SAT Scores or State-Mandated Standards?

Published April 1, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a seven-part series showing why charter schools do not have the freedom needed to create significant educational improvements through innovation.

The SAT has long been controversial. Although it was originally conceived as an “aptitude test” that measured raw ability, more recently it has been conceded that it is possible to increase one’s scores on the test. Because the best-known approaches to improving SAT scores have been expensive SAT prep courses or personal coaching, and because some minorities, including Native American, African-American, and Hispanic students, have average SAT scores lower than white and Asian students, the SAT has come to be regarded as an unfair and inegalitarian exam.

This is ironic, given that the original purpose of the SAT was to open the elite colleges to talented working-class students.

Nonetheless, one strand of the support for national education standards was that they would allow a move away from the SAT, on the grounds that it is unfair to rank students against a test that doesn’t measure what is learned in the classroom, and towards subject-area standards so that students would be measured against content teachers actually teach.

‘Intellectual Autonomy’ Central

Michael Strong’s primary objective as an educator as leader of Moreno Valley High School (MVHS), a charter school in Angel Fire, New Mexico, is not to foster students’ progress on the SAT-verbal. It is intellectual autonomy. His book, The Habit of Thought, is dedicated to “Independent Thinkers Everywhere.”

But realizing objective measures of educational progress are essential, and realizing the close textual analysis in which he preferred to practice Socratic dialogue was, in essence, a form of SAT-verbal prep, Strong chose the SAT-verbal as a test by which to evaluate his work. That would allow him to focus primarily on the development of intellectual autonomy while producing measurable results.

Such an approach appeals to educators, parents, and students who realize sophisticated reading skills and the ability to think for oneself are among the most important of skills for both college and life. On the other hand, there are numerous educators, parents, and students who regard this approach to education as entirely illegitimate. For those who regard education as essentially content coverage, in which the primary responsibility of the teacher is to transmit information and the primary responsibility of the student is to assimilate information, the open-ended Socratic Practice advocated by Strong appears to be an abdication of educational responsibility.

This dramatic difference in understandings of the purpose of education explains why some individuals are passionately enthusiastic about Strong’s approach and are willing to move across the country or drive two hours each day so their children can go to such a school, while others regard it as educational malpractice. Indeed, there have been observers of the same class at the same time, some of whom find these Socratic Practice discussions to be among the most fascinating pedagogical experiences they’ve ever observed, while persons sitting next to them regard allowing students to do most of the talking as an unprofessional waste of class time.

NCLB Inflexible

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) forces conformity of measurement of results on charter schools nationwide. It also forces conformity of qualifications: One of the requirements of NCLB is that all teaching staff be “highly qualified,” which is defined as being professionally licensed in the subject areas in which they teach.

St. John’s College, from which Strong’s Socratic approach is explicitly derived, is usually described as a “Great Books College” because of its distinctive curriculum based on the classics of Western civilization. Less well-known is its deep commitment to Socratic education. Still less well-known is the fact that all faculty members are required to teach all subjects. An incoming faculty member with a Ph.D. in Greek will not be required to teach quantum physics or music theory the first year, but eventually he or she is expected to master the entire curriculum teaching it.

From the perspective of NCLB–or indeed most educators–this commitment to amateurism is the height of unprofessionalism. Who would want to learn quantum theory or French language and literature from someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about?

From another perspective, the advantage of such amateurism is that students are constantly exposed to adults who are still learning (often in real time, in the middle of class). If we believe that modeling is an important aspect of education, then we might consider it important for at least a portion of a student’s learning period to be under the tutelage of adults who are themselves actively learning alongside the student.

‘Learning to Learn’ Essential

From this perspective, the St. John’s approach is a superb means of teaching students to learn how to learn. Indeed, it has been suggested that the ideal St. John’s foreign language exam is one in which the student does not know what language she will be tested on–perhaps it will be Swahili, perhaps Mandarin, perhaps Swedish. All she knows is she will be given a passage to translate, a lexicon, and a grammar, and she is expected to make sense of the passage on her own.

This vision of education can be extended to science: Students might be given an article on cosmology, or nanotechnology, or microbiology, provided with adequate reference works, and be expected to summarize the article accurately. It also can be extended to software: Students might be expected to install a complex new software program and use it to perform specified functions within a specified period of time.

For several decades there has been a literature on “the New Economy” that claims the ability to learn how to learn will be more important in the twenty-first century than accumulating knowledge, because the rate of change is increasing so rapidly. Workers may change jobs and careers several times in a lifetime, and even within a given position they will be expected to learn new material constantly. Socratic Practice would appear to be a superb means of meeting this twenty-first century approach to education.

This interpretation of education, however, is profoundly different from the mainstream “content coverage” model on which the standards movement and NCLB are based.

Michael Strong ([email protected]) is CEO and chief visionary officer of FLOW, Inc., a group working to achieve world peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability in 50 years.