There is little doubt in my mind, after over forty years in the education business, that when the History of American Public Education is written for the last six or so decades that eventually “the story” will be how progressive education jumped the track and really messed up our schools. And the single worst sin of progressive education is the idea that all kids should perform equally well.
Even though almost everyone’s experience and common sense tell us differently, we have build the idea of equality, specifically equality of results, into virtually everything about our public schools. It remains one of the major reasons that there is so much opposition to giving parents choice in public education like they have in higher education. It is the driver in allocation of resources. Just consider the concept of “average per pupil expenditures” and the way we measure how resources are allocated.
But as every parent who has raised more than one child knows, children are not equal. They have different needs, abilities, motivations and temperaments. Thus, the equal treatment of unequals is inherent inequality. Yet our education establishment sets up a system that is built on the idea that equal results are desirable; indeed, demanded.
The obsession for equal results drives much of the accountability models used. For example, in North Carolina we base almost everything on “minimum proficiency.” Schools and school systems are pushed to get every child up to a minimum level, and little is done to measure in our state testing program how far individual kids go beyond that. And only recently have we even considered the idea of measuring how many kids make the amount of progress they should make in a year’s time. And that idea, although the technology has been available for more than a decade, is now only just beginning to be developed.
One of the most pervasive measures we have ever used is still dominant in American public education: The average. That concept, at its core, is the progressive idea reduced to mathematical terms, that every child should score about the same as ever other child. If they score “average” we consider that just fine. Never mind that the “minimum” for some children may just be “way above average.”
We spend way more on remedial programs to get “every child” up to average than we spend of “gifted programs.” And if we can’t get enough of them up to “average” we change the labels to something like “minimum proficiency” and lower the standards until most kids can pull that off.
When we design textbooks, computer programs and curriculum we focus on the middle or even worse, on being sure most kids can “succeed” at the level we gear the content to. If a kid does better than expected, we call him an “over achiever.” (just consider the absurdity of that term.) And of course, the progressive idea of eliminating ability grouping in our schools is but another example of the absurdity.
And there is no more ridiculous exhibition of this foolishness than the debate that has been raging in Wake County on the issue of student assignment. But it is not just Wake County. Pitt County is notorious for constant student reassignment for the purpose of “keeping balance among the schools.” Beaufort County busses kids from the Pitt and Martin county lines across the City of Washington, often past 3-4 schools to a more distant school because they want “everyone to get the same treatment.”
Consider the absurdity of the NAACP‘s position in the Wake County controversy. If poor kids, who happen to be disproportionately black, attend a school in which they are in the majority, that is viewed as a bad thing. But simply take those same kids and mix them in with wealthier kids who score better on these test and the “average score” of the the school these black kids now go to goes up and everything is fine with the NAACP’s State President. Never mind what happens to those black kids when they get homogenized into a high performing school—high performing not because it did anything for the poor kids, but simply used the wealthier kids scores to pull up the average.
We could go on and on. But there is no better example of the absurdity of the “Lake Woebegone Syndrome” (where all kids are above average) than the infamous “achievement gap.” John Bennett, writing in the American Thinkersays that:
Our educational system is self-destructing because of a fraud known as the “achievement gap.” One result of that fraud is that public school bureaucrats are taking away opportunities from good students in a misguided effort to help underperforming students.
The very concept of the “achievement gap” is a fraud. It assumes that the correct result in schools is equal educational outcomes among different ethnic groups. The same is true of the concept of “underrepresentation.” There is a simple problem with these concepts: It is resolutely ignorant to assume that there will be equal outcomes among ethnic groups. Thomas Sowell has richly detailed the myriad ways in which different ethnic groups have always behaved differently and had disparate outcomes in life, around the world, and throughout history. As Sowell points out, there is no basis in human experience or in logic to expect that different ethnic groups would have identical outcomes. Different ethnic groups have vastly different attitudes, habits, and preferences with regard to many aspects of life, including education. Berkeley Professor John Ogbu (1939-2003), who was black, concluded exactly that in his incredibly important work on black student achievement. Ogbu concluded that “black students did not generally work hard,” he wrote. “In fact, most appeared to be characterized by low-effort syndrome. The amount of time and effort they invested in academic pursuit was neither adequate nor impressive.”
…The expectation of equal outcomes only exists because of a radical ideology of liberal equality that has rooted itself like a tick into the public education system. Unfortunately, the academics who educate us and our children are profoundly biased, as even the NYT has admitted, and would not question their own assumptions. The liberal ideology of equality is so deeply ingrained in academic and popular beliefs that it is unquestioned and unacknowledged. In other words, the belief in equality of outcomes is a dogma, and that dogma misleads educators and policymakers into counterproductive and harmful policy.
You can read the entire article, which has numerous links some really good articles at the link above.
We said it before and we’ll say it again: No matter how much money we pour into public education we will never, ever fix what is wrong with it unless and until we change the system so that it looks at each student, sets high expectations in relation to what that child is capable of producing and empowers him to measure up to, at least, what he is capable of performing. And then really good schools will push kids (yes we used that verb intentionally) just a little further towards excellence and they will be constantly raising, rather than lowering, standards.
Remember the “best teacher” you ever had. Is that not exactly what he/she did to you and to just about every other kid they had. If you were fortunate enough to play on a championship team you remember that what the coach did was help you perform better than you ever thought you could.
We will see real reform in American public schools once the idea of “equal outcomes” gets discarded and “being the best you can be” replaces it. And it will be the best thing that ever happened to poor students. Indeed, it is the only chance they have.