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June 26, 2011

Fraud Up and Down Our Educational System

By Herbert London

wizard-of-oz.jpg

In Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz the Wizard says he wants an educated populace, "so by the power vested in me I will grant everyone diplomas." Welcome to the education system of 2011. Much of what we now observe comes right out of the Baum novel.

When Charles Eliot was president of Harvard, he was asked why there is so much intelligence at this college, He replied, "because the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little out." My guess is if a university president were completely honest today, he might say the freshman bring almost nothing in and leave by taking nothing out.

The question is, if the society spends billions on primary, secondary and higher education, why is so little accomplished? There are many answers to this question, of course, but I would argue the overarching reason is fraud, fraud at every level in order to satisfy political demands.

At the elementary school level it is simply embarrassing to have a large number of students leave illiterate or semi-literate. As a consequence, students pretend to read and teachers pretend to assert their competence. Test scores are altered to satisfy political concerns. In a society suffering from the Lake Woebegone effect in which everyone is above average, you can’t tell Mom that Johnny and Mary cannot read at grade level. Rather than declare inadequacy, you change the grade. The disparity between NAEP scores–the gold standard of evaluation–and state-sponsored tests is startling with NAEP scores 20 to 30 percent lower on average. Obviously some manipulation is at work.

When scores are low, mayors and governors are held accountable. Since most are vulnerable to the political heat, the incentive to cheat is overwhelming. In fact, across the country there is a euphemism for this cheating: “scrubbing.” This practice suggests that teachers should “search” for clues in the test that would allow for an alteration in scores.

At the high-school level, graduation rates are invariably employed as a standard of evaluation. Yet here too most scores are bogus. If a student is pushed through the system through social promotion, his cognitive skill may be near zero, but he is added to the percentage of graduates nonetheless. Rigor rarely exists as a demand or a practice, a condition that explains in large part why American students compare unfavorably to foreign students on international tests in language skills, math and science.
 
Once these high-school graduates hold a diploma in their hands, however questionable their skill level, they are deemed college-ready. Since America has a college for everyone and the society is committed to mass education, students who can read at only a marginal level or who cannot solve quadratic equations are seated in institutions of higher learning.
 
Surely something has to give. Invariably remediation must take place, but that is insufficient to deal with widespread incompetence. Obviously course content and requirements are modified. A physics instructor at the City University in New York told me recently it is impossible to teach real physics when your students are incapable of engaging eight-grade math.
 
Of course there are exceptions to this lugubrious picture. Yet in far too many cases fraud from one level to another is passed on like a virus that cannot be controlled or cured. In fact, most teachers and professors who know the truth become complicit in this institutionalized fraud in order to retain their jobs. They simply cannot say college isn’t for everyone and most students are not prepared to engage in college work or that rigorous exit requirements at any level do not exist. Hence, there is the clarion call for more money; there is the deceptive claims about the success of our educational systems and there is the belief this investment is worthwhile.
 
Unfortunately there is rarely a soul who will say that fraud keeps this system going, and like it or not, that the emperor hasn’t any clothes.
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Herbert London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president emeritus of the Hudson Institute. His recent books include Diary of A Dean and  America’s Secular Challenge.


Comments (4)

Judy:

Great points. However, I faced another issue. I was held back in school for no reason. The subject they chose to hold me back in was math. I did not actually fully learn the algebra I should have known by the time I was out of high school until just this year.

The system did not let me attempt to learn. In eighth grade my science teacher also taught algebra and she wanted me in her class because I was teaching myself. The special education people said I could not handle the course work despite what this teacher was seeing in the work I was doing on my own.

Second, I would have learned the math, but the alternative school they placed me at when I was in the care of the state did not teach it and they did not even think to attempt to mainstream me for this subject where I would be taught the correct course.

There was also the situation where I was placed in a remedial eduction history class and the teacher thought I should have been in at least the regular American History class if not the AP or Honors version of the course, but the people who were responsible for me said that they thought I could not handle the work, even though this teacher clearly told them that I was helping him teach the course.

So the issue isn't only the students that are socially promoted, but also a system that rewards special education with money based on the number of bodies enrolled in these programs rather than proper placement. The same can possibly be said for remedial education, especially in the case of children in the care of the state.

This was my experience in Illinois. I believe we need to reform the whole school system including and especially how students are placed in remedial education and special education.

Frederick K. Lang:

Just as “students [at the City University of New York] are incapable of engaging eight-grade math,” so they are also incapable of reading and writing at the eight-grade level.

Like that CUNY physics professor, I speak from first-hand experience as their teacher. But if he still teaches at CUNY, then he hasn’t complained publicly or refused to follow CUNY’s policy of passing all students regardless of academic performance.

I did both, and for my efforts, I was harassed, persecuted, and--after a long, costly legal struggle--forced to choose between retirement and bankruptcy.

At CUNY, academic fraud is sustained through terror. It begins with the students: they insult and badger a teacher who dares to make them work or to give them honest grades, and complain, often en masse, to his department chair. If he still refuses to bend, his chair will terrorize him further, with punitive course assignments, and if that doesn’t work, with suspension of his teaching. Should he continue to resist, the college and university administration will take over and bring him up on disciplinary charges.

I again speak from first-hand experience. But that was a few years ago. If anyone were reckless enough to follow my example now, the student complaints themselves would result in disciplinary charges. CUNY has devised a procedure that greatly simplifies the persecution of rebellious faculty.

CUNY can’t be unique, but even if by some miracle it were, it’s still, as the nation’s largest urban university, playing a major role in keeping American higher education fraudulent.

“Unfortunately there is rarely a soul who will say that fraud keeps this system going, and like it or not, that the emperor hasn’t any clothes”: of course. Just look at what happens to such a soul.


Frederick K. Lang
Professor Emeritus of English
Brooklyn College,
City University of New York

Erwin Rysz:

The fraud on the k-12 level is a direct function of the teachers colleges. There is essentially a 'closed shop" in place which keeps so many others - others being qualified individuals who have both experience and knowledge of the subject matter - unable to teach.

I realize this has been true for a half century, but in the last 20 years the issue has gone out of control. the teacher colleges
now have COMPLETE control and serve as a valve
alienating competant individuals from the profession and at the same time indoctrinating the class of "educrats" who become teachers.
I'm talking about "nudging" these indiviuals away from programs that work (phonics, direct instruction, "real" math etc.)to programs that don't (whole language, Micky Mouse math, diversity and self-esteem programs).

I have yet to be shown ANY course or series of courses taught by the Education Departments of the Teacher Schools which make any difference at all. Of course both in China and India teachers are expected to have degrees in their field (Math, English,History, Science, language) while our professionals have theirs in "Education". We all know how Chinese and Indian young people are eating our kids' lunch...

There will be no recognizable change unless this curiculum is strengthened with real academic subjects. There will be only the spin of our schools needing more, more and more funding for miserable results.

R.R. Hamilton:

Public education is to education as public housing is to housing.

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