The New Criterion has an article on romaticism in the public schools. It is not about the study of a literary genre but a look at how bad ideas coupled with good intentions are ruining our schools for all children. The children with limited abilities. Those in the middle and those at the top. It is a very long piece (well worth reading in its entirety) so I'm going to pick out some high points that illustrate where we are, why we are where we are, and where we should go from here.
Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways. Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.Then comes a discussion of No Child Left Behind where by the government intends to make us all above average. Or at least 70% of us. You can pass a law and do that? Who knew?
In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren’t smart enough.
No one disputes the empirical predictiveness of tests of intellectual ability—IQ tests—for large groups. If a classroom of first-graders is given a full-scale IQ test that requires no literacy and no mathematics, the correlation of those scores with scores on reading and math tests at age seventeen is going to be high. Such correlations will be equally high whether the class consists of rich children or poor, black or white, male or female. They will be high no matter how hard the teachers have worked. Scores on tests of reading and math track with intellectual ability, no matter what.Pretty much true. Smart kids want to learn and you can't stop them. Kids who aren't smart don't want to learn (it is very hard for them) and you can't make them.
That brings us to an indispensable tenet of educational romanticism: The public schools are so bad that large gains in student performance are possible even within the constraints of intellectual ability. A large and unrefuted body of evidence says that this indispensable tenet is incorrect. Differences among schools do not have much effect on test scores in reading and mathematics.
Excellent schools with excellent teachers will augment their learning, and are a better experience for children in many other ways as well. But an excellent school’s effects on mean test scores for the student body as a whole will not be dramatic. Readers who attended normally bad K-12 schools and then went to selective colleges are likely to understand why: Your classmates who had gone to Phillips Exeter had taken much better courses than your school offered, and you may have envied their good luck, but you had read a lot on your own, you weren’t that far behind, and you caught up quickly.After a bit more discussion of what the various tests and studies show we come to how we got here. It deals with the Progressive Movement (are you listening Obama?) and how it ruined education. In other words a short history lesson.
To sum up, a massive body of evidence says that reading and mathematics achievement have strong ties to underlying intellectual ability, that we do not know how to change intellectual ability after children reach school, and that the quality of schooling within the normal range of schools does not have much effect on student achievement. To put it another way, we have every reason to think—and already did when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed—that the notion of making all children proficient in math and reading is ridiculous. Such a feat is not possible even for an experimental school with unlimited funding, let alone for public schools operating in the real world. By NAEP’s (National Assessment of Educational Progress) definition of proficiency, we probably cannot make even half of the students proficient.
The first strand in explaining educational romanticism is a mythic image of the good old days when teachers brooked no nonsense and all the children learned their three R’s. You have probably run across tokens of it in occasional editorials that quote examination questions once asked of public schools students. Here is an example that The Wall Street Journal gave from the admissions test to Jersey City High School in 1885: “Write a sentence containing a noun as an attribute, a verb in the perfect tense potential mood, and a proper adjective.” Or consider the McGuffey Readers that were standard textbooks in the nineteenth century, filled with literary selections far more difficult than the ones given to today’s students at equivalent ages. That’s the kind of material all children routinely learned, right?The author goes on to give a short history of fads in education and how their effect - if any - is small or very often zero.
Wrong. American schools have never been able to teach everyone how to read, write, and do arithmetic. The myth that they could has arisen because schools a hundred years ago did not have to educate the least able. When the twentieth century began, about a quarter of all adults had not reached fifth grade and half had not reached eighth grade. The relationship between school dropout and intellectual ability was not perfect, but it was strong. Today’s elementary and middle schools are dealing with 99 percent of all children in the eligible age groups. Let today’s schools not report the test results for the children that schools in 1900 did not have to teach, and NAEP scores would go through the roof.
The roots of educational romanticism go back to the beginnings of the Progressive Education movement early in the twentieth century. Its flowering in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with a zeitgeist that nurtured wishful thinking of all sorts. But I think we need to come to grips with another important historical force that made educational romanticism dominant. The effects of the triumphant Civil Rights Movement gave a special reason for white elites in the 1960s to start ignoring the implications of intellectual limitations.So we are now paying for our evil with overcompensation. We want to believe that our evil if only expunged can make everything right. Only it can't. It can only make some things right. And those things are severely limited. In fact they are limited to the evil itself. But we want expatiation. So we overcompensate. And with that overcompensation comes the creation of new evils. We don't know how to make oaks grow in a desert. We can't feed men with sand. And yet our guilt makes us try and try harder when we fail.
It is difficult to convey to readers who came of age in the 1970s or thereafter the emotional power of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. The ambiguities associated with affirmative action and the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws were still in the future. The Civil Rights Movement prior to 1964 created a change in the consciousness of white elites that was felt viscerally, and it included an embarrassing awareness of just how unremittingly whites had violated every American ideal when it came to blacks. With that awareness came elite white guilt —honest, deeply felt, and warranted.
Elite white guilt explains much about all kinds of social policy from the last half of the 1960s onward, but especially about education. Until the 1960s, white educators and politicians could look at a class of white children in which a number of students were doing poorly and shrug. The schools try to teach everyone, but some kids can’t handle the material. That’s just the way the things are; it is not a problem that can be fixed. But when the class consisted of black students who were doing poorly, that reaction was not acceptable. These were children growing up in a society where all the odds had been stacked against them, and their failings couldn’t be passed off as “just the way things are.” Elite white guilt made it impossible to say that a lot of black children were going to continue to fail in school and there’s nothing anybody could do about it. Once it could not be said of black children, neither could it be said of white children. In that context, educational romanticism did not just become fashionable during the 1960s. It became emotionally mandatory.
And so, beginning with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government embarked on a series of major efforts to improve education for disadvantaged children that culminated in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Act. Surveying that history, an analogy occurred to me that I offer as a speculative proposition: America’s federal education policy as of 2008 is at about the same place that the Soviet Union’s economic policy was in 1990.We are now coming to an end of an era. The results are in and denial is not working. Every one knows that the crap is backed up in the pipes and is overflowing on the floor and it stinks. To high heaven.
The parallels between the trajectory of the Soviet Union’s attempt to reform its economy and the trajectory of the federal government’s attempts to reform the public education system are striking. By the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders knew that they had to introduce supply and demand into the economy, but they couldn’t bring themselves to try honest-to-God capitalism, so they tried to decentralize decision-making and permit some elements of a market economy while retaining central price controls and government ownership of the means of production. The reforms were based on premises about human nature that were patently wrong. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the educational romantics—and George W. Bush is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of educational romantics—knew that public school systems everywhere had become bureaucratically top-heavy and that many inner-city schools were no longer functional. They knew that the billions of federal money spent on upgrading education for disadvantaged children had produced no demonstrable improvements. But they thought they could fix the system. Bush’s glasnost was to implement accountability through measurement of results by test scores. Bush’s perestroika was a mishmash of performance standards and fragments of a market economy in schools, while retaining public funding of the schools and government control over the enforcement of the new standards. The reforms were based on premises about intellectual ability that were patently wrong.
Unlike the Soviet economy, American public schools are still in business, but scholarly analyses of the administration of No Child Left Behind are documenting a monumental mess.
Contemplate these results for a moment. A law is passed that, at least in the first few years, convulses educational practice throughout the nation. It is a law explicitly designed to raise test scores, if only because it produces intense drilling on how to take tests. And it produces trivial increases in NAEP’s math scores and no increases in its reading scores. No Child Left Behind has been not just a failure for educational romanticism, but its repudiation.So what do we need to do?
The good news is that educational romanticism is surely teetering on the edge of collapse. I am optimistic for three reasons. First, the data keep piling up. It takes a while for empiricism to discredit cherished beliefs, but No Child Left Behind may prove to have done us a favor by putting so much emphasis on test scores and thereby focusing attention on how hard it is to budge those scores. Second, we no longer live in a romantic age. Educational romanticism was born of forces that have lost most of their power, and façades collapse when the motives for maintaining those façades weaken. Third, hardly anybody really believes in educational romanticism even now. No one but the most starry-eyed denies in private the reality of differences in intellectual ability that we are powerless to change with K-12 education. People are unwilling to talk about those differences in public, but it is a classic emperor’s-clothes scenario waiting for someone to point out the obvious.
For the good of our children, educational romanticism needs to collapse, and quickly. Its effects play out in the lives of young people in devastating ways. The fourth-grader who has trouble sounding out simple words and his classmate who is reading A Tale of Two Cities for fun sit in the same classroom day after miserable day, the one so frustrated by tasks he cannot do and the other so bored that both are near tears. The eighth-grader who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines is told to stick with the college prep track, because to be a success in life he must go to college and get a B.A. The senior with terrific SAT scores gets away with turning in rubbish on his term papers because to make special demands on the gifted would be elitist. They are all products of an educational system that cannot make itself talk openly about the implications of diverse educational limits.Here is a bit I really liked out of the above paragraphs: The eighth-grader who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines is told to stick with the college prep track, because to be a success in life he must go to college and get a B.A. And yet plumbers can make more money than most liberal arts graduates and their jobs can't be outsourced.
There is much more to be said about these harms (and I have said it, in a book that will appear in a few months). For now, it is enough to recognize that educational romanticism asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top. It short-changes all of them.
I have said this often but it bears repeating:
“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” — John W. Gardner, Saturday Evening Post, December 1, 1962
In other words not every man has equal intelligence. All have equal dignity if they comport themselves in a dignified manner. We owe the maintenance of our civilization (and it takes a lot of maintaining) to our plumbers and garbage men. We owe the advances to our scientists and engineers. What we must never forget is that we are all in this together. The man/woman who is respectful and contributes deserves our respect without qualification. The financial trader or the clerk at the grocery store.
Let me add one final point that the article didn't make that I think is vitally important and not well addressed in many communities. Hard work can make up to a 15 IQ point difference in outcomes (sorry no link). That is one standard deviation. It is not a lot. It is, however, significant. You can make up for some lack of anything with extra effort. How many times do we hear of the ball player with less than stellar abilities make up for his lack by devoting more time to practice than his team mates? What works in baseball also works in school. You can punch above your weight if you work at it.
Cross Posted at Classical Values