Initially published in educational Horizons Fall 1993. 7 - 1

Educational Assessment:
confusing status with achievement.
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

Whatever exists at all, exists in some amount.-- Edward L. Thorndike1

edited 4/5/12

Evaluating My Fifth Grade Teacher

Mrs. Snyder, would you pass muster today? What would Thorndike or his disciples have thought of you? Did the pursuit of the Measurable inspire your teacherly Vision? Were you fluent in Outcomes-Based-Educationese? Could you chat on about learning styles in four quadrants? Did you have the proper multicultural perspective? Could you say just how your grading was norm- or criterion-referenced? Were your expectations high enough? Did you really believe, deep down in your soul, that all children could learn?

Mrs. Gertrude Snyder was my fifth grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in a heavily industrified section of Philadelphia in the 1950's. I don't even remember if I liked Mrs. Snyder. I can remember the teachers I liked as a fifth-grader, and she does not come easily to mind. But she made us feel comfortable; we belonged. Mattiaci, Moszczinski, Beaton, Ammerman, Henderson, Rozycki, Charambura, Boyko, Denofa, Hirl and Wolf (well, maybe not so much Wolf -- he was often in the Principal's office) and others whose names fail me, we belonged. We might fight on the schoolyard, call each other Hunkies and Polaks and Ukes and Harps out on the street, but in Mrs. Snyder's classroom we belonged.

She made us feel that the work we were doing was important. She played the piano. She taught us songs, even the second (and third!) verses. We learned

Oh, Beautiful for patriot's dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears ...


Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation ...

She had us do collections and coloring; and plays, paintings and presentations; and masks and murals. She gave us time to read -- Sustained Silent Reading, as it has come to be called by those trendy educational entrepreneurs who have a knack for taking good, old wine and rebottling it under their special label.

She transformed my life. During the reading period she would play classical music. Tschaikowski, Brahms, Strauss, Chopin. Who knew what they were? She made no announcements about it. She did no preaching about its being a better kind of music than the mainstream and ethnic pop music that was the regular fare in my neighborhood. She did not write her objectives on the board. She did not invite us to reflect on our "values". She transformed my life.

I remember this most clearly after almost forty years: I was sitting at my desk, reading Ab, the Caveman and fiddling with my inkwell. The heavy camphor fumes from a nearby chemical plant mixed that day with the smells of a chocolate factory, both enterprises contributing their usual but unique effort to our olfactory education.

I glanced out of ash-dusted windows into the grey overhung sky and heard it! It was coming from Mrs. Snyder's record player. A wonderful melody, but more than that. A variety of instrumental voices singing their own songs, each different, yet, somehow, all fitting together. It was complex and emotional and I knew I would have to listen to it again and again to concentrate on the different images it evoked in my head. This wasn't Mule Train or Shrimp Boats or Up a Lazy River or The Beer Barrel Polka. This was something just as compelling but much harder to catch. And it was ... beautiful. I don't think I had ever connected the word "beautiful" with sound before in my life.

After we broke for lunch I surreptitiously asked Mrs. Snyder what she had put on the record player -- in that neighborhood it was not prudent to seem too interested in teacherly tastes in music. She told me it was Strauss', Artist's Life and Love. She mentioned that the local Free Library had records like it that I could go listen to on the phonographs there. For the next several years I walked four miles Saturday mornings to the library to listen to this music, music I couldn't seem to find much of on the radio at home. In the process, I ran across a lot of interesting books. That music and those books lead me farther from the chocolate smells, the coke ash and the camphor fumes than I ever dreamed of.

I would bet that Mrs. Snyder continued to teach the way she did until the day she retired. And if she had run into the kind of supervision I had to deal with in the beginning of my teaching career a half a century after her beginnings, I would have never met her. Her pedagogical "artistry" would have been seen as antiquated or out-of-place in the heavily "scientific" assessment fashion of middle-1960's public education.

Two Mythologies of Assessment.

Charles Dickens in Hard Times caricatures a "scientifically-minded" pegagogue of the late 19th Century.

Thomas Gradgrind sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds on the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not going to be talked into allowing anything over. Thomas Gradgrind sir, peremptorily Thomas -- Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you exactly what it comes to.

This illustrates perfectly the faddishness of much educational innovation: Gradgrind to Dewey to Thorndike to Snyder to Behavioral Objectives to Crises in the Classroom to National Standards to Portfolio Assessment. It also illustrates why -- to anyone who has been in education for a few years (or actually put some effort into studying its history!) -- the only thing astonishing about proposals for school reform is the remarkable ignorance of many of its enthusiasts, recyclers of one kind or another educational fruitcake: concocted for a special celebration, but rarely digestible.

The swing of the reform pendulum2 is maintained by two caricatures neither of which does justice to its opposite and both of which distract from basic issues which might reconcile them. The first caricature is that of the tunnel-visioned number-crunching Gradgrind. It insults dispassionate attempts to evaluate educational undertakings. Gradgrind's image flatters, in contrast, the aesthetic dimensions of experience, the personal, the uniquely individual, the presumably non-measurable qualities that give an education its depth and meaning. It provides the impetus for the criticism that students emerge today, from college, even, lacking critical social skills and attitudes, recommending "values education" as the cure 3. It holds up Gradgrind or his like as, at worst, the persecutor of a Mrs. Snyder; or, at best, as a superficial statistician.

The second caricature is that of the wooly-minded, warm-fuzzy-thinking, indiscriminately all-embracing, undisciplined, confused and potentially-pot-smoking artiste. Years back such a teacher would be demonized as a Progressive Educator; today, he or she is dismissed as bereft of Educational Science or lacking a sense of International Competitiveness.

This caricature celebrates, in contrast, forethought, planning and consistency. It looks upon Mrs. Snyder as, at worst, an inefficient and unfocussed, "culturally"-insensitive, hobbyist Crusader for an arbitrarily Dominant Culture. At best, it pictures her a warm-hearted, artsy-craftsy, Middle-class suburban matron haphazardly visiting her version of Enlightenment on her captive Working-Class charges.

Contest vs. Sponsored Mobility: the root of the assessment confusion.

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,
is but a Prologue to a Farce or Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.--- James Madison 4 .

American public schools have long been thought to serve the contest-mobility of those striving to better their circumstances. This concept of contest-mobility means that at critical junctures in the schooling process all participants compete with one another for advancement. Those most deserving by virtue of their achievement win the competition. The others fail to advance. The traditional vision served by this model is, among other's, Thomas Jefferson's: a ruling meritocracy of those who have achieved an elite status despite the circumstances of their birth. Assessment plays a critical function in such a system, especially if that system purports to be a democratic one. Such a system needs widely accepted, public criteria of achievement to work. (That political power might be commonly acquired without what Jefferson might have considered to be a "proper" education, does not seem to have occurred to him.)

Often contrasted with this ideal of contest-mobility is the example of British private education, the "Public Schools", which, as many a textbook informs us is based on sponsored mobility. Once admitted into such a system, one does not flunk out but rather, is sponsored through the system until completion of one's schooling. Birth into an elite class or into other privileged circumstances is generally sufficient to give one access to the system. Assessment is relegated to a minor, if any, role in the process, since status is not something yet to be achieved, but already assured by admission to such schooling. Participation in the rites of schooling leads to the conferral of recognition. Since this kind of schooling is not open to everyone, the "criteria" for success, if they are articulated clearly at all, need not be widely accepted. Sponsored-mobility systems are not intended to be "democratic."

The assessment confusion in American public schooling derives from the fact that many items in the curriculum of this putatively contest-mobile system are derived from elite systems of sponsored-mobility. Because the children of high status parents study the liberal arts, common superstition would have it that the way to high status is to study the liberal arts -- just as designer labels on dungarees enhance one's sexual desirability. But as the present furor about multi-cultural versus "canonical" studies indicates,"success" in these curricular areas is generally neither well-defined nor widely agreed upon.

Supporting this confusion is the indiscriminate mixing of sponsored-mobility schooling, generally private schooling, with contest-mobility schooling into one generally accepted status ranking of schools. Page through Barron's guide. Ask the average educated American which schools are the better ones.There is no contest here. The kneejerk answer will be "The Ivies, Chicago and Stanford." Is curriculum or mission taken into account? Rarely. Status counts more. Does an B.A. from Harvard indicate, necessarily, more knowledge of its possessor than, say, a B.S. from Florida A&M? Don't bet too much on it.

The final link in the chain is the common belief that "success" in terms of graduation from schools according to their status ranking justifies the wide variation in life chances found in our society. My son has a far better chance at a comfortable life having been the child of a college professor -- with far less risk of loss in a scholastically competitive situation -- than did the other students who sat with me in Mrs. Snyder's fifth grade class so many years ago.

Giving Ourselves Too Much Credit?

Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men. -- E.B. White 5

I remember my buddy, Walter, who was an obsessive amateur entomologist at age 11 often spurred on by the "show-and-tell" in Mrs. Snyder's class in which he shone. He was the only kid in the neighborhood who collected, mounted and studied butterflies. I lost track of him after my freshman year in college. A rather timid boy with a bright intelligence, he was importuned by his father to put away his "sissy dreams" and take a "man's job" in a local factory.

We "baby-boomers" grew up in an expanding economy. We learned and we earned. Perhaps our mistake was in believing that it was we, ourselves, who created the connection between school and socio-economic status rather than the circumstances we happened to find ourselves in. We need only look around us today at the glut of "over-educated" unemployed to come to sobering conclusions about our own good fortune.

I doubt that Mrs. Snyder set out to make us affluent or powerful. What she taught us she did not, I suspect, justify as a means to a higher income or the command of legions. She did not importune us to "get ahead" or be "number one." She did not preach "values" at us -- what values we learned from her we learned because of who she was and how she acted toward us. Hers was no tightly focussed methodology fed back via sophisticated assessment procedures preparing us for success in international markets. It was something less clear, much more serendipitous and far deeper. She transformed my life.

Thank you, Mrs. Snyder.


1 In Geraldine M. Joncich (ed.) Psychology and the Science of Education: Selected Writings of Edward L. Thorndike. (New York: Teachers' College Press, 1962) p.151.

2 For more on the "perpetual pendulum of reform" see E. G. Rozycki, "The dynamics of teacher certification: mythologies of competition."

3"An American Imperative" 1993. The Johnson Foundation. P.O. Box 2029, Racine, WI 53404. (414) 554-2434.

4 Quoted in R. Freeman Butts, "Search For Freedom -- the Story of American Education," NEA Journal, March 1960. p.8.

5"Control" One Man's Meat 1944 Cited in Rhoda Tripp Thomas (compiler) The International Thesaurus of Quotations Perennial Library. (NY: Harper & Rowe, 1987) p. 228.