March 30, 2009

Which of these four things is inherently incompatible with the other three? a) Egalitarianism, b) Self-esteem, c) Equal Outcomes d) Academic Excellence 

President Obama recently offered up his solution to America’s educational deficiencies, notably merit pay for teachers, more early childhood intervention and national standards, all topped off with the expected paean to achieving educational excellence to compete in the knowledge-driven 21st century. These initiatives, nothing more than cliché policies with proven records of failure, will, no doubt, be wildly successful in generating new jobs for the education establishment; they will be insufficient, however, in inspiring any kind of academic excellence.  

The reason for the coming foundering is simple: America is currently mired in the egalitarian mission of gap closing, and closing gaps is inherently antithetical to academic excellence. This conflict is not reversible by more spending, gimmicks such as vouchers or even hiring star teachers using miracle curricula. Nothing in today’s educational reform repertory, regardless of ideological pedigree, can bring excellence so long as we strive to close group differences in academic attainment. This contradiction between equality and excellence has long been recognized but let me explain just how this contradiction works, and the underlying force that drives this leveling.

First, let’s visit a parallel universe in which President Obama pursues genuine educational excellence. “€œLadies and gentlemen,”€ he reads from the tele-prompter,

American education is a disaster. We are obsessed with the facade of excellence but not its substance. It is just too easy to appease students with sham grades and meaningless diplomas. Past policies have encouraged counterfeiting with coercive gap closing measures and lax test enforcement standards. Under my “€œNearly All Children Are Stupid”€ law, tests will be made extraordinarily tough, cheating will carry criminal penalties, the FBI will enforce these, and no data will be sub-divided by race, ethnicity or gender. Scores will be posted by name on the Internet, in schoolyards and in local grocery stores. There may be only a few geniuses, but rest assured, we will find and nurture them. 

The goal is academic distinction, not whether one group outshines another. Laggards will receive generous tutoring, but help does not mean disguising incompetence to shield delicate egos. Self-esteem must be earned from performance, not administratively bestowed in the hope of jump-starting excellence. So young Americans, when the Day of Judgment comes, and you have to spell words like “€œobsequious”€ just think of it as that long-anticipated fantasy moment when the basketball game is on the line, the clock shows .8 seconds, and you get the ball at the top of the key, and everything rides on your shot before 25,000 screaming fans and a national TV audience. So start practicing now.     

Nothing in the above speech is unreasonable or unfair. Why it’s utterly impossible that such words would come out of a president’s mouth tells us much about the ideology of “€œeducation”€ in America. 

Achieving academic excellence first requires calibrating it, and refusing to sort the very best from the better-than-average is the equivalent of sports competition with mush-brain statistics. This is a familiar problem in higher education where the once F-to-A scale has virtually vanished, compressed into “€œA”€ or “€œB.”€  Just attending class or trying really hard suffices for a “€œB”€ so the mediocre only differ slightly from the truly accomplished. The opposite occurs in sports, hardly surprising since athletics far outranks academics as our national passion”€”in baseball, for example, batting titles often come down to, say .351 versus .352 and, of the utmost importance, these figures are always  honest. Lumping all at-bat outcomes into some all-encompassing middling metric, and then adding a few mysterious fudge factors (e.g., “€œhad good cut”€) to shield weak hitters from humiliation is unthinkable. The public would be outraged. America wants championship teams and individual stars, even if this requires calculations down to the third decimal point, not trophies to those “€œperforming okay.”€

It is a rock-solid psychometric principle that only tests incorporating difficult items can separate outliers from those just a step below. If a spelling bee among 8th graders only included “€œhat”€ “€œcat”€ and “€œsat”€ the outcome would collapse into a murky middle. Egalitarians might welcome this leveling but the exercise would, obviously, make no distinction regarding spelling skill. Now add more challenging words like “€œhospital”€ or “€œelephant”€ and it becomes possible to glimpse genuine distinctions though they are still a bit fuzzy. Finally, to uncover the true champion, sharply reduce the easy words and substitute dozens of killers like “€œdesideratum”€ and “€œeuphonious.”€ The range between adequate spellers and extraordinary ones will widen, so the harder the tests, the greater the uncovered excellence, and this is immutable. Excellence and grim tests are inexorably linked; this is a law of nature.

Spelling bees hardly bring much political fallout. But as academic testing (including the SAT or LSAT) grow more arduous and widespread, politically awkward gaps explode. Experts can argue forever whether demographic disparities reflect nature or nurture, are genuine or just test anxiety, are permanent or remedial but they are inevitable if the test aims to uncover the very best. Winners in particularly gruesome national academically-related contests such as Intel Science Prizes or Merit Scholarships never resemble a cross section of America though as newspapers happily point out, winners are a diverse bunch“€”a Russian immigrant or two, assorted Asians, even a few native-born Americans, plus a few girls. Typically absent are African Americans, those of Hispanic backgrounds, and others from demographic groups notable for poor school performance. For the Mother of All Egalitarian nightmares, look at Noble Prizes in science.

While politicians and grievance group leaders might tolerate a demographically unrepresentative collection of Spelling Bee champs, tolerance evaporates as test scores apply to broader academic subjects. The “€œclose-the-gap”€ industry now emerges, and enthusiasm for the enterprise cuts across the political spectrum. A few self-designated conservatives even call racial gaps the civil rights issue of the modern era. Sadly, private reservations aside, no educator or public figure will say “€œgroup differences in academic accomplishment are inevitable, have always existed, and it is far wiser to focus on the best possible education for every student than chase the unreachable.”€ That honest admission is career suicide and even qualifying these heresies with “€œit would be wonderful if we could close them”€ or “€œperhaps in some distant future they will be closed”€ fails to avert banishment.

Absent honesty regarding this turn squares-into-circles enterprise, an orgy of messenger shooting is inevitable. Most of the obscuration of bad news is technically “€œhonest”€ in the sense of being objective and mechanical, not outright lies. So, for example, items that are “€œtoo hard”€ (i.e., they excessively discriminate between proficient and middling student) are just excluded or, as anxious to please college professors might prefer, curves are shifted to rescue those on the edge. Going a bit further, replace tough fact-based tests with mushy personal portfolios, reject standards of conventional English when grading essays (“€œit’s the idea that counts”€), cover failure with euphemisms (report cards award “€œready to learn”€ versus an “€œF”€) and rely on social promotions to reduce stigmas.

Portland, Oregon, like other cities with minority students challenged by high school exit exams now permits would-be graduates an options of three exit exams”€”a national one, the state version, or a local one that might include just a portfolio of projects (several other states are, too, toying with this option). Similarly, Newark and Camden, New Jersey, have de facto surrendered to reality and now award “€œalternative diplomas”€ for those failing the regular tests. Here exams can be endlessly taken and re-taken with only the highest scores counting (and this may include tests for the HS diploma); and if that comes up short, award “€œextra credit”€ for trying hard. Thus, with scarcely any effort, all students, from the dull to the exceptional, can be lumped into meaningless mile wide “€œproficient”€ categories. Major league baseball becomes co-ed slow-pitch softball where the score is secondary to having fun.

What makes this “€œhonest”€ dumbing down so alluring is that outsiders will hardly ever notices (and many, frankly, doesn”€™t even care). In 2007 the New York state Regents exam, which certifies high school graduates as earning the highest academic degree, carried the strategy to absurd lengths. This exam was once a highly regarded gauge of New York State’s outstanding educational system but unacceptable race-related disparate outcomes have emasculated it. Flunking it requires now willful stupidity. In the 2008 exam one picture showed students outside of Little Rock’s Central High in 1957 with troops guarding the door. The caption tells of a white student being admitted while a black student (Elizabeth Eckford) was turned away. A second picture shows this black student surrounded by a mob. The exam question is: What happened to Elisabeth Eckford when she tried to attend Central High School? A different photograph from this event is captioned “€œOn September 25, 1957, federal troops escort the Little Rock Nine to Central High School.”€ The question is: “€œBased on this photograph, what was the job of the United States Army troop in Little Rock, Arkansas?”€ 

How is a parent to discern that their offspring is a functional illiterate if classified as “€œaverage”€ given classmates equally unable to read or write? In Georgia, for example, a student need only pass 17 of 40 questions to advance to fourth grade, and 16 of these items are classified as “€œeasy”€ by the state’s department of Education. In Texas the state’s accountability exam can be passed by correctly answering 29 of 60 questions. When Michigan found that it had 1500 “€œfailing schools,”€ officials promptly adjusted the pass standard from 75% to 42% correct, and the number of failing schools dropped to 216. Firms supplying and scoring tests also have powerful incentives to weaken standards; better to keep clients happy with “€œgood news”€ than risk an even more compliant rival stealing customers. The Educational Testing Service years back became alarmed as some colleges dropped their SAT’s requirements since scores exposed large racial disparities that complicated diverse admissions. To “€œsolve”€ this deficiency, and keep the testing fees coming, the ETS systematically eliminated individual items with wide racial disparities. Though SAT results continue to be unequal, they are now undoubtedly smaller. 

If “€œhonest”€ dumbing down tactics are inadequate, just move over to the dark side, and, hardly surprising, uncovering rampant education-related cheating has become a thriving cottage industry. Falsification is helped immensely since this data cooking is rarely a criminal offense, “€œgood numbers”€ can reward the entire school administration and it is often impossible to detect without snitches or complicated statistical analyses. Cheating is so commonplace that there is even a private firm”€”Caveon”€”that probes accusations. Its website offers copious examples of educational fraud. Smoking-gun proof is often of the “€œtoo good to be true”€ variety. For example, Camden, NJ is an historic educational calamity, the worst of the worst, but a Philadelphia Inquirer story revealed how its test scores suddenly shot up to be among the highest in New Jersey, and this decidedly implausible outcome triggered a state investigation. Suspecting out of control test fraudulence in its schools, the Chicago schools hired two professors of economics to investigate, and they found evidence of cheating in 70 classroom. Doris Alvarez was a former national Principal of the Year (among other honors) at San Diego Preuss School where low-income and minority students had achieved spectacular academic results. Newsweek rated it 10th of the nation’s top 1,200 high schools. Alas, a review of the school’s transcripts found that three-quarters of them had at least one grade altered. 

This approach to narrowing of gaps is, of course, totally illusionary, a rubber yardstick and undoubtedly impedes learning by awarding students a false sense of accomplishment. Why struggle with Algebra II if guaranteed a “€œB”€ for just trying or the pressured teachers will teach the test? Indeed, every participant in this ersatz gap closing enterprise, from the lowest first-grader to the handsomely paid Superintendent of Schools enjoys incentives to avoid hard work, i.e., make everything “€œhat”€ and “€œcat”€ and the President will give you a prize. Imagine basketball played this way”€”the hoop was lowered to six feet, widened to two feet across, and anything hitting the backboard counted and bonus points awarded for snazzy uniforms and enthusiasm. Even benchwarmers might average 30+ points a game, just about Michael Jordan’s lifetime average. But, who would follow sports if the headlines declared, “€œSeason again ends with everybody just about tied.”€  

Pushed further, tough measures, not the opposite, best serve in the long-term self-interest for struggling students. What is gained by “€œpassing”€ a high-school exit exam with pictures and self-evident answers? Future employers will surely discover this deceit and those who venture off to college will waste tuition on remedial courses and probably fail to graduate. This is empty calorie accomplishment and, sadly everybody knows it. Perhaps only the dumbest of the dumb cannot recognize that their “€œaccomplishments”€ are gifts bestowed by craven professionals paid to obscure politically unwelcome achievement gaps.

This willingness to accept dumbed-down, if not fraudulent, educational outcomes is best explained by America’s passion for self-esteem. This is true both for those who “€œprotect”€ group sensitivities (e.g., the ever-outraged-over-some-slight Rev. Al Sharpton) and individuals who favor self-puffery over harsh reality. Indeed, the “€œright”€ to feel good about oneself has de facto become America’s measure of “€œpursuit of happiness.”€ Do not forget that the original Supreme Court ruling banning state-imposed school segregation (Brown v. Board of Education (1954)) partially rested on how segregation damaged black self-esteem, and this theme has continued on among African American educators.

But make no mistake, craving self-esteem on the cheap is now almost ubiquitous. White middle-class Americans are also regularly seduced by this almost narcotic allure. Why else have a dozen valedictorians or choose from among a growing array of grade-boosting Mickey Mouse courses at all levels? Prestige schools like Harvard are famous for grade inflation, gut courses and cum laude degree by the carload. And unlike monetary inflation, academic deflation seems unstoppable, a sort of arms race in which schools “€œprint up”€ increasingly stellar outcomes so as not to be disadvantaged by rivals similarly inflating the academic currency. Will there ever be a newspaper headline, “€œHarvard Grading Scale Collapses; thousands find that “€œAs”€ are now worth only Cs? What school would wish to emulated Reed College and “€œdisadvantage”€ its graduates with an old-fashioned grading system with lots of Cs? What school of advanced learning is really interested academic excellence?  


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