By Herbert London
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.
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.