There are certain terms public education critics love to use that I get tired of hearing. It annoys me when conservatives use the term "government schools," because Milton Friedman told them they should refuse to use the term "public schools." There is one that bothers me much more than that, though. That term is "dumbing down," and I read it again the other day in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:
I know that many NCLB critics who read this article would be happy to say, "I told you so!" and they would certainly have a point. Nevertheless, the "dumbing down" phrase really gets me. I've heard that phrase over and over again during the last two or three decades, and it always gives one the sense that the standards of public schools are constantly declining. Most people, if asked, would probably say that they believed that to be the case, but even Jay Greene--not exactly a great friend of public education--says that is a myth.
California and some other states have inflated test outcomes by lowering the achievement standard students need to meet to be proficient in reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, university researchers say.
It amounts to a dumbing down of how the states calculate student progress, the researchers concluded.
What annoys me the most about the phrase "dumbing down" is that it is so often used by high-brows "who demand high standards," but seem to have no idea of the variety of learners and learning abilities that public schools work with. When they picture today's typical student, they probably picture kids who were much like themselves. I think it's safe to say that they don't picture kids like Suzy.
Suzy was a girl that I had a couple of years ago in one of my American history classes. She was a nice girl, who made a reasonable effort in the class, but she was not the American history equivalent of a rocket scientist, so my class was difficult for her. At the end of every marking period, students in my classes have to satisfactorily complete a "Required Knowledge Test" in order to earn a passing grade. The students have to get every item correct the first time the test is given, or demonstrate to me that they've learned any items that they've missed. Students have to do a lot more than pass this one very easy test to pass the class, but they can't pass the class without fulfulling this requirement. Over the years, I've had a couple of kids, who had passing grades before the Required Knowledge Test, guess that I wasn't serious and that I would pass them even if they didn't take care of it. They guessed wrong. Although Suzy always got the Required Knowledge Test taken care of in the end, it was not easy for her.
My Required Knowledge Tests were inspired by another social studies teacher in our school and the Jay Leno Show. The social studies teacher loved to let me know any time former students of mine were unable to answer American history questions he'd ask in his class, and the Leno Show sometimes features segments showing people who are unable to answer incredibly easy social studies type questions. There are some things that anyone should know after having an American history class, and I wanted to make sure that my students knew those things. This wouldn't really solve my problems with the other social studies teacher or Jay Leno since I wouldn't be able to control whether they'd remember all those things two or three years down the road. Nevertheless, I could make sure they knew it while I had them in class.
Since the body of knowledge for students increases as the year goes on, my Required Knowledge Tests get longer each quarter. The test at the end of the first quarter in nineteen questions, and the one at the end of the fourth quarter is seventy. It was the test at the end of the third quarter that caused the most problems for Suzy. On that test, she got two wrong. That meant that after she got her test back, she would have to go back and learn the correct answers to the items she got wrong, and then I would quiz her orally on those and any related items.
One of the questions she got wrong was this: Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II? The answer Suzy had given was George Washington. Ouch! When she came up to my desk to go over the two items she missed, she had no problem with the other item, but when I asked her this question again, once again she said, "George Washington." The girl was persistent.
Now, I wanted to help her through this, so I asked her three other questions that she had gotten correct on the test. "Okay, Suzy," I said, "who was America's commanding general in the Revolutionary War?"
She replied, "George Washington".
Then I said, "Okay. And when did the Revolutionary War occur?"
Suzy said, "In the 1770s."
"Okay, that's good. Now when did we fight in World War II?"
"In the 1940s."
"Okay, Suzy, you're right again. And you like you just said, George Washington was our commanding general in the Revolutionary War, so who was America's most important general in Europe in World War II?"
At this point Suzy looked at me like I was an idiot who couldn't understand plain English, and said in a way to make it clear that she was running out of patience, "George Washington!!!"
This story did have a happy ending. Suzy eventually did learn that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our most important general in Europe in World War II, but it definitely took some help. She simply could not seem to make the connection on her own that if George Washington had been our general in a war that took place in the 1770s, it would have been a little difficult for him also to have been our general in a war that took place 170 years later. This inability to make connections is not terribly unusual for high school students. In fact, high school teachers see things like this every day.
Suzy is a nice young woman who has since graduated from high school, and she will do fine in life. But let's face it, if you asked her a question about World War II today, my guess is that she might not give you a very good answer. She did the work necessary to earn a passing grade in American history. Her attendance was good, she was always on time, she regularly did her assignments, and she could learn and repeat answers. Does that mean I can I sit here and tell you that I think she really understood it? No. I think she got some sense of American history while taking my class, but would I call her "proficient"? Probably not. But there is no question in my mind that she deserved her passing grade.
I've had a number of Suzys in my classes over the years, but I've also had students like Chrissy, who got a perfect score on her SAT. I've also had students like Bobby, who wrote one of the funniest and most insightful essays that I've ever read when he answered a final test question on the history of liberals and conservatives in America during the 20th century. I have to do everything I can to set my class so that it will be challenging for Chrissy and Bobby, but I've also got to do everything I can to set it up so that Suzy has a real chance to learn as much as she can and to be successful. I've got news for the experts: that isn't easy. I have a sneaking suspicion that when the high-brows look down their noses at public schools, and complain that something has been dumbed down, a lot of them might have Chrissy and Bobby in mind, but not too many of them are thinking of Suzy. They probably couldn't care less about her. Well, they can afford that luxury, but I can't. It's my job to serve all of them.