[Note: Approbation of this local column prompts me to post it as a "special issue" for a wider readership.]
The collective mentality of the people of the United States has been shrinking with each passing moment for the past half century. During that time, American students have increasingly suffered comparison with students in other countries with advanced economies. Grade inflation has made certificates and diplomas virtually worthless scraps of paper (for which we are paying more and more). Worse, grade inflation has misled everyone to believe that student performance is better than it is. This misinformation encourages laziness, complacency, ignorance, and intellectual stagnation.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. We want to think that our students are above average, and the schools tell us what we want to hear, to placate us. We debate school choice, but whatever choice we make to educate our students—homeschooling; charter schools; parochial, private, or public schools—we are failing to do so. We shall continue to fail because, as the level of education has declined for five decades, so too have our understanding of education and its purposes diminished. Traditional American anti-intellectualism has triumphed, replacing a commitment to education with political lip-service and sleight-of-hand.
Time was, at least in the public schools of my youth, when the goal of education was a well-rounded education. Students were expected to be capable in all major academic subjects, without preference among them: English, mathematics, history, and science. Some schools encouraged, and a few required, study of a foreign language. In the public schools of my children’s youth, the goal was life-long learning, which always struck me as a way of saying, “you are not going to get a well-rounded education, but you are going to learn enough now to learn later whatever we fail to teach you.” In the public schools of my grandchildren’s youth, the goal is to ensure that they have just enough knowledge and skills to get a job or to go to college.
The slide is first of goals, then of standards, always of results. In 1940, when I was born, no more than a high school education for 95 percent of all students sufficed for personal and civic activities, and employment. Since the 60s, we have dumbed down education so much that a high-school education does not ensure competence in literacy and numeracy. Even allowing for New Mexico’s ranking as one of the country’s worst school systems, and for Las Cruces’s ranking as one of its mediocre districts, I am stunned by everyday encounters with incompetence. Local high-school graduates behind the counter cannot make change or multiply 500 items by ten cents to get 50 dollars; or, in the college classroom, cannot take 10 percent of 500 to get 50. Local journalists—I exclude sports writers—routinely confuse a possessive pronoun (its) and a contraction (it’s). Such errors are not life-threatening (unless my pre-nursing student miscalculates a dosage), just symptoms of a national learning disorder.
Proposed reforms are quack remedies. The approach to education reform launched 30 years ago in the Reagan administration has made matters worse, not better, because business values and methods are hostile to those of education. Today, the business-oriented approach education is bipartisan, blessed by politicians of all parties. The nation’s designated ignoramuses of education, Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, conceive of education as a competitive enterprise—thus, “Race to the Top.” So long as they and anything-Obama shills like Melissa Perry-Harris promulgate business-driven programs, so long will America debase education. The latest scam is the crypto-federal hijacking of curriculums under the deceit of raising standards. Contrary to the hype of hope, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will fail.
They will fail because their curriculums lower, not raise, requirements for education; narrow, not broaden, the scope of learning; and, by focusing on a narrow range of topics in each subject, discourage, not encourage, curiosity and critical thinking. CCSS fail to define an inclusive, coherent curriculum in each subject. They emphasize technical subjects and technical aspects of non-technical subjects as if technical data answer all questions, even non-technical ones, and serve all purposes—arrogant and ignorant nonsense.
Not surprisingly, a business-oriented philosophy of education prefers management to labor. Instead of helping teachers or trusting them to do their job, CCSS bullies them to teach, not as trained, but as ordered from on high, by “blind mouths” lacking classroom experience. When CCSS fail, politicians who now support them—notably, in New Mexico, Martinez and Skandera—will blame everyone else, especially teachers or parents.
CCSS diminish education and demean teachers. They require billions for new textbooks, and new software and hardware matched to each other primarily to test student performance. This enormous investment in technology, not teachers, will enormously increase the pressure on teachers to teach to the test. Test scores will indicate nothing about an education of value.
With the dumb having made us dumber, expect our children to end up dumber than we are, and our grandchildren dumber still.