In chat the other day, Matt raised the possibility that national standards like the Common Core could work if it were made clear that such standards were meant set a floor, not a ceiling — an absolute minimum that, if not accomplished, would trigger punishment. And yes, he may be right there. However, it does not appear that the states – or testing entities like the College Board – are interpreting the Common Core in that manner. Why, for example, is the College Board kvetching over aligning their AP Calculus to Common Core and kicking around the idea of creating an AP Algebra exam? (Really? Really?) Evidently, someone thinks the Common Core precludes Calculus.
Alas, I must come back to my original conclusion: Our system is so dysfunctional at present that any attempt at standardization will inevitably devolve into a lowest-common-denominator rush to the bottom.
Why the dysfunction? Well, there are no pat answers to that. The problem is multidimensional.
One thing that is probably not a contributing factor? Poverty. Sorry, but you have to look at the history. Once upon a time, the schools in Harlem were capable of turning out a Thomas Sowell. Once upon a time, the children of thousands upon thousands of immigrants – who, by the way, often lived in shabby tenements and labored daily for low wages – went on to become successful middle and upper class professionals after passing through urban public schools. Once upon a time, schools were able to function – and function well! – despite crumbling physical plants and limited resources. Money is not the issue. The economic background of the students is not the issue.
But when leftist defenders of the public schools attribute school failure to socioeconomic factors beyond the schoolhouse walls, they are not entirely in the wrong. There is one social problem that does have a huge impact on the education of our children, and because it strongly correlates with poverty, it’s very easy to mistakenly conflate the two. The problem in question, of course, is the collapse of marriage. When Thomas Sowell was growing up in Harlem, the illegitimacy rate was low. Most children were living in two-parent households. Now, that is no longer the case in poorer neighborhoods (white or minority). In many such neighborhoods, single parenthood has become the norm rather than the exception. And yes — that the child of a single parent is at a tremendous disadvantage right out of the starting gate is incontrovertible at this point. When it comes to teaching children, two heads are better than one.
Of course, marriage inequality is not something the left wants to consider because the solution involves abandoning the libertine ideals of the sexual revolution and actually promoting marriage as a superior environment for child-rearing. Heavens no! Can’t have that!
Another problem the schools are dealing with here is the general decline of our nation’s social capital. Do people get hyped up about the activities of the school board anymore? Evidently not — turn out for a school board election is usually abysmal. As Matt has already observed in a previous post, people no longer feel able to influence the government at the local level, and that is certainly as true for our local schools as it is for our local board of supervisors. We are all focused on the federal government – and yes, I include myself in the meaning of the word “all” – because that is currently where all the power is going. Our political elites have forgotten completely about federalism and subsidiarity and are trying to control everything from the top.
So perhaps those who favor getting rid of the federal DOE and putting the power back into the hands of local governments are on the right track. Perhaps local control does result in empowerment, a feeling of community ownership, and – ultimately – better educational outcomes. The history, once again, would seem to bear that out; when taxes for the schools were collected locally and curriculum decisions were made by the community, our schools were more effective. (Though, yeah, there are a ton of confounding variables in there — like the marriage issue I mentioned above.) Modern Americans are seriously out of practice when it comes to making our own decisions, though. If the feds and the states were to say to our cities, towns and villages, “Hey, it’s totally up to you now,” could we pick up the reigns?
Given the state of civics education in this country, probably not. And that brings us to another big stumbling block: pedagogy. In most of our public schools, high school civics is taught in plodding fashion as a series of discrete facts about the structures and functions of our local, state, and federal governments. It’s all dry technicalities; there’s no meaning in any of it because for some silly reason, we’ve decided to divorce civics from history and teach it separately. No — in order for students to truly understand and appreciate the Constitution, federalism, “checks and balances,” etc., they have to know where it all came from, and that requires diving into the cultural milieu of the 18th century and exploring the genesis of the Founders’ political thought.
And it isn’t just civics that’s taught incorrectly. As I’ve noted on this blog before, our language arts and math curricula are plagued by faddish hogwash – “whole language,” “reform math,” etc. – that hampers our students’ ability to move on beyond the basics. Many, many times, I’ve had to correct my public-school-educated clients because they guess at words based on only the first few letters. I’m not screaming “Look at all the letters and SOUND IT OUT!” in wild-eyed frustration — yet. But I’m getting there. And don’t even get me started on all the high school students who are plugging 8X4 into a calculator — or counting it out on their fingers. These poor kids were taught to draw pictures and explain their answers so they could develop “deep understanding” — and now they’re floundering in upper math because it takes them ten minutes just to re-derive their multiplication facts.
Among teacher educators, a certain pernicious philosophy holds sway — one that views received knowledge (like the multiplication tables or the long division algorithm) as fundamentally suspect. Clear out the cesspools that are our schools of education and funnel our teacher candidates into legitimate, content-oriented academic programs, and our pedagogical problems might be mitigated. Unfortunately, such a plan seems far from feasible; I doubt Bill Ayers and his compatriots will go quietly.
So bah! I’m tempted to throw my hands up in resignation at this point. I’m not really sure what we can do to fix our schools because so many of these problems are fully outside the jurisdiction of the political process. Alas and alack.