Review of Robert L. Hampel’s Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education

By Rebecca Powell, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast

Hampel, R. L. (2017). Fast and curious: A history of shortcuts in American education. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Robert L. Hampel’s (2017) Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education traces the rise and fall of correspondence schools; book series; spelling, reading, and handwriting systems; and accelerated paths to university degrees as shortcuts. Readers may see parallels between these shortcuts and for-profit universities, online education, and time-to-degree initiatives. Hampel, however, seldom makes such connections (the exception: Trump University), preferring to identify the themes and beliefs that made these shortcuts seem like viable alternatives to traditional education.

Meticulously footnoted, Hampel’s text romps through America’s attempts to shortcut education in an engaging style with a wry sense of humor, making this a quick and necessary read, particularly for assessment scholars. It reminds readers that much of what is called innovation in higher education has antecedents, and that market forces and philanthropists have long tried to “fix” higher education through assessment.

Focused on market- and university-led shortcuts in the 19th and 20th centuries, the text is divided into two parts: faster-easier shortcuts and faster-harder shortcuts. In Part I, Hampel explores the initially popular and lucrative faster-easier shortcuts. Promising success and fulfillment and endorsed by the famous, such as Norman Rockwell, and the respected, such as late Harvard president Charles Eliot, faster-easier shortcuts relied on advertising and aggressive marketing to lure customers and boost profits (p. 46).

Chapter 1 charts the growth and decline of correspondence schools in the 20th century. Hampel illustrates how the reputation of these schools, staked on the names of famous artists and writers, fell as a result of bad press surrounding debt collections and an exposé of low graduation rates and uninvolved faculty, similar to recent ProPublica exposés on for-profit universities. This chapter offers insight into how a shortcut’s failure affects the lives and beliefs of its participants and serves as a reminder of the need to assess more than profitability.

The shortcuts explored in Chapter 2 sought to democratize elite culture by making its consumption more enjoyable. In his history of CliffsNotes, the popular plot summary booklets, Hampel notes these shortcuts do more than make the content of culture accessible; they also introduce users to the language associated with the cultural artifact (p. 61). The enduring popularity of shortcuts to culture and the critics of that popularity display the dissonance at the heart of Americans’ pursuit of education: the push and pull between enjoyment and effort.  

Unlike the faster-easier shortcuts, the faster-harder shortcuts of Part II promised to be cheaper and more efficient; however, they had few takers. Frequently backed by foundations, faster-harder shortcuts tried to shorten the time-to-degree and simplify the writing and reading of the English language.  

Time-to-degree shortcuts explored in Chapter 3 used writing assessment to grant credit for exams and life experience through early admittance, dual credit, exam credit, competency, accelerated school years, and abbreviated requirements. Parent expectations, the ubiquity of high school diplomas, and the demands of professional and graduate schools kept the traditional four-year degree mostly intact. Most endeavors to shorten college and university requirements resulted in more pathways and choices to education, but few led to shortening college for any significant number of students (p. 153). The enduring legacy of time-to-degree shortcuts can best be seen in the emphasis on exams meant to measure student readiness, aptitude, and competency, such as the ACT, SAT, AP, and CLEP.

Although the time-to-degree shortcuts detailed by Hampel found few volunteers, the shortcuts endured. Currently, they are enshrined in education policy by state legislatures who require dual credit offerings and are encouraged by corporate foundations, such as Complete College America, that suggest abbreviating credit requirements and granting credit for competency.

Hampel highlights the durability of the status quo in higher education and the continued quest for shortcuts to the promises of education. Both are maintained and created through assessment, including writing assessment. This text reminds writing assessment scholars and practitioners of the fraught role assessment plays in ensuring education fulfills its promise to students and society.

Review of Zachary Stein’s Social Justice and Educational Measurement: John Rawls, the History of Testing, and the Future of Education

By Sara Lovett, The University of Washington

Stein, Z. (2016). Social justice and educational measurement: John Rawls, the history of testing, and the future of education. 

In Social Justice and Educational Measurement: John Rawls, the History of Testing, and the Future of Education (2016), Zachary Stein critiques the American standardized testing enterprise and proposes reforms inspired by John Rawls’s philosophies of social justice. Though Stein does not speak specifically to writing assessment, writing program administrators (WPAs) and instructors will find Stein’s call for socially just assessment practices applicable to composition.

Throughout this volume, Stein applies John Rawls’s philosophy of social justice to the context of educational measurement in 21st century America. The arguments in this book stem from the premise that equity in education must be designed intentionally to create a fair environment for all students. A reader looking for a brief overview of John Rawls’s philosophies on social justice and the history of educational measurement would be served well by the introduction alone, but readers seeking recommendations for assessment reform will find value in subsequent chapters.

After introducing his modern approach toward Rawls’s philosophy, Stein reviews the interconnected history of measurement and social justice, providing context for the failure of current testing methods. WPAs seeking to reform current placement and testing practices will find detailed explanations of how educational measurement has been standardized in ways that discriminate against particular student populations. Stein’s writing in this first chapter and throughout the book is accessible to readers with minimal prior knowledge on educational philosophy yet useful to those who are more well-versed on the topic.

While most of this book is about approaches to measurement, Stein suggests in Chapter 2 that there are also curricular implications for Rawls’s theories. Extending Rawls’s ideas on civic education, Stein argues that schools play a role, either implicitly or explicitly, in forming what students’ value. This chapter makes a case for the importance of humanities education in a time when schools are increasingly focused on tests and outcomes. Writing instructors and WPAs may find this section useful in advocating for public-facing writing and the modern value of the humanities.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the history of assessment might consider jumping to Chapters 4 and 5, which elaborate on the origins of educational measurement as a form of (what was perceived to be) scientific, objective physical measurement, before returning to Stein’s argument in Chapter 3. Stein covers the origins of IQ tests through to their modern iterations, arguing that these tests fail to measure intelligence holistically and that college entrance tests like the SAT do not measure anything other than how to take the test. These chapters provide insightful context for WPAs who use standardized tests as placement measures for composition courses.

Readers might conclude by Chapter 3 that Stein is anti-testing, but they would be mistaken. Stein argues for reform rather than elimination of testing, stating that current practices reduce students to metrics and sacrifice fairness for the sake of efficiency. He advocates for a less standardized, more student-centered approach to socially just assessment, built on Rawls’s philosophies. Stein’s approach is aligned with directed self-placement and multiple-measures placement approaches, which are becoming more common in composition. As WPAs advocate for more socially just placement practices, they might draw on Stein’s rationale to support individualized assessment practices.

Applying Rawls to a modern context, Stein meditates on the role of technology in facilitating social justice in education in his closing chapter. He argues that new media offer the potential to work as catalysts for a more socially just education system but that without deliberate design, they may instead increase inequality due to unequal access to technology. Instructors and WPAs seeking to apply multimodal and new media approaches as well as ethical testing practices will find a compelling argument for carefully melding the two approaches in this chapter.

In 220 pages, Stein makes a provocative contribution to conversations on equity in education and socially just alternatives to standardized testing. While the book is not explicitly marketed to compositionists, WPAs and writing instructors invested in social justice in education will find this fresh application of Rawls’s philosophy relevant to the needs of 21st century students.