Monday, May 19, 2008

Charles Murray on "Educational Romanticism"

Cyber-buddy M. Simon points to an excellent piece in The New Criterion. (Fascinating name for a magazine looking to the past for guidance. Sorry. I couldn't resist.) The thrust of the article is that what passes for public education in America is infected with the romantic idea that if we try hard enough we can discover the alchemy that will make scholars of even the dullest and most disadvantaged among us. This is a hobby horse that I love to ride. Despite its provenance, this article is one that I wish everyone would read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Mr. Simon's comments are good.
I love this:

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?

Snark aside, there is a lot of meat in the piece.

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 (There's that word again.) 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.

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. In the early years, I didn’t need the experts to tell me. I was watching the demoralized teachers in my children’s school, wearied by endless preparation for the exams and frustrated by demands from on high to concentrate on students who were at the cusp of being able to pass the state’s proficiency benchmark at the expense of everyone else. In subsequent years, the demoralization and frustration may have eased—not because No Child Left Behind got better, but because teachers, principals, and state departments of education have learned all the ways that the Act and its compliance requirements can be gamed.

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. Starting that process can be as simple as more articles like this one.

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.

NPR sometimes airs guest contributions from Youth Radio. A few weeks ago I heard Emma Alexander (see February 16, 2008) from Grady High School in Atlanta advance the perfectly reasonable and simple idea that attendance in public schools should no longer be mandatory. If a students don't want to be there -- for whatever reason -- then let them go missing and not be a drag on other students motivated to learn. This strikes me as a brilliant, if politically unfeasible, idea.

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