« Daily News Feature | Main | Today Show: Cosby Is A Terrorist »

May 12, 2005

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Who's to blame for the poor academic performance of American students?

Education has been linked to all sorts of things, from racism to poverty to terrorism to one's political affiliation. In an excellent editorial, Walter Williams ponders the relationship between education, racism, and poverty:

The Children's Defense Fund and civil rights organizations frequently whine about the number of black children living in poverty. In 1999, the Bureau of the Census reported that 33.1 percent of black children lived in poverty compared with 13.5 percent of white children. It turns out that race per se has little to do with the difference. Instead, it's welfare and single parenthood. When black children are compared to white children living in identical circumstances, mainly in a two-parent household, both children will have the same probability of being poor.

How much does racial discrimination explain? So far as black poverty is concerned, I'd say little or nothing, which is not to say that every vestige of racial discrimination has been eliminated. But let's pose a few questions. Is it racial discrimination that stops black students from studying and completing high school? Is it racial discrimination that's responsible for the 68 percent illegitimacy rate among blacks?

Study after study has shown that American students continue to perform poorly relative to students of other industrialized nations. Educators blame lack of parental involvement, No Child Left Behind (a recent development), or lobby to increase per-student spending but refuse to consider the most obvious explanation: American students are simply "disengaged" from the learning process. The more disturbing implication is that this "disengagement" may in fact be the product of a fairly sophisticated cost-benefit analysis. Stephen Karlson quotes a USA today article:

Will Jacuzzi High be next? Read it and weep.
A majority of high school students in the USA spend three hours or less a week preparing for classes yet still manage to get good grades, according to a study being released today by researchers who surveyed more than 90,000 high school students in 26 states.
Just 56% of students surveyed said they put a great deal of effort into schoolwork; only 43% said they work harder than they expected to. The study says 55% of students devote no more than three hours a week to class preparation, but 65% of these report getting A's or B's.
Surprisingly, 18% of college-track seniors did not take a math course during their last year in high school. That could help explain why studies show that 22% of college students require remediation in math.

Political correctness and a feel-good culture that values self-esteem over achievement are ruining the classroom. Children are surprisingly rational decision-makers. Why then do we expect them to behave differently than adults? Presented with fluff in the classroom and no penalties for lack of performance, it contradicts everything we know about human nature to expect the majority of American students to value hard work and academic excellence.

Given an environment in which they can get good grades with little or no work, why should students try harder? The marginal utility is simply not there: if mediocre students earn A's or B's with 3 hours a week of prep time, how many children will perceive the rather abstract long-term benefits of spending 14-21 hours a week to earn a "high A"? By awarding easy A's, teachers have shown that lackadaisical performance is "good enough".

This problem did not originate with teachers. It is reinforced by an education culture that believes failure is unacceptable; not because the student has not tried hard enough, but because the system has somehow failed him. Parents don't make the process any easier: rather than insisting on a challenging curriculum they complain if their child has to work "too hard" or has too much homework. Teachers who try to hold the line are rarely supported by the administration.

Another contributing cause is the dumbing down of modern curriculums. Driven by PC-obsessed activists, textbook publishers are eliminating serious material in favor of multicultural pablum. From a fifth-grade science textbook:

’Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon.’ Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth--not by the return of the crows.

The twisted valuation system of the PC elite sends a clear message to students: facts are less important than how we feel about them, and it's who you are, not what you do that is valued by society:

Affirmative action for women and minorities is similarly pervasive in science textbooks, to absurd effect. Al Roker, the affable black NBC weatherman, is hailed as a great scientist in one book in the Discovery Works series. It is common to find Marie Curie given a picture and half a page of text, but her husband, Pierre, who shared a Nobel Prize with her, relegated to the role of supportive spouse. In the same series, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, is shown next to black scientist Lewis Latimer, who improved the light bulb by adding a carbon filament. Edison's picture is smaller.

Jews have been awarded 22 percent of all Nobel Prizes in science, but readers of Houghton Mifflin's fifth-grade textbooks won't get wind of that. Navajo physicist Fred Begay, however, merits half a page for his study of Navajo medicine. Albert Einstein isn't mentioned. Biologist Clifton Poodry has made no noteworthy scientific discoveries, but he was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation, so his picture is shown in Glenco/McGraw-Hill's Life Science (2002), a middle-school biology textbook. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, and Nobel Laureates James Watson, Maurice H.F. Wilkins, and Francis Crick aren't named.

Such ludicrous distortions of historical importance impact children no matter how critical their thought processes. The more sophisticated student quickly learns to discount what he reads. If adults are so easily impressed or real achievement is not valued, why exert yourself? And why struggle to memorize intrinsically meaningless information? Less sophisticated students also absorb the metamessage: deeds matter less than one's ethnic or gender identity.

In twelve years of pre-college study, during which my parents actively sought out the most challenging schools available to military parents constantly on the move, I found only four years to be even moderately challenging. Two were in a public school I tested into that provided an enriched curriculum. Two were in a top-notch private school. The bar has since been lowered dramatically. Present-day schools are far less challenging than they were 20 or 30 years ago. My parents raised me to appreciate the value of education and did their best to get me to perform well, but invariably I did the worst in the easiest schools and the best in those which challenged me (and demonstrated a clear relationship between non-performance and poor grades).

The lesson was not lost on me when it came to raising my own children. Presented with a challenging course of study, they showed more interest and their grades rose. Given pap, they quickly disengaged and did poorly. It was a constant struggle finding schools that brought out the best in them, and even at those schools I found other parents (paradoxically) complaining that the school was "too hard" or assigned "too much work". One of the best teachers my oldest son had won a national award for her teaching ability and the sterling performance of her students at local science fairs. She was widely denounced by parents for being "too demanding" and assigning grades that were "too low".

Both parents and educators need to understand the messages they send to children. Kids are not miniature adults; their lack of experience and maturity make it harder for them to perceive the long-term benefits of delaying immediate gratification. Yet they assess cost and benefit in the same way adults do: reward them and they try harder. Challenge them, and they rise to the occasion. Tolerate (or worse, reward) sloth and indifference, and they respond with more of the same.

Paradoxically, when we refuse to allow failure we devalue success and remove any disincentive for poor performance. To me, the most disturbing implication of today's poor test scores is that perhaps American students are just listening to what the adult world has told them about what matters in life.

Update: more from Betsy Newmark :

Grammar is out and so is spelling. I remember sitting through orientation when my younger daughter was in Kindergarten and being told not to correct her spelling when she wrote things since that would stifle her efforts at writing if she always had to stop and worry about how words are spelled. I ignored that, but also realized that we had enter a whole new world of teaching. Gone are the spelling rules that bedeviled many students' days. And grammar was reduced to a few worksheets. Then they go back to reading and discussing their opinions of stories. Everything is about expressing your own opinion. Oh, and creative writing. Lots of having the kids write their own poetry instead of reading the classics of poetry. I'm always amazed to get Quiz Bowl students who haven't read classics like "The Road Not Taken," "Stopping by the Woods," "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree," "Paul Revere's Ride." The list goes on and on.

Regarding correcting grammar and usage errors, I was told the same thing when my boys were in school but I also ignored the warning. Teachers inevitably commented on their beautiful writing, but seemed unaware that there might be a relationship between my intolerance of errors and high expectations and their achievement. I remain convinced that had I not set a higher standard, neither of them would be the writers they are today.

Posted by Cassandra at May 12, 2005 06:41 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Garbage In, Garbage Out:

» THE QUOTE OF THE DAY. from Cold Spring Shops
An Advanced Placement Government teacher at an award-winning high school sees the lack of spelling ability even among the most able. [Read More]

Tracked on May 13, 2005 11:51 PM


I disagree. It did too originate with teachers, and their union. Teachers became the administrators of their schools. They want to avoid the confrontations with parents like most people would. And, for the most part, the education program at today's colleges are, on average (yes, there are exceptions, but compare the test scores and grades and you get "on average") the intellectual wasteland of the college and university system.

Every individual student is responsible for his or her own performance. Parents, teachers, the school culture and outside culture have some influence. But it falls on one set of shoulders.

BUT, to the extent that there is a bigger problem, it comes from parents who protect rather than expect of their kids, teachers who won't defend their turf, the former teachers above them who won't defend the teachers, and the teachers unions who keep bad teachers and bad schools in place.

FWIW, I am one the students described in the article. I graduated valedictorian in a public high school in the 1980s and the only class I ever spent more than hour a week on at home was AP English, the only AP class we had. Nothing else (except for listening to Spanish on tape) was remotely challenging.

And people still ask me why I would consider sending my child to a private school.

Posted by: KJ [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 09:41 AM

I think you have to distinguish between teachers and administration, KJ. My daughter-in-law recently transferred from teaching in a lower-class school to an upper middle class school.

Her teaching style and expectations have not changed, but she takes flak from pushy parents and receives little support from the school administration for trying to hold the line. Even though she gets compliments on how well-behaved her class is, some even thought her unreasonable for expecting her students to walk quietly when the class had to move down the hall so as not to disturb other classes. She said there was only one other teacher who had similar expectations, and she could tell the woman was getting worn down.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 09:47 AM

Leadership flows from the top; it is the school's job to set the standard and hold the teachers and students to it.

My daughter-in-law hears the same confusing message I heard from other parents when raising my sons: they're so well-behaved/articulate/well-informed/mature combined with "you're so hard on them".

Duh... could there be a connection?

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 09:51 AM

This is one of the reasons that I didn't pursue teaching, even after minoring in education. I enjoy teaching. Getting to teach Stat 4/6611 my third semester in grad school was an absolute blast.

I started off the first day by telling my students that if they were willing to work I would bend over backwards to ensure they knew the material (which I did for 2 students, one of whom would never have passed any other way), but I also told them I had no problems with giving out a failing grade for being lazy (which, coincidentally, I also did for 2 students). I never would have been able to have that freedom in a high school. Those 2 fails would have been *my* fault, not the fault of the 2 students who never showed up for class.

Recently, in my home town, the BOE was to recognize the STAR (Highest SAT score) Student at my high school. The student had recognized my dad as STAR Teacher. My dad was amazed at the unusually large number of people that showed up to the BOE meeting to support this student. (normally only a handful show up if any at all). The only problem was that the only ones there for the student's achievent was my dad and the student himself. Everyone else went because there had been a "contraversy" in the cheerleader tryouts. In a community that consistantly compete's for the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the industrialized world, our biggest concern is about the cheerleading squad.

Posted by: Masked Menace [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:04 AM

Ironically, I also wanted to teach initially. I was considering an education major at Dartmouth, but my first class was an eye-opener.

Even though I was still an unabashed liberal at 18, I couldn't stomach the arrant nonsense being passed off as educational theory. As I got older I considered teaching several times, but each time I had to ask myself if I'd survive the administration?

I'm a bit of an all-or-nothing person. When I do something I throw myself into it heart and soul, and I realized I'd drive myself and everyone around me nuts fighting the system.

And teaching math is simultaneously the most rewarding and depressing thing imaginable. More than in any other single subject, students have to work to succeed. You can't Vulcan Mind Meld them into mathematical competence.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:13 AM

KJ, while I agree that many teachers have backed down becuase they don't want to deal with pushy parents, the ones who don't are routinely threatened (vieled) by the administration with their jobs if the don't give in. Luckily, my dad got tenure before GA stopped granting them.

Second, if the admin did their jobs, the teachers wouldn't need to give in to those parents because the admin would tell them to stuff it. But admin are not rewarded for ensuring quality education, they are rewarded for keeping people happy. In other words, the customer (parent) is always right.

Third, the unions definitely played a major role in this. But that is not to say they represent your average teacher by a long shot. I had to join the NEA when I did my first practicum because of the necessity of insurance.

Posted by: Masked Menace [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:22 AM

The same thing happens at colleges: the tyranny of the student evaluation and D/W/F rates combine to put a huge amount of pressure on profs to go easy.

I taught in a pilot program for 'high risk' courses for two years; my school was unusual in that it (to some extent) attempted to support these teachers by placing some burden on the student to do work outside of class if they expected to pass.

But then the program only existed because a prof won federal grant money to pay for it. It was a huge success, but 15 years later, do we see similar programs taking hold? We do not.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:30 AM

High-risk courses: any course where you have to think, and not only master but be able to apply knowledge.

Science, math, and business law (which I taught for 5 semesters) fit that description.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:32 AM

On the update:
I remember just a little while back where a math teacher got in trouble for insisting that a sqaure was a four sided polygon with exactly equal sides. The parents and students claimed that a square was a four sided polygon with roughly equal sides and that the school shouldn't be forcing the teacher's opinion on them.

Posted by: Masked Menace [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:37 AM

Much of it can be traced back to John Dewey and the creation of the Department of Education and the resulting National education Association.

My parents were both educators, and had to join the state teacher's unions. Both of them predicted that nothing good would come of government meddling in education; they have seen a progressive dumbing down of children.

I demanded a lot from my oldest. Not more than he was capable of, but building on the foundation of reading he found he could think and work his way through challenges and problems.

My second child is intractable. He doesn't want to go to school, and the one year he was in middle school he was angry and insulted. The world history curriculum being used in the social studies class was on a fourth grade level (this was sixth grade) and the math was on the same level.

English grammar and writing was also on a fourth grade level. He was bored and frustrated.
So, he came back home.

I use structured curriculum because I neither have the time nor the PhD to write my own. Mine is at least two years ahead of the schools.

I am constantly amazed at the quality of my curriculum versus what the schools get. As the years go by and I see the curriculum changes, I am more glad than ever that I have chosen this lifestyle for my family.

We can go at our own pace but I can go in directions that the school can't and I can demand more and insist on certain things being done that would fall by the wayside.

As it stands, I have three major curriculae that I use for the three core subjects of reading and writing and arithmetic, and supplements to help teach concrete principles when they need to retrench.

How many teachers are allowed that versatility without resorting to either grammar schools or special education?

I can't afford private school.

Posted by: La Femme Crickita [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:46 AM

I found the same thing Cricket. The home school curriculum was easily the most challenging of any (public or private) either of my boys experienced. I didn't have all the hassles I had when they were in other schools: they did their work with little prompting from me.

It was amazing. Could it be that despite all their complaints, they enjoyed it on some level?

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 10:58 AM

One of my nephew's had the same problem. The teacher would give a half-hour assignment which he would complete perfectly in 10 minutes. She would insist that anyone that finished early *must* sit still (doing absolutely nothing) while everyone else finished. This is incredibly hard for a 9 year old boy. After about five minutes, he would start to figet and would get in trouble with the teacher. It wasn't because he was a troublemaker, it was because he's a little boy bored out of his mind because the school was too slow paced. When my sister finally (3/4ths thru the year) got the teacher to allow the kids who finished early to go to the back and read quietly his grades improved over night.

Posted by: Masked Menace [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 11:07 AM

When I was in high school, my junior and senior year, my math teacher would let me leave the room and go the library after I finished a math test in 20-25 minutes. I don't know that 9 year olds could be treated that way, but reading in the back of the class seems proper.

Posted by: KJ [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 12:03 PM

The most troubling thing about all this is the PC'ing of the textbooks. Even if the parents are involved and the teacher is excellent if you don't teach the right material you are set up to fail. Unless the teacher introduces his own material, which is a risky proposition career wise.

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 12:42 PM

I think kids DO like to be challenged at all levels.
It certainly would explain why they would rather master a video game to the nth degree.

If Cass will permit me, here is the basic list of what I use in my homeschool to start off, flesh out and keep it centered.

The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spaulding.
At the completion of this, both my boys read at a solid second or third grade level in first grade.

Monetssori's Golden Beads for teaching concrete math facts using manipulatives. My seven year old daughter can add, subtract, multiply and divide
four place value problems.

All Saxon Math levels and the Key to Series when they have had enough of Saxon but still need drill.

Rod and Staff Grammar and English. One of the most comprehensive grammar and writing programs around. Each grade level is one to two years ahead of the public schools.

I use Apologia for science. It is demanding because it insists that the student needs to keep a notebook of the experiments and write down observations and conclusions and draw pictures
of what they have done. It is solid science.

For US History I use "Quest of a Hemisphere" and The Story of the US Constitution, and world history, "Streams of Civilization" The latter two are published by Christian Liberty Press.

Geography and social studies are covered in them
as well as current events to round it out.

Posted by: La Femme Crickita [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 12, 2005 12:54 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)