Monday, July 04, 2005

Inside American Education by Thomas Sowell

Sowell sees quite a number of problems in American education. The end product is, in his estimation, a group of young adults who on the whole lack basic information and basic thinking skills: adults who are more apt to act on the basis of how they "feel" about something rather than any sort of reasoned judgement.

This is undeniably true.

The question is: is this the way things have always been? There are risks in arguing on the basis of test scores from years gone by, but we can compare Americans with other nationalities. Unfortunately Sowell doesn't have a terribly firm grasp of how to analytically use statistics himself, or else he decided to leave the math out. The critical comparison is between the top US students and the top Korean (or other) students. You need to correct for the dropout rates. But using the uncorrected rates, he says the top American students are doing worse than they used to.

But I don't have to rely on test scores. I can look at college acceptance rates and compare with the total populations of countries. Americans lose.

I can look at the textbooks I used, and the ones my kids are afflicted with. I found a copy of my old high school geometry textbook, and I compared it with the one used in high school now. Mine was proof-oriented and stressed careful reasoning--classical style. The current one is twice as heavy, very colorful, with lots of problem-solving and elementary algebra tie-ins--but not much to do with proofs or careful reasoning. Some, but not very much. A racially integrated team of characters have adventures that introduce each section's theme--at least for the first third of the book.

Geometry was dumbed down.

When I talk with high school kids, I find huge gaps in their cultural background. You don't need to be Christian or Jewish to know the story of David and Goliath--do you? Not very many kids seem to have the slightest notion what the title "Eyeless in Gaza" might refer to. I was always interested in history, and learned more from other books than my high school texts--I don't remember the textbooks at all--so I haven't tried to compare them. But certainly pop culture is utterly ignorant of any but the most superficial history.

I will stipulate that Sowell is correct to claim that American students are, on the whole, very badly educated.

The bulk of his book attempts to illustrate why this should be so. Most of the problems boil down to a lack of accountability, but I'm not convinced that accountability would solve all the problems. Demagogic politicians have a vested interest in maintaining victimhood in the regular world as well as the college campus, and I don't see these sorts trying to dispose of the bilingual education disasters, for example.

Who says that racial sensitivity courses help? The people who get paid to teach them. There are no solid studies to show that they help, and in fact experience has been the exact contrary: universities that bought into them developed professional victim-finders and developed racial tensions that they didn't have before.

Bilingual education is by now known as a notorious (and damaging) boondoggle--known, that is, to all except those with a vested interest in it or a vested interest in racial identity politics.

Does a course of study have to have obvious relevance to the students? That's a good question, but the simplistic answer "not if it has no bearing on things in the student's life" is just plain stupid. Some studies are abstract in the beginning, and only show relevance later. I really don't care that you've lived all your life in the desert, and have never seen a lake. You need to know what an ocean is. And in the name of relevance children are given rather startling amounts of political indoctrination.

He gives examples of schools where (possibly with good intentions) children are encouraged to take direction from their peers rather than their parents. "Values clarification" started to ring too many alarms, so it has been given new names--but the programs are still out there. In Oregon "school administrators were reluctant to acquaint parents and the general citizenry with their district's use of MACOS [Man: A Course Of Study], either prior to or following its installation."

Drug prevention programs haven't reduced drug abuse rates (the Isthmus reported on the DARE program several years ago). Sex education courses coincided with a reversal in the decline in teen pregnancy rates--they started rising, and likewise teen abortion rates rose.

"Self esteem" we all know is an utter joke, and the pros are starting to take notice. But it is going to be years before this filters down to the practices in the elementary schools. You don't get better work out of kids by giving them "self esteem;" they get the self esteem from doing well in things they find important.

If you enjoy what you are doing, you are more likely to work harder at it. But the goal is accomplishment, not feeling good about things. Schools work hard at making students feel good about themselves and their work; sometimes to the detriment of accomplishment.

Cultural "sensitivity" seems to trump everything, including honest judgement. Just as airport security is not allowed to notice that Baptists are under-represented among terrorists, so teachers and students are not supposed to notice that "ghetto culture" has some horrible aspects. Except that students are supposed to notice real and imagined failings of Western culture--these are sometimes on the test. There is no symmetry in sensitivity and respect--Western culture is denigrated whenever possible.

And who gets to be a teacher? You have to be credentialed, and in most states take regular education courses. The problem is that the education courses are far and away the least scholarly, least challenging, and most jargon-filled in a university. "The crucial importance of these courses, and the irreparable damage they do, is not because of what they teach or do not teach. It is because they are the filter through which the flow of teachers must pass. Mediocrity and incompetence flow freely through these filters, but they filter out many high-ability people, who refuse to subject themselves to the inanity of education course, which are the laughing stock of many universities." On average, education students are almost the dumbest, excepting of course the big sports athletes.

And then we go to college.

For Sowell the love of tenure is the root of all sorts of evils. He holds out as his examples the fear of tenured faculty to express unpopular opinions, and the "fearlessness" of think tank scholars. The latter example isn't terribly germane--there aren't very many of these folks compared to the number of college faculty. But it is perfectly obvious that the high pressure publish or perish scramble for tenure prevents young professors from actually working hard on teaching. Some universities call "teacher of the year" awards the kiss of death, because naive young professors who work hard at teaching discover that they don't have enough publication record, and are terminated.

And in college you have biased admissions. Favorite types of minorities are admitted--no, sought after--at colleges where their test scores alone would make them ineligible. You can argue that they have useful life experiences, but the unpleasant fact remains that your success in the academic life of a college is pretty well predicted by your test scores. So top colleges rope in students to fail, who would be successful in less pressured environments. The middle rank colleges rope in the lower tier students, who also are more likely to fail. You can argue that college is more than academic work. That may be true, but academic scholarship is central to the college's mission.

Sowell detests the effect research has on teaching. Professors spend more time on research than on teaching (and if they have to raise grant money to support staff and students, they wind up having to spend a lot of time on paperwork as well--though Sowell doesn't mention this). So undergraduate students spend more time with grad students or short term teachers, and less with the professors who are supposed to be the expert scholars.

I am a researcher and not tenured. Every year I find out if our group will have enough money to keep me around.

Political correctness in universities is so well known that I won't bother summarizing his descriptions of it. Mickey Mouse programs such as feminist studies or black studies are so stupid that even those who agitated for them didn't try to take them--they just wanted a forum for their identity politics in the university, with a captive audience of students required to repect and even sometimes study these "subjects."

The guilty secrets of the "big sports" are that they A) don't bring in money, and B) don't actually incite alumni to contribute, and C) don't give the athletes any sort of education. The "small sports" (swimming, track, etc) he has no problem with.

The financial aspects of education in America are rather grim. Universities in particular have no great incentive to keep costs down, and they most certainly do not. Fads drive K-12 schools too: classrooms don't really need computers very much at all, despite the breathless noise about them.

All in all, Sowell paints a rather unpleasant picture of American schools. He is careful not to impugn the motives of most K-12 teachers. This is wise, because I've run across rather few elementary teachers with obvious agendas. Most of the distortion in curriculum is institutional and cultural, and teachers don't usually notice anything out of the ordinary because this is what they were taught--they don't know any better. High school can be a different story. Our local high school seems to have a policy of preferentially hiring lesbians. The same school, faced with a shortage of physics teachers, drafted someone with no physics experience for the class: "a teacher only needs to know how to teach." This luckless newbie responded by dodging all offers of assistance from staff and parents. You don't want to know what that semester was like.

His call for a cure involves accountability and doggedness--years and years of doggedness, because the entrenched bureacracy is very skilled at dodging and waiting out opponents. He wants us to get on the same page as a society in deciding what schools are to be. He wants tenure gone, tighter oversight of universities, and so on.

Sowell's picture is somewhat one-sided, but as far as I can determine he is more accurate than not. Is it still a polemic if you are right? Read it.

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