Thursday, January 30, 2014

Polarizing Prose: E. D. Hirsch and Cultural Literacy


Todd Kefor

March 20, 2012

Theories of education and human development create a sense of collective structure, a foundation for our critical understanding of learning. Certain theories gain a foothold and enter the maelstrom of practice and critique, affecting educational cultures in some profound way. E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s model of cultural literacy is one such theory, a proposition that has left a mark- though not without resistance- on the contemporary landscape of educational thought. What makes E. D. Hirsch, Jr. such a polarizing figure? Which aspects of his work elicit praise; which spur aversion? What do these divergent reactions reveal about existing facets of educational theory and curricula?

In analyzing Hirsch’s contributions to educational and developmental theory and prevailing critiques surrounding his thought, specific features of his writing and ideas play a role in the divisiveness surrounding him, a divisiveness that may actually deter young and emerging scholars from pursuing “the many fruitful topics for research” suggested by his most controversial work, Cultural Literacy (1987) (Lazere, 2009, p. 503). Hirsch’s educational territory is vast, yet his developmental concerns are couched in literacy- more specifically- in American literacy. Like Dewey, Hirsch’s brand of educational theory is (primarily) made in- and for- America. Simultaneously earning acclaim and spurring controversy, the theories posited by E. D. Hirsch contain several polarizing characteristics: Hirsch’s distinctive linguistic style and his penchant for implicative audacity. These traits serve to aid Hirsch in impacting the contemporary educational landscape but, conversely, elicit a host of critical responses from peers. A juxtaposition of the interpretations of Hirsch’s style and brashness leads to a more comprehensive contextualization of his theories regarding literacy, culture, development, and education.

An Overview of Hirsch’s Theoretical Stance

Foundationally, Hirsch (2006) frames his proposals around a seemingly perpetual critique of contemporary student underachievement, indicating, “we have a national responsibility to take stock of the contents of schooling” (Hirsch, 1983, p. 165). He warns that “employers now often need to rely on immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe to do the math that our own high school graduates cannot do” and cites troubling statistics for American students: “by tenth grade they score fifteenth in reading among twenty-seven countries, which is not promising at all for their (and our) economic future” (Hirsch, 2006, p. 1). Hirsch (1983) is even willing to dispel the American symbol of the melting pot, which juxtaposes the “symbol of the stew pot, where our national ingredients kept their individual characteristics and contributed to the flavor and vitality of the whole” (p. 160). He labels this “doctrine” that of “pluralism” and calls for a restoration of balance between the equally American traditions of unity and diversity” (Hirsch, 1983, pp. 160-161). Offering an anecdotal critique of the “remarkable document” that was the curriculum guide to the study of English in the state of California, Hirsch (1983) reports that, upon perusal, he did “not find the title of a single recommended work. Such curricular guides are produced on the theory that the actual contents of English courses are simply vehicles for inculcating formal skills, and that contents can be left to local choice” (p. 161). Hirsch (1983) pinpoints history and English as the crux of culture making.

Hirsch (2006) describes America as being heavily guided by a Romantic spirit; a spirit “that powerfully influenced our young nation in its beginnings” and “still dominates our thinking about education and many other things” (p. 4). In fact, Hirsch (2006) suggests that transcendentalism, pragmatism, and progressivism can be viewed as cryptic epithets for romanticism.

Hirsch (2006) characterizes our modern educational movement as formalism, another educational movement not immune to critique. According to Hirsch (2006), formalism posits that “instead of burdening our minds with a lot of dead facts, we should become expert in solving problems, in thinking critically- in reading fluently- and then we will be able to learn anything we need” (p. 11) and that such an approach is a “barrier to our students’ achievement in reading”, consuming time and effort that “could be devoted to gaining general knowledge, which is the central requisite for high reading skill” (p. 14). Clark (2009) proposes that what Hirsch calls formalism “infects every level of education, from grade schools to high schools to universities (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) to education schools, the last perhaps most of all” (p. 509). Clark (2009) agrees that formalism has “become a habit of mind so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of educators that it is virtually impossible to change or uproot” and characterizes it as an “entrenched pedagogical prejudice” that “leaves students feeling their education is strangely without content — empty and meaningless” (p. 509).

As recently as 2010, Hirsch has enumerated his literacy-based educational theories into four distinct arguments and critiques: “prior knowledge of the subject matter of a text is more important to reading comprehension than technical reading skill”; “reading tests are progressively tests of background knowledge”; “instruction in reading strategies is of limited value and, beyond ten lessons, useless” and “vocabulary growth is glacially slow, helped only modestly by explicit vocabulary study, which should be used sparingly and in connection with coherent subject matter” (pp. 12-13). Reedy (2006) offers a succinct and accessible synopsis of Hirsch’s correlation between literacy and culture:

Being able to read differs from text to text and requires ‘specific background knowledge’ that writers assume readers have. (Reading The New England Journal of Medicine is one thing; reading a Harry Potter book another.) Writers in our culture do not identify Jesus or Plato but should identify, for example, Jacques Derrida when writing for the general public. Jesus and Plato are part of the background knowledge writers expect readers to have; Derrida is not. Schools that want their graduates to be literate should teach the shared background knowledge that literate people in our culture (i.e., those who are able to read and write) possess. This is the inherited body of knowledge on which the culture is based, and transmitting it to the younger generation has been the purpose of education in all cultures, ancient and modern, with the possible exception of our own since the 1960s. (p. 33)

He supplements his arguments, in part, by dispelling prevailing concerns regarding the negative effects of American society on learning, “pointing to developed countries whose students read better than ours yet spend as much or more time on video games, computers, television, and the movies” (Hirsch, 2006, p. 14). In an attempt to stock support for such claims, Hirsch (2006) is careful to remove blame from educators, claiming that “there is far too much criticism of teachers and principals for poor educational outcomes that have little to do with their native abilities or their desire to help children and a lot to do with prevailing educational ideas” (p. 16), a strategy that may backfire in its potential to represent teachers as hapless victims dominated by established theory and incapable of generating change.

Critical to a survey of Hirsch’s contributions to educational thought are his theory of cultural literacy and his publication of a text by the same name. In 1983, Hirsch set the stage for his cultural literacy framework: “Without appropriate, tacitly shared background knowledge, people cannot understand newspapers. A certain extent of shared, canonical knowledge is inherently necessary to a literate democracy” (p. 165). He described a particular canon of cultural information that should serve as a collective, foundational knowledge base: “For this canonical information I have proposed the term ‘cultural literacy.’ It is a translinguistic knowledge on which linguistic literacy depends. You cannot have one without the other” (Hirsch, 1983, p. 165). To support this dependency, Hirsch (1983) cites foreign language instruction, pointing out that second language education benefits from cultural awareness and immersion (pp. 165-166). Pentony (1997) pinpoints Cultural Literacy’s (1987) thesis:

Cultural Literacy has generated enormous interest since its publication in 1987. Its major thesis is that poor readers do not know much about their cultural background and are therefore put at a serious disadvantage in reading comprehension (p. 39).

Also essential in understanding Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy is the duality of the word literacy. To first-time readers, cultural literacy may suggest a holistic movement along the lines of multiculturalism. Hirsch views literacy- even in conjunction with culture- denotatively as it pertains to reading and writing and connotatively, as it pertains to understanding. Considering Hirsch’s fusion of culture (heritage) and literacy, Schroeder (1989) writes favorably:

What Hirsch is speaking of is a heritage of symbols that enrich our writing, speaking, reading, listening, seeing, communication and lives. This heritage provides a common currency of allusions to events, personages, literary works and artifacts of different kinds that not only are ornaments to communication, but often are highly efficient ways of encapsulating complicated, abstruse or elusive thoughts. So alluding to a scandal as another “Teapot Dome,” or a riotous committee as a “Donnybrook Fair,” or a tax form as “Kafkaesque,” or an administrative spokesperson as a “Greek messenger,” or a beauty as “Junoesque” are shorthand ways of communicating with cultural symbols that contain far more than a small change of basic literacy. (p. 18)

Hirsch’s lifelong immersion in the world of literature elicits an emphasis on dwindling literacy as the root of America’s academic decline, which he labels “tragic”, declaring that “reading ability correlates with almost everything that a democratic education aims to provide, including the ability to be an informed citizen who can actively participate in the self-government of a democracy” (Hirsch, 2006, p. 2). He indicates “the national decline in our literacy has accompanied a decline in our use of common, nationwide materials in the subject most closely connected with literacy, “English’” (Hirsch, 1983, p. 159). He leans toward philosophy in defending his link between literacy and culture, claiming: 

Knowledge of words is an adjunct to knowledge of cultural realities signified by words, and to whole domains of experience to which words refer. Specific words go with specific knowledge. And when we begin to contemplate how to teach specific knowledge, we are led back inexorably to the contents of the school curriculum, whether or not those contents are linked, as they used to be, to specific texts. (Hirsch, 1983, p. 160).

Literacy, according to Hirsch (1983), is not just a formal skill, but also a political decision. He claims that this decision:

To want a literate society is a value-laden one that carries costs as well as advantages. English teachers by profession are committed to the ideology of literacy. They cannot successfully avoid the political implications of that ideology by hiding behind the skirts of methodology and research. Literacy implies specific contents as well as formal skills. (p. 162).

Lazere (2009) offers his advocacy for cultural literacy, asking:

Is it so unreasonable a goal for all Americans — and especially college graduates — to be able to read at that level? Many of my middle-class white college students cannot, alas. I have never heard doctrinaire advocates of multiculturalism and diversity address the question of what is the minimal level of common knowledge and reading material that it is advantageous for Americans of all identities to have in common.Why should this be a taboo question for open inquiry? (p. 502)

To offer a quantitative option, Hirsch has worked to create an assessment system, a 115-item test to measure his construct of cultural literacy, and has reported a correlation of .92 between the Verbal Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) and the Cultural Literacy Test (CLT) with eleventh and twelfth graders in a randomly selected Virginia sample” (Pentony, 1997). As a complement to his promotion of cultural literacy, Hirsch has also developed a Core Knowledge Curriculum that has been successfully implemented in existing schools (Shields, 1992).

It is beyond question that Hirsch has put forth significant contributions to learning. Also incontestable are the unique aspects of his theoretical packaging, particularly his style and bravado, which leave readers and theorists either yearning for more or awaiting the next publication to criticize.

Hirsch’s Linguistic Style

Hirsch is a writer and a professor of literature and writing. He is supplied with, and frequently draws upon, sets of linguistic and rhetorical tools.  Some find his prose delightfully literary; to others, his singular style is merely a carefully tailored cloak for the promotion of radical theory. Scott’s (1988) review of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy criticizes the book’s “summary style” and use of anecdotal material, which tends to obscure what is an otherwise “serious, documented study by a serious, experienced scholar, propounding a thesis that is theoretically independent of its traditionalist wrappings” (p. 333). Scott’s (1988) review claims that Hirsch’s rhetorical facade tended to push the salient points of Cultural Literacy into a “background that was widely perceived as either theoretically blurry or just plain irresponsible” (p. 333). Some even consider Hirsch’s use of the word “culture” questionable; Schroeder (1989) writes:

‘Culture’ is a slippery word. As Hirsch uses it, he certainly is not speaking in anthropological terms. His culture is closer to the idea of a ‘cultured person,’ or the ‘cultural events’ section of the Sunday newspaper. (p. 18)

Seaton (1989) writes that:

The style of Cultural Literacy comes to a surprise to one who assumes that no book on educational policy gets to be a bestseller without conjuring up an apocalyptic vision of present disasters alleviated only by the certainty of overwhelming success if the book’s revolutionary changes are implemented…At any rate, he ignores the rules of the genre. (p. 1)

In considering Clark’s (2009) characterization of Hirsch’s style and “misleadingly lucid prose”, one encounters a more favorable stance:

Reading Hirsch is an education in itself, for his clear, quiet prose continually tests and calls on us to exercise the art of implication and inference he advocates as vital to reading comprehension. He practices what he preaches. It is the implications of his argument that are complex, and it is the logic of implication (or inference) itself that I discuss not only as the central idea in Hirsch’s two projects — their content or substance — but also as what most readers seem no longer able either to understand or to practice. (p. 510)

In his 2009 article succinctly titled Response, Hirsch reacts to much of the contemporary criticism surrounding his work, beginning with an acknowledgement of Cook’s kind suggestion that his “account of cultural literacy has a number of uses in pedagogy and rhetoric” but quickly conceding that “not everyone has been so kind regarding the rhetoricity of” his work (p. 520). Consider Hirsch’s (2009) paradoxical use of rhetoric to explain his rhetoric:

For many years I directed the first-year writing program at the University of Virginia, and I used to teach students that rhetoric is hugely important. At the same time, I used to describe the ancient Greek quarrel of Plato and Aristotle with the Sophists about whether rhetoric was more important than dialectic in human affairs — dialectic being the ancient equivalent of science. Plato and Aristotle disagreed with each other on that point, for Plato thought, against Aristotle, that in actuality rhetoric usually trumps dialectic. Both agreed that this should not be the case, and they tried very hard to educate their students so it would not be the case for them. Was Cultural Literacy basically ideology and rhetoric masked as science? That would depend on whether its science is actually sound, correct, true. (p. 520)

Hirsch’s stylistic voice differs from the more common clinical discourse of developmental and educational theorists. This voice is refreshing to some, objectionable to others. Hirsch (1983) himself has stated that “words are not purely formal counters of language; they represent large underlying domains of content” (p. 164). In concert with his words, his domains of content induce an even greater variation and degree of responses. Hirsch’s work is infused with these domains, pervading his writing and drawing connections between both related and disparate contexts. 

Hirsch’s Penchant for Implicative Audacity

Hirsch’s aforementioned tendency to encapsulate periods of educational theory into particular “isms” suggests his impulse to offer singular, individualized models to serve his discourse.  This inclination is mirrored in his attempt to establish a universal cultural literacy list and- more pervasively- in his unwillingness to shy away from bold, decisive implication (and explication).  Hirsch (2006) willingly acknowledges the polarizing nature of his discourse, describing his own work as “enormously controversial”, even “damned with great hostility by cultural reformers and education professors as a reactionary tract aimed at preserving the intellectual domination of white Anglo-Saxon males, and as a means of boring children with mindless drills and stuffing them with ‘mere facts’” (p. 6). The fact that Hirsch mindfully concedes the controversies surrounding his work may indeed exacerbate them, underscoring his theoretical staunchness in the face of criticism.

Hirsch (2006) describes our current schools and colleges as “anti-intellectual”, a result of “the mistaken dogma that reading is a formal skill that can be transferred from one task to another regardless of subject matter”, claiming that “the factual knowledge that is found in books is the key to reading comprehension” (p. 10). “For children to make substantial progress in reading,” Hirsch (2006) clams, “they must make early and substantial progress in knowledge” (p. 11) and, more decisively, “instruction in reading strategies is of limited value and, beyond ten lessons, useless” (2010, p. 12). Here, in Hirsch’s willingness to enumerate the limitation as “ten”, we find evidence of his habit of setting forth an incomprehensibly precise reality, a reality that can be perceived as narrow, even haphazard.

Hirsch (1983) is perfectly capable of infusing an amalgam of elements into a single paragraph, prompting his readers to ponder the innumerable connections between educational theory and anthropology, history, politics, technology, race, etc.:

Although I have argued that a literate society depends upon shared information, I have said little about what that information should be. That is chiefly a political question. Estimable cultures exist that are ignorant of Shakespeare and the First Amendment. Indeed, estimable cultures exist that are entirely ignorant of reading and writing. On the other hand, no culture exists that is ignorant of its own traditions. In a literate society, culture and cultural literacy are nearly synonymous terms. American culture, always large and heterogeneous, and increasingly lacking a common acculturative curriculum, is perhaps getting fragmented enough to lose its coherence as a culture. Television is perhaps our only national curriculum, despite the justified complaints against it as a partial cause of the literacy decline. My hunch is that this complaint is overstated. The decline in literacy skills, I have suggested, is mainly a result of cultural fragmentation. Within black culture, for instance, blacks are more literate than whites… (p. 167)

While education is so critically aligned with any number of global concerns, Hirsch’s tendency to invite an exponential number of tangents within a brief passage invites an equally exponential number of criticisms. 

Not all critics find fault in the implications housed within Hirsch’s prose. Lazere (2009) notes that Hirsch “generally avoids invective, is benignly reasonable, and generally tries to reconcile his positions with opposing ones, as Cook shows with several examples” but admits that Hirsch does “have some quirky notions that have been justifiably refuted by critics” and is “not always the most effective articulator of his most important ideas” (p. 501). To exemplify Hirsch’s missteps, Lazere (2009) points to a particularly bold sentence from Cultural Literacy (1987):   “Only a few hundred pages of information stand between the literate and the illiterate, between independence and autonomy” (Hirsch, p. 143). In addressing Cultural Literacy (1997), Cook (2009) admits that “like other reviewers of Hirsch’s work, I too sense that there are aspects of the book’s argument with which we can take exception, elements that fall flat or that do not quite do exactly what they set out to accomplish” (p. 488) and, ultimately, views Hirsch’s theory of cultural literacy as “an intriguing pedagogical concept”:

What Hirsch advocates as cultural literacy is not docile enculturation in some monolithic, stable-knowledge-entity but is something like a heuristic for rhetorical invention that stresses the relevance of being merely familiar with certain cultural doxai, opinions, attitudes, or values. Instilling in students enough cultural familiarity to rhetorically operate comfortably and nimbly within the bounds of particular bodies of knowledge- whatever they might be- is an intriguing pedagogical concept and one to which I think we should be more open. (p. 493)

His confidence unflappable, Hirsch ends an introductory chapter (2006) with the guarantee that if his “recommendations are followed, reading scores will rise for all groups of children, and so will scores in math and science” (p. 21). He stands behind his former theory that “the effectiveness of English prose as an instrument of communication gradually increased, and after the invention of printing, through a trial-and-error process that slowly uncovered some of the psycholinguistic principles of efficient communication in prose”, suggesting that college “freshmen could learn in a semester what earlier writers had taken centuries to achieve” (Hirsch, 1983, p. 162). These types of bold, seemingly slapdash and unsubstantiated statements open the floodgates for denigration and contribute to the delineation between Hirsch’s supporters and critics.

In his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner (2008) first acknowledges the general rationale behind Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy: “Do I think all students should memorize their times tables? Have a basic knowledge of geography and the timelines of U.S. history? Be exposed to Shakespeare? Speak a second language? Absolutely.” (p. 261). Wagner (2008) then offers an extended caveat that highlights the underlying complexities in forming a universal curriculum for cultural literacy:

E. D. Hirsch does not include knowledge of Sunni and Shiite cultures and the long history of their conflict in his list of what’s critical for cultural literacy; yet without this understanding, you simply cannot comprehend what is happening in the Middle East today. Similarly, it’s relatively easy for all of us to agree that the works of Shakespeare should be on the list of high school classics, but what about a more contemporary book like Reading Lolita in Tehran by author and professor Azar Nafisi, or world-literature giants like the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003, or a young author like Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-born American writer who chronicles the immigrant experience so powerfully? (p. 262)

To contextualize the previous anecdotal nature of curricular priority, Wagner (2008) openly acknowledges the pitfalls of constructing a universally applicable curriculum:

First there is the sheer quantity of content, and the fact that it continues to grow exponentially. In science, what is considered ‘true’ must be constantly updated- such as the recent change in the definition of a planet. Content in the humanities continues to expand as well. How do you decide, for example, which of the above authors all students should be exposed to- especially when scholars in the field do not, themselves, agree on who belongs on a ‘must read’ list and who does not? (p. 262)

Ultimately admitting that he does not see an easy solution to accommodating divergent priorities in a ubiquitous, culturally-sensitive curriculum (p. 262), Wagner (2008) reveals a fundamental flaw in Hirsch’s proposition, highlighting the dubious potential for greater academia coming to an agreement regarding a finite list of essential subject matter for cultural sensitivity. According to Taylor and Hoechsmann (2011), Hirsch’s cultural literacy is “a regressive, Eurocentric and andro-centric canon” of “cultural and historical knowledge” representing a “shrunken worldview” (p. 220). Simonson and Walker (1988) describe Hirsch’s cultural literacy canon as overwhelmingly white, male, academic, eastern American, and Eurocentric.

Though commendable in its core intentions, the act of constructing a finite list of items that are necessary for cultural literacy is, in itself, brazen. In promoting such a list, Hirsch implies that an individual is capable of dictating a set of static elements that suit the cultural, ethnic, developmental, educational, religious, political and personal needs of the inhabitants of the United States, a country comprised of one of the most diverse populations the globe has to offer. Though this attempt appears futile, it mirrors the formation of any curriculum in any state or school, highlighting the same quandary in any curricular endeavor. As Schroeder (1989) notes, “more than any other nation we relegate a large portion of education to an uncoordinated complex of informal, institutional and commercial agents” (p. 17). Despite its delicacy, this balance of collective standards and educational autonomy is an equilibrium that Hirsch is perfectly willing to tip in his direction. For this reason, his work is inherently divisive.


Cook (2009) touches upon the legacy of Hirsch’s work:

Since its publication more than twenty years ago, E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987) has become something of an academic urban legend, which is to say that it has begun to take on a life of its own in the way that all enduring urban legends eventually do. As everybody knows, what matters most to the staying power of any good story is not so much its finer details but its sheer audacity, its power to resonate shock and provocation”. (p. 487)

Hirsch also compels us- in one way or another- toward the contemplation of our own expectations for modern education and curricula: do we want a staunch, directed force shaping our educational progress or do we prefer to treat such theorists as suggestive, offering unique stances as malleable entities to be reshaped, reformed? Ellwanger & Cook (2009) describe the “crucial moment” in which Cultural Literacy (1987) “demanded not only that we consider the merits of a variety of curricular ideals but also that we question the assumptions driving higher education in the United States” (p. 471).

Hirsch’s theories were largely posited at the threshold of a technological dawn. The Internet and our increasing global awareness could have one of two potential effects on the fate of cultural literacy. Most likely, educators will need to drastically expand the scope of Hirsch’s Americanized curricular implications to accommodate the inevitability of cultural expansion and increasing globalization; less likely is the potential for a reactionary movement toward reinvigorating the patriotic spirit encased within Hirsch’s theories, a spirit that remains palpable in certain political and geographical factions within our nation. The ideal solution is a theoretical compromise that would expand the cultural horizons of our collective literacy while preserving the uniquely American history and core as an essential part of the whole. Ultimately, cultural literacy comes down to identity, and wrestling with the dynamic between what is taught and what it says about us is likely an eternal, albeit worthwhile struggle. Like Rousseau, Piaget and- perhaps most correspondingly- Dewey, Hirsch has left both his progeny and his detractors with the worthy task of sifting through a singular and powerful viewpoint, a viewpoint forecasted in Hirsch’s (1983) final paragraph from his original proposal for cultural literacy:

Where does this leave us? What issues are raised? If I am right in my interpretations of the evidence- and I have seen no alternative interpretations in the literature- then we can only raise our reading and writing skills significantly by consciously redefining and extending our cultural literacy. And yet our current national effort in the schools is largely run on the premise that the best way to proceed is through a culturally neutral, skills-approach to reading and writing. But if skill in writing and in reading comes about chiefly through what I have termed cultural literacy, then radical consequences follow. These consequences are not merely educational but social and political in scope- and the scope is vast. I shall not attempt to set out these consequences here, but it will be obvious that acting upon them would involve our dismantling and casting aside the educational assumptions of the past half century. (p. 169)

In the end, the epitaph on E. D. Hirsch’s gravestone may indeed be divided into two columns. His work has undoubtedly marked the recent history of educational and curricular theory, simultaneously gaining ardent support and fervent protest. His intellectual tentacles reach into countless domains, reestablishing the ubiquitous nature and value of education. As a nod to his literary spirit, one might liken Hirsch to a many-tentacled creature; such a being may represent a worship-worthy idol, a beast to be slayed or a being that will evolve with the changing landscapes of education and human development.


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Distributed Leadership as an Antidote for Teacher Attrition


Todd Kefor


Distributed Leadership as an Antidote for Teacher Attrition

Sustainability of a work force is of obvious importance to leaders across all cultures and organizational structures. Without a sustainable pool of committed employees, growth is stilted, and the opportunity for inheritance is sacrificed. Educational systems are not an exception to this sustainability standard. Despite this understanding, teacher attrition is an undeniable problem that plagues today’s educational system, as substantiated by the breadth of modern research surrounding it (Billingsley, 2004; Boe, Sunderland, & Cook, 2008; Boyd, Grossman, Ing, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2011; Coladarci, 1992; Doune Macdonald, 1999; Hulpia, Devos, & Roeseel, 2009; Feiman-Nemser, 2003; Fox & McNulty, 2010; Gonzalez, Brown, & Slate, 2008; Harris, 2003; Ingersoll & Smith, 2003; Margolis & Nagel, 2006; Muijs & Harris, 2006; Somech & Bogler, 2002).

Each year, waves of fledgling educators choose to abandon the very profession to which they had devoted much of their adult lives and educational endeavors. Though this literature reflects the myriad conditions surrounding and impetuses contributing to such educator migration, it also offers an equally scattered mélange of solutions for its counteraction. Situational and regional problems exacerbate the complexities of these teachers’ motives, making a prescriptive solution to the plague of attrition nebulous.

The intention of this literature review is to synthesize prevailing attrition literature with the aims and strengths of distributed leadership perspective. This pairing attempts to align the problem of teacher attrition with components of and solutions offered by distributed leadership theory and practice, seeking to answer the question: how can distributed leadership theory and practice mitigate teacher attrition?

The research identified hereafter reflects the duality of the research question. A number of studies and papers represent the breadth of teacher attrition and its link to administrative leadership practice. Additional literature provides insight into distributed leadership theory and practice, with focus devoted to portions of such literature that align the motives of this concept with the needs of educators and emerging leaders on the cusp of professional departure.

The following literature review includes an account of modern teacher attrition, an exploration of administrational effects on attrition, and introduction to the distributed leadership model, and a proposition asserting the potentials of distributed leadership practices as a solution for the attrition phenomenon. The distributed leadership model offers solutions to many of the management fissures that are responsible for, or inadequate in resolving teacher attrition. Distributed leadership’s malleability, its potential effects on teacher initiation, and its potential to empower fledgling leaders are salient among these resolutions.

Exodus: Teacher Attrition in Modern Education

Impeding efforts to reverse the trend of teacher attrition is the multitude of potential circumstances that contribute to it. Existing research is, naturally, reflective of this miscellany. Teacher attrition is generally positioned within research focusing upon personnel shortages, the depletion of resources and expertise, or the status and working conditions endured by teachers, resulting in the fragmentation of solutions. (Doune Macdonald, 1999).
It is worth noting that some research has found that, despite claims of excessive teacher attrition as the chief source of teacher shortages, attrition and transfer rates are becoming increasingly lower than in other occupations, denoting a potential overreaction to attrition (Boe, Sunderland, & Cook, 2008). Despite such claims, the bulk of attrition research is an inherent representation of widespread concern.

Other research pinpoints fewer, more specific impetuses for attrition. Some concerns rest within the inbuilt qualities of the job itself. The widespread lack of adequate compensation is often cited as a contributing, but perhaps not salient reason for migration (Gonzalez, Brown, & Slate, 2008; Wagner, 1993). Another factor put forth by Bartlett (2004) is the often unspoken link between expanding roles and compensation: though the intentions of teacher leadership policies are often positive, the assignment of increased obligation with no compensation may be viewed unfavorably if implemented haphazardly. Bartlett (2004) takes a binary approach in considering the benefits of teacher empowerment with the drawbacks of rapid responsibility expansion, a duality that appears to encourage attrition if the balance errs on the side of overwhelming teachers with tertiary duties and obligations. Research that proposes few stimuli for attrition is overshadowed by the mass of existing literature suggesting manifold sources.

Though many studies imply a very particular cause for localized attrition, solutions for such issues may be equally contained. Of greater concern are the numerous studies that employ a broad organizational lens and produce correspondingly commodious results. Doune Macdonald (1999) acknowledges this complexity, noting that many reported outcomes worldwide suggest that teachers have become discontented with oppressive administrative chores and structural reforms exacerbated by increases in accountability and oversight. Somech & Bogler (2002) explored “the relationships of teacher professional and organizational commitment with participation in decision making and with organizational citizenship behavior” (p. 555). Despite studies claiming that professional commitment has a negative association with organizational commitment, this study indicated a positive relationship between organizational and professional commitment with implications for both teachers and administrators (Somech & Bogler, 2002). One major study found that the three most influential factors contributing to migration were lack of administrative support, difficulties with student discipline, and low salaries (Gonzalez, et al., 2008). Ingersoll & Smith (2003) found that the working conditions acknowledged by new teachers as factors in their decision to depart include a lack of administrative support, poor student discipline and student motivation, and lack of participation in decision making (Ingersoll, 2003). Billingsley (2004) arrived at four salient predictors of teacher attrition: teacher characteristics and personal factors, teacher qualifications, work environments, and teachers’ affective reactions to work (Billingsley, 2004).

A seminal literature review from Doune Macdonald (1999) substantiates these claims of empirical fragmentation in the teacher attrition literature and ultimately proposes either a singular focus, or an amalgam of overhauls for: remuneration, working conditions (including the empowerment of teacher responsibility and leadership and collegial relationships between teachers and administrators, support and recognition), and career opportunities and instructional support and concludes that research concerning teacher attrition requires the development of more comprehensive databases on teaching personnel and increased clarity of how attrition is being framed and investigated. “While not always explicitly stated,” writes Doune MacDonald (1999), much of the study of attrition is positioned within an individualistic, human capital theory perspective in line with empirical-analytic methods” claiming that research suggests “that teachers consider monetary (income, promotion, other benefits) and non-monetary (conditions of work such as the physical environment, convenient hours, relationships with co-workers) factors in making career decisions alongside considering the costs involved in undergoing retraining for a new occupation and income foregone during this process” (p. 837). Other studies center on the dire state of retention in special education programs, where attrition and migration are most common (Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harniss, 2001). This literature review depicts a level of complexity drawn from an accumulation of attrition-prone institutions, providing a bleakly complex outlook for patterns of attrition in the United States and worldwide.

Despite the fissured landscape of attrition literature, attitudes regarding the potential for progressive solutions are positive. Ingersoll & Smith (2003) use data to direct efforts toward transforming existing school policy instead of relying on teacher recruitment as a means of alleviating attrition, claiming that recruiting more teachers will not solve the teacher crisis if substantial numbers of teachers continue to leave (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003).

Doune Macdonald (1999) claims that attrition may be “seen as a conduit through which the teaching profession is revitalized with educational innovation and new recruits” (p. 846). In the end, the management and organization of schools, though often flawed in districts with high attrition, can also play a significant role in their solution (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003). The complexity of attrition’s roots points to emergent patterns among the research; one such pattern is the either deleterious or constructive effects of administrative leadership on teachers’ attitudes and decisions.

Administrative Leadership and Teacher Attrition

The binary roles that administrational leadership plays in teacher attrition are a recurring theme among studies and literature. Teacher perspectives and experiences with school administration are formative in generating teacher resiliency and overall teacher satisfaction (Margolis & Nagel, 2006), with one study reporting that migrant respondents cited administration as “one of the biggest influential factors in not returning to the profession” (Gonzalez, et al., 2008, p. 6). In studies of teachers, the lack of support by administrators is often significant, even among their most predominant stress factors (Keiper & Busselle, 1996; Margolis & Nagel, 2006).  More specifically, participants cited impudence from administration as one of the biggest negative contributors to their impressions (Gonzalez, et al., 2008). A large-scale study from The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality (2005a, 2005b) found a correlation between teacher attrition and a perceived lack of administrative support and pinpointed divides between how teachers and principals viewed working conditions in schools. Billingsley (2004) notes that teachers are more likely to leave teaching when support from administrators and colleagues is absent or weak. A paper from Boyd, Grossman, Ing, Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff (2011) concludes that teachers’ perceptions of the school administration have by far the greatest influence on teacher-retention decisions. While the authors address several measures of school context, the results of the analysis point to the salience of administrative support in teacher retention (Boyd, et al., 2011).

On a reciprocally positive note, administrative support is often aligned with teacher retention. Retained teachers are almost four times more likely to strongly distinguish administrators’ behavior as supportive and encouraging than leavers (Billingsley, 2004). Special and general educators who report higher levels of principal support reported lower stress and more commitment to and satisfaction with their jobs than those receiving less support (Billingsley & Cross, 1992 as cited by Billingsley, 2004). Teachers who planned to remain are more likely than leavers to indicate that they received support from school administration for inclusion, program enhancement, and problem solving (Westling & Whitten, 1996 as cited by Billingsley, 2004). Billingsley (2004) also notes that Schnorr (1995) reported that the top-rated incentive for special education teacher retention was a supportive principal (88%). This research confirms that constructive, supportive leadership systems can directly affect the teacher experience in positive ways.

Quite often, the scale and specificity of these studies may indicate the subjective and potentially localized nature of administrations’ effect upon attrition. There appears to be great variation in administrative effects on teacher job satisfaction, with comparatively ineffective leadership systems generating seismic influence over staffs. Though modern patterns of attrition do not necessitate an immediate insurgency, the future successes of the educational system demand sustainability in the form of a populous of prepared and committed workers who contribute to its sphere and facilitate its inheritance. Such a populous demands new systems of leadership to usher and preserve changes that invite and preserve our best and brightest educators.

An Introduction to Distributed Leadership

Progressive leadership models offer direction and structure applicable to a number of educational plights, including teacher attrition. One such model is that of distributed leadership, which aims to empower greater numbers of effective leaders and represents a departure from the traditional hierarchies stereotypical of educational leadership systems (Spillane, 2005).

In its distributed form, leadership’s ability to stretch roles and responsibilities across an educational populous in a situation-dependent context are amplified (Spillane, 2006), offering the flexibility necessary to counteract significant causes of teacher attrition. Also innate to this perspective is the empowerment of non-administrative educators, a likely antidote to many of the disengagements that contribute to teacher dissatisfaction as reflected in the teacher attrition literature. Spillane (2005) writes, “From a distributed perspective, leadership is a system of practice comprised of a collection of interacting components: leaders, followers, and situation. These interacting components must be understood together because the system is more than the sum of the component parts or practices” (p. 150). This approach to leadership as a network counters many of the struggling hierarchies cited in attrition literature.
Spillane, et al. (2001) claim that “distributed
 change perspective can help leaders identify dimensions of their practice, articulate relations among these dimensions, and think about changing their practice” (p. 27), a transformation necessitated in order to relieve teacher dissatisfaction and attrition. The empowerment of non-administrative leaders under the framework of distributed leadership allows for exponential and collective leadership in schools (Spillane, et al., 2001), offering a potential antidote for teacher attrition.

Distributed Leadership and Teacher Attrition

It is clear from the research that opportunities exist to utilize administrative systems in a way that promotes teacher retention. A synthesis of seminal distributed leadership literature and teacher attrition studies provides a fortuitous arrangement of potential solutions to teacher migration. A number of studies cite the prevalence of leadership inadequacies as direct or indirect contributors to teacher attrition (Billingsley, 2004; Boe, Sunderland, & Cook, 2008; Boyd, Grossman, Ing, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2011; Coladarci, 1992; Doune Macdonald, 1999; Hulpia, Devos, & Roeseel, 2009; Feiman-Nemser, 2003; Fox & McNulty, 2010; Gonzalez, Brown, & Slate, 2008; Harris, 2003; Ingersoll & Smith, 2003; Margolis & Nagel, 2006; Muijs & Harris, 2006; Somech & Bogler, 2002).

Research suggests that policies geared toward refining school administration may be effective at reducing teacher turnover (Boyd, et al., 2011). Further research aiming to define and explore the conceptual nature of support from teacher and administrator points of view is needed (Boyd, et al., 2011), though when taken as a whole, the literature points to the potency of leadership’s effect on retention and attrition, approaches to administrative remedies are ambiguous and fragmented, representing a portion of proposed solutions to the teacher attrition trend. Providing administrators with “efficacious” strategies is a “promising approach” to resolving the negative effects associated with educational transformation (Margolis & Nagel, 2006, p. 157). The distributed leadership model offers solutions to many of the management deficits that are responsible for, or inadequate in resolving teacher attrition. Distributed leadership’s malleability, its potential effects on teacher initiation, and its potential to empower fledgling leaders are prominent among these resolutions.

The Malleability of Distributed Leadership

The aforementioned complexity of teacher attrition origins necessitates an adaptive framework flexible enough to accommodate great variation. Hope lies in the potential malleability of administrative support, suggesting that policies aimed at improving school administration may be effective at reducing teacher turnover (Boyd, et al., 2011). It is clear that the continuum between school leadership and teachers is fertile ground for attrition prevention (Boyd, et al., 2011). Prevailing research clarifies misconceptions of distributed leadership and asserts its malleability (Spillane, 2005), manipulability suitable for tackling complexities unique to districts and schools.

Spillane is clear in noting that “distributed leadership is a perspective- a conceptual or diagnostic tool for thinking about school leadership…not a blueprint for effective leadership nor a prescription for how school leadership should be practiced” (p. 149). This flexibility and conceptual nature is imperative when addressing an issue such as teacher attrition, which is the byproduct of regional and situational uniqueness. In distributed leadership, leadership itself is encapsulated as a role that “involves the identification, acquisition, allocation, coordination, and use of the social, material, and cultural resources necessary to establish the conditions for the possibility of teaching and learning” (Spillane, et al., 2001, p. 24).

Spillane (2005) asserts distributed leadership’s malleability as suitable for tackling complexities unique to districts and schools. He is clear in noting that “distributed leadership is a perspective- a conceptual or diagnostic tool for thinking about school leadership…not a blueprint for effective leadership nor a prescription for how school leadership should be practiced” (Spillane, 2005, p. 149). This flexibility and conceptual nature is imperative when addressing an issue such as teacher attrition, which is the byproduct of regional and situational uniqueness.

Initiation and the Leadership Network

It is certainly sensible to ensure that any reform directed at reducing attrition includes an emphasis on teacher initiation, mentoring, and general career assimilation. Such a model should serve and support new educators from the moment the ink has dried on their contracts, providing them with an immediate and effective system of supports and direction. Distributed leadership theory promotes the development of such a system of support and direction, a leadership network of sorts.

Doune Macdonald (1999) notes that concerns for attrition must first focus upon these fledgling educators. Some research suggests that new teachers, in particular, may tend to ascribe their difficulties to administration, characterizing the experiences of new teachers as a form of an “enculturation” process lacking fluidity and quality in induction, intervention, etc. (Feiman-Nemser, 2003, p. 28). Interactions with colleagues, supervisors, and students strengthen or weaken new teachers' dispositions toward job performance and satisfaction, and these teachers may tend to ascribe their difficulties to existing administrations (Feiman-Nemser, 2003).

Attrition research calls for solutions to flaws in teacher initiations programs, using approaches and terminologies indicative of the distributed leadership approach.  For example, Boe et al. (2008) call for more varied and wide-ranging induction programs tailored to a variety of specific conditions and increased standardization of curriculum and instruction. Fox & McNulty (2010) propose specific directives or strategies to empower and retain teachers. These “strategies for developing such affable environments include understanding the transition involved in becoming teacher, recognizing the affective phases of teaching, allying with teachers who share a similar philosophy and pedagogy, seeking opportunities for formal and informal support systems, and networking with other professionals” (Fox & McNulty, 2010, p. 312). These communal practices work to increase teacher satisfaction (Fox & McNulty, 2010) and correspond to the distributed leadership perspective, as Spillane (2005) proposes leadership networks based in part on subject areas and curricular complexes. The direct applicability of the aims of distributed leadership theory to the fertile but delicate period of teacher initiation can hold great potential for systems concerned with the swinging pendulum of retention and attrition.

Teacher Empowerment and the Distributed Leadership Continuum

Though Spillane (2005) cautions against the oversimplification of distributed leadership as simply a multiple leader model, distributed leadership allows for multiple leadership roles within a given school system, providing a continuum of leadership responsibilities beyond the walls of the central office. This network of opportunities provides fledgling and veteran educators with avenues of leadership and influence. Leadership can be encapsulated as a role that “involves the identification, acquisition, allocation, coordination, and use of the social, material, and cultural resources necessary to establish the conditions for the possibility of teaching and learning” (Spillane, et al., 2001, p. 24).

Spillane, et al. (2001) claim that “distributed change perspective can help leaders identify dimensions of their practice, articulate relations among these dimensions, and think about changing their practice” (p. 27), a transformation necessitated in order to relieve teacher dissatisfaction and attrition. The empowerment of non-administrative leaders under the framework of distributed leadership allows for exponential and collective leadership in schools (Spillane, et al., 2001), offering a potential (but broad) antidote for teacher attrition. Practical applications of such networks, such as student teaching practicums, professional learning communities, mentoring systems, and departmental and interdisciplinary system interactions are realistic means of extending a given teacher’s experience and influence beyond the challenges of the classroom.

Attrition literature reveals the potential that teacher leadership opportunities offer. The bulk of these sources do not explicitly tie retention to distributed leadership, yet much of the language and strategies appear parallel. Muijs & Harris (2006) build upon the notion that “teacher leadership is increasingly being seen as a key vehicle for school improvement and renewal” (p. 961). The researchers explore both the ways in which teacher leadership can influence school and teacher development, and what in-school factors can help or hinder the development of teacher leadership in schools (Muijs & Harris, 2006), finding that teacher leadership was seen to empower teachers, and added to school improvement through this enablement and via the dispersal of good practice and initiatives produced by teachers. The authors conclude that “a range of conditions needed to be in place in schools for teacher leadership to be successful, including a culture of trust and support, structures that supported teacher leadership but were clear and transparent, strong leadership, with the head usually being the originator of teacher leadership, and engagement in innovative forms of professional development” (Muijs & Harris, 2006, p. 961).

Taylor, Goeke, Klein, Onore, & Geist (2011) reveal three significant ways in which the work of teacher leaders was advanced and enhanced: “identifying and amplifying their professional voice, deepening and extending their voice as they plan, and reframing their work/shift responsibility through constructing widening circles of influence and impact” (Taylor, et al., 2011, p. 920). These findings are significant to this literature in their implicit alignment with the nature of distributed leadership theory and practice, suggesting a number of practical applications to counter attrition.

Though much of the research pertaining the constructive effects of teacher empowerment on attrition is implicit, some is conveniently explicit.  Specifically, Harris (2003) examines the relationship between teacher leadership and distributed leadership, focusing primarily on activity theory as defined via distributed leadership (Harris, 2003). Harris (2003) indicates important connections and overlaps between distributed leadership and teacher leadership and identifies the likely sources of opposition to the idea of teachers as leaders and investigates how distributing leadership to teachers may contribute to building professional learning communities within and (between) schools (Harris, 2003). Hulpia, Devos, & Roeseel (2009) research the “relation between distributed leadership, the cohesion of the leadership team, participative decision-making, context variables, and the organizational commitment and job satisfaction of teachers and teacher leaders” (p. 291), finding that the interrelation of the leadership team and the extent of leadership support was strongly correlated to organizational commitment and indirectly related to job satisfaction (Hulpia, et al., 2009). The authors conclude,

“To increase the level of organizational commitment and job satisfaction of teachers and teacher leaders, large schools need to invest in the cohesion among the leadership team members. This implies that in large schools the leadership team must lead the school in a collaborative and interactive way. This can be attained by defining clear roles for the different team members, developing an open communication where all members can speak freely and share the same school goals. In defining the roles of the different team members these elements are more important than a highly formal distribution of leadership functions and the participation of teachers in school decision-making” (Hulpia, et al., 2009, p. 312).

Overall, the existing body of relevant research points to the potential of teacher leadership roles as enhancing voice, opportunity, and efficacy in teachers. When coupled with the malleability of distributed leadership and effective induction systems, teacher leadership completes a triad of antidotal practices that may diminish the trend in teacher attrition. 

Prevailing literature indicates that the distributed leadership model offers practical solutions to the plague of teacher attrition. Distributed leadership’s manipulability, its potential effects on teacher initiation, and its potential to empower young teacher leaders are promising among these resolutions. Though these potential solutions supply a theoretical approach to a complementary synthesis of teacher retention and distributed leadership, existing literature is chiefly implicit in its merging of the two.

Further theoretical and empirical research is necessary to generate an effective and practical model of distributed leadership implementation aimed at amplifying teacher satisfaction and retention. Of additional interest are the potential effects of distributed leadership implementation on administrative job satisfaction, retention and attrition.
An ideal model of distributed leadership implementation should, ideally, take into account the entire range and variety of positions and roles for the benefit of systems and districts. This model should move beyond theoretical proposition toward a flexible yet concrete blueprint for both schools that suffer from attrition and those that wish to maintain or nurture a positive network of leadership.


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Prevailing Assessments of Creativity: Viability and Potential for Standardized Application


Todd Kefor

March 18, 2012


Standardization has become a fixture in American academics, forcing educators to reassess the nature and value of existing test models. These tests represent attempts to measure intellectual and academic aptitude, overlooking other human qualities such as creativity. Existing research regarding creativity is vast and varied. The following research examines the literature surrounding major, existing tests of creativity and assesses their academic applicability. Findings indicate that a synthesis of these tests represents a feasible option for future assessments. Though several existing test models contain elements that may be adapted, further development and a trickle-down incorporation approach are necessary to produce a creativity test that is viable for assimilation into mainstream academic testing. 

In a time of economic plight and educational turmoil, it is tempting to perceive creativity as a lesser human quality. Creativity’s place in the world of academia inhabits a particularly esoteric space and is classified via countless definitions. Despite these challenges and complexities, variations on creativity’s very definition and consequent applicability appear to promote its value, particularly during our current epoch, which is largely centered on a number of traditional standardized tests. An examination of existing measures of creativity reveals several prevailing frameworks. Facets of these existing frameworks represent future possibilities for adapting and implementing creativity tests into mainstream academia.

Though standardization remains a contentious and polarizing topic, the demand for creativity seems to require a ubiquitous standard of measurement. Is creativity measurable? Is it worth measuring? Which facets of prevailing creativity test models represent possibilities for applicable design? What steps are necessary for synthesizing existing test components to arrive at an applicable design? Constructing viable responses to these questions demands: 1) an exploration of the literature surrounding the definition of- and demand for- creativity and its most prevalent paradigms; 2) the establishment of creativity’s relationship to divergent thinking; 3) the survey of established tests of creativity, and 4) an exposition of problems facing the adaptation of current test models into the modern academic world.

The Demand for Creativity

One of creativity’s most outspoken proponents is Sir Ken Robinson, (2011), who states:

The pace of change is quickening every day. New technologies are transforming how we think, work, play and relate to each other. At the same time, the population of the earth is larger and growing faster than at any time in history. Many of the challenges that we face are being generated by the powerful interaction of these forces. The problem is that many of established ways of doing things, in business, in government and education, are rooted in old ways of thinking. They are facing backwards, not forwards. As a result, many people and organizations are having a hard time coping with these changes and feel left behind or alienated by them. To face these challenges we have to understand their nature; to meet them, we have to recognize that cultivating our natural powers of imagination, creativity and innovation is not an option but an urgent necessity. (p. 19)

Robinson (2011) is not alone in the recognition of creativity’s contemporary value. A recent (2010) Newseek article from Bronson & Merryman titled The creativity crisis presents the need for creative thinking and learning as an issue pertinent to contemporary America. O’Donnell and Micklethwaite (1999) (as cited by Shaheen, 2010, p. 167), who documented the growing trend in the inclusion of creativity into educational policy documents worldwide, cite progress in Canada, where creative thinking is a curricular mainstay (p. 8); in Korea, where an educated person is defined as “healthy, independent, creative and moral” (p. 33); in Sweden, where the “conditions for developing creative skills” (p. 52) are mandated; and in Japan, where The National Council on Educational Reform has outlined the growth of creativity as the most important objective of education for the 21st century. A recent Scottish policy statement (Scottish Executive, 2004) proclaims:

The creativity of Scots- from the classroom to the boardroom- is the edge we need in a competitive world. Our duty…is to create the conditions that allow that creativity to flourish- whether in arts, sciences, commerce or industry. Creativity is as valuable in retail, education, health, government and business as in culture. (as cited by Shaheen, p. 167)

Standardizing creativity may appear- at first- a daunting, perhaps futile endeavor. Surprisingly, efforts to standardize creativity have indeed pervaded scholarly literature for the past several decades. Kaufman, A. C., Plucker, J. A. & Baer, J. (2008):

…believe that creativity is a natural candidate to supplement traditional measures of ability and achievement. One reason is that creativity is related to intelligence and academic ability, yet not so closely related as to not account for additional variance. Another promising reason is the reduction in gender and ethnicity differences. Finally, many facets of education have highlighted a specific interest in the measurement of creativity. (p. 10)

As represented in modern literature, the fields of education and industry place particular value on creativity, indicating a need for a system of creativity measurement. As a result of its inherent complexity, creativity’s conceptual mosaic must be explored in order to properly evaluate the systems that govern creativity’s measurement. If creativity’s elements are indeed measurable and objective, a collective definition and paradigm must be determined.

The Paradigms of Creativity

Inherent to any study of creativity are the implications regarding creativity’s very definition, which is naturally encapsulated in the selection of test measures. Zeng, Proctor, and Salvendy (2011) indicate “there is consensus that creativity is a multifaceted phenomenon, which renders it complex and suggests that a definition of creativity should depend on specific research interests” (p. 25). Reflecting the complexities in merely defining creativity is a scientific study from Stenberg and Lubart (1999) that ultimately reduces its classification to seven specific paradigms. The fourth and, for the purpose of this study, most applicable paradigm is the psychometric approach to the study of creativity, which aims to evaluate creative abilities using quantitative methods and tests similar to intelligence tests (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010). This paradigm, according to McWilliam & Dawson (2008), is valuable in that it incorporates scientific methodology in the aim of measuring creativity, which is by nature abstruse.

The variance of the remaining creativity paradigms illustrates the convolution involved in pinpointing a universal perception of creativity: the first paradigm is mystical approach of the study of creativity, through which creativity is associated with mystical beliefs (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010). The second paradigm is psychodynamic approach to the study of creativity based on the thought that creativity arises from the tension between conscious reality and unconscious drives (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010). The third paradigm represents a no-nonsense, comparatively pragmatic approach to the study of creativity whose representatives are concerned with developing creativity, defined as creative thinking and problem solving ability (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010).

The fifth paradigm, which shares traits with the aforementioned psychometric fourth, is a cognitive approach that seeks to recognize the mental representations of creative thinking: problem solving and decision making, for example (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010). The sixth paradigm includes social-personality approaches in the study of creativity, accommodating individualistic connotations in the designation of creativity (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010). The seventh and final paradigm, according to Stenberg and Lubart (1999), asserts that creativity is born of confluent sources (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010).

Any study regarding creativity would be remiss to neglect the contributions of Csiktzentmihalyi (1988), who introduced systems perspective for the study of creativity (Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010). According to Csiktzentmihalyi (1988), creativity is viewed as a symbiotic system comprised of three elements:  the first element is the individual (creative person) who masters the knowledge of a specific domain and is able to change or improve it; the second element is the field which contains experts who evaluate, accept or refuse creative ideas of individuals; and the third is domain, or the context in which innovation and usefulness of creative ideas is defined (Csiktzentmihalyi, 1988 as cited by Lapeniene, D. & Bruneckiene, J., 2010).

These paradigms represent a careful sample of an otherwise overwhelming multitude of definitions for creativity. This amalgam of research concerns for creativity assessors is tempered only by its fourth offering, which is conveniently pertinent to an investigation into the realm of creativity testing. The psychometric approach to creativity assessment ties creativity’s designation to a closely related thought process- divergent thinking- pushing its very nature toward a more evaluative position.

Divergent Thinking: Psychometrics and Evaluative Potential

Guilford, a pioneer and often-cited contributor to the realms of creativity and divergent thinking, defines divergent thinking as “a kind of thinking that doesn’t aim at producing single correct answers, but unusual, various and original ideas and solutions” (as cited by Kousoulas & Mega, 2009, p. 210). Divergent thinking, or the ability to generate different solutions to a given problem, is generally accepted as a means of measuring one’s creative capacities.  (Zeng et al., 2011). Kaufman, Plucker & Baer (2008) identify four aspects of divergent thinking that are frequently mentioned in the literature: fluency, originality, flexibility and elaboration. Kaufman et al. (2008) indicate that:

Articles on divergent thinking frequently appear in the major creativity journals, most books include lengthy discussions of divergent thinking (some focus on it nearly exclusively), school districts frequently use DT tests to identify creative potential, and DT tests are used extensively around the world to assess creativity (p. 15).

This link between divergent thinking and the history of creativity testing is critical. Kaufman et al. (2008) convey the history of creativity assessments:

The majority of creativity assessment work from the 1950s through the 1970s—and even the 1980s—focused on divergent thinking. Indeed, given the perceived overemphasis on convergent skills at the time, the push to emphasize divergent aspects of cognition was understandable…As creativity became popular in the 1960s (and was much supported by considerable federal funding in the United States), much of the research and practical application dealt with divergent thinking and related assessments. This work serves as the foundation for all current efforts to understand creativity, hence the continued emphasis on DT in many current scholars’ work…Second, many of the major figures in creativity research and education have been fascinated with the role of divergent thinking in creativity…Developments in the assessment of intelligence in the 20th century probably put significant pressure on creativity researchers to follow a parallel path in the measurement of creativity. Psychometric were a powerful force in the previous century, and as creativity became a hot topic in mid-century it was natural for researchers to look to other major areas of psychological assessment for inspiration, with intelligence foremost among these areas. Given the rather undifferentiated conceptions of creativity that existed in those years, pushing hard to develop DT tests was perfectly logical…Fourth, and probably most important, there is a legitimate case to be made that divergent thinking is a key component of creativity, and, more specifically, creative problem solving (pp. 15-18).

Robinson (2010) describes a divergent thinking test from George Land and Beth Jarman, authors of Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today (1998), in which a longitudinal study measured a sharp, startling decline (from kindergarten to fifth grade) in student responses to divergent tasks. This decline represents the apparent need to reconsider educational theory and practice in order to preserve the human ability to think divergently, and a valid assessment for creativity and divergent thinking would provide the foundation that our current, standardized educational system necessitates.

Despite the relative acceptance of existing DT test models, they are often scrutinized for their lack of capability in accurately evaluating and individual’s real-world potential for creative thought and action (Zeng et al., 2011). Despite this scrutiny, creativity tests that center on divergent thinking- The Test for Creative Thinking: Drawing Production (TCT-DP) and The Torrance Tests for Creative Thinking- represent the most objective and enumerative possibilities for eventual test construction.

A Survey of Prevailing Test Models

            The Test for Creative Thinking: Drawing Production

Germany’s Urban (2005) investigates the drawing production component creativity tests, extracting this test section from the Test for Creative Thinking, or TCT-DP. This test, which differs from the literal-based divergent thinking test systems, asks takers to approach in incomplete visual form, converting an abstraction into a finished rendering (Urban, 2005). This method may appear superficially subjective until the criteria, which are extensive, particular, and thorough- are considered.

The drawings are assessed relative to the following principles:  continuations: any use, continuation or extension of the six given figural fragments; completion: any additions, completions, complements, supplements made to the used, continued or extended figural fragments; new elements: any new figure, symbol or element; connections made with a line: between one figural fragment or figure or another; connections made to produce a theme: any figure contributing to a compositional theme; boundary breaking that is fragment dependent: any use, continuation or extension of the small open square located outside the square frame; boundary breaking that is fragment independent; perspective: any breaking away from two-dimensionality; humor and affectivity: any drawing which elicits a humorous response, shows affection, emotion, or strong expressive power; unconventionality: manipulation of the material, any surrealistic, fictional and/or abstract elements or drawings, any usage of symbols or signs or unconventional use of given fragments; and, finally, speed: a breakdown of points, beyond a certain score-limit, according to the time spent on the drawing production (Urban, 2005). These criteria not only add a level of standard objectivity to the process, but also create a set of standards attainable for artists and non-artists, effectively leveling the playing field. 

Though creativity is represented in most, if not all facets of academic study, it is often associated with art. The benefit of the TCT-DP test and its counterparts (that contain drawing production components) is that drawing removes most potential age or linguistic-based variability; Urban (2005) writes of the TCT-DP:

Because of a broad applicability, even to young children, and of an optimal culture-fairness we decided to operationalise our concept by means of a drawing production. According to the definition and consistent with the practical applicability of the test, the objectivity of the administration procedure, and for reasons of the availability of materials, of a common perceptional or informational basis, of comparability of the material presuppositions and conditions for different test takers, certain basic stimuli had to be designed and incorporated into the test. (p. 273)

Urban’s (2005) claim is substantiated by Cropley (1996, p.227), who writes:

The TCT-DP is a major addition to the battery of creativity tests. It offers an approachto creativity tests that goes beyond the divergent-convergent thinking distinction. It also goes some way towards incorporating non-cognitive aspects into measurement of creativity. The procedure itself is interesting for the people being tested as well as for those scoring the test. The manual reviewed here is highly readable, and is also thorough, providing not only practical instructions but also convincing theoretical and technical material justifying use of the test by both researchers and practitioners.

             The Torrance Test for Creative Thinking

Dr. E. Paul Torrance developed the Torrance Test for Creative Thinking, or TTCT, in 1966 (Kim, 2006). This test has been reformed 4 times, translated into at least 35 languages and is perhaps the most cited and ubiquitous of all creativity assessments (Kim, 2006). The TTCT measures fluency, originality, elaboration, abstractness of titles and resistance to premature closure (Kim, 2006). Torrance was very conservative in his contextualization of his own assessment, never concluding that his tests assess all dimensions of creativity or should be used alone and recommended the creation of a game-like, thinking, or problem-solving atmosphere, avoiding the threatening situation associated with testing (Kim, 2006). Despite Torrance’s own caveats, it is difficult to locate creativity assessment research that lacks some reference to Torrance and his tests, and research has indicated that the TTCT is racially and socio-economically unbiased (Kim, 2006). Kim (2006) writes:

The TTCT appears to be a good measure, not only for identifying and educating the gifted but also for discovering and encouraging everyday life creativity in the general population. When used appropriately, the TTCT is an important part of Torrance’s legacy and dream: to nurture and enhance creativity among students. (p. 11)

The Torrance model is not without its flaws or detractors as Baer (2011) has indicated; however, it is often looked upon and cited as the foundation for many existing test forms and creativity testing in general.

                   The Neurocognitive Model for Assessing Divergent Thinking

Chiara Brandoni and O. Roger Anderson (2009) of Columbia University advocate a new neurocognitive model for divergent thinking assessment based on neuroscientific literature and pertinent cognitive science literature that currently has strong supporting theoretical linkages to neuroscientific evidence. This system measures the cognitive responses to an image (painting) via a complex collection of response data (Brandoni & Anderson, 2009). This model, though complex and clinical, represents “a stepping stone for future research in teaching and learning grounded in a more fundamental scientific basis” citing a “great need in education for the encouragement of production of new ideas and ways of thinking (divergent thinking)” and providing “a convenient way of assessing fundamental aspects of divergent thinking” (Brandoni & Anderson, 2009, p. 336).

Contemporary Research Concerns for Creativity Tests: A Sampling of Applicability Measures Creativity Tests and Gender-Neutrality: The Dissertations of Roue (2011) and Donnell (2004)

Consensus would likely indicate that a legitimate assessment for creativity must be gender-neutral. At the University of Minnesota, Roue (2011) developed a dissertation that sought to examine and reveal potential differences between genders in relation to divergent thinking capacities and offers an exploration of potential gender-bias that may otherwise be overlooked in considering creativity assessments. Roue (2011) cites “a shortage of scientists and engineers at a crucial time when technological innovation depends on the involvement of our nation‘s best and brightest, representing all segments of our diverse society” supported by “limited research” conducted to “determine whether there are fundamental differences between boys and girls in the area of creativity and its key component, divergent thinking”, classifying divergent thinking as a “critical dimension of inventiveness in science and engineering related creativity” (p. 10).

Roue’s (2011) study “investigated whether grade level differences in divergent thinking exist among 8th and 11th grade students. The data collected were rated by three judges and individual scores were created as an average of the three judge’s scores. Roue (2011) compiled participant responses, noting some qualitative results in regard to students’ divergent thinking responses. Roue’s (2011) research study finds that there is no difference between girls and boys on the three measures of divergent thinking (fluency, flexibility, and originality).

Roue (2011) aims for ultimate applicability, calling for “putting all of these things into a classroom curriculum that avoids teaching from subject area boxes” to “promote creativity and integration of subjects across the curriculum” (p. 106). The relative removal of gender-bias in the domain of divergent thinking serves as a microcosmic representation of the potential applicability of such tests. 

At Texas A&M University, Donnell (2004) produced a similar dissertation to explore and measure creative behavior in young learners, paying particular attention to the social constructs surrounding perceptions of creativity in young people. In exploring the socio-educational frameworks surrounding young creative minds, the study offers a glimpse into the possibilities for identifying, preserving, and promoting the creative capacities of students. Donnell (2004) points to a void in the understanding of creative development in young learners. In approaching this research, Donnell (2004) provides readers with the definitions of giftedness; creativity; fluency, flexibility, and originality (criteria for divergent thinking tests); friendship, sensitivity, and divergent thinking (attitude survey components); friendship, sensitivity, and divergent thinking (commonplace definitions). She cites the Pearson correlation, Torrance Test for Creative Thinking (TTCT), and Friendship, Sensitivity, and Divergent Thinking Attitude Survey (FSDTAS) techniques as tools for analyzing data (Donnell, 2004). 

Donnell’s (2004) dissertation culminates in declaring that “correlational results were highly significant indicating that those who scored high on creativity responded quite differently to the attitude variables than those who scored low on creativity” and “as anticipated, no significant gender differences were found in the study” (p. 52). In regard to her first question, Donnell found “significant relationships between creativity test scores and friendship attitudes” (p. 53). The response to her second research question concluded that relationships between student creativity and sensitivity exist (Donnell, 2004, p. 54). The third research question found that “the highly creative seem to be more imaginative and curious and often view themselves as having the ability to solve unusual problems” (Donnell, 2004, pp. 54-55). The fourth and final research question ends with the assertion that “no overall significant gender differences” affected student thinking (Donnell, 2004, p. 55).Donnell (2004) lists a total of 7 recommendations for further studies: the study should be replicated with a larger sample size; the FSDTAS needs further research to establish its validity; the FSDTAS should be expanded to include other differentiation aspects; studies should be conducted to explain the isolation of creatively gifted youth; studies should be conducted to determine reasons for increased sensitivity in creatively gifted youngsters; studies need to examine teacher intervention for peer pressures; and studies should be conducted to help parents and educators understand highly creative students as divergent thinkers (pp. 56-57).

These dissertations highlight the socio-academic relevance of divergent thinking tests and represent a consensual elimination of gender bias, a key concern in any standardized test.

Creativity Tests and Concern for Experiential-Neutrality 

Runco and Acar’s (2010) study analyzed the potential for divergent thinking tests, finding that “experience can play a role in certain divergent thinking tasks” (p. 146). More specifically, the study shows that originality, a key factor in most existing creativity tests, is unfairly amplified by experiential bias (Runco & Acar, 2010). “Given the importance of reliable and unbiased testing”, these researchers advocate additional research into the experiential bias encased within divergent thinking assessments (Runco, & Acar, 2010, p. 148). Though this potential bias must be considered carefully, experiential factors remain a pervasive concern for all standardized measures and are not necessarily unique to measures of creativity.

 Comparative Analysis: Test Potential to Predict Real-world Creativity

For the function of their study’s research interests, Zeng et al. (2011) classify creativity as “the goal-oriented individual/team cognitive process that results in a product (idea, solution, service, etc.) that, being judged as novel and appropriate, evokes people’s intention to purchase, adopt, use, and appreciate it” (p. 25). Seeking to capitalize on creativity’s relation to the real world, Zeng et al. (2011) subscribe to a definition that “emphasizes customer satisfaction and business success, reflecting the notion of commercial creativity” (p. 25). This practical definition of creativity contributes to the already meaningful nature of this study.

Zeng et al. (2011) characterize existing tests of divergent thinking as containing six major flaws: “lack of construct validity; not testing the integrated general creative process; neglect of domain specificity and expertise; and poor predictive, ecological, and discriminant validities” (p. 24). This characterization leads to a critical synopsis of existing DT tests.

Through a careful survey of the preeminent creative thinking tests, Zeng et al. (2011) aim to appraise their value. Zeng et al. (2011) design a study that:

concentrates on addressing the issue of how to reliably, validly assess and predict people’s real- world creative potential. We review relevant literatures regarding the concept of creativity, creative process, the psychometric approach, and DT tests to pinpoint weaknesses of traditional DT instruments. We then summarize insights derived from this evaluation and discuss the benefit of developing creativity assessment tools tailored for specific professional domains (p. 25).

Zeng et al. (2011) utilize the critical theory construct to assess creativity and divergent thinking assessments, treating existing measures through case method. Careful attention is paid not only to each test, but also to the components encapsulated therein. Zeng et al. (2011) categorize presently available measures of creativity into ten distinct categories: psychometric tools (DT tests), personality inventories, attitude and interest batteries, biographical inventories, peer nominations, teacher nominations, supervisor ratings, judgments of productions, eminence, and self-reported creative activities and achievements. Subjects include three of the most popular creativity tests developed through the psychometrics approach, an approach identified as the most quantifiable (Zeng et al., 2011). For the study, Zeng et al. (2011) evaluate four DT tests: The Structure of the Intellect (SOI) Divergent Production Test, the Wallach-Kogan and Getzels-Jackson Tests of Creative Thinking, and the Torrance Test for Creative Thinking. This decision to focus on the psychometric measures of creativity adds a necessary quantitative element to an otherwise qualitative investigation.

Zeng et al. (2011) qualitatively critique the flaws of such tests through a comparative and critical analysis of their similarities and differences. The researchers use three tables to offer description and rationale for the four DT tests, their fourth and final table representing an instrument accounting for the similarities and differences between the aforementioned DT tests (Zeng et al., 2011). A developed analysis is offered for each; critical flaws are exposed, and then explored carefully.

Zeng et al. (2011) argue that “tasks used in creative thinking measurement should incorporate testing of domain-specific expertise according to the specific application area of interest” (p. 33); call for the “critical need to improve current instruments so that they are able to better predict real-world creative accomplishments” (p. 34); pinpoint the paucity of research “conducted employing real- world problems to assess creative potentials in certain domains, which implies appreciable room for further improving conventional DT tests” (p. 34); and criticize existing tests’ potential for “discriminant” scoring based (p. 34). In light of these findings, the authors agree that “no creative thinking test can purport to represent a comprehensive and adequate assessment of creative potential across multiple domains” (Treffinger , 1985 as cited by Zeng et al., 2011). These findings result in a convincing argument that contains several recommendations for future test designs.

Zeng et al. (2011) conclude that “great room for improvement in testing creative thinking abilities can be identified upon scrutinizing presently existing DT batteries” (p. 30). Though qualitative, Zeng et al.’s (2011) study finds merit in its reliance on widely accepted, quantifiable tests for divergent thinking. The article includes a thorough and convincing overview of the tests’ collective shortcomings (pp. 30-34), and offers sound direction for future DT test constructs. Central to the positionality of the research is their contemporary and forthrightly identified definition for creativity, which is a vital component to objective research in a particularly subjective field. Also appropriate to the research was the explanation for selection of these particular divergent thinking tests as subjects.

Ideally, the researchers would have proposed a divergent thinking test model that incorporated the qualities recommended. Though the inclusion of a propositional model would certainly increase the immediate applicability of Zeng et al.’ s (2011) findings, future researchers operating in the realm of creativity measures will find an astute critique of the prevailing tests for divergent thinking in Zeng et al.’s (2011) Can traditional divergent thinking tests be trusted in measuring and predicting real-world creativity? Typically, creativity tests are evaluated in singular fashion, with research articles promoting or critiquing a given test. In contrast, Zeng et al.’s (2011) study synthesizes the strengths and weaknesses of several, offering a broad spectrum of considerations for fellow researchers. Perhaps future research will employ the very qualities of creativity we seek to assess, ultimately proposing an ideal test design.

Parallelism between Traditional Academic and Creativity Assessments

An understanding of creativity and the available tests for its measurement requires an analysis of Stephen J. Dollinger’s 2011 study “Standardized minds” or individuality? Admissions tests and creativity revisited from the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.  Dollinger (2011) weighs the findings of creative measures against the more traditional American College Testing assessment, or ACT. Another study from Kim (2005) found a “negligible relationship between creativity and IQ scores,” indicating that “even students with low IQ scores can be creative” and suggesting that teacher awareness of latent creativity can only benefit student growth. Dollinger (2011) claims “College Admissions Tests are designed to predict academic achievement” but “are often criticized as being biased in favor of selecting students more inclined to superficial learning than creativity”, noting, “empirical literature hints that such tests might predict creative outcomes…but few studies have considered actual creative products” (p. 329). This quandary leads to Dollinger’s (2011) qualitative investigation, which stems from four hypotheses posed as research questions:

(1) Does the ACT predict creativity? Assuming an affirmative answer, two others are considered: (2) Does the ACT still predict creativity when the best individual difference predictor—openness to experience—is included in the model? Relatedly, do ACT scores and openness interact in predicting creativity? (3) Is the ACT still predictive of creative product ratings when self- reported creative accomplishments are included in the model as a predictor? (p. 332)

Dollinger (2011) surveys and synthesizes existing creativity tests, culminating in an experimental method through which he samples “720 university students (61% female) who received course credit in a Personality Psychology course for extracredit activities in one of four consecutive years”, drawing parallels between students’ ACT scores and their performance on his creativity test (p. 332). Dollinger’s (2011) quantitative measure of creativity included: a) creative behavior inventory (with a set of predetermined correlations to creative thought and behavior), b) drawing product (in which students are asked to complete or add on to an incomplete abstraction) and c) photographic individuality (a portfolio of images prompted by the question, “who are you?”).   Dollinger (2011) utilizes components of generally accepted creativity assessments hybridized for the sake of his experiment and elicits the responses of judge panel to objectively evaluate the results of the drawing product (b) and photographic individuality measures (c). Dollinger (2011) appraises his sample group through these test components and applies these findings to their prior performances on the ACT.

Based on Dollinger’s (2011) results, he affirms that “claims that standardized tests are biased against creative thinkers do not receive support in the present data” and “admissions tests may be as valid for predicting creativity as the best personality measures and are probably better for this purpose than most critics and students themselves think they are” (p. 337). His findings may imply two divergent possibilities. One possibility is that existing tests such as the ACT may indirectly account for a test taker’s creativity, measuring- either indirectly or simultaneously- an individuals creative capacities via traditional means. A second possibility may imply an innate correspondence between traditional academic and creative thinking cognitions. In other words, students who perform well on a standard test such as the ACT are likely to perform as well on a creativity measure.


While educators and the educated populace claim to value creativity as an essential human capacity, this appreciation is not reflected in current forms of academic measurement. Exploring the literature surrounding the definition of- and demand for- creativity and its most prevalent paradigms, establishing creativity’s relationship to divergent thinking, surveying established tests of creativity exposes the problems facing the additions of current test models into the modern academic world. Educators must examine the surprisingly vast and complex research regarding creativity and distill findings into a practical pilot application; educators must also remain open to unorthodox approaches (drawing production models) as components to objective creativity assessments. Adding such a test as a supplement to existing measurements will aid in its assimilation and provide the time for critical feedback and revision.

Though constructing a hybridized, collective creativity test does not represent a comprehensive solution to the promotion of creativity, it does represent a symbol of value that contrasts significantly with the prevailing- and perhaps antiquated- system of knowledge acquisition. In other words, what we test reflects what we value. Though several existing test models contain elements that may be adapted, further development and a trickle-down incorporation approach are necessary to produce a creativity test that is viable for assimilation into mainstream academic testing. In elementary school, developmentally-sensitive teaching and learning tends to make natural accommodations for the innate creativity of youngsters; a child drawing, for example, is viewed as a natural and valuable creative process.  On the opposite end of the spectrum sit both academia and the global marketplace; as the literature has proven, these factions demand scholars and members of the work force whose creativity is developed. Between these poles is the void in which divergent thinking declines (Land & Jarman, 1992).

Kahl, Fonseca &Witte (2009) call for a balance of approaches in creativity research, suggesting that the psychometric and qualitative approaches of today require a more qualitative complement. One solution that demands exploration is a trickle-down approach to creativity assessments. Junior high school and secondary educators are already burdened with the heft of the standardized system, and will likely require palpable and convincing motivation for including creativity and its assessments into an already sizeable domain of standards. One example of this trickle-down approach would be for colleges and universities to accept a yet-to-be-developed creativity test as a complement to (not a replacement for) the SAT, ACT, AP, etc. High and middle schools would likely heed this call and reconstruct existing frameworks to cater to the inevitability that some students will elect to take such an assessment. Kaufman, et al. (2008) note that “the fact that creativity is not assessed on current measures of ability and achievement is often cited as one reason why these tests are not valid or significant (p. 11). If creativity is a natural candidate to supplement traditional measures of ability and achievement (Kaufman, et al.), educators must meet the demands of today by working together to develop a synthesized test that is devoid of cultural and gender biases, available to all students, and acknowledges the innate qualities that may be passing through the gates of our educational system untapped and under-appreciated.


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 Echoes of the Pestalozzian Drawing Method in the Contemporary American Atelier System


Todd Kefor 


In The Education of Man, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) asks, “What else is education but the reverent joining of the past to the gloom of the future by making wise use of the present?” (1951, p. 31). It is widely known that the art teaching methodology developed by Pestalozzi in the 1800s continues to influence contemporary schools, especially at the kindergarten and primary grades (Tarr, 1989). Less discernible is the fact that, in the present American atelier movement are echoes of the past, where the drawing methods proposed over two hundred years ago by Pestalozzi- though developed, mutated, and camouflaged- have clung to life.

At present, the United States has played host to resurgence of classical realism in art education, a revival represented by the establishment of atelier schools across the continent. Though many of Pestalozzi’s drawing models are discernibly suggestive of ancient and Renaissance approaches, his effort to construct a universal system of drawing for all students was comparatively novel. Pestalozzi’s interest in drawing centered on the development of children, while the Atelier system arguably represents the apex of draftsmanship in the United States today. Despite the obvious contextual disparities between Pestalozzi’s original intent and the motives of the modern American atelier system, their shared principles reflect a common foundational structure for academic approaches to drawing and suggest a collective recognition of the process of drawing as a viable scholastic endeavor.

The Pestallozian Drawing Method: Inception and Migration

Ashwin (1981) pinpoints the infancy of Pestalozzi’s drawing methodology: “Pestalozzi’s earliest ideas on the teaching of drawing appear in his diary for 1774, where he records his attempts to educate his three-year-old son Jean-Jacques. On 14 February the boy was drawing straight lines under his father’s direction” (p. 140). Prior to this track in curricular drawing design, Pestalozzi’s career was marked by a number of fruitless attempts to establish Swiss schools to advance the educational ideals espoused by Rousseau (Efland, 1990). Based on his foundational and inclusive belief that all children benefit from education, Pestalozzi created schools for underprivileged children, seeking methods of teaching that would develop their latent potential (Tarr, 1989; Efland, 1990). The foundation of these schools in Burgdorf and later at Yverdun represented Pestalozzi’s response to a wake of orphans in Switzerland, where his classrooms included instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and manual skills, and were organized around his view that instruction should begin with the observation of form (Efland, 1990). Pestalozzi also recognized a link between observation and the teaching of language and number (Efland, 1990).

His successes in educational practice at Burgdorf began to bring him international acknowledgment as the leading educational reformer of the early nineteenth century (Efland, 1990). Pestalozzi believed that people learn by hearing sounds, both spoken and sung; by the study of form, which includes measurement and drawing; and finally by the study of number (Efland, 1990). He also believed that measurement plays a crucial role in making sense impressions clear in all three areas (Efland, 1990). Punctuating his conviction in the power of mark making, Pestalozzi only introduced writing after basic line drawing had been mastered (Tarr, 1989).

Pestalozzi’s eventual curricular framework included three departments: exercise in form with reference to truth (geometry); exercises in form with reference to beauty (drawing); and progressive exercises in drawing from nature (the imitation of light and shade) (Efland, 1990). Seeking a uniform framework for drawing instruction, Pestalozzi did not supply drawing masters, providing instead a method that could be used by a regular teacher in a common school (Efland, 1990).

Pestalozzi discarded the seemingly ubiquitous view that drawing was a luxury; instead, he believed that drawing had a role to play in the cultivation of aesthetic receptivity and judgment (Efland, 1990). He was not alone in his efforts to formalize a drawing curriculum; with Johannes Christopher Buss, a teacher at Pestalozzi's school in Yverdon, Pestalozzi published a book on drawing, ABC der Anschauung, in 1803 (Anschauung has traditionally been translated as "sense impression"), in which they outlined prearranged drawing sequences, beginning with straight horizontal lines, moving to vertical lines, oblique lines, and ultimately curves (Tarr, 1989). Buss ultimately devised a task of systematic drawing methods that would avoid the pitfalls of trial-and-error methods (Ashwin, 1981).

Most systems of drawing education for children that developed in the first years of the nineteenth century were restricted to outline drawing and were made up of a series of exercises starting with simple geometric figures- straight and curved lines, angles, plane and solid shapes, and simple ornaments (Efland, 1990). Exercises involving shading and value were minimized, and the quality of a student's work was judged by precision and neatness (Efland, 1990). Ashwin (1981) characterizes the inconspicuous debt owed to Pestalozzi: “Many drawing teachers of the nineteenth century explicitly rejected certain features of the Pestalozzian system of drawing, but almost all courses devised for the class teaching of drawing made use of certain of its innovations” (p. 149).

Pestallozian drawing found its way to the United States by a number of routes. The first and most direct link was through his colleague Joseph Neef, a devotee of Pestalozzian drawing who referred to his mentor’s framework as “a beloved maxim”, an “immutable rule” (Efland, 1990; Neef, J., 1969). Neef ultimately emigrated to Philadelphia, where he implemented drawing courses (Efland, 1990). Records also reveal that drawing was also promoted in curricula designed by Pestalozzi’s associate Hermann Krusi, whose son eventually published a drawing course based on Pestalozzian theory in 1872 (Efland, 1990). Pestalozzian influence in The United States also arrived via a series of reports on the Prussian schools by such travelers to the continent as William Woodbridge, Henry Barnard, Horace Mann, and Calvin Stowe; these writers disseminated their complimentary reports of Prussian schools through the medium of educational journals (Efland, 1990). Fowle's drawing manual, which was used in Boston, was similarly grounded in geometry (Efland, 1990). Though pinpointing a concrete historical link between Pestalozzi’s original methods and contemporary American ateliers proves elusive, three fundamental parallels- the predetermined progression of the artist, the emphasis on observation, and the value of mimicry and copying- reveal essential undercurrents that are difficult to ignore.


Not only did Pestalozzi believe instruction should be matched to children's readiness to learn, he also believed instruction should be sequenced from simple to complex skills and concepts; these ideas about form, proportion, number, and sequencing of instruction are clearly illustrated in his method of teaching drawing (Tarr, 1989). Pestalozzi formulated the lessons as a teacher-class response sequence in which the teacher demonstrated a line and identified it, followed by the children mimicking the teacher (Tarr, 1989). The teacher would then draw a second line, longer than the first, and the action-question-response sequence would continue (Ashwin, 1981). When the children had mastered these basic lines, they would be allowed to draw objects whose form could be expressed with them (Ashwin, 1981). Pestalozzi’s goal was to arrange information in graduated steps so that differences in new ideas shall be trivial and almost imperceptible, to encourage students to make the simple perfect before going on to the complex (Efland, 1990). Pestalozzi (1801/1898) summarized his incremental, scaffolded approach to drawing:

This should be presented to the child in the following way: We show him the properties of straight lines, unconnected each by itself, under many conditions and in different arbitrary directions, and make him clearly conscious of the different appearances, without considering their further uses (p.191).

Pestalozzi sought a method that would begin with simple forms and then move gradually to the complex (Efland, A.1990 D., p. 79). The exercises proceeded in a strict simple-to-complex sequence (Efland, 1990). Ashwin (1981) writes, “Turning his attention to the precise form which such a drawing course might take, Pestalozzi was forced to renounce at the outset the kinds of complexity which confronted the child in even the drawing of the most simple object from nature” (p. 142).

Neef characterized Pestalozzi’s emphasis on progression:

Nature, good models, and common sense, shall be our drawing masters. But neither in cultivating this art nor in any point else, shall we deviate from our beloved maxim, or lose sight of our immutable rule…We shall therefore begin by the most simple, and then thence we shall proceed to the easy, by slow degrees we shall approach the difficult, and by slower degrees proceed to the most difficult (1808/1969, pp. 46-47).

Efland (1990) articulates Pestalozzi’s urge “to bring all things essentially related to each other together; to subordinate all unessential things; to arrange all objects according to their likeness; to strengthen sense impressions of important objects by allowing them to be experienced through different senses” (pp. 52-53).

The great ateliers at the end of the 18th century promoted a neoclassical style of art, a laborious process of building up the darks and lights in a drawing (Efland, 1990). Students were also required to keep notebooks in which they made quick impressions of nature and people and were required to draw from casts for a period of time (Efland, 1990). Though varied in subject matter and order, most American ateliers incorporate a system of progression that begins with the “block-in” drawing- a derivation of Pestalozzi’s “outline”. Artists then begin to build value and consequent form, copy from Bargue plates, copy a masterwork, draw from plaster casts (observation), and eventually render the human form.

Pestalozzi’s systemization of order and progression is mirrored in the modern atelier approach, representing the treatment of drawing not as an esoteric, loosely structured, experiential phenomena but as a standardized, successive learning process. Atelier director Juliette Aristides (2006) validates Pestalozzi’s emphasis on staged progression while referencing the maturation of the student, claiming “there are no shortcuts to greatness; becoming a master artist takes a lifetime of sustained effort, study, and focus. The atelier curriculum points the way to the goal of mastery, but it is the diligent personal application of these principles over time that determine success” (p. 14).


Pestalozzi’s proposed progressions equipped students with the tools with which to approach observational drawing. Though it may appear counterintuitive to separate observation and drawing, the twentieth century proved otherwise. Twentieth-century art movements emphasized originality, abstraction, expression, and unconventionality, collectively dismissing the significance of prior artistic movements. The focus of modern ateliers represents a return to the past, which in turn reestablishes the tremendous importance of observational skill.

Efland (1990) articulates Pestalozzi’s urge “to strengthen sense impressions of important objects by allowing them to be experienced through different senses” (pp. 52-53). Like Rousseau before him, Pestalozzi believed that nature is the source of truth, and truth is obtained through the senses (Efland, 1990). In addition, Pestalozzi posited that there is a natural progression by which the learning process enables the mind to engage the objects of the world; in the first stages one receives sense impressions that are vague, disorganized, and confused; later, one is able to find order and clarity in these impressions (Efland, 1990).

Today, The Ryder School (Santa Fe) atelier instructor Anthony Ryder, a highly accomplished draftsman, teacher and author, addresses the observational emphasis in his book, The artist’s complete guide to figure drawing: A contemporary perspective on the classical tradition (2000). Like Pestalozzi, Ryder (2000) writes of drawing as a “language” with “its own vocabulary”, requiring that the draftsperson receive “impressions of the model with open awareness” (p.11). He claims “students often want to learn how to draw. But it is far more important for them to learn what they are drawing…the student is presented with a vast quantity of information…he processes and interprets this information, formulating it in terms he can understand” (Ryder, 2000, p. 11). This modern return to observation serves to validate Pestalozzi’s belief that drawing is, at its core, a sensory experience.

Among observational drawing’s most educative traits is the notion of a finite reality, an objective, predetermined subject. This objectivity aligns the expectations of the instructor with those of the student, ultimately producing a rendering that is innately and immediately evaluative.

The Viability of Mimicry

Central to Pestalozzi’s conception of drawing was the reliance on imitation (Efland, 1983). The value of mimicry (Pestalozzi) and master copying (atelier) represents a distinction and departure from Rousseau (1761), who wrote:

All children in the course of their endless imitation try to draw; and I would have Emile cultivate this art; not so much for art's sake, as to give him exactness and flexibility of hand...So I shall take good care not to provide him with a drawing master, who would only set him to copy copies and draw from drawings. Nature should be his only teacher, and things his only models. He should have the real thing before his eyes, not its copy on paper. Let him draw a house from a house, a tree from a tree, a man from a man; so that he may train himself to observe objects and their appearance accurately and not take false and conventional copies for truth (p. 108).

Rousseau clearly influenced Pestalozzi’s aforementioned emphasis on observation but shirked the tradition of master copying for an explicit reliance on direct observation. Prior to the utilization of geometric lines in Pestallozian schools, students taught themselves to draw by copying other drawings and surrounding art academies began with the most difficult subject of all, the human figure, a daunting subject for any budding artist (Efland, 1990). One notable benefit of copying is the streamlining of observation: in executing a copy, students learn to translate two-dimensional information to a two-dimensional surface before tackling the transfer of three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional plane.

Aristides (2006) qualifies the master copy experience:

By imitating the accomplishments of artists who came before you, you will surpass your current skill level and gain insights into the master’s working method and use of materials. This lesson often provides surprising solutions to problems and enlarges a student’s vocabulary…through the process of analyzing, deconstructing, and rebuilding a masterwork, you will gain experiential knowledge of the working methods of the master that cannot be found in any other way (p. 126).

When asked if he believes copying is an effective component of artistic progress, Water Street Atelier and Grand Central Academy founder Jacob Collins responds, “Yes, very much. When I was a teenager, I would go to the Met and copy from Rembrandt, Gustave Courbet and others, which I did for a number of years. Most of the time when I copied, I did so in oil, watercolor or pencil, and although I wasn’t employed as an official copyist, I learned a great deal” (Wurster, 2007, p. 32). Aristides (2006) claims that the atelier movement of today acknowledges that a solid path to artistic prominence must understand and build upon knowledge of the achievements already attained throughout art history.

In the twentieth century, artistic mimesis was largely frowned upon, cast aside to allow for experimentation and innovation. Research requires the coverage and assimilation of existing work in the aim of producing a novel and defensible idea. Perhaps artistic mimicry represents this same approach, requiring an artist to benefit from the existing triumphs left in the wake by generations of masters before setting out to define his or her own artistic style and niche.


Skilled draftspersons are often thought of as walking aberrations, individuals blessed with a unique, predisposed skill-set. The error in this thinking is in its diminishment of the draftsperson’s development, development Pestalozzi sought to address and promote in his methodology. Pestalozzi’s goal to formalize a universal drawing program speaks of both his desire to include all learners and his respect for the developmental value of drawing.

Most of us begin our lives as budding artists- plastering images on refrigerator doors, seeking to grasp the power of tools and materials, exploring- with a simple crayon- our conception of what it means to be human. Though this sense of freedom and wonder with which children approach a piece of fresh paper is something to be defended and preserved, the age of standardization requires a renewed effort to reestablish the art of drawing as an intellectual pursuit, a byproduct of serious investment, planning, time, and deliberation. Perhaps an accomplished draftsperson is not the consequence of innate talent, but the embodiment of dedication, intelligence, and curiosity- qualities that can be built, shaped, and advanced; qualities that will never fall out of style.


Aristides, J. (2006). Classical drawing atelier: A contemporary guide to traditional studio practice. New York: Watson-Guptill, (pp. 14-126).

Ashwin, C. (1981). Drawing and education in German-speaking Europe: 1800-1900. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, (p. 56).

Ashwin, C. (1981). Pestalozzi and the origins of pedagogical drawing. British Journal of Educational Studies. Vol. XXIX (2), (pp. 140-142).

Efland, A. D. (1990). A history of art education: Intellectual and social currents in teaching the visual arts. Columbia University, NY: Teachers College Press, (pp. 53-86).

Efland, A. D. (1983). Art and music in the Pestallozian tradition. Journal of Research in Music Education, 31 (3), 165-178. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Neef, J. (1969). Sketch of a plan and method of education. Salem, NH: Ayer. (Original work published 1808)

Pestalozzi, J. H. (1951) The education of man. New York: Philosophical Library, (p. 31).

Pestalozzi, J. H., (1898). How Gertrude teaches her children (L. Holland & F. turner, Trans.). Syracuse: C. W. Bardeen. (Original work published 1801).

Rousseau, J. J., (1976). Emile. (B. Foxley, Trans.). London: J. M. Dent & Sons. (Original work published 1761) (p. 108).

Ryder, A. (2000). The artist’s complete guide to figure drawing: A contemporary perspective on the classical tradition. New York: Watson-Guptill, (p. 11).

Tarr, P. (1989). Pestalozzian and Froebelian influences on contemporary elementary school art. Studies in Art Education. 30 (2),115-121. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Wurster, L. (2007, May). Process of illumination. The Artist’s Magazine, May 2007 30-3.

The Helicopter Parenting Phenomenon 


Todd Kefor 


The Helicopter Parenting Phenomenon 

Parental and familial involvement in the academic pursuits of young Americans is indubitably essential, and successful learning communities have modeled the overwhelmingly positive effects that engaged parents can have on the educational experiences of their children. At the opposite pole of this parent involvement continuum rests an extreme caricature of such individuals, known colloquially as helicopter parents. According to Hirsch & Goldberger (2010), the term helicopter parents typically characterizes “parents—most often, mothers— who ‘hover’ over their children to shelter them from stress, resolve their problems, and offer unwavering, on-the-spot support and affirmation” (p. 30).

Living in an epoch of educational reconstruction leaves no shortage of significant issues or concerns demanding serious and immediate attention. In a struggling economy rife with under supported, underperforming academic institutions, the prospect of paying serious attention to overinvolved parents may appear frivolous. Upon closer inspection, however, the upward trend in helicopter parenting represents an intriguing echo of psychological, sociological, and even economic conditions that contribute to its prevalence.

It is essential to acknowledge “the fact that this behavior describes a minority of parents” and that it may result from institutional failures in providing parents with “adequate information and avenues of appropriate relationships” with schools (Cutright, 2008, p. 40). Yet- like many other socio-cultural aberrations- helicopter parents may in fact represent a profound, generational shift in the educational expectations. Helicopter parenting is a “driving force of change” transpiring in our society, showing no signs of reversing (Hunt, J. 2008, p. 9). Hirsch & Goldberger (2010) contend that “50 years ago, in loco parentis was the operating philosophy on college campuses;” universities were expected to operate as substitute parents, supervising and guiding student behavior (p. 30). They claim that by the 1970s, the function of adults on college campuses had morphed to one of “coordinating and guiding student life” (Hirsch & Goldberger , 2010, p. 30). Today, Hirsch & Goldberger (2010) believe that “the pendulum appears to have swung back as the millennial generation arrives at college having experienced the most involved parents in history” (p. 30). In considering the following anecdote from Kennedy (2009), the director of university housing at the University of South Carolina, one appreciates the potential extensiveness of the helicopter parent:

Recently, a graduate student had failed to check out of a residence hall before moving to a university-owned apartment building. He was being billed double, and I knew it. We tried multiple ways to notify the student: e-mail, voicemail, and even an envelope stuffed in each of his mailboxes, but to no avail. Finally, his mother called to complain about the double billing, and I explained to her that we had been trying, without success, to reach her son. The mother was angry that the school hadn’t tried to contact her instead. As a student affairs educator versed in student development theory, I attempted to coach the mother into allowing her son to take care of these types of daily tasks himself, to which she replied, “he is a doctoral student in biology, fully immersed in his studies. He should not have to bother with these details.” I treaded lightly with my response: “Don’t you think it is time for him to do these things on his own? he’s forty-six.” As you might imagine, she gave me an earful, along the lines of how dare I tell her how to raise her son (p. 16).

Despite its hyperbolic effect, the preceding snapshot does illustrate a demographic of parents who are perfectly willing to go to great lengths in the interest of their children’s success. This manifestation is reflected in a 2006 study of student affairs authorities at 127 American institutions, in which 93 percent indicated a palpable increase in contact with parents in the last five years (Merriman, 2007). The culture of helicopter parenting typically begins in a natural, more familiar form when children enter school. Most middle-class parents spend innumerable hours organizing schedules and taking their children to practices, lessons, to tutoring sessions and enrichment classes (Coburn, 2006).

Without question, the bulk of scholarly research surrounding helicopter parenting comes from the higher education perspective. This lopsided concentration reflects the transition from high school to college as a symbol of the literal and figurative bridge to independence and maturation; each fall, vehicles stuffed with clothing, furniture and supplies head toward the campuses that dot the American landscape, carrying wide-eyed young scholars and their teary-eyed parents. Though the ceremonial goodbyes often represent a shift toward adulthood, many parents are unable to cease their incessant involvement in their children’s lives. In some ways, the college entrance system facilitates this continued involvement. Parents arrive to college equipped with a “gamut of personal knowledge about college and how it works” (Cutright, 2008, p. 40). For example, the college admission and financial aid procedure supports (and often requires) parent participation. They have been enthusiastically involved in the “college admissions marathon, reviewing college websites and view-books and accompanying their children on campus visits” (Coburn, 2006, p. 10). By the time parents drop their children off, they have been on campus tours and convened with college counselors; they are emotionally invested in the college choice process and often perpetuate their initial involvement (Carney-Hall, 2008). The responsibilities of accommodating this seismic shift fall abruptly on the shoulders of higher education professionals, who have thereby produced the majority of literature surrounding it.

It is common for parents to enter the collegiate territory with questions, concerns, and “an earnest, heartfelt intention to be supportive of both institution and student during the many transitions that are part of the collegiate experience” (Cutright, 2008, p. 40). Though parents’ investment in the initial college process is largely natural and innocuous, the perpetuation of these behaviors has produced the majority of critical literature on the subject. For better or for worse, parental involvement can affect many components of the college experience: student development, institutional philosophies and policies, programs and services, and administrative structure (Carney-Hall, 2008).

Facets of the Helicopter Parent Dynamic

Unfortunately, as asserted by Carney-Hall (2008), anecdotal opinions about parent relations overshadow the higher education literature while scientific research on the influence of parent involvement on college students is limited. Nevertheless, existing research indicates that the pervasiveness of helicopter parenting, particularly at the college level, is the byproduct of specific psychological, sociological, and even economic conditions that contribute to its commonness.

The psychological facet

There are certain psychological features that characterize helicopter parents. Helicopter parents perpetually orbit their children, “interceding as soon as the child faces an unpleasant situation or uncertainty” and often confess that their own self-esteem may directly dependent upon the success of their child (Hunt, 2008, p. 9).

In a study done of 408 parents, Eaton and Pomerantz found that twenty percent of the parents were found to base their own self- worth on the performance of their child (as cited by Schellenbarger, 2005). This psychological platform undoubtedly influences their behavior. In a veritable perfect storm of psychological dispositions, the recipients of this attentiveness are the generation who has “had their play dates managed and have been fed a steady diet of ‘you are special and extraordinary’ since birth” (Hirsch & Goldberger, 2010, p. 30).

The psychological profile of the modern college student includes a predisposition for clarity. These incoming, rubric-reared students prefer high levels of organization and loath ambiguity (Hunt, 2008). Along with the helicopter offspring, instructional styles must morph in order to find the common ground where true learning occurs (Hunt, 2008).

To repair this psychological quandary, Hirsch & Goldberger (2010) maintain that we must educate students and their parents about suitable roles and the path to becoming an autonomous and accountable adult while working with faculty and staff to embrace a common perception and philosophy about how to interact with parents and students and respond to concerns without encouraging psychological dependence. Eliminating helicopter parenting requires us to “empower students to take responsibility for their education and to develop the skills they will need for their life after college,” an effort necessitating “a balance of energies, both coming forward and backing off, guidance without interference, support without intrusion, and, ultimately, trust in ourselves and in our students” (Hirsch & Goldberger, 2010, p. 30).

The sociological facet

In addition to this psychological profile, there are several sociological factors that contribute to the helicopter parent phenomenon. First, the parent-child dynamic has mutated. Parents today usually have fewer children than their family of origin, allowing for increased financial and temporal contributions to each child (Hunt, 2008). Consequently, the contemporary cohort of college students are a “protected and programmed group” (Hunt, 2008, p. 9), a “generation of mandatory car seats, bike helmets, play groups, soccer leagues and swim teams” (Strauss, 2006, p. 8).

In extreme cases, helicopter parents “cross the line into unethical areas, unwittingly teaching their children it is acceptable to use plagiarism, falsify records such as high school transcripts and bully others to get their way” (Hunt, 2008, p. 9). Another sociological force that exacerbates the helicopter parent phenomenon is the ubiquitous and growing ability to be in constant communication with others. (Cutright, 2008; Hunt, 2008). Parents identify lapses or lulls in the chain of communication as deviations from the norm.

As a secondary teacher, I can attest to the consistency of parent communications from kindergarten to graduation. In the suburban school district where I teach, grades, rubrics, newsletters, blogs, websites, links, homework, assignments and feedback are posted almost daily to a parent-accessible web system, producing a degree of accessibility that actually allows for the potential completion of coursework from a remote location. In fact, this virtual network is stipulated in the contracts of the teachers, who are held to a rigid and consistent minimum in regard to update frequency and quality. Emails and telephone conversations are steady and open houses, conferences and meetings are commonplace. In my district, parents have constant access to a nearly real-time narrative of their children’s academic experience. Each year, this system becomes less of an abnormality and more of a norm. The transitional weaning from this sphere of availability and interaction to the expectations of young adulthood is littered with sociological complications for such parents.

The economic facet

The economic perspective of the helicopter parent spectacle is one of great novelty. Though superficially disconnected, current economic conditions have had a substantial influence on the practice of helicopter parenting. Parental over-engagement is more understandable when one considers the tremendous financial investment that students (often buttressed by their parents) make toward higher education (Kennedy, 2009).

Kennedy (2009) writes astutely about the economic perspective, founding a theory on the fact that he cost of higher education has overtaken inflation. She notes that parents of college students are prone to hovering in an attempt to supervise “the emotional and financial investment they have made in their child” (Kennedy, 2009, p. 19). Perceiving higher education as an investment, parents characterize themselves as “consumers and higher education as a product or service” (Coburn & Treeger, 1997 as cited by Kennedy, 2009). As with any other consumer-product relationship, parents employ their right to communicate their opinions and demands, especially in scenarios in which they feel that the product or service is not meeting their expectations (Kennedy, 2009).

Sympathizing with helicopter parents is possible when viewing them through this lens of consumerism. As essential contributors with profound monetary stakes on the educational table, the degree of their involvement, though questionable at times, is founded on a palpable, fiscal commitment that may affect their lives in profound ways.

Kennedy (2009) notes that a contributing factor to the perpetuation of helicopter parenting is the simple fact that it works. If overbearing parents continue to achieve, in their minds, positive results, this trend may prove difficult to control. The triad of psychological, sociological, and economic factors will require a congruently complex set of solutions if notable change is to occur.


As educators, we cannot run from the hum of the propellers. We are indeed copilots on the same valiant and sometimes perilous mission of educating America’s youth, and need to reach for a compromise in the best interest of young people. A wide-angled, holistic lens that takes into consideration the entirety of these students’ developmental profiles may provide such a solution. Like the academic overhaul model exemplified by Geoffrey Canada, the complexity of the solution must match the complexity of the problem (Tough, 2008). Coburn (2006) writes that “the challenge is to figure out how to enlist these already involved parents in our mutual goal of helping students become engaged learners, competent and creative problem solvers, and responsible and effective citizens—in essence, helping students grow up” (p. 14).

In response to this call, higher education professionals have begun to move toward such a compromise, “taking creative steps to enlist today’s involved parents in ways that promote—rather than thwart—student development and engaged learning” (Coburn, 2006, p. 14). Colleges and universities can make vital allies of parents by distinguishing their concerns, attending to them with timely information and guidance, and keeping circuits of communication open to give individual attention to particular circumstances (Cutright, 2008). Others diagnose their presence and are using subtle (and not so subtle) methods to limit interference with- and speed the maturation process of- their child (Hunt, 2008). Many universities have established the position of a parent coordinator to alleviate potential issues (Lum, 2006). Kennedy (2009) suggests that answers may come from taking a serious look at student development theories and assessing their applicability to the current dynamic.

Perhaps an approach consistent with the aforementioned treatment of college students and their hovering parents represents the best solution. This multi-pronged response system, if successful, could trickle down to the kindergarten-secondary system.

As educators, we demand of ourselves clear goals and expectations, appropriate guidance, engaging learning environments and high expectations. If the goals and expectations for parental involvement are clear and offer ample opportunity for appropriate, positive parent involvement, we may suitably channel the valuable willingness of these individuals toward common aims. If we offer guidance and support to parents who misdirect their energies, perhaps we can relay them to appropriate forums. Perchance replacing a fraction of communications- which are currently comprised of technology and mailings- with more face-to-face engagement will invite opinion and work to merge the parent-campus disconnect.

The balance is delicate: how direct, how consistent should parent involvement be? As a teacher, I take pride and maintain confidence in the abilities of educators to assume responsibility for the nation’s children. As the parent of two young children, I am becoming increasingly familiar with the need for- and value of- parental involvement in education. Through the lens of parenthood, our perspectives widen. On one hand, when it comes to my children, I am their chief protector, their academic tour guide, and an unwavering juggernaut of encouragement and advocacy. On the other hand, I recognize that the complex educational system is best navigated with a degree of realism that acknowledges its shortcomings. If we are aiming to develop lifelong, intrinsic learners, the onus of this navigation must be assumed with relish by the child, the student, from an early age, their pursuits merely supplemented by a metaphorical pilot, no longer hovering but instead positioned firmly on the ground, a short walk from the battlefield.


Carney-Hall, K. C. (2008). Understanding current trends in family involvement. New Directions For Student Services, (122), 3-14. doi:10.1002/ss.271

Coburn, K. (2006). Organizing a Ground Crew for Today's Helicopter Parents. About Campus, 11(3), 9-16.

Coburn, K. L., & Treeger, M. L. (1997). Letting go: A parents’ guide to today’s college experience (3rd ed.). Bethesda, Maryland: Adler & Adler.

Cutright, M. (2008). From helicopter parent to valued partner: Shaping the parental relationship for student success. New Directions For Higher Education, (144), 39-48.

Hirsch, D., & Goldberger, E. (2010). Bottom line: Hovering practices in and outside the classroom. About Campus, 14(6), 30-32. doi:10.1002/abc.20007

Hunt, J. (2008). Make room for daddy…and mommy: Helicopter parents are here!. The Journal of Academic Administration in Higher Education. 4 (1), 9-11.

Kennedy, K. (2009). The politics and policies of parental involvement. About Campus, 14 (4), 16-25. doi:10.1002/abc.297

Lum, L. (2006) Handling helicopter parents. Issues in Higher Education, 23, 40-42.

Merriman, L. (2007). Managing parents 101: Minimizing interference and maximizing good will. Leadership Exchange, 5(1), 14–19.

Shellenbarger, S. (2005, April 14) Helicopter parents –the emotional toll of being too involved in your kid’s life. Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), p. D1.

Strauss, V. (2006, March 21) Putting parents in their place: outside class.

Tough, P. (2008). Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Company.