»  National Review Online

June 9, 2010

  Educational Reductionism

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Bad Students, Not Bad Schools
by Robert Weissberg
Transaction Publishers; 324 pp. $39.95

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Front page headline in my New York Post this morning:

2 + 2 = 5

NY passes students who get wrong answers on tests

The accompanying story describes a further dumbing-down of state math tests for kids in grades 3 to 8. Half marks are given for fragments of work; also for wrong answers arrived at via correct methods: "A kid who answers that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48 inches long gets half-credit for adding 24 and 24 instead of the correct 12 plus 12 …"

For us New York parents the only surprise here is that any further dumbing-down was still possible. There is certainly nothing surprising about book-cooking of state tests. This has been going on for years, and we all know it. (Here's me complaining about it on The Corner last year.)

If you're not cynical about education in the U.S.A. today, you're just not paying attention. Robert Weissberg, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Urbana, has been paying close attention. In Bad Students, Not Bad Schools he takes no prisoners, exposing the corruption, trashing the faddish crackpot theories, and lamenting the decline of what was, fifty years ago, poised to become the world's finest system of education.

What killed that hope was educational romanticism, the theory that, as memorably expressed by New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon, "Given the opportunity, most people could do most anything."

This bizarre and nonsensical doctrine was yoked together with a determination to academicize the entire U.S. population, to turn us all into bookish grinds ready to enter full-time employment only in our mid-20s. Politicians of all parties jumped happily aboard the Lunacy Express, seeing the opportunity to spend scads of money while boosting their own moral stature as champions of "the children." Barack Obama has said that every American should have a college degree; Jeb Bush, Florida's "education Governor" hovers on the edge of the same preposterosity here. The judiciary agrees: Wouldn't everyone attend law school if they could? The Academy is of course only too happy to expand its power and wealth. Elite-consensus-wise, it's a wrap: Most people could do most anything, if we just get the schools right!

What is going through people's minds when they applaud these weird notions? Did not any of those in the audience for Barack Obama's speech, for example, pause to reflect on the mix of people they themselves attended high school with? Charles Murray has offered the opinion that no more than 20 percent of students have sufficient academic ability to cope with genuine college-level material. You might argue with that figure — I'd put it closer to ten percent — but surely nobody who has walked in the world with open eyes can believe the correct number is 100 percent?

Probably what is being practiced here is what George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, called "crimestop"

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to [the state ideology], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

Robert Weissberg apparently agrees. "Bad Students, Not Bad Schools might be called an Emperor's New Clothes book," he tells us. "It says what everybody (or nearly everybody) knows to be true but is fearful of expressing in public …" It is, in short, intended as an antidote to educational romanticism. Call it educational reductionism: a clear, fact-based account of human potential, human differences, the place of intellectual achievement in a modern society, and the relation of all those things to America's particular traditions of liberty and personal autonomy.

Bad Students, Not Bad Schools is not the first book to take an educational-reductionist point of view. Charles Murray's 2008 Real Education, which I linked to above, belongs in the same genre. Further back was Rita Kramer's pioneering 1991 exposé of the teacher-training racket, Ed School Follies.

Given the solid elite consensus in support of educational romanticism, the reductionists are firing BB guns at a grizzly. All credit to them for speaking their minds anyway, instead of falling back on to the scented cushions of political correctness, media approval, academic respectability, and big-foundation grant money.

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If the theory of modern American education is wildly romantic, the practice is a sort of missionary endeavor, in which selfless idealists give their all — including, to judge from one movie portrayal, their marriages — in order to lift up benighted heathens into the saving light of knowledge. When I was a schoolteacher it was a job. You did your best in the prescribed hours, then went home and tackled a bit of gardening. Nowadays you are expected to be Albert Schweitzer.

This missionary ideal has utterly corrupted American education. Where, after all, are the benighted heathens to be found? At the bottom of the ability scale, that's where. So all our efforts in public education are tilted towards "helping the disadvantaged." Unintelligent, unmotivated students are showered with resources, while those who will benefit most from teaching are neglected.

That, at any rate, is the missionary ideal. The notion of "giftedness" is blurred and diluted down to nothing (current official ed-theory doctrine is that all students are gifted — I have not made that up) while heroic efforts, and boxcar-loads of cash, are devoted to instilling bookishness in the un-bookish. Often the bookish and the un-bookish are taught together, with malign results for both: the smart kids slumber in slowed-down lessons, while dim ones are academically overwhelmed.

The consequent distortions of reality are so great, it's surprising there have not been local collapses in the structure of spacetime. Consider school evaluation, for example. Suppose School A is full of very bright students scoring 90-100 on tests, while School B is full of underachievers scoring 20-30. Now further suppose you live in a city whose Department of Education grades schools by how much test scores have improved. Which school, A or B, is a better prospect for a high grade? The answer of course is B. To get mean scores from 25 to 30 percent is much easier than getting them from 95 to 100 percent. (I'm exaggerating, but the principle is sound.)

Hence the bizarre results Robert Weissberg reports from New York City's 2007 school-grading program, which operated on just these hare-brained principles.

Franklin D. Roosevelt High School scored an "A" though it graduated a mere 50.4 percent of its students. The South Bronx Academy for Applied Media is a museum-quality nightmare — half the faculty quits every year; crime and violence, including attacks on teachers, are commonplace; and New York State has classified the school as "persistently dangerous," one of fifty-two in the entire state. Classrooms often lacked books and a school focusing on the media had no web site. Nevertheless it, too, got an "A." Meanwhile, Bard College's Early College High School received a "C" and was "under review" for possible closing. This occurred in spite of a truly outstanding academic record — students pass the tough State Regents examination by their sophomore year (a feat beyond most city seniors) and after four years those with diplomas have earned two years of college credit.

That extract, by the way, is from Chapter 7 of Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, chapter title: "Business-like Solutions to Academic Insufficiency." The chapter shows, to devastating effect, that the brisk, businessy proposals of self-proclaimed "realists" like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the clueless Jeb Bush are just as stupid, vaporous, corruptible, and doomed to failure as the most rococo of the "oppression" theories promoted by the far Left … when they are not actually the same theories dressed up in ill-fitting suits and ties.

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Weissberg's central insight is that, as he puts it: "The real problem is not lack of supply; it is insufficient demand for academic achievement." American parents are in fact spoiled for choice, with a great surfeit of supply, not only of different kinds of schools, but of web-based instruction and home-schooling support groups.

Or consider crammers. There are thousands of these firms offering private tutoring at various levels of intensity. Weissberg lists many of them. They are especially popular with East Asian parents. Here is an interesting fact: Until a slight change in the law in 2008, students in struggling schools in poor neighborhoods could attend crammers for free, courtesy of No Child Left Behind funds. Thousands of entrepreneurs opened up shop in inner cities, expecting a profit bonanza from academically deprived students flocking into their crammers on the government's dollar. Alas, nobody showed up.

City after city reported a nearly identical experience: huge numbers of lagging students were offered a free tutoring option, often in the school they already attend, but only about 10 percent signed up, and even then, most dropped out after a few sessions.

The desire for academic excellence is widespread among the striving middle and upper classes, and is by no means unknown elsewhere. The true fact is, though, that across great swathes of our society, academic excellence is not much valued. This being the case, if we really treasure our national traditions of liberty and personal autonomy, we should resist the academicization of America. Trying to squeeze everyone into the book-learning straitjacket, gassing on about how everyone should go to college, is not merely wrong-headed, it is morally offensive. It is also un-American. Weissberg mentions the mid-20th-century president of a major university who declared that his goal was to build an academic program the football team could be proud of. Now that's American!

Among the people who have understood this was Milton Friedman, though the great economist was writing back when our country was still sane. In his landmark 1955 essay "The Role of Government in Education" Friedman concentrated exclusively on the matter of free parental choice and freedom from government control. The essay, he declared, looking back on it from 50 years later, was about "the philosophy of a free society," not about raising academic excellence, bringing light to the heathen, closing race, class, and sex gaps in test scores, or any of the other faddish obsessions of today's Ed Biz log-rollers. If parents choose sport, religion, vocational training, social dancing, or handicrafts over trigonometry and Shakespeare, let them so choose. We have drifted so far from original American notions of liberty that you have to read this kind of thing twice to capture the meaning.

But … but … can such a nation thrive in a competitive world? Is it not the case, as Jeb Bush remarked in that clip I linked to above, that the supply of jobs for the ill-educated is drying up?

It is not at all clear that this is so. Our immigration policies (if the chaos of recent immigration can be dignified with the word "policy") suggest otherwise. As a colleague of mine once remarked: It is astonishing that a nation most of whose adult inhabitants would pluck out an eye rather than see their kids flunk high school, none the less imports millions of high-school dropouts. If having millions of high-school dropouts in our labor force is such a jolly good thing for America, why not generate our own supply? Yes, we can!

In any case, as Robert Weissberg notes, the question of how many well-educated people we need is an empirical one, for which Soviet-style government planning is certainly the wrong approach, as it is the wrong approach to any other economic question.

Economies … adapt, even when facing illiteracy and innumeracy. It is no accident that books with "For Dummies" and "Idiots" in their titles are best sellers. Money is to be made from surmounting stupidity, and so experts will figure it out. Commerce once required armies of skilled typists … Today, "typist" as a job classification has virtually vanished … McDonald's uses simplified, pictograph cash registers in lieu of trying to impart numeracy to its sorrowful teenage help. In the final analysis, a handful of very smart people may be able to compensate for thousands of dummies, and educating these smart people may be a far better strategy than imploring the latter to shape up.

Perhaps it is also worth noting that if you had asked any well-informed person of a hundred years ago to name the best-educated nation in the world of 1910, he would undoubtedly have answered: "Germany." How'd that work out?

In my own recent book (soon to be available in a splendid paperback edition!) I included a chapter on education. Researching the topic, I quickly found myself overwhelmed by the sheer colossal fetid mass of foolishness, quackery, and corruption that is modern American education — "a culture of mendacity," Weissberg correctly calls it. In the space I had assigned myself I could only snatch at a few low-hanging fruit.

Robert Weissberg has filled out the picture admirably to book length, and placed education in its proper context as one consumer option of a free society from which, above a rudimentary minimum, citizens ought to be able to take as much, or as little, as they please. Bad Students, Not Bad Schools has some slight imperfections (doesn't Transaction employ editors? — the key equation on page 3 needs exponentiation, not multiplication … etc.) but it is a robust contribution to the noble causes of educational reductionism and human liberty.