Minimum Competency Movement

Treehorn Express:

Shared opinions soaked in knowledge & experience – all well tested.


Minimum Competency Movement

and Gene Glass

Education authorities around the world follow America’s lead in almost everything, with little or no questioning. America knows everything. Ever since Binet and Simon popularized the use of numbers to describe intelligence and Termin created a popular scale for its measure, the allocation of a number to almost any cerebral activity has been popularised. We copy such fads with adoration. When the U.S. ego was bruised by Russia’s lead into space and the standard of mathematics in schools was blamed, we shared the guilt and away we went. While we are not sure if New Math[s] would have enhanced scores on a traditional national standardised test, we learned a lot about the magic of number. [The 8th wonder of the world is that we have maintained the ‘s’. We don’t know what they did with it when they abbreviated ‘mathematics’. We’ll get around to using it.] When children started to like mathematics, we all had to do something about it. When the Americans themselves turned critical, [ ] we followed them into making Maths what it is supposed to be : tough, unpopular stuff.

We can say the same about a number of packaged curriculum materials such as structured reading schemes [e.g. SRA]; the study of MAN and numerous structural and organisational arrangements. We’ll do anything they say is ‘good’.

They prefer it packaged and as teacher-proof as possible. We buy it.

However, we missed out on the Minimum Competency Movement that arose from U.S. academia’s concern for the quality of graduating high school students, in the late 70s, hot on the heels of the Standards Debate meme.The reasons we missed out are interesting; too much for now. There seemed to be no standards, no accountability, the US academic elite opined. School teachers got the blame so they had to be smartened up. The movement was taken to the extreme as revealed by legislation in various states and local statutes that made uncompromising demands. Many were ridiculous. For instance a close friend while Superintendent of a school district in California where the school board consisted mostly of scientists from a large weapons research facility, was forced to allocate a graduation certificate only to students who had passed a leaving examination in calculus.

This 70-80s ensuing high-stakes testing movement was quite similar, in many ways, to the GERM based high stake testing demands of today.


One of the most vocal opponents of MCT was Gene Glass, a distinguished, highly respected academic from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Here’s what he had to say in an address: “Minimal Competence in Schools and Life.” in April 1978.

“I favour competence. My friends tell me I probably favour it too much. I prefer classrooms where teachers know where they are aiming. Sloth is as unattractive as litter.. And bad arithmetic is pathetic, and sometimes unfair, and occasionally even dangerous.

But I don’t like the Minimal Competency Movement. It’s bad psychology; it’s bad measurement; it’s bad thinking. It threatens to subjugate what’s easily measured to what isn’t. It’s rooted in the fiction that we know what skills in school insure success in life.

I trust that you and I share an understanding of what’s important to know. We understand it in the same way that we value better gas-mileage, better medical health care, and speedier mail delivery. We value these qualities.

But none of us knows how much must be known. How many words must one spell to be a success in life. How well must one add to be a mechanic, an insurance salesman, or a bus driver? At what grade-level must one read to be a successful farmer?

These questions of quantity have no safe answers. We cannot draw a line that separates competence from incompetence. There exists no test score that divides “skilled” from “unskilled”. Even to pose such questions of quantity is to begin from naive premises. It assumes that human behaviour is too simple. And it assumes that the world is simple and static. The confusions of the time force us back to truisms: Behaviour is complex; and the demands of life are complex; and the complexity of the two interacting is in orders of magnitude beyond that.

A colleague of mine, John Tukey – a statistician – puts the problem nicely: “Life is like a Doublecrosstic,” he says. “We can do far more than we know.” When you read over the clues for a Doublecrosstic, you find that you know only a small fraction of them. But hours later, you solve the puzzle through a nearly infinite number of subtle cues about semantics and syntax and spelling. You can do a Doublecrosstic, and no psychologist or linguist can account for your success in terms of his understanding of your knowledge.

The world is filled with high scorers who fail in life. and low scorers who succeed. Each is an example counter to the Minimal Competence testers’ claims; the testers try to ignore them.

The scientist who claims to know how much skill is just sufficient speaks science fiction. The educator who insists that the the judgement of teachers and board members will reveal such wisdom is guilty of professional arrogance.”


Conclusion :- “The Minimal Competency Movement has nothing to do with science and technology; not with psychology, not with measurement.

It has to do with politics. Some insist it is politically necessary even if it’s technically impossible. These people lack imagination about how to teach and run schools. Some say it will make us work harder; it will bring us back to basics, even if a few students are sacrificed without good reason. These people fail to see that we can change education without any bloodletting.

The Minimal Competence Movement has to do with economics and taxes.

It has to do with retribution and the need to fix blame.

It has to do with adult anger and children’s guilt.

It violates dues process.

It violates good sense.”

For profile and detail on Gene Glass :-


Gene Glass’s advocacy for common sense in matters of schooling are well presented in his book, Fertilizers, Pills & Magnetic Strips. He shows how the central education policy debates of the 21st century (vouchers, charter schools, tax credits, high-stakes testing, bilingual education) are actually about two underlying issues: how can the costs of public education be cut, and how can the education of the White middle-class be “quasi-privatized” at public expense? Working from the demographic realities of the past thirty years, he projects a challenging and disturbing future for public education in America.’

Ben Levin [U. of Toronto] says, ‘As he has throughout his career, Gene Glass once again helps us think more clearly about important issues in education.’

‘I can vouch for that, Ben.’ Phil C. [U. of Treehorn] ‘Think of MCT. Think of NAPLAN.’


No fair-dinkum teacher likes NAPLAN.

It breaches all ethical rules.

In a school of repute there is no fan;

There’s learning without measurement tools.

New Link

Click: ‘Care for Kids’

Phil Cullen

January 13 2013

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