Most people his age would be fully retired — or, perhaps, no longer with us. On Sunday, Gordon turns 100. This month, Teachers College celebrated his legacy with a conference that explored topics such as better use of educational assessments for learning.
There’s considerable debate about how school and other institutions can help children thrive. But at his centennial, Gordon has concluded that families, more than teachers, set the course of a child’s life.
Gordon spoke with The Washington Post on the occasion of his birthday about pandemic recovery, the racial achievement gap and what he learned from his onetime mentor, the groundbreaking Black sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: When we think about education today, there’s a lot of anxiety around how we’re going to recover from the pandemic, which was really such a disaster for so many kids who were out of school for more than a year in some cases. How concerned are you with this and what do you think we can do to try to address it going forward into next year?
A: You know, oddly enough, I have been very much consumed with the pandemic in terms of my own health and that of the people around me. But I haven’t taken as seriously, as some people have, the possible relationship between the pandemic and the development of children. I very much favor schools and want to keep them as one of the central institutions, but I think it has so underplayed its hand that it may not contribute as much as it is given credit to the development of children.
I think we need to get back to improving and universalizing high-quality developmental experiences for kids who are raised in stable, well-resourced families. Because all over the world, if your parents have money, you get educated, you’re healthy, you tend to stay out of trouble. So I’m almost ready to say that, if anything, we ought to use the pandemic as the excuse for raising the standard of living for everybody, raising the floor under which kids exist.
Q: If what we’re concerned about is the well-being of children, then school is not at the top of our list?
A: It’s not at the top of my list. I think it possibly could be. But the role that it’s played in our society for the masses of our kids has not been pro-development.
Q: So it sounds like you’re saying school has done such a substandard job, therefore it’s less important than it might be.
A: If you think I belong in the group and the society, then you are kind of concerned with what’s happening with me. If you don’t think I belong, you don’t give a damn what happens to me. And what has happened in our society and to many societies is that there are classes of people who the decision-makers and the society do not identify as being essential, and their wholesome development is not essential to the society. They don’t care about their development, so they don’t invest in them. And the people that they want to develop, do develop.
I’ve got four highly successful kids. They come from a very privileged family — in fact, a history of privilege of Black people. We have a sense that we belong in the society. My father was a physician in the segregated South. They wanted to see Dr. Gordon’s kids move ahead, because they thought we belonged.
Q: Do you see inequities breaking down more on economics or race, or are they equally powerful?
A: That’s hard. I had the good fortune of working with W.E.B. Du Bois. We’d been talking over supper one night and he says, “Gordon, I don’t want to back away one iota from my turn-of-the-20th-century position, that the problem of the century would be the problems of the color line. … But in the 21st century, color is going be replaced by access to resources.”
I would prefer to stay away from the question of whether it’s race or finances or resources. If you back me in the corner, I’ll be an economic determinist. I’ll say it’s access to resources of power.
Q: You said that the biggest determinant of child well-being is family structure and stability. From a public policy point of view, what would you do to address that?
A: Redistribute access to resources and power. I would try to equalize it. And if I had to, I’d put the cap on the top. Who on Earth needs and knows what to do with more than a million dollars a year? You’ve got some people who are scrounging day-to-day. There’s no justification for that kind of maldistribution and none of us are smart enough to say we deserve that much more than that for everybody else.
The current move to give every child born in this country a thousand dollars, whatever it is …
Q: The enhanced child tax credit.
A: Yes, I’m all for that. And I would [make it higher] if it doesn’t serve the purpose.
Q: But to the extent that we also have a policy to make and judgments to reach around our K-12 education system, if you could do one thing in terms of education policy, what would be the one thing that you would do?
A: We built Head Start to compensate for those things that were not happening at home. I would greatly enrich the school’s capacity to compensate for what should have been happening at home.
Q: And what’s one thing they could do to make up for that deficit?
A: Smaller classes so that there’s more opportunity for interaction between more mature and less mature people. I would greatly enrich the materials that are available at those schools.
Q: When you first started talking about the racial achievement gap in school performance, it made some African Americans nervous. They thought it would reinforce stereotypes. And I’m wondering if you recall how you handled that criticism.
A: I’m not sure I handled it well, and I’m not certain that I handle it well now, but this is still a problem.
Q: The criticism is still happening?
A: Oh, yes. The fundamental problem is the diversity. People are different. The problem of education for us is that we’ve got great diversity in the cultures, the identities, the lifestyles, the values, the appreciations that kids bring to school. All of them are not necessarily as useful in learning to be academically proficient. Because academic learning is a specialized culture, and if you’re going to be good at it, you’ve somehow got to contain other cultural norms.
Modernity and advanced technological developments demand particular kinds of mental behaviors, mental adaptations. If you take the way in which we use the language, that’s different from the way in which some of the kids in the poorer sections of Bed-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn do. The kind of language that’s used in the ghetto won’t get you very far in school. So in school, a kid coming out of the ghetto has to contain the behaviors that have been adaptive in the ghetto and privilege the behaviors that the teacher is rewarding in class.
Q: I know you’ve done a lot of thinking about assessments and high stakes standardized testing. What would be your prescription for that arena today?
A: I’d put that moratorium on the wide use of standardized educational achievement tests, giving the industry two charges. One is to subject their data to mass data analytics, to try to see if we can extract more information that is useful for teachers in what they ought to be doing, and learners themselves and what they ought to be doing.
And the second charge to the industry would be to learn how to build assessments into the teaching and learning transactions in ways that make the assessments more informative of learning behavior and teaching behavior. Right now, when you give me the standardized test scores of kids’ achievements, and they often come much too late for the teacher to do much with them anyway, they don’t carry the kind of information that teachers need to address the construction of experience to a youngster’s needs.
Q: And is there value in using it as an accountability tool, which is what they’ve been doing, with consequences for schools with low scores?
A: I think we could determine how well schools perform in a much less expensive way than the mass assessment. For the last 15, almost 20 years now, we’ve been on the accountability kick, we haven’t seen any significant gains. So let’s stop doing the accounting and let’s start doing the developing.
Q: Before we go, a question about W.E.B. Du Bois, since you are among the last people around who worked with him. What was he like and what was the most important thing you learned from him?
A: Well, I didn’t learn much about being a humane person from him. His values were humane, but he was stiff. He knew he was one of the smartest people in the world and almost had contempt for people who were not. So I didn’t learn personal skills from him.
I did learn a lot about thinking. It was from him that I first learned to pay attention to context. He stressed the point that if you didn't know the context and the history and know what other ways of looking at this thing were like, he said you don't know it.
Q: What is the secret to being as smart, engaged and healthy as you are at age 100?
A: I do wish I knew. I would package it and give it to Amazon. I married when I was about 26. My wife, Susan, my late wife, was a physician, a pediatrician. But she kept after me on my diet, she made me eat the proper things, she was very insistent on the exercise, and she was sharp as a whip. So my intellective function from the day I met her started going up to keep up with her.
Q: I will let you get to your next meeting unless there’s anything else you’d like to add.
A: No, it is time for me to run. And I’m running because the people I’m talking to are the people who fund research and can you believe it, at 100, they’re thinking about funding a new project for me. So I need to talk to them.