There is an incoming talk for new students at Lake Wobegon University, where Dean Keiller welcomes them to campus:
Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
And why not, Alfie Kohn asks?
The standards-and-accountability movement is not about leaving no child behind. To the contrary, it is an elaborate sorting device, intended to separate wheat from chaff. The fact that students of color, students from low-income families and students whose first language isn’t English are disproportionately defined as chaff makes the whole enterprise even more insidious.
The tacit connection is that sorting is insidious, because sorting means someone doesn’t get a red balloon. Why aren’t there enough red balloons for everyone?
Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose that next year virtually every student passed the tests. What would the reaction be from politicians, businesspeople, the media? Would these people shake their heads in admiration and say, “Damn, those teachers must be good!”?
Of course not. Such remarkable success would be cited as evidence that the tests were too easy. In the real world, when scores have improved sharply, this has indeed been the reaction.
There are two approaches to the merits of testing, one being mastery and the other being sorting. If a test asked students to solve ten equations and they all got them correct, then all would get that elusive A. That can happen, especially in second grade, but as the subject matter becomes more challenging, differences between students become more manifest. It may be lousy teaching. It may be lack of effort. It may be that a wonderful writer sucks at math, or a lousy writer sucks at math. And the teacher wasn’t good either.
There is a big universe of reasons why one student does better than another, and but that’s not the universe in which Kohn resides.
The inescapable, and deeply disturbing, implication is that “high standards” really means “standards that all students will never be able to meet.” If everyone did meet them, the standards would just be ratcheted up again — as high as necessary to ensure that some students failed.
By definition, every student cannot be above average. This isn’t a bug, but a feature, even though Kohn finds it “deeply disturbing.” But the crux of his concern, whether opportunity for every student to be anything she wants to be or that no student, particularly his color of vulnerable, be denied their right to unwarranted self-esteem, has a certain appeal to the lowest common denominator. Why shouldn’t every mediocre student be entitled to a set of standards he can achieve?
The point that Kohn studiously ignores is that the ceiling of mastery of subject matter is the floor for the next level of subject matter. One would hope every student can graduate high school with the ability to read, write and do simple mathematics. But some will have the ability to write Sonnets and others quadratic equations, while others will be lucky to conjugate verbs. As students master the basics, testing for mastery makes sense. But there comes a time, perhaps freshman year of high school, where some students show an affinity, a capacity, to do better than their peers in certain subjects.
Is it fair? Of course it is, whether it’s because of the effort a student puts into his work or whether innate ability allows the student to breeze through his studies. It’s unfair that students with the ability to do more are denied the opportunity by incompetent teachers, but those don’t exist in Kohn Universe, where unions would never allow bad teachers to deprive the marginalized their opportunity to shine.
His point, however, that there will be students who could do better, should do better, but don’t do better, isn’t without some merit. The student whose parents, whose peers, push him to avoid education, to disdain such bougie notions as hard work or good grades, will be left behind, even if the student’s innate abilities would allow her to go to the top of the class.
Kohn’s solution isn’t to raise that student up, but to hold all others down.
The goal, in other words, isn’t to do well but to defeat other people who are also trying to do well. Grades in this view should be used to announce who’s beating whom. And if the students in question have already been sorted by the admissions process, well, they ought to be sorted again. A school’s ultimate mission, apparently, is not to help everyone learn but to rig the game so that there will always be losers.
Of course some will game the system to achieve undeserved success, just as some will eschew opportunity, like studying hard in public school. Others will use whatever tools they can, like paying for SAT tutors, to do their best, while yet others will lack the financial ability to compete on a level playing field.
But there are two ways to confront this inherent unfairness, one of which is perfect while the other will invariably be flawed. The perfect is to deny advantage, bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator, and the flawed is to offer the opportunity to those who choose to take advantage of it. Many won’t, and will fail to achieve as much success as they might otherwise. There are strong excuses for why this happens, but they are unavailing.
As the 2019 Valedictorian at Lake Wobegon University said at commencement, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Not every student can be Einstein, but the question is whether that reality means no student should be Einstein. It’s unfair to the student of modest intellect to demand he be tested by Einstein’s standards, but it’s unfair to Einstein to deprive him of the opportunity to achieve as well.
Most of all, it encourages the false belief that excellence is a zero-sum game. It would be both more sensible and more democratic to rescue the essence of the concept: Everyone may not succeed, but at least in theory all of us could.
Kohn’s quite right that excellence isn’t a zero-sum game. If all the students at LWU are above average, why not give each of them an A? But then, there is no LWU. The problem isn’t that excellence is a zero-sum game, but that life is. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.