Where Are the Deserts of Yesteryear?

Those of us who love the movie Lawrence of Arabia remember Lawrence’s surprise attack on the coastal town of Aqaba after a brave crossing of the Nafūd Desert. I was thinking about the Nafūd, which I had driven around in 1979, and as the stream of my consciousness moved unaccountably to memories of my teacher education, I remembered a course taught by a Chinese-American man who was the principal of a school in a nearby city.

Mr. C offered insights into school administration (the ostensible subject of the course) and his life as the son of a Chinese father. In the pre-grade-inflation days when he went to school, a B was a respectable if not ideal grade, but for Mr. C’s father a B didn’t exist: the only possible grade was an A. He said it was typical of Chinese parents to insist on proficiency, but he also said that another explanation of Chinese students’ success in academics was the inculcation of an implicit bargain with the system: “You tell us the rules, and we will play the game.”

This view jibes with a more recent one[1] by Amy Chuan, a Chinese-American mother who also would not tolerate Bs and insisted on playing the game: “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen,” she said, “the devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.” Even discounted for some wry hyperbole, this is the testimony of a parent who plays the game. She certainly isn’t criticizing test-based education if she coaches her children with spare tests to get their scores up. And to judge by reactions to the book, whatever else she may be, she has an uncommon determination to see her daughters become proficient at taking them.

An acceptance of the need for success in test-based education also informs the view of a report recently released by the “Education School Project,” which notes that “states now set minimum acceptable achievement levels, the highest in history, that students must attain, and mandate testing regimens to assess whether students are actually meeting state standards[2].” What is more, “all students are expected to achieve these outcomes,” which are usually described as “proficiency.”

There are riddles here. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School, a public “magnet” school, admits students on the basis of academic records and performance on an admission test. Nearly 60% of its students are from families of Asian backgrounds. Lowell is in this respect a microcosm of California, where Asians constitute between 40 and 55% of the students at the nine University of California campuses, though they constitute only 12% of California’s population. It would seem that not only do they “play the game,” as Mr. C. would say; their play is proficient. Riddle number one: why is this so? But riddle number two lies in a decision by the University of California to revise its admission procedures in 2012 to reduce the number of SAT subject tests required for admission and to lower the number of students whose positions will be guaranteed by test results. Why have they done so if what matters is performance on tests?

The riddles do not stop at Sather Gate[3]. The report on teacher education mentioned above gives a puzzling reason for improving the US’s largely deplorable teachers’ colleges[4]. It is that “information societies seek common outcomes” and mediocre or old-fashioned preparation leaves teachers unfit to produce common outcomes. Riddle number three: what were the teachers (and the parents!) of the past doing in the 2,500 years before we became an information society in order to produce the outcomes of students at Lowell High School, or for that matter, the Academy, or Amy Chuan’s children, or Mr. C? Were the teachers (and parents) involved somehow culpable because not everyone ended up proficient? (And, by the bye, a riddle of final cause: why should mediocrity in teacher education become unacceptable because it runs counter to the needs of an information society? Whose needs, including those of “prior” societies, does mediocrity not run counter to?)

If doing well on tests were the be all and end all, why would the University of California decide to downplay test results? Why would Amy Chuan insist with equal vigor that her daughters get As on tests and that they become proficient at Chopin? Why would UC’s requirements stay changed in spite of Asian-Americans’ objections that the rules of the game were being altered? Why do many first-rate colleges accept evidence of applicants’ qualities other than their test scores? Why do a few[5] not even look at test scores? Is “the game” more complex than simplistic mythologies make it?

See the last paragraph of this posting of mine for a brief discussion of part of what I think is involved in helping a student achieve understanding. If I am right, the Road to Universal Proficiency on Tests will be harder than Lawrence’s way to Aqaba. I mean not just his actual way, but also the mythic one portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia, for the victory did not happen as shown. There is no place called the Devil’s Anvil near Aqaba, which is hundreds of kilometers from the Nafūd, a desert of shifting sands unlike what the movie shows. The reason Lawrence’s victory at Aqaba persists as a myth of endurance and success is not that people don’t have the right information about it; it is that the broad outline of the story is true and inspiring and that Lawrence’s achievement was uncommon. We the commonalty will find many very non-mythical Devil’s Anvils along our way to universal proficiency.


[1] See Diane Johnson’s review of the book in the August 18 issue The New York Review of Books. It discusses not just the book but the reaction to it.

[2] p. 12

[3] The portal at the old boundary of the UC Berkeley campus

[4] Op cit., p. 13.

[5] Like Bowdoin


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