Good afternoon, dear reader. Jonathan Gewirtz and David Foster have invited me to participate in Chicago Boyz. I’m going to limit my presence here to occasional mini-dissertations on education, political economy, or transportation.
My first post is a cross-post from my primary web journal, Cold Spring Shops.
Inside Higher Ed’s Elin Johnson shares the bad news. “Percentage of students who have met English and math benchmarks lowest in 15 years.” The proximate cause appears to be a lack of preparation.
Almost 1.8 million students, or 52 percent of the 2019 graduating class, took the ACT.
Of the Class of 2019 who took the test, 37 percent met three of the four College Readiness Benchmarks, and 36 percent did not meet any. The latter number has grown over the past few years, reports ACT. Students who took the recommended high school core curriculum stayed steady in their readiness in English and math.
“As we’ve been pointing out for many years, taking the right courses in high school dramatically increases a student’s likelihood to be ready for success when they graduate,” said Marten Roorda, ACT CEO, in a press release. “Students who don’t take challenging courses — particularly those from underserved populations — may lack the self-confidence and ambition to do so, and social and emotional learning instruction can help them improve in those areas.”
I’d like to think that, oh, inculcating bourgeois habits and teaching the substance would work, but that’s not how the people whose salaries depend on them not seeing it respond.
Test results are still divided along lines of race and wealth. The majority of minority, low-income or first-generation students met one or zero of the College Readiness Benchmarks.
Hispanic, and more so, African American students continue to lag behind their white and Asian American counterparts. Just over half of the 2019 graduates who took the test were white.
Over the past five years, Asian American students have improved their college readiness, with 62 percent meeting three of the four benchmarks this year.
Asian American students had the highest average composites, with a 25.6 for core scores and a 22.9 for noncore. White students scored an average core composite of 23.3, American Indian and Alaska Native students scored an average of 18.3 in the core requirements, Hispanic students’ average core composite was 19.9, and African American students on average scored 17.9.
The ACT board said that its research suggests that college preparedness begins in elementary school, and that by middle school students who are not on track are at risk.
Matt “Dean Dad” Reed, who is in the second chances business at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, gets to the heart of the matter, at least where matriculants on the traditional high-school-to-college path are concerned.
If that’s correct, then the point of the story is access to curriculum, rather than student performance. But that’s an aside.
“College ready” as a designation carries a lot of baggage. It assumes that every college has the same expectations. It also assumes, as Michelle Asha Cooper has noted, that the burden of readiness falls on the student, rather than the college (or, I would add, some of each). Cooper refers to “student-ready colleges,” to remind us that fit works at least two ways.
I’ve known enough successful college graduates who describe high school careers that ranged from indifferent to disastrous, followed by dramatic turnarounds in college, that I wonder about the category of “college ready.” How do we know?
Perhaps we do something about the high schools that offer students that disastrous experience, or perhaps we focus on the absence of challenging courses. In Minding the Campus, George Leef suggests the displacement of challenging courses with indoctrination is deliberate. “[P]ublic schools are doing more and more to condition students to accept a wide array of leftist notions — notions that make them highly receptive to further leftist teaching and calls for them to act against perceived enemies of the social justice agenda.” In Mr Leef’s view, it’s a destructive symbiosis.
The alliance between the public education establishment and the march of “progressivism” is as natural as anything could be. Public education depends on the power of government: to tax, to build schools and hire teachers and administrators, to compel student attendance, to minimize or even prohibit competition. As the poor quality of many public schools has become increasingly evident over the last several decades, the education establishment has become an utterly slavish ally of the political left. It depends on the coercive fist of government.
At the same time, the political left has become ever more reliant on the education system (K-12 through college and beyond) to inculcate statist ideas in people. If voters were inclined and able to think through the harmful consequences of “progressive” policies such as minimum wage laws, welfare payments, the Green New Deal, government-run health care, wealth taxes, and so on, they would toss the leftists out of office. It’s far better for those politicians if as many voters as possible are conditioned to support candidates who mouth clichés about the evils of capitalism, the need for compassionate government, the imperative of transforming America, so it will be a just society, and many others.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that public schools are ratcheting up their efforts at turning students into adults who will automatically vote to keep their political allies in power. And that calls for constant adjustments to the curriculum.
It’s not that the education establishments are offering a Maoist catechism so much as that, as I allege in my title, the symbolism crowds out the substance. Consider social justice mathematics. That’s been with us for some time, but in it’s most recent incarnation, in Seattle, well, this Tyler O’Neil post suggests that where the New Math of sixty years ago brought in set theory without any context, well, Postmodern Math brings in postmodern philosophy devoid of context.
In other words, this “educational” document emphasizes getting minority students to “identify” with math over teaching them mathematical truths. Not only does the framework prioritize teaching students the “value in making mistakes” but it also presents as an essential question “What does it mean to do math?” and the related questions, “How important is it to be Right? What is Right? Says Who?”
There is indeed value in making mistakes — but in order to take a key lesson from mistakes, students must understand that they are mistakes. The postmodern approach of this curriculum — getting students to deconstruct what it means to be right and getting them to emphasize ethnic identity over the basic truths of math — is detrimental to that effort.
As for the claim that math is “rooted in the ancient histories of people and empires of color,” that is partially true. Mathematics has developed to a limited degree in all human cultures, and both Indian and Arabic contributions to mathematics are important to understand. But Western thinkers like the Ancient Greek pioneer Pythagoras were also fundamental to math. The point of math is not to parse which ethnic group made which discovery but to incorporate the accumulated knowledge and apply it.
The full Seattle plan is titled, “K-12 Math Ethnic Studies Framework.” It’s not clear whether this is the full mathematics curriculum, or simply an add-on with more rubrics and more objectives and more of the educational impedimenta that burden teachers, and more elements of the test to teach to. I note, though, that if students will have the opportunity to understand “Access to mathematical knowledge itself is an act of liberation” that liberation is of little use if they can’t, oh, estimate some volumes or recognize that you can’t put a six-foot-radius circle of track in a ten foot square bedroom.
Mr O’Neil notes,
Let students study math, and don’t let math history become dominated by social justice attempts to erase the efforts of the West. It matters far more whether or not students can do basic arithmetic than whether or not they can spout social justice slogans about Western “oppression.”
That’s long been a complaint of mine. Thirty years ago, it read like this.
As an economist, I view language as useful if it is accurate. If women operate trains or win national sailing championships alongside men, an accurate language reflects those facts. In my experience, students are aware of those facts. They avoid using “him” or “his” as generic pronouns, but many have trouble spelling or arranging sentences coherently.
It may take a few bridges falling down first. Here’s Rod Dreher.
The young people who are going to learn real math are those whose parents can afford to put them in private schools. The public school kids of all races are going to get dumber and dumber … and this is going to compel the wokesters in charge of Human Resources at institutions along life’s way to demand changing standards to fit political goals. Eventually, bridges are going to start falling down. That too will be the fault of Whiteness.
The problem, dear reader, is that competence is hard-won, and competence in designing and building bridges that don’t fall down is valuable. Maybe even the wokesters should recognize that. Jarrett Stepman teases, “[I]t may be a challenge to build a green socialist utopia of high-speed rail without basic math or engineering skills, but those are mere details.”
It might be that I’m overthinking this. For years, self-styled educational theorists have struggled to make mathematics less scary to youngsters. It might be that Reason‘s Robby Soave is on to that aspect of the curriculum. He notes that the Seattle curriculum is not required in its common schools, and suggests that Mr Dreher is being hyperbolic (since hyperbolas have asymptotes, how has that term come to mean “wild exaggeration” in common usage?) suggests that as a way of making mathematics “accessible” finding the missing Africans or South American aborigines isn’t likely to be successful. So we make the problem go away a different way.
If math is too daunting for students, a better option would be for schools to stop making it mandatory. Giving parents—and even students themselves—more choice and control over their own educational experience is always a plus, and few people actually need to understand higher mathematics to function in society. Infusing the existing math curriculum with a bunch of unfounded progressive assumptions about cultural appropriation is a silly approach.
Perhaps instead of saying it’s OK not to know algebra, or instead of looking for ancient oppressors, perhaps the people who style themselves educational theorists ought consider strategies to develop mathematical intuition in young people. Without that intuition, those students will be the victims of people who are talking rot.
It’s not just math, though, as Power Line’s John Hinderaker has observed.
There is not much more to say, except to note that the attack on competence can’t stop with mathematics. If math is oppressive, so are physics, chemistry, biology and every other subject that requires hard study to master objective reality. God help us when our structural engineers are products of an educational system that considers knowledge of mathematics to be a symptom of “oppression.”
Well, yeah, the humanities have been self-destructing in the name of Wokeness for years. Thus it’s no surprise that Proper Grammar is oppressive.
“Freeing Our Minds and Innovating Our Pedagogy from White Language Supremacy” was the title of the 75-minute guest lecture given on October 14 by Asao Inoue, a professor and the associate dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University.
“We are all implicated in white supremacy,” Inoue said during his presentation, co-hosted by Ball State’s English department, university writing program, and Office of Inclusive Excellence.
“This is because white supremacist systems like all systems reproduce themselves as a matter of course,” he said. “This includes reproduction of dominant, white, middle-class, monolingual standards for literacy and communication.”
White language supremacy, according to Inoue, is “the condition in classrooms, schools, and society where rewards are given in determined ways to people who can most easily reach them, because those people have more access to the preferred and embodied white language practices, and part of that access is a structural assumption that what is reachable at a given moment for the normative, white, monolingual English user is reachable for all.”
“Your school can be racist and produce racist outcomes,” Inoue said. “Even with expressed values and commitments to anti-racism and social justice.”
In one of his slides, Inoue states that “grading is a great way to protect the white property of literacy in schools and maintain the white supremacist status quo without ever being white supremacist or mentioning race.”
I note that his presentation was in English, no point in re-enacting the Parable of the Tower of Babel in 75 minutes, and the proper question to be asking might be what evolutionary advantage the standard of standard English conferred. Then follow up with what might happen to a higher education that deconstructs that status quo without a new standard emerging.
I’m going to get to that, but first, another illustration of the symbolism crowding out the substance. “Whiteness then works and then appropriates science and technology to say ‘This is true while this is not true because it’s not verifiable.’…It’s a hyperfocus on the experiential for those who does not capitulate with whiteness.” That defies parody, but apparently it happened. Thus “maybe the black astronauts are participating in whiteness.” I’m not making this up, follow the link, but that’s in a long-established tradition of identity politics types trashing normal science as a tool of oppression when it’s convenient.
Meanwhile, the propaganda arm for higher education (public radio stations often having university affiliations) laments over those lost dollars.
Most Americans believe state spending for public universities and colleges has, in fact, increased or at least held steady over the last 10 years, according to a new survey by American Public Media.
They’re wrong. States have collectively scaled back their annual higher education funding by $9 billion during that time, when adjusted for inflation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP, reports.
That’s something to be Viewed With Alarm, if the Regular Contributors are going to continue to call in during pledge week to get the latest tote-bag.
The impact of this extends beyond tuition costs. University enrollment was down by 2 million from the fall of 2010 to the most recently completed fall semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this. The nation is far behind its goal of increasing to 60 percent the proportion of the population with degrees.
A separate survey by Manpower Group found that 46 percent of American employers can’t find the workers they need. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says this is keeping 40 percent of businesses from taking on more work.
And the United States remains 13th in the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds who have some kind of college or university credential, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development says.
I’m not sure what good it does to expand the proportion of the population with degrees, if the degrees are remedial credentials based on woke mathematics and all the other accommodations the higher education establishment is favoring. A fortiori, the absence of workers with the skills the employers seek might be better understood as a consequence of what the investment in higher education is getting you, rather than as a call for throwing more money down the same sinks. Leningraders had great self-esteem to go with giardia and no sausage.
Perhaps the mandarins of higher education will do the right thing, after they have tried everything else. Here’s Grant Cornwell, president of Rollins College, questioning business as usual.
[O]ur current cultural moment has raised an urgent question: What is the role of higher education at a time when the very ideas of truth, facts and core principles of justice seem up for grabs? In response, I would argue that liberal arts education is more valuable and more urgently needed than ever before.
In the anti-intellectualism of our current political culture, I see a smug, perhaps even sinister, disregard for the value of truth and its pursuit with integrity. Maybe worse, I see a dismissive attitude toward the knowing of facts — or worse still, a cavalier disposition toward facts, as though they are things that can be selected or even created according to one’s preference and politics.
What is true has been displaced by what reinforces one’s ideology and politics — and ideology trumps facts. I see this as a threat to democracy.
This is where the university — with its core principles of freedom of inquiry and expression, and its capacity to educate graduates with the independent and critical acumen to deliberate about all manner of issues — plays a vital role.
That’s a lament about all things Trumpian, and yet, it stands as a rebuke to the denial of coherent beliefs and transgressiveness for its own sake that infects higher education.
All that said, we academics have become shy about teaching facts. Because we are all so schooled in the tools of critique, there is hardly a truth claim that we cannot interrogate, deconstruct or criticize. Consequently, we have often substituted the teaching of intellectual skills and critical thinking for teaching with any confidence what is the case in the world.
At Rollins College, I want our students to know not only how to exercise intellectual skills but also that certain things are true. Again, the intellectual skills we embrace as learning goals — information literacy, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, mathematical thinking and scientific literacy — are exactly the tools we would select to combat the abuses of a post-truth era. As educators, our job is to encourage students to understand how widely they should be applying those skills in the classroom and as citizens to evaluate information and sources, to reckon with credibility of evidence, and to consider both one’s own assumptions and the claims of others.
Yet students need to graduate with more than knowing how; they also need to know that. We academics are quite good at being able to talk about the architecture of the liberally educated mind, but we are too shy in talking about the content knowledge, the furniture, of a liberally educated mind. What does a global citizen and responsible leader know?
The post is close to a year old, in Inside Higher Ed, and yet he didn’t get lit up in the comments. That might be encouraging. It’s also instructive that the house organ for business as usual in higher education recently ran “How Ed Schools Became a Bastion of Bad Ideas.” It’s behind the paywall, and yet, the subtitle, “A tale of assessment, learning styles, and other notorious concepts.” Detailed rubrics take away from student creativity, and if we can banish SWBAT from higher education (apparently the canonical learning objective must include “students will be able to” so they acronym it; try to think of a piggyback train from Springfield to Baltimore instead) it will be for the better.
Thanks for your interest. Please look in at my primary web journal for the travelogues, train pictures, and the other fun stuff.