Friday, June 08, 2007

Dumbing down American kids: A blast from the past

I have just begun reading Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes. I don't really like reading books that are critical of public schools, but I do think it's important to know what they are saying or, in this case, what they have said. One thing that makes this book interesting is that it was published in 1995, and it makes statements that very clearly imply that our economy should be in shambles by now because of the poor performance of American schools.

In a section called "The Cost of Dumbness," Sykes gives several statistics to show how drastically our lousy education system was cutting down on the productivity of the labor force in America. He convincingly demonstrated that the dumbing down that was taking place in American education would cause the drop in productivity to accelerate. Scary stuff!

That probably sounded pretty good back then, since when Sykes wrote the book we had only recently emerged from a recession. Little did he know that the economic recovery that had just begun would end up being the longest and one of the most robust recoveries in American history. Little did he know that a few years later, the American labor force would be called the most productive in the world. Like many other "experts" of the 1990s, Sykes compared America unfavorably to Japan, whose economy had been going great guns in the early nineties. It had begun to go into the tank when Sykes's book came out, but little did he know how long it would stay there. He also compared American education unfavorably to that of France, whose economy is now a mess with double digit unemployment and a labor force that isn't even close to ours in productivity.

In a section called "The Legacy of Dumbness," Sykes uses alarming statistics to list point after point over a spread of four pages to show just how dumb American schools have made our kids. After reading it, anyone should be convinced that the futures of any average American students would be hopeless. Yet, I have three sons who graduated from high school between 1993 and 1996--just about the time Sykes was writing and publishing his book. Two of the three were very average students, and test scores would seem to indicate that ours is a very average school. Yet, all three of them got their degrees and did well in college, and all three seem to be doing very well in their jobs. Anyone who read Sykes book would have to conclude that this would be impossible, but I know countless other young people just like my three kids.

The amazing thing is that I think I'm going to be able to agree with a lot of what Sykes has to say in his book. Sykes blasts the progressive teaching methods that have been taught in schools of education, and I have written posts complaining about the same thing. Like Sykes, I think the push for self-esteem often bordered on the ridiculous. And like Sykes, I think we must try to improve American education. But Sykes frames his arguments in a way that is insulting to those of us in the trenches who work our backsides off to provide our kids with the best education we can. And despite the problems and obstacles we have to overcome in K-12 education, the great majority of our kids have been successfully prepared for their post-high school lives.

Because Sykes's book is now twelve years old, it does a great job of making the same point that I have tried to make on this blog on a number of posts. For at least 50 years so-called experts have given us dismal assessments of American education and those assessments are almost always accompanied by apocalyptic predictions for our country's future. Those predictions have consistently been wrong. I really believe that any present-day author, politician, famous entrepreneur, college professor or think-tank guru who wants to make such gloomy assessments about American education accompanied dire predictions about the future needs to go back to books like the one Sykes wrote, and explain to us why those predictions turned out to be so wrong, and why we should pay any attention to anyone making those kinds of predictions today.

5 Comments:

Blogger CrypticLife said...

There's a number of reasons comparing the US to Japan or France in terms of economy isn't quite fair. The US is a huge, industrialized nation, with abundant natural resources, relatively benign neighbors, a native language which is the de facto language of business worldwide, and an economy based on competition.

Japan is a small, mountainous country with few natural resources and a population which speaks Japanese, which frankly is spoken only among the Japanese. Japan's economy should be a tenth the size of the US's.

France is also a small country, with porous borders and a propensity for being invaded and occupied regularly. And an elitist work system which prevents anyone from being fired or getting a job, resulting in a less-than-stellar work ethic. I was speaking to a French business associate recently who told me "May is a short month" in France. And August, apparently, is vacation, and July is preparation for August.

It's clear what helped the US through the 90's. The internet, and uses of computer technology resulting in large-scale investment and improvements in logistics. Paradigm shifts of this kind are natural to the US, which allows a free flow of ideas and a multicultural society. Japan will build cars with better and better gas mileage until they get 150 mpg. America will build a car that runs on water (and ironically, it would probably be a Japanese scientist who emigrated who built it).

When we rely on groundbreaking developments to continue to fuel our economy, you can see how it would be easy to predict doom and gloom. You can also see how important it would be to maintain focus on our educational system. We cannot stay still, we must progress. We're not competing with the Japan of a dozen years ago or the France of today, we're competing with the Japan and European Union of 5 to 10 years from now.

There are good things about our educational system, but I wouldn't say high-quality academic learning is one of them. I've read a guide, produced for wives of business transferees to help them in aiding the adjustment of their children to American schools. It's fascinating reading. It doesn't focus much on academics, other than to say that if the family plans to return to Japan the children's education needs to be significantly supplemented. It focuses mostly on the "strange" things kids might experience.

One of these is show-and-tell. The guide describes the activity with detail only a foreigner would need, and then relates this to American's ease in public speaking and self-concept. In Japan, few can comfortably speak approvingly of themselves. The guide warns that students will often be asked their opinions, and that failure to answer will be marked as lack of participation. It then suggests exercises that the parent and child can do at home to increase their ease of stating their opinion, and even (*shock!*) debating with others (*double-shock* even the teacher!!). Well, actually it doesn't mention debating the teacher. Maybe they figure this is just too much for a Japanese student to handle, but I know in a lot of American high schools teachers welcome debate.

America has many wonderful things to recommend it, and the openness and energy of its culture is one of those. The schools are intermingled with that -- I wouldn't say they necessarily cause it, but I don't think they detract from it either. That doesn't mean other countries could not come to emulate it, or that our academics should not be critiqued. When you say the predictions are faulty, what you're saying is that we'll continue to lead the way in entrepreneurship and new paradigms. I want you to be right. I think a better education system will be a way to help achieve that.

6/08/2007 4:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I can't disagree with much of what you say until you say this: "When you say the predictions are faulty, what you're saying is that we'll continue to lead the way in entrepreneurship and new paradigms." All I am saying is that those predictions of doom and gloom based on the premise that American education is terrible have been wrong, and there have been numerous such predictions over the last 50 years. Before we give any credence to similar predictions, now or in the future, I think we are owed an explanation. So far, we haven't gotten one.

6/08/2007 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...

I really believe that any present-day author, politician, famous entrepreneur, college professor or think-tank guru who wants to make such gloomy assessments about American education accompanied dire predictions about the future needs to go back to books like the one Sykes wrote, and explain to us why those predictions turned out to be so wrong, and why we should pay any attention to anyone making those kinds of predictions today.

One possibility is that most people don't have to know much in the way of school learning to succeed in the modern American economy. And (very important and) the American economy doesn't need many people who have a lot of school learning.

You certainly need some, the top-level engineers, the future Nobel Prize winners, etc. But beyond that?

How much school learning does a person need? One small example. Years ago, if you wanted to run a cash register at McDonald's, you had to be able to key in the proper price for each item, and then when a total price came up, be able to figure the change to give your customer. Now, you just press keys which show the appropriate items--and you don't have to be able to figure change; the machine does that for you.

Technology can make jobs harder but it can also make jobs easier.

Another example. Years ago I interviewed at a number of law firms. Sitting in someone's office, I commented on the law school books he had displayed. "How often do you use them?" I asked. In his legal career, he had never opened one. I later found that this was common.

Most jobs require more thinking than counter work at McDonald's but little of what an employee does requires subject matter knowledge from school.

6/10/2007 7:07 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I take special offense at books like this published in the mid to late nineties, because that was when I was still in high school! Am I not proof that those in public schools at that time were not doomed? I also lived through the fantasies that some of the self-esteem experts were purveying to my teachers and can see both the flaws and the benefits.

It's a good thing to look back, I think, but it's also very frustrating.

6/10/2007 7:55 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Laura, you sound like hundreds of kids that I knew that graduated during that period. I ordered the book because it was on Amazon's suggested list for me, and I didn't realize how old it was. If I had, I wouldn't have ordered it, but I'm glad I did. Sykes was talking gloom and doom back then, and now we can actually see how people from that era like you have turned out, and we can also see how wrong he was on his dire forecasts for the country.

6/10/2007 6:12 PM  

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