Born 80 years ago, on Aug. 29, 1920, saxophonist Charlie Parker inspired a generation of musicians. But his career also holds lessons for American education policy, now pointed in a promising direction but facing a backlash.
In many states, reforms focus on tougher academic standards, testing, an emphasis on basics such as math and phonics - and a more rigorous accountability for both students and schools. While yielding encouraging results, these measures have drawn furious reaction from prominent politicians and those who claim to be educators.
Polemicist Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms" and "Tougher Standards," crusades against high standards, tests and the rewarding of students and schools. The standards movement, he says, makes people suffer and has turned teachers into drill sergeants. Mr. Kohn is currently organizing a national boycott of high standards.
Education administrators are his most receptive audience. Earlier this year, 600 "educationists" gathered at Columbia University to discuss strategies against testing and high standards, which they believe are part of a conservative plot designed to slander the public schools and lay the groundwork for vouchers.
Standards critic Gerald Bracey, an education researcher, attacks the idea that American students lag behind their foreign counterparts, despite a miserable showing in recent math and science competitions.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, is sponsoring an anti-testing bill. An Oakland, Calif., woman named Susan Harman perhaps best summarized the anti-standards movement by selling T-shirts labeled "High Stakes are for Tomatoes."
The anti-standards forces, who consider themselves progressives in the tradition of John Dewey, complain that current reforms constitute a drill-and-kill approach. They prefer that children discover things for themselves. This school of thought believes tests are bad because some children, particularly minorities, don't perform as well as others and might not feel good about themselves. On both points the experience of the late Charlie Parker is pertinent.
Parker's virtuosity is evident to the most casual listener and his solos are intricate compositions in themselves. But how Parker achieved such virtuosity is not evident to the casual listener, nor to viewers of the Clint Eastwood movie, "Bird" - Parker's nickname.
He was born in Kansas City, home to some of the finest musicians in the country. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young and many others found a tough proving ground in the famous jam sessions at the Cherry Blossom, Reno Club and the High Hat. Here it didn't matter what color you were or how you were dressed, but how you could play. But the standards were high.
Parker listened to this music and tried to learn by observation. Left to his own devices, he got some of the saxophone fingerings wrong and assumed that all tunes were played in the key of C. His attempt to solo on "Body and Soul" proved such a disaster that the drummer stopped playing. On another occasion, a cymbal came flying at him.
Parker had failed the test but responded by learning the scales of all 12 keys and practicing them for hours daily, even the ones not commonly used in jazz. He sought the counsel of Lester Young and learned from his solos.
Parker moved on to standards such as "I Got Rhythm," and "Cherokee," playing them endlessly until he could hold his own. The hard work and long hours paid off, and he easily passed the jam session test. His solos became the stuff of legend and his exalted place in the history of music secure. But had this genius been subjected to the counsel of education reactionaries, none of this would have been possible.
Young Charlie's belief that all tunes were played in one key would have met little objection from those who want children to discover things for themselves. The jam sessions would have been rejected as too tough a test that might leave some players distraught.
The low-standards crowd would have encouraged the young musician to feel good about himself even after botching a solo, on the grounds that he intended to play well. And of course, the long hours of practicing scales would be rejected as a militant drill and kill that bores the student and quashes creativity.
Charlie Parker shows that natural talent is not enough, that dedication, hard work and testing are necessary components of achievement. There are simply no shortcuts.
Education reactionaries tell children it's not important to master basic math, multiplication tables, phonics, spelling and grammar. They shun tests and advance students who don't know them to the next grade on the basis of social promotion. But when those students get to college or the job market, they find what Charlie Parker discovered in those early jam sessions. If you don't know the basics, you can't fake it.
Reformers, policy-makers and parents interested in the pursuit of excellence should take a cue from Charlie Parker. Stay the course of high standards and gong the reactionaries off stage.
Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and co-author of a forthcoming study on teacher quality issues.