The numbers don’t lye: our kids reely have goodness righting skills.

Appalling, essential article on what level of writing earns a passing grade on New York’s high school leaving exam.

This morning’s New York Times contains an essential, shocking article by Michael Winerip on the level of writing needed to earn a passing grade on New York State’s high school leaving exam. This year, for the first time, the exam has teeth: any student who doesn’t score at least 65 on the exam in English (and a few more subjects) will receive no diploma.

It’s always possible to come up with “sky is falling” articles by quoting samples of things students write. A few egregious examples do not prove a trend; and, after all, some poor student will always score at the bottom. But Winerip’s article is so telling because it cites the official scoring guide. And this is what the official guide gives as an example of writing that deserves a more-or-less passing grade (1 on a scale of 0 to 2):

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

That’s no accident. Here’s another:

In the poem, the poets use of language was very depth into it.

Those are taken from short-answer sections of the test. There is also an essay question. The following sentence is from an essay response that is supposed to receive a 3 out of 6—good enough, combined with two “1s” on the paragraphs and a 20 out of 25 on the multiple choice, to pass the test:

Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.

Students who write like this will be granted by the State of New York certificates that let them attend college. How many will graduate from college? How many will be well qualified for responsible jobs that don’t (or shouldn’t) require a college education: as an auto dealer, an office manager, a bank teller? But as Winerip notes, those designing the test felt they had to set the standards this low, since otherwise the non-graduation rate would be shocking. The problem is that giving diplomas to students who perform at this level is equally shocking. As Winerip notes, “[t]heoretically, passing the English Regents would mean that a student could read and write.”

No more than anyone else do I know of a magic formula for ensuring that every student will learn. But I know that imposing high-stakes tests on a failed educational system cannot be that formula. It won’t make students literate. It will just make the rest of us hypocrites. Actually, it already has.

 

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

37 thoughts on “The numbers don’t lye: our kids reely have goodness righting skills.”

  1. I’m willing to give a fair amount of latitude on spelling/homonyms, but that sentence from the essay isn’t even comprehensible (unless the context helps).

  2. A number of things came together for me after reading your post.

    I’m an assistant professor who moved from teaching at an Ivy League university to a smaller state university. The one thing that differentiates my students at the two institutions is not their ability to think. In both places, the students have equally interesting insights and creative epiphanies. The one thing that differentiates the two schools is my students’ ability to write cogently and to structure an argument in writing. The Ivy League students went to high schools (often private) that incubated them in the art of writing. The public university students mostly went to middling public high schools that, unfortunately, barely trained them to put words on paper.

    Each semester, I receive papers from college seniors written much like the gibberish above. I have no idea what to do with them, because this inability to structure language started well before they got to me and is the result not of my students’ inability to think, but of their lack of training in organizing thought through writing. It’s ultimately not their fault; it’s the fault of a broken public education system. I feel bad for them.

    I’ve also been following the recent press about Charles Murray’s new thesis regarding elites. His essential premise is that the wealthy and/or highly educated classes have ceased interacting with the poor and middle class, and that the cultural values of the two are radically divergent. I was lucky enough to go to schools (from 6th grade on) that trained me to think, and to organize my thinking through writing. It has made me into a lifelong reader engaged in intellectual pursuits. I just think about all of the smart students who will never realize their full potential because they weren’t taught healthy critical thinking skills.

    1. I am almost a half-century old now (!) and I agree with this almost completely. I’d also add that our TeeVee culture has chopped the attention spans of people such that only FB posts and texts are the written communication medium for most. If in fact we are bifurcating and creating more jobs that just move paper around, then we are truly in trouble. Things like this make the movie Idiocracy seem prescient.

      1. Dan, My wife (and many others) think I’m crazy for believing that Idiocracy is oddly brilliant. Of all of the bad cultural trends of the last few decades, one of the more poisonous is the belief that caring about education, knowledge and grammar somehow makes one an elitist.

        I become ever more dismayed when I read Facebook or Twitter posts with grammatical errors in them (not even mentioning 10-page college papers.) How difficult is it to commit 140 characters to the world without a mistake of spelling or grammar? The occasional slip is fine, but terrible grammar has become endemic to our culture, regarded as funny or even cute.

        1. MJ, I’m with you. This trend does make me think the worsening grammar and English I see in the media too is an indicator of our decline. When you compare to the average Brit we are that much worse…sigh.

    2. As a professional shortstop has fielded millions of ground balls to get to where he is, so too must a writer (of cogent caliber) practice daily to become a pro at organizing thought and argument on paper.

      You lay the blame for poor writing at the threshold of external forces (poor schools), yet schools, poor or otherwise are merely one component in the matrix of misinformed grammar. Any person who wishes to provide coherent and cohesive writings must write as often as anyone who must practice what they wish to master. Many a college bound student avoids such practice even when it is assigned often enough to give him the needed practice to hone his writing skills.

      Yeah, we write poorly, but quit dumping on institutions instead of the people who own the problem!

      1. Sorry, Kevo, but this doesn’t rise to the level of “good but unpracticed”. This is at the level of “maybe there’s an idea there, but I can’t tell.”

        I tutored Eng 98/99 and Math 98/99 at Sonoma State in the early 90’s (went back to college 11 years out of HS), and I can testify that there were many, many HS grads who would have loved to have written these examples, as they are head and shoulders above their skill levels.

    3. I was lucky enough to attend a big-city public school that straddled SES zones and provided a pretty good education for all levels of students, from those who preferred vocational ed to the college-bound (a fairly small percentage), at which we were required by circumstances to interact with all groups.

      Cranky

      Unfortunately that city school district was brutalized by budget cuts and now the college-bound who remain in the system all transfer to college prep magnet schools.

  3. I have no words in response to this outrage against education – a response that seems somehow appropriate.

  4. Those sentence are, readers of this blog will agree, semi-literate gibberish.

    That said, according to the Times, the test gives the option of three grades: 0, 1, or 2. That doesn’t leave much room for nuance. Should they all be zeroes? Perhaps, but I’d have to see the grading guide’s examples of zeroes to judge. Sadly, people — even high school seniors — really can write even worse than the examples in the article.

    Further, getting a pair of 1’s wouldn’t mean you pass. It would only mean you had a chance of passing, if you did well enough elsewhere on the exam.

    Incidentally, California’s high school exit exam — which was the subject of interminable lawsuits on behalf of the disabled and ESL students, only covers 10th-grade material — and something like two-thirds of students pass it in the 10th grade. Why not let them go on to college at that point then?

  5. Oh, please! Your commentary says more about you than it says about the students, Andrew! Do you recall when youwere in high school? Do you think all students were decent writers? Or did most of them produce gibberish worse than this? The elite prescriptivists would have us believe that this is somehow a new problem. Winerip’s story is supposed to make them feel good about their Chicken-Little foreshadowing (while making the rest of us, the educated elite, feel bad). But this is insane. I’d bet that the distribution of writing skills, if indeed it has shifted over the last 7 or 8 decades, has shifted upwards, not downwards. The difference is that we pay more attention, we make attendance in high school–if not graduation–mandatory. We expect everyone to pass and to do so at a reasonably high level. Why? Because we are supposed to feel good about spending money on public education (unless we are Republicans who have been salivating since the Reagan years at divvying up the public school privatization pie). But no matter how much money you throw at public education, we have to face the facts that we can’t create a Lake Wobegon effect. Our averages have been virtually unchanged–although formally creeping upwards–for several generations now. All this while we put more kids through schools, try to educate kids with illiterate parents, force everyone to adhere to some–usually fairly arbitrary–standards. But, even as we raise our standards, the curves remain the same. So what we’ve been doing is juggling the passing averages, not the student achievements. NCLB was meant to remind us that if we set the bar at the level that would satisfy the intellectual elite, we’d flunk the lot. And, judging from your reaction, it succeeded brilliantly. Of course, it did not succeed at one goal that’s been fed to the public–improving education.

    So quit whining about near-illiterate essays that should not deserve a pass but somehow get it. We should expect more of those, not less. We are dominated by mediocrity–and what we’ve succeeded in doing is picking our elites from the mediocrities that have the skills to jump through hoops. Everyone else, contrary to NCLB’s name, gets left behind. Yes, I too am appalled at the passing levels of these exams. But I am even more appalled that we are pretending that these tests somehow should matter. They tell us what some of us already know–and the rest should know. What they don’t do is improve the process or the outcome.

    I’ve been fighting a similar battle in mathematics. We’ve been trying to get the kids to actually understand something and to show everyone that they can do some things, even if they can’t learn to jump through rigid hoops. But our efforts are routinely sabotaged by the very people, the very mediocrity that succeeded in learning to jump through hoops (and who understand nothing of what we are trying to teach). So, instead of distribution of knowledge, what we demand of our schools is coming up with trite indexes that tell the paymasters which students make pliant bureaucrats. The mediocrity feeds on itself–the more control we give them, the more they demand.

    Gil Scott-Heron, recorded in some documentary, tells the story of his days in high school. When the more intellectually inclined students would read something, not understand it and then try to hide their lack of understanding by saying, “That’s deep!” No, he says, it was not deep at all! We just had no idea what it actually said! Unfortunately, we allow too much of that to pass for real knowledge. And, until we sit down and figure out that these should not be our goals, we’ll keep failing our students. And, yes, we’ll brand some of them as illiterate when they likely understand how the world works better than we do.

    It’s like an art expert giving you a pair of dirty, distorting glasses and asking you an opinion of an art piece. You can’t see the actual art through the lenses–what you see is mishapen and blotted and does not resemble “good” art. Then the expert tell you that art just isn’t what it used to be–because we didn’t have the “right” glasses before and it still looked good.

    1. Thanks for an intelligent response to Winerip and Sabl, as well as some of the more self-righteous folks commenting here. Are these examples of skillful writing? No, of course not. Does that mean that the writers couldn’t learn what they need to be successful in jobs where written communication is a minor or marginal requirement? Does it mean they couldn’t learn how to write more competently? These little snippets are meant to shock us, to decide that either we’re producing a generation of illiterates disproportionate to past generations (see the comment about TeeVee [sic] above), or that our schools are “broken” (a litany that has been chanted in this country since before the days of Horace Mann).

      Most Americans don’t write very well. Most aren’t very good at mathematics. But here’s a news flash: that’s not new. Nor is it peculiar to America.

      1. Michael Paul Goldenberg: “Most Americans don’t write very well. Most aren’t very good at mathematics. But here’s a news flash: that’s not new. Nor is it peculiar to America.”

        I fear that at least with respect to mathematics, it is actually peculiar to America. See, for example, the 2009 PISA results.

        And I can’t really say I’m all that surprised, because America as a country is not exactly an environment conducive to learning.

        America has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.

        Americans watch considerably more TV than people in other countries. (Not that there’s anything wrong with watching TV, but, dosis sola facit venenum).

        America is the only country in the developed world without statutory paid parental leave (Australia introduced that last year, leaving America as the last holdout). Yet the first two years are considered to be critical for a child’s development.

        That’s already a bad enough starting point, before you even start to think about whether parenting or our schools contribute also.

        1. You’re surprisingly wrong on the PISA results–at least, they don’t tell you what you think they tell you. In fact, US does very well on PISA–in white suburban districts. It’s also importantly to know that US is the only country that takes the random selection of schools seriously–everyone else, just about, preselects the schools.

          But even with all of that, US performance is not as bad as many critics would have us believe. The top schools, in fact, perform as well or better than the top performing countries. The poor, urban schools obviously do not. They perform roughly on the same level as the “third world” countries that have similar degree of poverty to the urban districts. Actually, they perform somewhat above those.

          But there is another component to consider. I have a number of friends from countries with PISA performance that tops the US. What do they think about mathematics? Those in technical professions–engineers, physicists and mathematicians–love it. The rest hate it as much as most American students do. There is no real difference there. And even if they perform better on some test, on average, it has no practical value whatsoever when it comes to getting, holding or performing jobs. In fact, the education ministry in Singapore wants to imitate American schools. So does the education ministry in Japan. And Taiwan. The only country that does not want to imitate the US collectively is the PRC–and the reason for that has nothing to do with the quality of education.

          When Scandinavians and Finns come to the US, they are shocked that American schools don’t follow models that Americans developed. In particular, I’ve talked to Norwegian and Finnish delegations that were quite unambiguous in that their countries were following Dewey when selecting best practices in education. What do WE follow? David Geary? Michelle Rhee? George Vallas?

          1. ShadowFox: “You’re surprisingly wrong on the PISA results–at least, they don’t tell you what you think they tell you. In fact, US does very well on PISA–in white suburban districts. It’s also importantly to know that US is the only country that takes the random selection of schools seriously–everyone else, just about, preselects the schools.”

            I am well aware of the methodological limitations of PISA. In fact, having attended school in two different countries on two different continents and sending my older daughter now to school in a third country, I’m keenly aware of the differences between the various school systems in different countries and how difficult it can be to compare them. There’s a lot to argue about margin of error, methodology, and so forth. At the same time, the basic results haven’t really been contradicted by other studies (limited as they may be in scope), and a lot of the criticism smacks of excuse making. Germany complained about too much of PISA being multiple choice, Austria had issues with presumed data processing irregularities (France and Spain also had issues with PISA, though I don’t recall the details), and now America had low average scores because apparently “everyone else, just about, preselects the schools”. Nevermind that while that may have been true in 2009, in 2000 just about nobody cared about PISA before the results were published, and consequently nobody had even cared about gaming the results until suddenly it became a hot issue.

            “But even with all of that, US performance is not as bad as many critics would have us believe. The top schools, in fact, perform as well or better than the top performing countries. The poor, urban schools obviously do not. They perform roughly on the same level as the “third world” countries that have similar degree of poverty to the urban districts. Actually, they perform somewhat above those.”

            Which is exactly why I wrote about child poverty above. As several studies have shown, a lot of the PISA discrepancies can be explained by differences in economic status.

            But I don’t really get why having “poor urban schools performing on the same level as third world countries” is “not as bad as critics would have us believe”. That this may be statistically offset by better-performing students from affluent families is cold comfort for the poor urban students. (And don’t expect the above average students to fare all that well, either.)

            Yes, Virginia, America has a poverty problem (which we, blushingly, call “inequality”, just as we seem to eschew “working class” in favor of the less socialist-sounding “middle class”). When it is bad enough that a lot of children even go hungry, that obviously impacts their education. No kidding.

            “But there is another component to consider. I have a number of friends from countries with PISA performance that tops the US. What do they think about mathematics? Those in technical professions–engineers, physicists and mathematicians–love it. The rest hate it as much as most American students do. There is no real difference there. And even if they perform better on some test, on average, it has no practical value whatsoever when it comes to getting, holding or performing jobs.”

            We can discuss the usefulness of mathematics at length, but that question is entirely orthogonal to whether American students do well at it. What I can say is that when my family returned to America (I was 15 years old then), I was a fair bit ahead of my American classmates in mathematics and the sciences. And not at a poor urban school, either. Which more or less mirrors the experience of other expats I know.

            As a former math professor of mine once told me (paraphrased), the difference between American and European high schools is that in Europe Calculus isn’t optional. More generally, curricula at European schools tend to be more ambitious than in America, with topics being mandatory that are commonly relegated to AP/honors courses in America.

            That probably has a couple of reasons. One is that in many European countries, the high school graduation exam doubles as a university admission exam; i.e., if you successfully graduate from high school, you can go to a university of your choice (excepting a few oversubscribed subjects, such as medicine). Thus, high school needs to actually prepare you adequately for college (and college tends to be more specialized right from the start). Conversely, your grades matter very little, so there is no harm in not performing optimally (assuming you can pass at all). For example, while in theory you can enroll at any French university in any subject with a baccalauréat littéraire and avoid the math/science-heavy baccalauréat scientifique, if you plan to become a computer science student (for example), you’re generally better off with the latter; your soon-forgotten final grade may be worse, but you will be much better prepared for college.

            “In fact, the education ministry in Singapore wants to imitate American schools. So does the education ministry in Japan. And Taiwan. The only country that does not want to imitate the US collectively is the PRC–and the reason for that has nothing to do with the quality of education.”

            No, that isn’t the case. I refer you to the article about Finland I linked to above, for example (unless you’re saying that Finland recently got annexed by China and I didn’t notice). As another example, Germany is currently reforming its school system, but as far as I can tell, they’re not interested in the American model. Neither do Switzerland or the Netherlands seem to be particularly interested in emulating American schools, and I don’t see France abandoning the Bac in the near future, either. That said, I’m not sure that there is a single unified model for American schools to begin with (public schools? private schools? charter schools?), so I don’t know what precisely other countries would be imitating.

        2. You’re wrong. The PISA results aren’t comparing apples to apples. Nor are other international test scores that are being used very selectively to bash US education. Not that we don’t need to seriously rethink mathematics education in this country, but not for the reasons the usual suspects claim: it’s simply that we’ve never done a good job at teaching mathematics in meaningful ways to ANYONE. Those who do learn math generally have either a natural taste for it, a strong supportive influence from home, or a mentor in school who really gets math at levels deeper than what is typical. The comment below by ShadowFox goes into specific detail about the scores, points out that when our affluent kids are compared to other affluent kids, ours do just fine, thanks.

          1. Why am I wrong when my very first point is about child poverty in America and you claim that PISA differences can be explained by controlling for income/removing the poor from the equation? (An arguable point, by the way, income/social-economic status obviously plays a large role, but is not the only factor.)

    2. ===
      ShadowFox “Do you recall when youwere in high school? Do you think all students were decent writers? Or did most of them produce gibberish worse than this?”
      ===

      Art Linkletter made some good bucks publishing paperback books full of this kind of stuff back in the 60s and 70s, and I’m sure there are examples of similar compilations from the 20s (1920s and 1820s both) in a library somewhere.

      Cranky

  6. The gibberish of examples 2 and 3 does not, I’m pretty sure, reflect the speech of these youngsters. (Example one is not so serious: one homonym (away->a way), two typos (imagen->imagine, mind Set->mindset), the punctuation (a missing colon, comma or semi-colon after imagine), and the careless omission in put{ting]: all easily corrected failures of technique, not of thinking. There’s no sign of the grammmatical idiosyncrasies of BEV (we go, he be working). Has anybody ever used the preposition withen? The depth example looks to me like an attempt to please the teacher with fake profundity. What’s going on here looks like an active response to atrocious teaching, not a simple failure to learn.

    1. The other obvious lesson is that these kids aren’t reading on a regular basis. If we could get them reading for entertainment – reading anything; horror stories, history, bodice rippers, religious tracts, I don’t greatly care what – they’d develop a vocabulary and a grasp of the rules of written English that would let them write coherently, if not necessarily well.

  7. Each time someone uses “Loose” or “Loosing” when attempting to write “Lose” or “Losing,” a conservative gets its wings.

    Anyone notice all the flying conservatives lately?

  8. Whenever I see the phrase “(our) failed education system” I immediately need to resort to a number of anti-gagging measures lest I soil the carpet.

  9. High school students in poor neighborhoods routinely have elementary-grade reading levels. What is s teacher to do, fail them all? I teach at a continuation school, where students have been failing for so long that they have simply given up, feeling betrayed and oppressed by a system in which they find no enjoyment in learning. Penalizing such students by withholding diplomas adds insult to injury. Blaming teachers doesn’t make sense because these students have clearly been taught this material for years, and their performance I believe represents less a lack of ability but a sort of unconscious defiance towards the establishment, which over years has resulted in self-destructive cognitive habits.

    Let us remember that teachers are required to teach grade-level standards, which for someone like me, a science teacher, I’m required to teach protein synthesis to kids who haven’t the slightest idea what I’m talking about. A failed education system to me means something much larger, and is at least as much an indictment of a public which refuses to seriously invest in the education of the underclass, and design schools that can reasonably meet their true needs.

    1. Changes are occurring even if most of them are only half measures. Nationwide, there are about two million students in about five thousand charter schools. Los Angeles has over seventy five thousand students in charter schools. New Orleans will soon have one hundred percent of its students in charter schools. Charter schools are not the to problems in education, but will, on average, be an improvement in places such as New Orleans which use to have some of the country’s worse schools.

        1. Do you have any data to support your contention that charter schools produce better results than public schools? Everything I’ve read indicates that charters generally do no better than, and often do worse than, public schools. And that’s despite their ability to “counsel out” (how I love that euphemism) low-scoring students.

          1. New Orleans may be a special case, but charter schools have certainly been an improvement there. But, then, almost anything would have been. Unfortunately, it took a hurricane for New Orleans to get better schools.

          2. The NOLA improvement has nothing to do with charters–it’s more closely related to the fact that someone is actually paying attention to the schools. But even the pro-charter Fordham Institute (whose sole purpose is to provide a salary for Checker Finn) has been ambivalent on the results. Finn and his FI buddies have been ready to admit that charters don’t work, on average, any better than regular public schools. But they’ve found a new kludge–it’s not the average that they are after, but the Best Schools. So they look for charters that perform better (by some measure) and then tout them as models for schools. They must have missed the newsflash concerning similar distribution of public schools–some perform better, others worse. If the average is not very different, there is no indication that the distribution is particularly different. So it’s all been smoke and mirrors. Charter schools offer no objective advantages over non-charter public schools, all the rhetoric notwithstanding. The do serve one purpose, however–union busting. They also let for-profits get their foot in the door on public education. On that front, at least, charter schools are succeeding marvelously, even if the rest is just hype.

          3. Charter schools are half measures that give students and their parents some choice within the public schools systems. So, even if they are on average no better than traditional public schools, that’s some improvement since choice, in and of itself, has value.

            Changes in K-12 education may have reached a tipping point. There’s likely to be a lot more charter schools and other changes in the next few years.

        2. There’s nothing intrinsically better about charter schools that can’t be done at public schools. And there are a lot of things that charters can get away with doing worse at. (Believe me, I worked at one). Giving poor parents “choice” completely misses the point. Poor schools are bad because of the parents, not the school. And poor parents are “bad” because of a number of things, large among them an economic system that puts their kids in ghettos while they work scrub our floors, wash our dishes, etc. Until we solve that problem, schools are going to reflect their neighborhood. We can however cut their class sizes, pay their teachers more to attract veterans, and do a bunch of other things that makes them feel less like a war zone and more like a nice place to go to learn.

  10. In response to much of the above:
    (1) I never said student writing was worse than it used to be a couple of generations ago. Very likely, on average, it’s better. But it “used to be” that most people dropped out of school rather than trying for a diploma (which is why teachers and college professors sometimes think things things are worse now: we’re seeing a broader pool). It also used to be that jobs for high school dropouts were plentiful. If we’re going to prepare students for jobs that require a fair amount of education, we need to find a way to raise “better than it was” to the level of “good.” That’s the point, and the problem.
    (2) We’re never going to get anywhere with education reform—whether of the liberal kind, involving higher pay for teachers and smaller classes so that schools can afford to teach writing, or the conservative kind involving more competition and some sort of miraculous alteration (through shaming, I guess) of what weak students learn at home—if we continue to treat objective facts about the failed education system as insults directed at individual teachers, most of whom are competent (or better) and doing the best they can. No, I don’t blame high school teachers for not giving failing grades to whole classes of students who arrive in their class reading at grade-school levels. (And yes, to some degree I’ve encountered similar problems at UCLA: we all regularly grant passing, though low, grades, to students who can’t read or write past a ninth- or tenth-grade level. This is not a substitute for teaching them as best we can: I work with challenged students with what I hope is great patience and dedication, and have been known to pay for tutors out of my own pocket when UCLA has, as it does with some frequency, cut the writing tutor program to save money.) I want the vast majority of students to arrive at high school reading at a high school level, because interventions before that time have brought them up to speed. That’s the difference between blaming a failed system and blaming the individuals in it. And that’s why I carefully, and consistently, do the former.

    1. it “used to be” that most people dropped out of school rather than trying for a diploma

      And I wonder if this isn’t part of why the school system is perceived as failing. If a diploma used to certify a certain level of competence at math,English, and so forth, and now it certifies a much lower level of competence–then for people who interact with “new high school graduates” they look vastly less competent than they used to.

    2. It also used to be that jobs for high school dropouts were plentiful. If we’re going to prepare students for jobs that require a fair amount of education, we need to find a way to raise “better than it was” to the level of “good.” That’s the point, and the problem.

      Or, alternatively, we need to admit to ourselves that not everyone can be educated to this level, and that some people are simply not intellectually or temperamentally suited for it. This implies, in turn, that we need to take the loss of “jobs for high school dropouts” a lot more seriously. For decades, we had well-paid blue-collar jobs that did not require a lot of formal education. This may prove to be the only effective way for a society to have a middle class. This means we need to strengthen unions as well as bring back protectionism and institute more serious restrictions on immigration.

    3. Re your first point: though I find much of what Charles Murray says repugnant, he does make the argument that not everyone is meant for college, despite the strong pressure for every American to get a college degree. I don’t mean this in any pejorative sense: we’ve conflated having a college degree with having “value” in a modern economy. The attitude seems to be that without a college degree, one is destined to a life of miserable toil. But I’m a strong believer in the intrinsic worth of making–it’s unfortunate that we tend in American society to denigrate or undermine craft-based trades as lower-class. The skill and complex thought required to build a fine cabinet, or to wire a house, or to fix a motorcycle requires, one could argue, as much or more intelligence as structuring a philosophical argument in writing.

      I believe there’s an intrinsic value in being able to read and write critically. But I also wonder if there should be a wider variety of options for those students who either cannot write well (and never will) or who do not have a desire to write well. High school nowadays skews toward the humanities and the sciences, and we abandoned craft-based disciplines years ago. Should these kinds of things be reintroduced into our educational system?

      1. You are right. People learn things that interest them. Wouldn’t it make sense to stop trying to teach subjects having a zero interest level?

        Adding value to a kids life should really not be this hard. But we do need to get beyond our tired curriculum.

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