A review of "The War Against
Excellence," by Cheri Pierson Yecke; Preager (2003); 260 pages; $49.95.
In 1983, the U.S. Education
Department’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published its
watershed report, "A Nation at Risk." The report famously stated, "If an
unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre
educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an
act of war."
Since then, there has been a
great deal of talk about improving the educational system. Some legislation has
been passed purporting to raise standards.
But on the whole, it’s hard to
perceive much improvement. In fact, if author Cheri Pierson Yecke is correct in
"The War Against Excellence," things have gotten worse, particularly at the
middle school level.
Yecke is a former U.S.
Department of Education Commissioner for Minnesota. Her volume is the latest in
a stream of books by a multitude of authors in recent years exposing unpleasant
truths about government schools.
This stream is fighting a
broader current. School districts and employee unions invest mightily in public
relations to keep parents, taxpayers and politicians convinced that "public
education" is doing wonderfully, but just needs more money. "The War Against
Excellence" pulls back the curtain to reveal that over the last 20 years or so,
middle schools — usually sixth grade to eighth grade — have been infested with
an alarmingly anti-academic mindset.
According to the author, five
beliefs that progressive education theorists embrace have infiltrated the middle
schools. Yecke does not say that these views are confined to middle school, only
that the problem seems worst there. The five views can be stated briefly:
Belief in the overriding value of students achieving equal educational outcomes.
Belief in questioning the value of individualism.
Belief in the supremacy of the group over the individual.
Belief that advanced students have a duty to help others at the expense of their own needs.
Belief that competition is negative and must be eliminated.
University of Florida
Professor Paul George, one of the educational "progressives" whom Yecke quotes,
opines that middle schools should become "the focus of societal experimentation,
the vehicle for movement toward increasing justice and equality in the society
as a whole." "Schools," he writes, "are not about taking each child as far as he
or she can go. They’re about redistributing the wealth of the future."
The United States has always
had plenty of educational theorists eager to use government schools as
experimental laboratories for their own notions about the reformation of
society, but the current crop seems to have been particularly effective in
getting their ideas implemented.
Yecke discusses several
distressing manifestations of those beliefs. One is the attack on ability
grouping. Schools have customarily followed the practice of putting brighter
students in accelerated classes, so they can proceed at a faster pace;
sometimes, too, schools have grouped slower students together, so they can
receive special attention.
To egalitarian theorists,
ability grouping is a practice that is both educationally bad and morally wrong.
Yecke quotes education activist Elizabeth Cohen on the supposed need to redesign
education along egalitarian lines:
What is at stake here is the attempt to undo the effects of inequality in society at large as it affects the day-to-day life of the
classroom. Social scientists have documented the ways in which classrooms tend
to reproduce the inequalities of the larger society. Undoing these effects is an ambitious undertaking. Nonetheless, the application of sociological theory and research to the problem of increasing equity in [the] heterogeneous classroom leaves room for hope that these goals are within our reach.
From that statement, it is
evident that the educational reformers who want to remake our schools as a
prelude to remaking society would rather that the brightest children be held
back from their natural learning pace in school so that there will be less
inequality among adults in the future. If gifted kids can be slowed down, the
thinking goes, they wouldn’t be so successful later in life, thus taking a big
step toward so-called "social justice."
That this leveling down would
make everyone poorer in the long run by retarding those who have the most
ability seems not to bother the activists.
The abolition of ability
grouping has met with strong resistance from parents of gifted children, who
resent having their kids held back just to satisfy the egalitarian impulses of
education theorists. Yecke quotes one parent, who says, "The problem with this
forced redistribution of intellect is that it limits my son’s educational
opportunity and intellectual growth. Advocates of collaborative learning argue
that it’s more important to encourage socially desirable aspirations than to
develop individual students’ knowledge base and intellectual skills. I
disagree." Unfortunately, the complaints of such parents are usually met with
indifference by school officials.
Another manifestation of the
egalitarian impulse is the move toward "cooperative learning." That’s another of
those warm and fuzzy notions that hides an unpleasant concept, namely that
students should work and be graded in groups, rather than individually. Again,
this is supposedly necessary to correct an underlying social injustice.
The obvious problem with
cooperative learning is that the smarter or more diligent students do most of
the work, but must share the credit. To the theorists, this approach to
education performs the vital task of informing the bright kids that they have to
"share" their talents, and of discouraging them from using their ability to
their own benefit.
A particularly disquieting
aspect of cooperative learning is that it not only groups students together, but
demands that the more gifted students instruct the slower ones. Under the
concept of "peer tutoring," students who have already mastered new material are
expected to help teach students who have not. This peer tutoring supposedly
compels gifted students to develop a sense of responsibility to their
classmates. If there are not any instructional tasks the gifted students can do,
they can be required to help the teacher with other tasks.
Yecke writes, "(S)tudents who
have completed their work can tutor others or perform clerical duties — but they
cannot be allowed to work to the extent of their abilities and get ahead of the
class." When parents of gifted students complain that school time is largely
wasted for their kids, and that "cooperative learning" is holding them back, the
educational theorists tend to reply that the research does not show that any
educational harm is done to bright kids by holding them back so they can learn
The author finds this
"research" to be very feeble and reports that some of the activists privately
acknowledge that their program does hinder the progress of bright students, but
they regard it as a price worth paying in order to achieve their goals of
The author is rightly
concerned about the spread of the egalitarian vision of school, observing that
it has been absorbed into the curriculum of many college education programs.
Teachers in training often hear from their professors that these ideas are
widely accepted and that they should aspire to become "change agents" within
Yecke is not optimistic about
a quick reversal back to school cultures that emphasize academic achievement;
the egalitarian mindset is too widespread. Fortunately, parents who can see that
their children are being used as the guinea pigs in a sociological experiment
have alternatives. Yecke cites the example of Maryland’s Howard County, where
the school administration chose to ignore parental protests against grouping
students of unequal abilities together. As a result, the number of parents
choosing either private schools or home-schooling in Howard County has risen by
50 percent during the last decade.
"The War Against Excellence"
will startle readers who are unaware just how explicitly many middle schools set
out to homogenize children and use the classroom to remedy society’s imagined
ills. Revealing to parents the often-unreported activities and theories
practiced in their children’s schools is worth the price of the book.
George C. Leef is executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.