As more and more elite independent schools price themselves out of the upper-middle class parent market, as more of their traditional distinguishing features—things like honors courses, ample Advanced Placement offerings, library and technology access, small classes, oodles of art and music—get picked up by ever more district and charter schools, and as selective colleges seek to fill their entering classes with more variegated kids from a wider array of high schools, many private schools are struggling to devise new ways of setting themselves apart from the masses (and, presumably, justifying their lofty price tags).
These schools are now awash in internships and expeditions to destinations near and far, esoteric summer opportunities, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic language classes, dance and theater and more. Nothing wrong with any of those, and I’m all for maximizing the variety of quality school choices available to students—the more so as states enact voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs that draw more families closer to affording private options. And it’s surely a fine thing that some private schools are getting out of their stodgy education ruts—in which surprisingly little has changed in fifty years save for the arrival of computers—and seeking worthy innovations.
But please let us not confuse innovation with progress! A novel but truly nutty idea is now gaining adherents in the high-priced private-school sector, including such eminences as Dalton and Andover. A founding group of one hundred of them—dubbing itself the Mastery Transcript Consortium—has set out to eliminate the high-school transcript and the pupil grades that go onto it, seeking instead to press colleges (and presumably employers and graduate schools) to evaluate their applicants holistically, basing those judgments on subjective reviews of the skills and competencies that individual pupils are said to have acquired during high school.
No longer would admissions officers see As and Bs (and the odd C) in old-fashioned courses labeled U.S. History, Geometry and Spanish 3. No longer would they see applicants’ GPAs and class ranks. Instead, they would see teachers’ opinions of whether a candidate can “understand non-western history, politics, religion, and culture” and has developed “flexibility, agility, and adaptability.”
This scheme strikes me (and other observers, including the Washington Post editorial board) as the fusion of five overlapping fads and questionable notions that have been percolating in American education for several years. The pity is that private schools may be even more vulnerable to such faddism than public schools that are accountable to taxpayers and elected officials.
• The anti-transcript campaign embraces what are commonly termed “soft” or “21st Century” skills, as opposed to traditional academic skills and knowledge. It’s fine for schools to encourage their pupils to “share the credit” and “build trust, resolve conflicts, and provide support for others.” Society benefits from such citizens and employers value such traits. But what happened to Newton’s laws of motion, the causes of the Civil War, the ability to write a grammatical sentence, and the trained capacity to solve equations with two unknowns?
• Without ever quite saying so, consortium founders have drunk deeply at the well of “multiple intelligences.” If kids don’t reason the same way, don’t think the same way, and don’t learn the same way, it’s obviously unfair to evaluate them on a uniform transcript with grading rubrics and such. Never mind that modern cognitive science has thoroughly debunked the whole scheme.
• Let’s use portfolios instead of standardized tests. Indeed, let’s do away with every sort of educational standardization. Let’s see what kids can do—and evaluate their work one by one—instead of making them cram for tests. Some of this may be linked to multiple-intelligence thinking—if they learn differently, we ought not evaluate their learning in the same way—but mostly it’s an outgrowth of the anti-testing movement. Let those standards-whipped, assessment-oppressed, and red-tape-bound public schools and big bureaucracies like ETS administer those dread tests. Our unique private schools, and their even more unique instructors, will teach what we think best and evaluate our pupils in ways that will show them at their best. (We’re definitely worth the money!) Never mind that everyone who has studied “portfolio” style evaluation has raised red flags about its costs and the formidable challenges of inter-rater reliability. We don’t really care, because we don’t believe in comparisons in the first place.
• We don’t want kids to be compared at all, at least not academically, because we don’t believe in competitiveness in the classroom. (The kids and alums still demand it on the athletic field.) That’s why we’re also eradicating rank-in-class and valedictorians. We want no “winners and losers.” We want everyone to feel like a winner, regardless of his or her actual accomplishments—and we want the Stanford admissions office to treat all of our graduates as winners, too! That’s a non-trivial consideration for today’s prep schools, as elite universities bend over backwards to justify their own public benefit and social utility by searching out kids from less likely backgrounds and places. The elite schools must now do something to reclaim their competitive advantage.
• You can always look it up. Why bother with old-fashioned knowledge in the age of Google and Wikipedia? It’s significant that none of the examples in the Mastery Transcript project’s prototype list of “earned credits” involves actually knowing anything. It’s all about being able to do things (“analyze and create knowledge,” “master and use higher-level mathematics.”) While it might turn out to be necessary to possess some factual bricks before you can use your cognitive mortar to construct a wall, so long as you can “always look them up” the schools are absolved from any obligation to ensure that facts are stored in your brain. Then colleges will find themselves with even fewer students who actually know anything. That may be fine with postmodernist professors but it contradicts the work of every respectable cognitive scientist. They know you need a scaffold of information before you can learn anything new. (All this is admirably recounted in E.D. Hirsch’s superb new book, Why Knowledge Matters.)
The Mastery Transcript folks are keen to recruit public schools into their consortium and it’s likely that a handful of elite suburban high schools full of opt-out ardor will flirt with it. They, too, are weary of sameness—of uniform standards and standardized testing—and they, too, would like to free their teachers and distinguish their graduates from the hoi polloi. “Mastery” is undeniably an appealing idea, intersecting with popular notions of personalized learning and kids moving through school at their own speed. But it’s highly unlikely that the consortium’s approach to student evaluation will spread across public education, in no small part because it’s unlikely to get much traction with universities, employers, and state education officials. So long as U.S. students are doing miserably on international metrics such as PISA, American economic competitiveness will continue to hinge at least in part on boosting test scores and the things they measure. At least as important, as The Washington Post noted, “one very pernicious effect” of this plan is that it “would probably help mediocre (generally rich) prep school kids and hurt high-achieving (generally less well-off) public school students.”
It’s fine for the prep schools to seek new ways to boost their own students and justify their $30-50,000 tuition charges. But it’s not fine to disadvantage equally—or more—able youngsters who can’t afford that option. And let’s be clear what this is really about: Making it appear that all graduates of elite schools are above average. For some of those schools, this may represent a desperate move to justify enrolling one’s child in them. Others still have plenty of prosperous applicants even as they lose their distinctiveness and competitive advantage in other ways. But what a way to try to resurrect it! Chalk up another win for Lake Wobegon—and another loss for academic standards.
— Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
This post originally appeared on Flypaper.