decide for themselves what’s worth learning, with teacher playing the role of consultant, prompter, and advisor rather than “instructor.”

The truth, once again, lies at the intersection. Kids benefit from both. Of course they should be active learners, but that doesn’t mean they must figure out for themselves why the Civil War was fought or how to divide 42 into 7538 or what atoms comprise a molecule of water. It’s not their job to recreate human knowledge. It’s their job to internalize much that has been figured out by others—and to use it themselves, both for purposes of their own devising and for purposes that adults place before them.

To accomplish this, they need both sage and guide. That’s what we mean—or ought to mean—by “teacher.”

3. Who Should Be in Charge: Parents or the State?

Every debate about school choice eventually comes down to whether the shape of a child’s education is best decided by his parents or by “society” via a government-run school system. This parallels the ancient debate among economists over whether education is a private or a public good.

It’s both, of course, and that’s part of why decisions about the best education for a given child are properly treated as a blend of his own preferences/needs/aspirations (as gauged by his parents) and a set of needs, priorities, and capacities determined by the larger society (which in practice means a public-education “system” at the district or state level).

Nobody should be confined to a bad school or one that’s wrong for them; on the other hand, society has sound reasons to insist that every school provide a solid core curriculum that spans the skills and knowledge that everyone should acquire. And if the public is paying for it, the public (via its elected agents) has the right to demand acceptable levels of efficiency and effectiveness from all schools—which parents, in turn, should be free to choose among.

4. Evaluate Teachers by Student Results or Peer Judgments?

Few now deny that teachers, like everybody else, ought to have their performance evaluated and that such appraisals should have some bearing on their future in the field (as well as their professional development, maybe their compensation, etc.) But how should those evaluations be done?

Until Bill Sanders developed Tennessee’s “value-added assessment system” two decades ago, teacher evaluation was typically done by school principals, department heads, and peers. That’s partly because “professionals” usually do it that way, partly because unions didn’t want it done any other way, and partly because there was no defensible mechanism for gauging teacher effectiveness in relation to student learning.

Today, we’re awash in achievement data, and many ed-reformers and elected officials want evaluations to be based in large part on how much learning a teacher adds to her pupils in the course of a year. This is, however, fiercely resisted on multiple grounds by teacher groups and a number of analysts.

It turns out that each approach, taken alone, has serious limits (as well as controversies). And the most compelling research—such as the “MET” study—makes clear that evaluations are best done via a blend of the two approaches (augmented by student surveys and such.)

5. Assess Achievement via Test Score or Pupil “Performance”?

How to know whether students have learned what they should—or, for that matter, learned anything of value? Is this best done via the reviled “standardized” tests, by asking them to demonstrate their accomplishments, or by something else?

Once again, each approach has both positives and negatives. Well-designed tests can efficiently appraise the learning of many students (and schools, districts, states, etc.) and lend themselves to comparisons that (with suitable fussing) are comparable and reliable. But even the best tests can’t elicit everything worth knowing about what pupils can and cannot do, and they have difficulty dealing with kids and schools that are different from each other in powerful ways.

“Performance” assessments can take account of such differences while probing deeper for creativity, understanding, the ability to apply what one knows, etc. But they’re expensive, time-consuming, harder to compare across individuals and institutions, and problematic when it comes to reliability—hence, they are hard to defend in the court of public opinion or a court of law.

So—surprise—we’re advised to do both, with each approach tailored and deployed for what it does best.

6. Gauging Pupil Progress by Grade level or Competency?

What does it mean to be “on grade level?” What triggers advancement from, say, grade 5 to grade 6 or from middle to high school? One’s birthday? Passing one’s courses? Clearing a testing hurdle? And what happens if you earn a passing score in reading and honors in history but fail math?

Should we gauge a child’s education progress by the grade she’s in, correlated mainly to her age and number of years in school, or by evidence that she has learned what’s needed to succeed at the next level or course in a particular subject?

The latter approach—often called “competency-based education”—is easy to synchronize with sequential standards and curricula, lends itself to individualized instruction (including different levels in different subjects), avoids “social promotion” (as well as the boredom that afflicts gifted kids who learn something faster than their classmates), and harmonizes with online and blended learning opportunities.

Yet it wreaks havoc with traditional school structures, demands much (by way of differentiated instruction) from teachers, may separate children from their friends and age mates, and frazzles parents who want to know whether Janie is in fourth or fifth grade. (It also makes life difficult for data-gatherers and analysts.)

Combining pure versions of both is hard, but acceptable amalgams can be devised via team teaching, smart use of technology, grade “bands” that span several years, and careful explanation to parents that eleven-year-old Janie may be doing fourth-grade work in English, sixth-grade work in science and math, and with fifth-grade work in social studies (and gym, art and “homeroom.”)

7. Learning with the Help of Technology or Human Beings?

Wouldn’t kids learn better and more enthusiastically, move along at their own speed, and cost taxpayers less if education resembled a video game and most or all of it took place online? That’s the approach and, presumably, the conviction of our burgeoning online-education industry.

To this, others respond, “But what about their socialization? What about music and phys ed? Basketball and Christmas pageants? How about children’s relations with adults and other kids—and the teacher’s role not just in answering their curricular questions and helping them understand the lesson but also seeing what excites their minds, how they’re behaving, and what may be going awry in other parts of their lives?

Yet teacher-dependent education is expensive and depends heavily on the caliber and knowledge (as well as character and commitment) of those who fill these jobs. It’s also hard to individualize, meaning it often bores the fast and frustrates the slow, while the teacher focuses on those in the middle. What’s more, small schools may not have enough teachers to offer all the courses and content that students need (or yearn) to learn, and kids stuck in troubled schools may get taught only by newbies without enough pull to move elsewhere.

We’re well advised, once again, not to put all our education eggs in either basket. Online and “blended” learning brings palpable advantages—but so do great teachers.

8 Diversity vs. Uniformity

Should everybody learn the same things in the same ways in cookie-cutter schools, or should education accommodate a host of “diversities,” from curricular enthusiasms, career goals, and ethnic and religious preferences to individual “learning styles” and school options?

Surely the right answer is “yes, within limits.” A well-functioning society depends on citizens with considerable shared knowledge, cultural understandings, language, and values. A robust economy depends on a workforce with a well-developed body of skills, behaviors, and knowledge. Yet across a big country like the U.S.—indeed, within any state or metropolitan area—we see that people and groups differ, as do neighborhoods, family aspirations, and resources, not to mention children’s needs, talents, and enthusiasms.

Primary-secondary education must thread this needle, supplying everyone with a common core (sic) of learning while accommodating, even celebrating, significant variability. That’s why Hirsch, for example, has long insisted that his “Core Knowledge” sequence should occupy just half of the K–8 curriculum—and that, if it’s done well in those years, the high schools can embrace many strands and interests. The Common Core State Standards go through grade 12, but they’re just standards, not curriculum or pedagogy, and they focus on just two subjects. They leave ample scope for being different.

9. Is Education Best Run by Professionals or Laymen?

Ought decisions about education be entrusted to professional educators or, like the military, be subject to “civilian control?”

K–12 education is a vast public-sector industry that costs more than half a trillion dollars annually and employs more than six million people. It is inevitable that elected officials will make major decisions on behalf of citizens and taxpayers about how it operates.

But nobody wants a legislator or mayor in charge of a classroom containing 24 thirteen-year-olds, deciding how to teach reading to a dyslexic child, or selecting lab protocols for an Advanced Placement chemistry course. These and thousands more decisions are best made by expert educators—albeit within a framework of structures, resources, and rules set by representatives of the “general public.”

Yes, there’s friction. Educators often press lay decision makers to look after their interests more than those of their pupils, just as elected officials frequently strive to make the schools advance their interests. The lines of demarcation could be clearer. But it would be crazy to suggest that either “side” should be all-powerful. We need them working in tandem.

10. Local or Centralized Control?

Should K–12 education be ruled by each community, or should decisions be made at the state (or national) level?

The phrase “local control of the schools” rolls glibly off the tongues of most Americans. It dates to earlier times, when schools were (or weren’t) created and paid for by individual towns. Not until the latter nineteenth century did states begin to play a role.

Today, however, every state has a constitutional responsibility for educating its citizens, and states pay the lion’s share of the public-schooling bill. They make such key decisions as who is eligible to teach, what should be learned in seventh-grade math, and what students must study before earning a diploma. We may also question the meaning of “local control” when the governance unit operates hundreds of schools and enrolls many thousands of children residing across vast distances. (The districts belonging to the Council of the Great City Schools average 174 schools each.)

Uncle Sam also plays a growing role in sundry education decisions via multiple funding streams, rules, and enforcement authorities. Although this role abounds in political controversy, over time it has added considerably to its time on stage.

Further complicating the picture, many “virtual” schools now operate statewide, even in multiple states, and don’t truly belong to any district. And more than 5000 charter schools are largely free from traditional local control—answerable to voters and taxpayers, yes, but often not to districts. Many of their key education decisions are made at the building level (or by school networks that cross district and state lines).

In these fast-multiplying situations, nineteenth-century structures of local control don’t make much sense—but neither does rigid central control that cannot handle bona fide differences and distinctions.

How to have it both ways? Not the way we do it today, with governance arrangements that resemble marble cakes more than layer cakes. Such proliferation fosters deadlock as every unit seeks both to exert its own authority and to resist decisions made by other units with which it doesn’t agree but which it cannot overrule.

This time, the right answer is not to pledge allegiance to any one level in the system but to recognize that the whole Rube Goldberg edifice would benefit from a top-to-bottom renovation.


Modern U.S. politics leave scant middle ground where compromise or synthesis can be forged. But it should be the job of serious education reformers to plant their policy banners—and themselves—on whatever demilitarized territory can be found. Dichotomies such as those sketched above may keep bloggers, debaters, and partisans busy. They are grist for plenty of articles, books, panels, speeches, and campaigns. But they don’t, in the end, do kids any good.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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