A Social Chasm in Education

The educational controversies appearing at the juncture of the 20th and 21st centuries suggest the emergence of a widening social chasm.

When we listen to teachers talk about education, the conversation tends to focus on the virtues of various teaching methods, how to motivate students, the joys of teaching. We also hear teachers relate their problems in dealing with supervisors, administrators, local school boards, state regulations, and what they consider the changing (usually worsening) characteristics of students and educational environments.

Meanwhile, news-makers are talking about the decline of student performance on international comparisons and a perceived loss in national competitiveness, about the responsibility of teachers for this decline, and about the virtues of accountability based on educational assessments as a solution to the problem.

That teachers would be inclined to talk shop rather than engage in public policy discourse is to be expected, although always disappointing. But the fact that teachers and news-makers are not even talking about the same topics indicates a widening gap in interests as well as perspectives and understandings. The subjects of testing, assessment, and accountability do emerge in conversations with teachers but primarily as artifacts of oppression and symptoms of the degenerating climate of educational institutions rather than from an inherent interest and involvement in these subjects.

Since the 1990s in the United States, the Federal Government, regardless of the political party in power, has increasingly been intervening in educational affairs. These interventions have worked their way into the classroom itself. The current interventions differ from those of the 1960’s and 70’s when grand resources were gathered and made available, particularly to address inequities in educational opportunity. Today, increasingly the state, as well as other powerful interests, is directing educators in how they should conduct their business and using test results as an instrument with which to wield control.

The gap between teachers’ and the emerging public view of education is such that there is little sign in mainstream education of bringing the two sides into collaboration or even reconciliation. But a bridge can be built across this divide. Foundations of general and common interest exist that have been disregarded. These foundation blocks are at the very core of what makes educational action meaningful. They should actually underlie every educational effort and, yet, are inadequately attended to. Federal reform efforts have staked their current initiatives on the idea of such a foundation but then disregarded it in practice. Knowing the Learner is directed toward building this bridge through the re-discovery and application of the needed foundation blocks. The basis for spanning this gap, for seeing through the current controversies will be the theme that underlies every chapter in the book. But deeper problems underlie these controversies as well. Cataclysmic changes are altering the faces of science, technology, society, and Nature herself. Human institutions are failing to realize their stated ideals, failing to adjust to the “newness” of reality. Vast resources are directed to carrying out existing educational programs, giving little attention to the fundamental educational questions of what the human being and human community can become.

It should be no surprise that in this “Age of Information” the hottest controversies are those that swirl around the question of educational information — that is the question of educational assessment and how its results are to be used. But, lying virtually untouched beneath the controversies, is the question of what is and what is not educational information. It is here that the bridge can be built: around answers to the question of educational assessment. Moreover, through refreshed ideas concerning educational assessment and evaluation, many education questions can be seen from a different perspective, a perspective that opens new vistas for envisioning productivity and collaboration in the field of education.

Our book is titled Knowing the Learner because that is the true purpose of educational assessment.

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