Monday, August 27, 2007

Public education IS NOT GETTING WORSE!

I just got back from Oregon, and when I checked Joanne Jacobs site last night, I ran in to this "opinion piece" from Victor Davis Hanson:

Last week I went shopping in our small rural hometown, where my family has attended the same public schools since 1896. Without exception, all six generations of us — whether farmers, housewives, day laborers, business people, writers, lawyers or educators — were given a good, competitive K-12 education.

But after a haircut, I noticed that the 20-something cashier could not count out change. The next day, at the electronic outlet store, another young clerk could not read — much less explain — the basic English of the buyer's warranty. At the food market, I listened as a young couple argued over the price of a cut of tri-tip — unable to calculate the meat's real value from its price per pound. As another school year is set to get under way, it's worth pondering where this epidemic of ignorance came from.

Our presidential candidates sense the danger of this dumbing down of American society and are arguing over the dismal status of contemporary education: poor graduation rates, weak test scores and suspect literacy among the general population. Politicians warn that America's edge in global research and productivity will disappear, and with it our high standard of living.

Obviously, Hanson's point is that public education has gotten a lot worse than it used to be in "the good old days." He then goes on to tell us how we can fix our problems. There are a couple of things that he says that I actually agree with, but it's hard to take him seriously when his basic point is so clearly wrong.

It's hard enough to read and hear things by public education bashers who twist facts and statistics to portray our schools in the worst possible light. But it's downright agonizing to read a clever little opinion piece based on something that is widely believed, but demonstrably false.

Even Jay Greene, who has published studies and books bashing public education, concedes that public education has not gotten worse. In his book, Education Myths, Green seems to dig out any statistic or study he can to show that public schools are doing a horrible job. But he also traces NAEP scores, SAT scores, and graduation rates all the way back to 1971 to demonstrate that the idea that our public schools are in decline is a myth. Greene tries to turn this around by arguing that public schools have never been any good, but this is a guy who argues against more funding for schools, against higher teacher salaries, against smaller class sizes, and for vouchers. Does anyone familiar with Greene's work think that if he could have demonstrated that public schools are getting worse, he wouldn't have been delighted to do so?

Public education clearly isn't getting worse. ACT scores improving for four straight years despite the fact that more and more kids are taking the test is evidence that it's getting better. Although that piece of news was publicized widely enough so that anyone concerned with education issues should have been aware of it, Victor Davis Hanson completely ignored it. I guess it wouldn't have fit very well into his clever little piece.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One possibility that I have not yet seen anyone publicly consider is that things are getting both better and worse at the same time.

In other words, that the *spread* of education for K-12 students is widening.

Imagine that, hypothetically, 100 years ago:
*) the average 8th grader had received an 8th grade education
*) the really, really good 8th grade students had received 9th grade educations (maybe they had learned Algebra), and
*) the really really bad 8th grade students had only learned up through 7th grade material.

Today, the really top end schools are almost certainly better than the really top end schools of 50 and 100 years ago. One public high school near me offers math classes up through Differential Equations! It isn't a magnet school or super special like "Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology" (in Virginia). It is just the local public school.

At the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if the worst schools are even worse than 50 or 100 years ago. This almost has to be true if the average hasn't moved much (or at all) and the top end is better.

8/27/2007 11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crud, that comment on widening spread was me. I was trying to preview :-)

-Mark Roulo

8/27/2007 11:29 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

VDH is off base in his criticisms. There was never a golden era of public education to degrade from.

Back in the good old days if you couldn't hack the academics in the manner they were presented to you, you basically had two choices: 1. stay in school and punish yourself or 2. drop out and stop the pain. By the time high school rolled around, only a small fraction of the students remained.

Back then when students dropped out their formal education stopped. Today, kids drop out in spirit but continue to attend school physically. But, the reality for them is that education has stopped just as if they had dropped out.

About the only hard data we have for comparing those that completed high school is the self-selected group that has taken the SAT. Scores appear to have dropped even at the high end, especially for the verbal portion, and even among white students from 1963 (he high water mark) and today, even if you account for changing demographics.

So, VDH's arguments may hold some water for the upper end of the curve, at least in verbal achievement, but it does not generalize well to the rest of the curve. But as Mark R points out, some good schools do exist that may in fact be superior, at least for the very top of the curve, to what existed one hendred years ago.

Pedagogical techniques realy haven't changed all that much from 100 years ago, so we really shouldn't be surprised that educational outcomes haven't changed all that much either. If you are smart enough to learn frm the teacher's presentation, you'll do well. If you aren't smart enough, too bad for you because schools don't know how (or at least won't do what they need to do) to reach you. This reamins true today, just as it did a hundred years ago.

8/27/2007 1:37 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark and KD, I can't disagree too strongly with anything that either of you have said. Unfortunately, I think Mark might be right about the worst schools being worse, but I think that's due to the teaching situations being much more difficult than they used to be. I slightly disagree with KD, because I think that there are more good teachers than there used to be, and I think the best teachers are better than they used to be. I have to admit that we still do have our share of mediocre ones, and unfortunately there also are some lousy ones.

Regarding teaching methods, at my age, I don't make wholesale changes in the way I operate, but I'm still always tweaking things. I was thinking the other day about the tweaking I've been doing over the last six months and was amazed when I realized that no one has influenced it more than KDerosa. Wonders never cease!

8/28/2007 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you ever read the blogs of college professors, especially the ones teaching in community colleges? I do, and many of them seem to think that public education is getting worse. Are they just imagining things? Making it up?

8/28/2007 9:10 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't already know when I say that a college professor saying something doesn't necessarily make it true. Since bashing public schools is very much in vogue these days, anytime someone bashes public education in any way, it becomes an "accepted truth." I'm sure that's the case with the great majority of people who read the Hanson piece, and that's one of the reasons I find it so offensive. People who say bad things about public schools are viewed as honest and intelligent. Those of us who defend it tend to be viewed as naive or having a special interest.

As I said in the post, the statistics I've seen come from Jay Greene, who is no friend of public education. If you are trying to find evidence in those statistics that education has gotten worse since at least 1970, you can't find it. If people want to argue that it has gotten worse, I'd like to see what figures they are using.

8/29/2007 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Jim Burns said...

Thanks for the review Dennis. I to have noticed the dumbing down of curriculum to reach the lowest common denominator. The problem we have is we reduce our expectations and raise our tolerance when kids don't perform. That's a no-no for kids who are irresponsible. You can read more about this stuff on my blog: behavior-management.com

8/29/2007 4:23 AM  
Anonymous Jim Burns said...

Jim Burns doesn't even kmnow his own blog site, it's behavioral-management.com sorry

Jim Burns

8/29/2007 4:28 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Mark & Ken are both right.

Education has not gotten worse, but the life outcomes for folks without diplomas has gotten much, much worse. SEE: the shift away from a manufactoring base and the exportation of low-skill, decent-wage jobs. The resulting gap (chasm) between the places where things are well'n'good (maybe your neck of the woods, Dennis?) and places where they sure aren't (like mine) continues to grow.

Consider: For the kids in Oakland who began as Freshman four years ago, 8% earned an A-G diploma qualifying them for matriculation in the University of California system. Last year 60 kids -- not 60 percent -- 60 kids in Oakland tested proficient on 9th grade Algebra.

You don't have to go far into the suburbs to locate schools and districts where this would be simply unacceptable. And it's not good enough to pass it off on more challenging teaching conditions in high-poverty areas. The teachers are WORSE there. Black and Latino kids systematically encounter WORSE educators. We don't need to bus kids to the suburbs, we need to bus high-octane teachers, weapons of mass instruction, into the cities, we need to monitor their work, and we need to pay the successful ones like the elite Delta Team warriors they are.

8/29/2007 10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you ever read the blogs of college professors, especially the ones teaching in community colleges? I do, and many of them seem to think that public education is getting worse. Are they just imagining things?

There are probably at least two things going on here:

(1) Many kids who 50 years ago (or 20 or 30) would not have gone to college now do so. This drags down the performance of the "average" college student. Additionally, the bottom students now look *much* worse (because they *are* much worse students) and this leads to the posts you see. Years ago, those kids were just as uneducated, but the college professors didn't see them in class.

(2) People tend to complain more about bad experiences than share good experiences. Imagine two professors -- one has a class with above average students, the other has a class with average students and three totally unprepared students. The two classes might *on average* be the same. Guess who is going to blog about what "this student wrote on my test last Friday?"

Swapping anecdotes: I have a friend who teaches chess to students (usually in the 8-18 year range). He has been doing this for decades. He is amazed at how much harder working the current crop of kids is compared to 20,30,40 years ago. Ditto their academic skills. But, he doesn't blog.

-Mark Roulo

8/29/2007 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"a college professor saying something doesn't necessarily make it true."

Oh, well, if you want to take that approach, then saying something on this blog doesn't make any of your assertions true, either. Sheesh.

8/29/2007 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tmao said that teachers in inner city school districts are worse. That may be true. But students in those schools should not be using that as an excuse for not trying. The best that a kid who is stuck in a failing school is to do the best that they can.

If they want to go to college and they can't go to a 4 year right off the bat, Then go to a community college; take remedial classes and keep trying, do well there and transfer to a 4 year school. If they want it bad enough, they can do it. College is not for the faint of heart.

I am sick and tired of people complaining about the teachers. I am not a teacher, but a student who is close to graduating from college.

Albeit perhaps there is in need of reform in terms of the way school districts are run, but still nobody mentions students that don't as least try. What about lazy students that go to school in an outstanding school district? with outstanding teachers? Whose fault is it? The teacher, I think not in this case.

The problem is that too many teachers in these failing public schools let student pass by and not fail them like they should for their own good and not this stupid self esteem, and psychology crap, and these same students are shock when they have to take remedial classes in college.

11/20/2007 12:39 AM  
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