Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Judgment, Deliberation, Evaluation: Rediscovering Joseph Schwab's Practical Arts

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Judgment, Deliberation, Evaluation: Rediscovering Joseph Schwab's Practical Arts

Article excerpt


A recent scrum over accountability initiatives undertaken in Tennessee, in particular, for whose rigor the state won its Race to the Top funding, highlights the extreme of the shortcomings of the debate itself more than it does any particular methodological deficiency. (1) The contradictions and flaws exposed in attempts to implement well-meaning and tough accountability measures draw at least as much attention to the inherence of the problems of universal abstraction in the measurement and evaluation of education as they do to the somewhat technical issues therein.

The narrow field of this debate--and the persistent dissatisfaction with all of the forms of accountability that it has so far generated--stems not, as some would have it, from the massive complexity of the educational enterprise itself, but rather from a profound refusal to cope with this complexity as irreducibly complex. Attempting to understand, undertake, assess, or evaluate the irreducibly complex social practice of education by means of applying certain general and abstract rules, principles or algorithms to particular cases is simply bound to go awry. (2)

Joseph Schwab might note that the qualitative difference between the visible truth of a particular situation and the verdict handed down by a given accountability system is not, properly speaking, either the fault of the technical aspects of the system in question or an insufficiency on the part of human judgment, but is rather attributable to an inadequate "problemation" in the first place. (3) The problem under investigation itself is inadequately conceived, and that mistake precludes the possibility of satisfactory results. In this article, I propose to return to Schwab's most canonical thinking on the practical arts in light of the multifarious points of impasse in the contemporary discussion of school accountability, and to explore the assumptions undergirding this debate in search of the conceptual terrain they omit or overlook, but would do well to consider.

The Insufficiency of the Theoretic in the Conduct of Schooling

In outline form, the Race to the Top program grants federal funds to states based upon a given state's commitment to a certain educational reform agenda. At the top of that agenda rests the issue of improving teacher quality. As such, the program encourages states to revisit policies pertaining to teacher tenure contracts, credentialing, and compensation (among other features), so as to more discriminatingly reward success and respond appropriately to failure. The key term in the above sentence is "more discriminatingly," which reinforces the centrality of being able to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. In simpler terms, the vital heart of Race to the Top lies in knowing teacher quality. Schwab, drawing somewhat obliquely upon Aristotle and much more directly on Dewey, brings to the fore twin issues in this area: as far as schooling is concerned, what kinds of knowledge are (a) possible and (b) desirable? His distinction between "the theoretic" and "the practical" illuminates the matter in ways that are helpful to bear in mind in the contemporary climate.

In order to win Race to the Top funding, a state must elaborate its methods of distinguishing good teachers from bad. As a recent study notes, "One prominent method is to evaluate teachers based on their impacts on their students' test scores, commonly termed the 'value-added (VA)' approach" (Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2011, p. 1), wherein student achievement scores are statistically dissected such that major known predictors of achievement (race, social ecomomic status, parent education level, and so on) are accounted for, leaving--so the assumption goes--teaching itself as the discriminating factor (Kane & Staiger, 2008). These values of "effectiveness" can be used, in conjunction with other measures, to see which teachers are causing students to learn and which are not. …

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