Facing up to dumbness

What has happened to our K-12 education? We prefer sameness over distinction, and mediocrity is the inevitable result. We don't hold students accountable to high standards. Instead, we rescue, drug, track and eventually pass unqualified students.

We don't live in a fail-proof world. Reality is harsh; easy street is over. It's time to hold students accountable, and let people fail, American Idol-style.

May 1 st 2009

The battle over what fills my iPod is not nearly as important as what fills my mind, but they are closely related.

In an essay entitled The Poison of Subjectivism, C.S. Lewis wisely observed, "Unless the measuring rod is independent of the thing being measured, we can do no measuring." This is routinely applied in science and business, but becomes murky when it comes to things like music and education. Here the measurer determines the measurement, as in, "Like, my music rocks because I say it rocks." Oxford musicologist Julian Johnson writes, "To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about musical values than about science. Music was no more 'a matter of taste' than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form."

Not so today. The claim that beauty should be based on objective value is met with the blank stare of incomprehension. The man-on-the-street assumptions are 180 degrees different from someone living as recently as 100 years ago. The fact that I "like" my music is all that is necessary to claim that my music is "good." Personal preference determines aesthetic value.

The same assumptions dominate education. The overriding premise of K-12 education in North America is that the measure of education is to be determined by the ability of the child. It is not the teacher or the curriculum or the discipline, but the child that determines the standards of mastery. Canadian educator Kieran Egan writes, "The central belief—the most fundamental tenet—of progressivism is that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to children's nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these."

But what about the proliferation of federally- and locally-mandated achievement tests? They are stopgap solutions that seek to address symptoms without addressing the politically incorrect cause of education's demise: progressive pedagogy. Moderns have an allergic reaction to standards, to hierarchy, to difference. We are populist egalitarians to the core. We have wrapped an ineffective educational philosophy in the rhetoric of democratic individualism.

When one talks with teachers about demanding high educational standards, therapeutic language and the fear of elitism will almost immediately raise their hoary heads. We eschew distinctions. We prefer the myth of sameness. Mediocrity is the inevitable result.

When one's core assumptions are out of synch with reality, in time, reality will win. Thinking one can fly may give one the momentary feeling of freedom, but it will in time be met with the harsh realities of gravity, velocity, and mass. Thinking otherwise will not change the result.

And so it is that the April 2009 McKinsey & Company report, "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools," finds American schools wanting. The economic cost of this gap is larger than the US recession of 1981-82. "These educational gaps imposed on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession." The longer a student spends in an American school the wider the gap becomes. In short, increased exposure to American classrooms makes one increasingly uneducated.

Debates over educational policies whether achievement tests or school vouchers largely miss the point. We need to stop comparing ourselves to each other. In a globalizing economy, it is only international standards and international comparisons that matter. The facts are in, and it's not a pretty picture. "The program of International Student Assessment is a respected international comparison of 15-year-olds by the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] that measures 'real-world' (applied) learning and problem-solving ability. In 2006 the United States ranked 25th of 30 nations in math and 24th of 30 in science," the McKinsey authors report. And yet, the United States spends more than any other county on education.

Educators are noted for finger pointing. Effective learning is the fruit of myriad sources—genetic, parental, social, cultural, and yes, instructional. But too often in modern America, we don't hold students accountable to high standards. Progressive assumptions prevail. Instead, we rescue, drug, track and eventually pass unqualified students. The idea that no student should matriculate until he or she had a measurable mastery of the subject—say an 80% score on a cumulative exam over the subject taught—strikes most students, parents, and teachers as draconian, discrimination against the weaker student. Nonetheless, we don't live in a fail-proof world. Reality is harsh; easy street is over. This is a lesson that we need to bring back into our classes, back from the athletic playing fields where coaches have never given into the progressive mumbo-jumbo about feeling good about oneself and self-esteem. Reality doesn't work that way—and neither does American Idol nor the global marketplace.

It's time to let people fail, to hold students accountable, to resist grade inflation, to celebrate the hard teacher and the tough principal. We do no one a favour by giving young people the impression that discipline, hard work, and perseverance aren't necessary ingredients for success.

Won't children be left behind? Here's C.S. Lewis' answer:

'And what,' you ask, 'about the dull boy? What about our Tommy, who is so highly strung and doesn't like doing sums and grammar? Is he to be brutally sacrificed to other people's sons?' I answer: dear Madam, you quite misunderstand Tommy's real wishes and real interests. It is the 'aristocratic' system, which will really give Tommy what he wants. If you let me have my way, Tommy will gravitate very comfortably to the bottom of the form; and there he will sit at the back of the room chewing caramels and conversing sotto voce with his peers, occasionally ragging and occasionally getting punished, and all the time imbibing that playful intransigent attitude to authority which is our chief protection against England becoming a servile State. When he grows up he will not be a genius, but the world will still have room for a great many more Tommies than geniuses. There are dozens of jobs (much better paid than intellectual ones) in which he can be very useful and happy. And one priceless benefit he will enjoy: he will know he's not clever. The distinction between him and the great brains will have been clear to him ever since, in the playground, he punched the heads containing those great brains. He will have a certain, half amused respect for them. He will cheerfully admit that, though he could knock spots off them on the golf links, they know and do what he cannot.

We need to put the brutal honesty of American Idol judge Simon Crowell in the classroom and once again call a spade a spade.

Topics: Education

Dr. John Seel is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is currently principal at John Seel Consulting LLC, a cultural impact consulting firm specializing on millennials. He, and his wife Kathryn, attend Cresheim Valley Church and live in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.