“All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure.” — Mark Twain


I have a confession to make.

While I am accused often of thinking I know everything, the truth is that I want to know everything. There, I said it.

And part of my voracious habit as a perpetual student (I read like a demon possessed, and once I finished my doctorate in 1998, my first thought was if and how to pursue a second doctorate [1]) is grounded in that pursuit of knowing everything.

Today, I am a bit miffed to have discovered at such a late stage in life that all I needed to do in college was major in economics.

You see, economists don’t just know everything about economics; they know EVERYTHING.

Especially about education (just behind economists in their expertise in education are political scientists, and I suspect next are journalists and politicians with educators being about 912th on that list as best as I can tell).

So when Eric “Rick” Hanushek [2] joined Deb Meier at the Bridging Differences blog, I was eager to gain the insight Hanushek could bring to the education debate. If an economist can’t bridge differences, then who can?

For example, I was thankful that Hanushek had this to offer about the push back among teachers and scholars concerning value-added methods (VAM) of evaluating teachers based in part on high-stakes test scores of their students:

Can’t we pare through some of the smoke and move the discussion forward to a better place?

It is curious, for example, that there is a sudden uproar about high-stakes testing with school accountability, but that there were essentially no complaints when only students were subject to high-stakes testing. The standardized SAT test—to say nothing of the entrance exams for medical, law, and business schools—have been fine.

Stunning. High-stakes, standardized tests have avoided “complaints” until those test scores impacted teachers. Hmmmm. This has forced me to reevaluate what knowing everything means, and that led me to the opening comment from Mark Twain. A key to knowing everything, it seems, is ignorance.

For example, let’s consider the history of “no complaints” about standardized testing (including the “fine” SAT):

  • The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958, by Herb Kliebard, details the arguments both for and against standardized testing that reaches back to the first few decades of the 1900s.
  • Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962), by Raymond Callahan, details and rejects the rise of efficiency education models, including standardized testing, throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
  • The Mismeasure of Man (1981), by Stephen Jay Gould, presents a comprehensive and historical unmasking of the failures of standardized testing, focusing on IQ, but extrapolated to the broader failures of testing and education.*
  • FairTest began in 1986, and has fought the anti-testing position ever since.
  • Measured Lies (1997), edited by Kincheloe, Gresson, and Steinberg, rejects both the objectivity of IQ and similar testing, but the larger element of similar weaknesses in all standardized testing.
  • The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), by Alfie Kohn, challenges standardized testing, including the SAT: “Drawing from the latest research, he concisely explains just how little test results really tell us and just how harmful a test-driven curriculum can be.”
  • The Truth about Testing (2001), by James Popham, details the cumulative and negative impact of high-stakes standardized testing from one of the key figures in the creation and implementation of standardized testing, Popham himself.
  • In 2003 and 2010, major charges against the SAT have been documented in terms of the lingering racial bias in the test.

It appears, then, taking into account Twain’s directive, that the key to knowing everything is a healthy dose of ignorance.

Hanushek’s incredible claim that not a peep has been uttered about standardized testing until its harmful influence creeped into the world of those self-serving teachers is but one snapshot of a much larger collage including the new reformers of education who have mastered the formula for success: “All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure.”

And Hanushek’s incredible claim reminds me of a similar pronouncement by Achieve as the early momentum built for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In 2008, Achieve published Out of Many, One: Toward Rigorous Common Core Standards from the Ground Up, announcing:

All students should graduate from high school prepared for the demands of postsecondary education, meaningful careers and effective citizenship [emphasis in original].

For the first time in the history of American education, educators and policymakers are setting their sights on reaching this goal. Achieving the goal will require states to address the twin challenges of graduating more students and graduating them ready for college, careers and citizenship. (p. 1)

Yes, if one ignores that the standards movement in U.S. education began in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten and the fact that standards movements linked to testing has occurred ad nauseam ever since, notably with a vengeance since the early 1980s, then this claim is as credible as Hanushek’s about resistance to standardized testing.

I am left with only one avenue to pursue: Ignore whatever evidence there is about what it may mean to major in economics and receive an advanced degree so that I can imagine it must be something like the procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film title echoing these lines from a poem by Alexander Pope (ignorantly called “Pope Alexander” by Mary [Kirsten Dunst]):

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

We must then, as Camus implores us to imagine about Sisyphus, assume that the blissful ignorance of education reform renders those reformers happy, happy in the weightlessness of not having to know anything about the field of education or its history and happy that ignorance and confidence are the key ingredients in their $uce$$. [3]

[1] For the record, one of my doctoral committee members did have two doctorates, which I still think is awesome.

[2] I also must confess that I regret I cannot be in the “people who go by ‘Rick’” club like Eric “Rick” Hanushek and Frederick “Rick” Hess. Jealousy is an ugly thing.

[3] Final confession for this blog posting: I would apologize for this snarky post, but just as I have yet to achieve my goal of knowing everything, I have also yet to become the kind of gracious and gentle person I hope to be (I have a poster of Gandhi on my office door and mostly cannot look that photograph in the eyes). However, if any of the education reformers who have no experience or expertise in education ever want themselves to apologize and stop holding forth about my field (and I do not write at length about economics or other fields in which I have no credibility, by the way), I will humbly take a knee and sincerely apologize [Promise]. Regretfully, I need someone else to be the better person.

* Thanking Anthony Cody for my unforgivable oversight of the key work at the foundation of my own journey against testing.