Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 13, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

EDUCATION MUSINGS....By coincidence, I've come across a bunch of stuff about education today. Or is it coincidence?

In the Washington Post, William Raspberry suggests reluctantly that conservative critics may have a point when they say that black underachievement is largely due not to racism, but to black cultural attitudes toward education itself. I'm reluctant myself to provide aid and comfort to people who spend so much energy pretending that racism is a figment of our collective imaginations, but he may have a point.

Elsewhere in the Post, we learn that the No Child Left Behind Act is already making people restless. In West Virginia, 45% of the schools have already been deemed failures, and people there are upset that after all his big talk George Bush has been unwilling to push for full funding of the act. Apparently labeling schools as failures is OK, but coming through with the promised help to improve them isn't. (But does it matter? In 11 years 100% of our schools will be labeled as official failures and all the money in the world won't change that. Soon we will all be in West Virginia's shoes.)

And back here in California, Diane Patterson reviews Diane Ravitch's The Language Police, a book I've been intending to read. Her conclusion seems to be that the result of the fight between Texas Bible Belt Republicans and California multi-culti Democrats has been to leave us with the worst of both worlds. Great. Sounds like a barrel of laughs.

As for me, I remain entirely confused about how well our schools are doing. As Megan McArdle points out, every generation since the beginning of time has complained that educational standards are dropping. This is true, and I even have my own anecdote about this.

Last year I visited the town of Cerro Gordo, Illinois, where my grandfather was born, and spent some time leafing through old copies of the local newspaper. In one of them I found a copy of the high school senior exam from about 1890. So I read it.

Now, I'm older, a helluva lot smarter, and way better educated than the scruffy 18-year-olds who were graduating from Piatt County High School back then, but I would have scored about 20% on that test. It's not that standards have gone down, but that the content of education has changed. In rural Piatt County in 1890 it was considered important to be able to figure the payments on a seasonal crop loan and to understand the changes to the civil service system introduced by Chester Alan Arthur. A knowledge of the parts of speech that would make a professor of English wince was also considered de rigeur.

Today? Nobody cares about that stuff anymore. Does that mean my grandfather got a better education than I did? Not a chance.

So while I have no doubts at all that there are some serious problems to be addressed in our educational system, I also suspect that they aren't nearly as overpowering as conservatives want us to believe. Education is not necessarily worse than it was in the 50s, it's just different. After all, the benighted individuals who graduated from our laughable high schools in the 70s and 80s are now busily running American businesses, and judging from the sky high salaries we're paying them, they must be doing OK.

Kevin Drum 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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