What’s Wrong with the World

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Why I'm not Needed

It's because g-ddamn Charles Murray always seems to say all that needs saying about everything that really matters to me before I can get my posterior in gear to say it myself.

I'm looking for something to add to his essay on the utter insanity of "No Child Left Behind": "The age of educational romanticism" - and, perhaps, in due course, I'll come up with a relevant anecdote or two, since I was working in the trenches of the public schools, while he observed from on high.

But, in the meantime, all I can say is: read the whole thing.

One favorite bit:

"Elite white guilt explains much about all kinds of social policy from the last half of the 1960s onward, but especially about education. Until the 1960s, white educators and politicians could look at a class of white children in which a number of students were doing poorly and shrug. The schools try to teach everyone, but some kids can’t handle the material. That’s just the way the things are; it is not a problem that can be fixed. But when the class consisted of black students who were doing poorly, that reaction was not acceptable. These were children growing up in a society where all the odds had been stacked against them, and their failings couldn’t be passed off as 'just the way things are.' Elite white guilt made it impossible to say that a lot of black children were going to continue to fail in school and there’s nothing anybody could do about it. Once it could not be said of black children, neither could it be said of white children. In that context, educational romanticism did not just become fashionable during the 1960s. It became emotionally mandatory.

"And so, beginning with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the federal government embarked on a series of major efforts to improve education for disadvantaged children that culminated in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Act. Surveying that history, an analogy occurred to me that I offer as a speculative proposition: America’s federal education policy as of 2008 is at about the same place that the Soviet Union’s economic policy was in 1990."

Truer words were never spoken.

Comments (12)

And just as Soviet economic policy made the economic situation worse, so does America's education policy. For black kids, among others. Perhaps especially, because people with little money cannot get away from the disastrous faddishness of education activities in public schools.

(Did you know that on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, used in many states other than Iowa as an achievement test, the math estimation sub-test is part of the core for the test but the math computation sub-test isn't? Think about it. It gets more depressing the longer you think about it. And the ITBS is by and large a pretty decent standardized achievement test.)

While he certainly makes a good point, and while racial IQ gaps have been clearly established, I still think ridiculous teaching methods including whole reading and whole math coupled with a lack of discipline and an often chaotic home environment play a significant role, and so I worry that we may be too quick to write off poor academic performance as inevitable before we reestablish a traditional curriculum and give teachers the authority to disclipline their students effectively. There are some who will still fail once we do that sure, but I'll bet there are plenty who will probably do at least somewhat better than they are doing now, and some who may very well do much better. Public schools are definitely failing these kids, as is the destructive culture they grow up in.

I really hope that part of ending educational romanticism involves putting an end to the idea that not only must we push kids and young adults to do better in school so they can compete in the globalized economy, but that this is even possible. And I hope that our newfound realism about differences in abilities brings our attention to the increasing large wealth gap between those with low to average IQ's and those with high IQ's and taking action halt this potentially disastrous trend-ending illegal immigration, no longer expecting people to have a degree for jobs that really don't require it, keeping jobs in the country and not expecting Americans to compete for jobs with people who have a natural advantage over them, etc. Of course, there will always be such a gap and that is perfectly fine, but it is terrible how difficult it is becoming for a man of even average means to provide for a family, or own his own land, and I don't think it bodes well for us.

Lydia, I must admit to being (hitherto) totally unaware of the differences between the "math estimation" and the "math computation" sub-tests on the ITBS.

Sounds interesting.

gywdhen: I deleted your duplicate post - the earlier version, I hope!

I think that you point out the most important corrective to Charles Murray's essay, when you raise the issue of *discipline*, which he doesn't discuss *at all*.

The 'estimation' trend in elementary school math is, anecdotally, bizarre. I don't remember being taught anything like that in (say) second grade. I was taught how to actually solve problems.

Also anecdotally, in engineering school those of us who could quickly estimate what certain physical parameters ought to be often did far better than those who had only analytic procedures available to arrive in the proximity of the right answer. There is definitely real-world value in knowing how X is expected to affect Y without having to crank through analytic procedures to get precise results.

I'm not sure it is (or isn't! - I'm really not sure) a bad thing to teach and test estimation in addition to computation to young students, but I'm really sure that it is bad to teach and test estimation to the exclusion of how to actually solve the problems analytically. That is just weird. Estimating results is 'core' and solving for them analytically is not? This is 'Basic Math Skills'? Really?

I linked to this post and the Murray's. What a thorough debunking. 5-year plan, indeed.

Zippy --

It's the old 'cart before the horse' problem: you learn estimation by generalizing from a large number of problems, and then it's just knowing how wrong you're allowed to be.

It's the same with self-esteem: some children with low self-esteem don't do well, so raising their self-esteem will make them do better. The illogic of that should be apparent, but there is a set of ideological blinders worn by education types to keep themselves from straying from the politically correct trail.

In fact, there are lots of people with low self-esteem who study and work very hard, for fear that their inadequacy will be discovered. And people with high self-esteem are known as "jerks".

My very strong impression is that the math estimation trend and the anti-computation trend (related but not exactly the same) are very big in education right now. For example, I gather there are schools that are expressly not teaching times tables. On a thread on the subject of education on Right Reason a few years ago, someone defending public education derided the times tables as "memorized trivia." Basically, it's part of the same anti-traditional, anti-memorization, anti-facts trend that drove "outcome-based education" in the 90's (anybody remember that?). Memorizing facts is characterized as being incompatible with "real understanding." So one activity I've heard of is having kids do various little graphs involving objects placed in rows and columns to see that, e.g., 5 x 6 = 30, but _not_ memorizing "5 x 6 = 30." And I've heard that a number of teachers view teaching children math computation as obsolete because they can always use calculators! You can imagine that with this going on, a sub-test that involves a lot of straight computation will be something a lot of kids won't do well on. So they just treat it as non-core. But estimation is billed as involving understanding rather than memorizing, so it's supposed to be more important.

A more cynical explanation (which is actually compatible with the one above) for the deemphasizing of certain subjects on tests is that this helps to blur the differences between various demographic groups. I don't actually know if the particularly un-PC differences come up in ability to do math computation. Actually, I would think basic math facts would _not_ be heavily G-loaded and hence that there might not be the demographic differences the test-makers fear in those areas.

"anti-facts trend that drove "outcome-based education" in the 90's (anybody remember that?)."

Yes. As a TA at the university I was handed this gigantic booklet with code numbers and the outcomes described next to them. I went to the prof and said, "What the hell is this?" and he said that stuff was big in the 80's. It vanished for awhile, and now it is back with a vengeance. I pitched it and fortunately never heard from it again.

The name sounds good. Who could be against wanting good outcomes? Unfortunately it was just a phrase and actually referred to a set of controversial and trendy educational ideas, including downplaying the importance of factual knowledge.

Charles Murray has a op-ed in the WSJ arguing for certification: "For Most People,
College Is a Waste of Time"

The sad state of affairs today is that in many schools, teachers who dare teach content and expect children to learn content are reviewed poorly.

The curricula teachers are told to use in mathematics state clearly that memorization is unnecessary (even detrimental) to student understanding of mathematics.

Teachers are told not to have students memorize "meaningless" geography facts such as where North America is located on the globe.

Teachers who try to buck this are disciplined and shut-up or gotten rid of. I am not kidding. Teachers at schools today who disagree with this folly whisper their true feelings to other teachers they can trust - ever fearful of having a principal or a true-believer overhear. How sad is that?

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