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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Review: ‘Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation’

From The New York Times'
Sunday Book Review

By Pedro Noguera
December 18, 2015

In the thought-provoking “Beyond Measure,” Vicki Abeles offers a compelling set of arguments for reconsidering how we define success in American education and for radically altering the approach we’ve taken to get there. High grades, high test scores and admission to one of the nation’s elite colleges have long been embraced as symbols of excellence and, by extension, successful parenting.

Abeles suggests that pursuit of this narrow form of success is actually harming children and families, and distorting our educational institutions.

Her book is bound to be controversial, particularly to the education establishment — university presidents, the testing industry and the policy makers who support them. For many of them, “Beyond Measure” is likely to be regarded as a threat, if not downright subversive.

Unlike others who have written on this topic, Abeles is not primarily focused on the politics driving America’s approach to education. Instead, she writes as a parent who questions the value of the ­sacrifices made by her own daughters when her family became “enslaved to achievement.” She is a keen observer who has spoken to researchers, educators and parents throughout the country about the toll that such competition has taken on our children.

She documents rising rates of depression and anxiety disorders, and excessive use of performance-enhancing drugs, and concludes that if the trade-off for success is a decline in health, a growing number of people may decide it’s not worth it.

Following up on her highly regarded film “Race to Nowhere,” Abeles calls for an end to what she describes as the “application arms race.” She also reminds us that it wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago, those who didn’t gain admission to elite private colleges could be educated at strong, affordable public alternatives that were readily available.

She points out that homework has been around for centuries, but since when did it become normal for children as young as 6 and 7 to be burdened with hours of it each night? Standardized tests have been a regular part of education, but in the past the stakes weren’t so high, and relatively little time was devoted to preparation.


Her critics are likely to contend that her concerns are limited to a privileged segment of the population: overachieving, affluent parents and their children. They will suggest that her arguments have no relevance to the education of most American children, especially the poor and disadvantaged, for whom the “right to be tested” is tantamount to a civil right, because it provides measurable evidence of learning.

They will tell us the Chinese, Koreans and Indians are producing far more engineers and computer scientists because their students work harder and their schools are better. Last, they will also claim that the education arms race must continue because it is essential for America’s global competitiveness, and they will point to America’s slippage in the rankings on international education assessments as proof that “reform” is needed.

By now, however, those arguments are wearing thin. A growing chorus of Americans is questioning the ever-increasing cost of college and the staggering debts students must take on to finance their education. Opposition is emerging from both the left and the right. A number of conservatives now regard No Child Left Behind and the Common Core learning standards as intrusive federal mandates.

More and more educators, students and parents are questioning the value of high-stakes assessments; many are “opting out” and objecting to the use of tests to evaluate teachers and rationalize the closing of public schools. For the last 30 years, the reformers have held a viselike grip on American education policy. Abeles is giving voice to those who seek a fundamental redirection.

For this reason, “Beyond Measure” will be seen as threatening. The education establishment is losing its ability to dismiss its critics as self-serving defenders of the status quo. The critics are too numerous, too diverse and, increasingly, too fed up with the whole bill of goods they’ve been sold. Abeles sees how the clamor for change in American education is growing and will not be assuaged by new or better slogans.


Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation
By Vicki Abeles with Grace Rubenstein
287 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.

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Pedro Noguera is a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education.”

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