A Better Way to Talk About Education

A Better Way To Talk About EducationAmericans want more out of education than good test-takers. But what?

By Helen F. Ladd/NNPA?ESSA

June 5, 2018

Standardized test scores have been the driving force in U.S. education for more than two decades. But across the country, parents concerned about the psychic toll of high-stakes testing on their children have been “opting out” of testing programs. Meanwhile, teachers have long complained that testing reduces the time for instruction and distorts the curriculum.

Clearly, Americans expect our education system to do more for children than to turn them into successful test-takers. It’s time for a change. The question is: How?

A crucial first step is to change the way we talk about the broad goals of education. Decisionmakers need new language that goes beyond the narrow range of cognitive knowledge and skills that standardized tests purport to measure.


The overall goal of education should be to equip children with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions that they will need to flourish as adults in a democracy.

In a new book, Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making, my colleagues and I identify six capacities—or “educational goods”—integral to such flourishing. Students should be prepared to succeed in the labor market, participate in the democratic process, make their own judgments, develop healthy interpersonal relationships, feel personally fulfilled, and treat others with dignity and respect.

Standardized test scores have been the de facto criterion for judging the academic progress of students and schools since the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated extensive testing of all students and required that test scores be used in state accountability systems. Such an approach has had obvious appeal to policymakers, largely because of its appearance of objectivity and precision. A heavy focus on test scores, however, inflates the importance of just a single educational good: cognitive knowledge in math and language.

“Clearly, Americans expect our education system to do more for children than to turn them into successful test-takers.”

Although the Every Student Succeeds Act now requires states to add one additional non-test measure of school accountability, student achievement as measured by test scores remains at the center of education policymaking and policy discussions.

Without new language, “student achievement” can easily become—as it clearly already has in this country—a catchall for the broader set of valued outcomes. We can fall into the habit of thinking that building academic skills is the only educational outcome that matters and the only one that schools are in a position to promote. We need to think clearly about balancing the full set of educational goods, as well as how best to distribute them among children.

Moreover, attention to a few additional values is central to good education decisionmaking. One such value is “childhood goods,” or the special value placed on the curiosity and wonder that should be the special province of childhood. This concept allows one to recognize, for instance, that the current testing regime often comes at a cost to the quality of a child’s experience in school.

Consider a decision about whether to group students across classrooms by ability. The values at stake include not only the policy’s likely impact on overall achievement and achievement gaps between subgroups, but also the capacity of students to learn to treat other students with dignity.

Students in the higher ability groupings might view those relegated to the lower group as inferior, for example. The more weight placed on the educational good of treating others with respect and dignity, the less attractive this ability-grouping policy will be. In addition, one would need to take into account the possible loss of childhood goods that would arise if such grouping adversely affected the schooling experience of some groups of children, perhaps by making them more anxious or more insecure about their ability to learn.


Follow Commentary here.

Different decisionmakers may well place different weights on various educational goods, and trade-offs among them are inevitable. Some may view developing healthy interpersonal relationships or treating others with respect every bit as important as student achievement. Others may view those particular educational goods as more the responsibility of families than of schools. But the first step toward discussing trade-offs and making wise policy decisions is a common vocabulary for talking about them.

Of course, decisionmakers must consider evidence about the effects of their choices when evaluating education policy options. Even more than evidence, however, good education decisionmaking must start with values.

Helen F. Ladd is the Susan B. King Professor Emerita of Public Policy and Economics in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. She is the co-author—with Harry Brighouse, Susanna Loeb, and Adam Swift—of Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Leave a Reply