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Educational policy analysis archives
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1 of 6 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 4 Number 10June 30, 1996ISSN 1068-2341A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal. Editor: Gene V Glass,Glass@ASU.EDU. College of Educ ation, Arizona State University,Tempe AZ 85287-2411 Copyright 1996, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.Permission is hereby granted to copy any a rticle provided that EDU POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES is credi ted and copies are not sold.Being Popular About National Standards: A Review Of National Standards in American Education: A Citizen 's Guide.Diane Ravitch. National Standards in American Education: A Citizen 's Guide. Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1995. pp. 223. $22.95 (hardc over) Michael W. Apple University of Wisconsin, Abstract: I assume that Diane Ravitch is someone who is as d eeply committed to a fair and socially just education as I am--even when our poli tical and educational agendas may differ--I also assume that re-stratification and fostering th e power of the conservative restoration is not what she wants either. Thus, I do urge you to read this book, but perhaps for different reasons: to see it as a cautionary tale and then to watch as th e public policies that are justified under its rhetorical umbrella and that are actually implement ed on the ground go in uncomfortable directions. Before you read any further, you should know that this will not be a "disinterested" review by a "disinterested" observer. Diane Ravitch and I have a prior history of interaction in print. Thus when her book written with Chester Finn-What Do Our 17-YearOlds Know? (1987)--appeared I was invited to review it for a m ajor journal. While I thought that the volume did raise some interesting issues, I also argued th at it was flawed and was ideally suited to advance the neo-conservative attack on schools. Dia ne Ravitch responded, partly in a serious way but also in a relatively "cute" way that did not de al with the substantive concerns I raised, perhaps because of the length limitations imposed on any re sponse. Through it all, it was clear that we disagreed in truly major ways. But, even with these substantial disagreements, the discourse never became that form of character assassination t hat too often poses as arguments between left and right.


2 of 6 At the risk of seeming consistent, I have exactly t he same reaction to Ravitch's recent volume on national standards as I did to her earlie r book on testing. Once again, it raises some interesting issues and once again I believe that it s arguments are deeply flawed. This volume too is ideally suited to support political and cultural positions that are more conservative than Ravitch herself may be. National Standards in American Education is meant to be a popular book. I do not mean this at all negatively. Educational policy and prac tice have become ever more complicated and strikingly political. Thus, there is a great need f or books that sort through the complexities, present clear syntheses of different positions, and clarify what is at stake when particular positions are taken. Yet, because of this, authors of popular books have a real political and ethical responsibility to their readers. They must clarify, yet not overly simplify. They must do justice to positions about which they have serious disagreements. The task of the popularizer is to make arguments accessible, without creating caricat ures-straw-persons--whose arguments are but pale reflections of their original depth and po wer. Therefore, writing popular books on important issues requires an immense amount of disc ipline, not only stylistically but in reading and presenting the substantive arguments for or aga inst one's position on educational policy carefully. These requirements make me more than a little nervo us about what Diane Ravitch has done--and has not done--in this book. Ravitch is in deed a fine writer. Her style is clear and unmystified. She has a nice way with words. However she is considerably less successful in the other demands placed upon the popular writer. She a ll too often doesn't deal with either the best or the most rigorous arguments of those who do not agree with her presuppositions, often preferring to deal with only the somewhat rhetorica l and brief statements of opponent's positions. Whether this is conscious or not, this is quite a c lever strategy. It enables the "naive" reader to think that the author is being fair and equitable, at the same time that some telling points made by opposing arguments can be all too easily dismissed. (This is not only a problem with those whose educational, ideological, and political positions a re similar to those of Ravitch. Unfortunately, this strategy is also found among those whose posit ions are closer to my own.) Given the intense conflict over educational policy now--when it is crucial to listen carefully to multiple arguments about who benefits from the ways our curricula, pedagogies, and evaluation mechanisms are organized and controlled-I worry about this in general. But, in the case of this book my worries are more specific, sin ce Ravitch has done this to my own writing as well as that of others. For example, as some of you may know, I have written at length about the movement toward national curricula, national standa rds, and national testing. I have raised a number of questions about its overt and hidden effe cts, its social and cultural claims, and its position on a "common culture" (Apple, 1992; Apple, 1993b). In general, I have argued--along with many others-that the results of this movement will be that it will be captured by neoliberal and neo -conservative tendencies and used for purposes whose large scale effects will be damaging to those with the least economic, political, and cultural power in the United States. I have also ar gued that many of these kinds of proposals are based on little understanding of the daily lives of teachers and the already intensified conditions under which they work. In even more recent work (Ap ple, 1996), I have brought to bear powerful empirical evidence--much of which was available eve n when Ravitch was writing this book--to demonstrate these effects. Yet, the representation of my arguments is taken from a two page piece written for a popular political magazine, a p iece that was simply meant to provide something of a beginning point to make the reader a ware of a set of issues, not to fully argue about them. Ravitch wrote National Standards while in residenc e at The Brookings Institution in Washington. As with many of these kinds of think ta nks, it too has moved significantly to the right. Thus, the political center has been redefine d, often to such an extent that what earlier


3 of 6would have been considered to be quite a conservati ve position has often now become "moderate." This signifies a major transformation i n our commonsense. Much of our public discussion involves quite simplistic neo-conservati ve versions of the issue of a "common culture." Increasingly, at the same time, other ele ments that surround what has been called the "conservative restoration" are becoming dominant. T hus, public is seen as bad and private as good. More and more, the neo-liberal emphasis on th e marketplace as the ultimate arbiter of justice has been taken as "truth." Indeed, our very idea of democracy is in the process of being transformed. The citizen is now replaced by the ind ividual consumer (See Apple, 1993a; Apple, 1996). And our ethical sensibilities are withering so that many people have now become almost inured to the human suffering that is produced by t he ways in which our institutions operate--a reality that may be best described by Jonathan Kozo l's powerful phrase "savage inequalities" (Kozol, 1991). While many of us lament this fact, m y basic point is to remind the reader that Ravitch's book was itself written under a particula r political aegis. It needs to be situated within a set of larger movements, not as an isolated volume about one part of educational life. Basically, Ravitch is strongly in favor of nationa l standards. These are to remain voluntary and dynamic, not mandatory and static. They are to be assessed in multiple ways, with a focus on that latest buzz word, performance assessment, not multiple choice tests. These kinds of examinations should be given to all individual stud ents in a way that provides comparative performance data on similar students of the same ag e and grade level. Accompanying this will be the creation of report cards for individual schools and districts. Such clarified national standards and more detailed performance assessments will help colleges and universities and will assist employers. Employers will rely on high school trans cripts and there will be a closer connection between what schools focus on and the skills needed to "succeed in the workplace." There are elements of insight here: the voluntarist ic nature of any standards that may be developed; the reduced emphasis on simplistic paper and pencil standardized tests; the urge to give "the public" more information about what schoo ls are doing; the need to communicate to students and parents that education is very importa nt; and so on. Yet, for all of her evident insights, it is almost as if Ravitch lives in an un real world at times. Among the most powerful driving forces in American education at this time a re increasingly something that sounds suspiciously like Social Darwinism and an impulse t o use schools for re-stratification. At the same time, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, and autho ritarian populist religious fundamentalists have created a tense but effective alliance in whic h market plans are coupled with proposals for national curricula and national testing. In essence by putting in place national standards and then national performance testing, we can then set the m arket loose, since "consumers" will then have sufficient information to be able to choose among products" (or schools). As odd as it may seem at first glance, the centralizing and rationalizing impulses of national curricula and national testing may be essential first steps toward the lon g term goal of marketization and privatization of schools through choice and voucher plans (Apple, 1996). This combination of strong state/weak state is exactly what is being tried in a number of nations under the new conservative policies being implemented. As Whitty and others ha ve shown, the results have been more than a little undemocratic or very contradictory (Whitty, Edwards, and Gewirtz, 1993: Whitty, in press; Pollard, et al., 1994). Why should we expect that t he US will be any different? Of equal importance, is the fact that the fiscal c risis now being experienced in many states has meant that seemingly fine sounding plans--somet imes quite similar to what Ravitch has asked for--have served as excuses to put in place m uch of what she is against. Thus, for example, in a number of states--even after a good deal of wo rk was done on higher standards and on more flexible forms of assessment--money was only alloca ted by the state for standardized, reductive paper and pencil tests. It was too expensive to do otherwise. The rhetoric of higher standards and of more flexible modes of assessment coupled with t he fear of "declining economies" and "declining achievement" created a sense of urgency to get more testing in schools. However, the


4 of 6rhetoric of "higher" and "flexible" ultimately func tioned to increase the power of mandatory state-centered testing of a relatively reductive ki nd, at the same time as there continued to be no growth in the ability of schools to do anything mor e about even meeting the old standards and tests. It ultimately functioned to add one more way of intensifying teachers jobs and of blaming the school even more for the social dislocations of this society. Speaking as bluntly as I can, my own prediction is that one of the most powerful and damaging effects of the standards movement and of the performance assessment movement will be to affix labels on poor children that will be even harder to erase than before. I could go on here. But my basic point is a simple one. Diane Ravitch is quite a good writer and is able to make what seems to be an arti culate case for higher national standards and more emphasis on performance assessment of particul ar kinds. However, she does this by simplifying the contentious issues, by ignoring imp ortant counter-evidence, and by failing to fully understand some of the most powerful economic ideological, and political currents in the United States and elsewhere. National Standards in American Education could perform a valuable service if it was read as a set of arguments about what to be very cautiou s of not doing in our drive to "reform" education. There are valuable issues raised in it. However, I predict it will be put to exactly the opposite use. It will add support to those neo-cons ervatives who wish to centralize control over "official knowledge" or by neo-liberals who want to reindustrialize the school by making schools into places whose primary (only?) function is to me et the needs of the economy and who see students not as persons but only as future employee s. And this will occur at the very same time as major corporations are shedding thousands upon thou sands of workers, most of whom did quite well in school, thank you very much. It will be use d once again to export the blame for our economic and social tragedies onto schools, without providing sufficient support to do anything serious about these tragedies. And, finally, it wil l be used to justify curricula, pedagogic relations and mechanism of evaluation that will be even less lively and more alienating than those that are in place now. (For alternatives to these kinds of t hings and to those that are proposed by Ravitch, see LadsonBillings (1994) and Apple and Beane (19 95)). Do not misconstrue what I am saying here. As I hav e argued elsewhere, I am not in principle opposed to national standards or to the p rocesses of assessment--if and only if they are employed to instigate a national debate at every sc hool and in every community about what and whose knowledge should be considered "legitimate" a nd about the very real patterns of differential benefits our schools produce (Apple, 1 996). If they do not do this, then they should be approached critically and with immense caution. Since I assume that Diane Ravitch is someone who is as deeply committed to a fair and so cially just education as I am--even when our political and educational agendas may differ--I als o assume that re-stratification and fostering the power of the conservative restoration is not what s he wants either. Thus, I do urge you to read this book, but perhaps for different reasons: to se e it as a cautionary tale and then to watch as the public policies that are justified under its rhetor ical umbrella and that are actually implemented on the ground go in uncomfortable directions.ReferencesApple, M. W. (1992) Do the standards go far enough? Journal of Research in Mathematics Education 23 (5), pp. 413-431. Apple, M. W. (1993a) Official knowledge. New York: Routledge. Apple, M. W. (1993b) The politics of official knowl edge: Does a national curriculum make sense? Teachers College Record 95 (2), pp. 222-241.


5 of 6 Apple, M. W. (1996) Cultural politics and education. New York: Teachers College Press. Apple, M. W. and Beane, J. A. (Eds.) (1995) Democratic schools. Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum and Instruction.Kozol, J. (1991) Savage inequalities. New York: Crown. Ladson-Billings, G. (1994) The dreamkeepers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Pollard, A. et al. (1994) Changing english primary schools? London: Cassell. Whitty, G. (in press) Creating quasi-markets in edu cation. In Apple, M. W. (Ed.) Review of research in education, volume 22. Washington, DC: American Educational Re search Association.Whitty, G., Edwards, T. and Gewirtz, S. (1993) Specialization and choice in urban schools. New York: Routledge.About the AuthorMichael W. Apple is John Bascom Professor of Curric ulum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madi son. Correspondence may be sent to Professor Michael W. Apple, University of Wisconsin Madison, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, 225 North Mills Street, Madison WI 537 06 or via email at Copyright 1996 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesEPAA can be accessed either by visiting one of its seve ral archived forms or by subscribing to the LISTSERV known as EPAA at (To sub scribe, send an email letter to whose sole contents are SUB EPAA y our-name.) As articles are published by the Archives they are sent immediately to the EPAA subscribers and simultaneously archived in three forms. Articles are archived on EPAA as individual files under the name of the author a nd the Volume and article number. For example, the article by Stephen Kemmis in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Archives can be retrieved by sending an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@a and making the single line in the letter rea d GET KEMMIS V1N1 F=MAIL. For a table of contents of the entire ARCHIVES, send the following e-mail message to INDEX EPAA F=MAIL, tha t is, send an e-mail letter and make its single line read INDEX EPAA F=MAIL.The World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is Policy Analysis Archives are "gophered" in the directory Campus-Wide Inform ation at the gopher server INFO.ASU.EDU.To receive a publication guide for submitting artic les, see the EPAA World Wide Web site or send an e-mail letter to and include the single l ine GET EPAA PUBGUIDE F=MAIL. It will be sent to you by return e-mail. General questions about ap propriateness of topics or particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, Glass@asu.ed u or reach him at College of Education, Arizona Sta te University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2411. (602-965-2692)


6 of 6Editorial Board Greg John Andrew Coulson Alan Davis Sherman Dorn Mark E. Thomas F. Alison I. Arlen Gullickson Ernest R. Aimee Craig B. Howley u56e3@wvnvm.bitnet William Richard M. Jaeger Benjamin Thomas Dewayne Mary P. Les Susan Bobbitt Anne L. Hugh G. Richard C. Anthony G. Rud Dennis Jay Robert Robert T.

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Educational policy analysis archives.
n Vol. 4, no. 10 (June 30, 1996).
Tempe, Ariz. :
b Arizona State University ;
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida.
c June 30, 1996
Being popular about national standards : a review of National standards in American education : a citizen's guide / Michael W. Apple.
x Research
v Periodicals.
2 710
Arizona State University.
University of South Florida.
1 773
t Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA)
4 856