Sabotage of a generation

Everything in this heartbreaking article rings bell after bell, from the perspective of more than forty years on both sides of college and graduate classrooms.  And from my desk, critiquing student written work.  I think we will find the intellectual damage done to current American students by the testing/NCLB disaster is comparable to the effect of poisoning previous generations with leaded gasoline.  Well, at least it doesn’t cause violent crime.

This outcome is the predictable offspring of  a  marriage of two profound misapprehensions.  The first is a desperate, but doomed, hope that something as complicated and personal as education can be fixed by a piece of bureaucratic, mechanistic administrative machinery.  Really helping students learn is complicated, hard to do, and probably expensive; surely there’s some automatic process we can wind up and let loose that operates without anyone having to really think about what it is doing! The second is the absurd imperialism of a crippled, myopic economics that (i) infers, from the undeniable effects of money (and firing-threat) incentives in some contexts, that people can be either bribed or threatened to do anything, and (ii) that the only reality is what can be easily measured, whether by prices in markets or bubble short answer tests.

As readers of my other posts are aware, I am far from hiding behind the preparation problem as an excuse not to attend to our own (college) practice.  But two things can true at the same time.  There is no way four years of college can do what we traditionally expect of it, and also make up the unfinished work being passed to us.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

28 thoughts on “Sabotage of a generation”

  1. The roving hordes of business school graduates and their inbred billionaire masters found a part of American life that they had not yet ruined and performed their usual magic. Thank goodness we have an independent media to cheer them on.

    1. “The roving hordes of business school graduates and their inbred billionaire masters found a part of American life that they had not yet ruined”
      “The second is the absurd imperialism of a crippled, myopic economics.”

      I would expect public education to be consonant with, if not actually deliver instruction in the state religion.

      Anything that is, can be bought and sold.
      Anything that cannot be bought and sold is not.
      Anything that can be bought and sold, must be bought and sold.

      This is the whole of the new Law and the new Prophets.
      The rest is commentary.

  2. Well, whatever the problem really IS with education in the US, I’m sure privatization, more budget cuts, more “competitive” grants, and busting teacher unions will fix it.

    More seriously, the main problem for education in this country is that we’re all too willing to let millions of families wallow in poverty in the name of holding them hostage to some noble-sounding, but essentially nebulous-in-modern-post-industrial-society sense of personal responsibility. While we’re “teaching adults responsibility,” their children suffer from exactly the sort of things that leave students unprepared.

    Our schools can do a darn good job of educating them. But to expect them to also play social worker, nurse, counselor, employment adviser, financial skills trainers, etc, while operating a food bank, free clinic, and drop-in center — and succeed at doing all the things that society has placed on either the school or the parents, because we have utterly irresponsible politicians — is, well, expecting a bit much.

    Conservatives have killed off vast swathes of public services, the demands for which end up someplace, the only place with it’s doors open, the school. That doesn’t even include services to support families — remember that cute “family values” slogan? — like income support, free healthcare, long term parental leave, child care, playgrounds and children’s arts and media enrichment programs, etc. No, one party only cares about you until you born, then is joined by the other party in trying to figure out how to imprison you,,,whoops, but MAYBE we had a break in that today, we’ll see.

    It’d be a good time to deschedule marijuana and henceforth treat it like beer, while releasing all non-violent offenders still serving sentences now as time served. Tax it like Colorado will do and give the funds to education. Then go and start finding ways to restore the massive cuts in education and see if, REALLY!, we can have some material show of support for family values, instead of just lip service by venal politicians.

    1. Based on many lengthy conversations with teachers in my family, although some of your diagnoses aren’t wrong, per se, I think the college prep shortfall is much more a problem of making the curriculum at the decent-to-good K-12 schools into a joke. This is partly top-down, with curriculum mandates driven by testing requirements and whatever else is trendy, and partly bottom-up, with just enough parents demanding undeservedly high grades for their children to drive grade inflation while administrators often don’t support teachers who don’t want to give in.

  3. Bernstein: “.. at the time of the teachers’ strike last fall, 160 Chicago public schools had no libraries.” We need a different word than school for such establishments. Feedlot perhaps?

  4. I was with Bernstein until he started to attack the attackers of schools of education. One’s enemies’ enemies are not always one’s friends. Maybe schools of education produce useful research: I don’t know. But I have heard of reams of studies concluding that they are not a very good way to teach teachers.

    1. I have been impressed by the Bank Street School of Education. My son was in their demo school, clearly a special place. My daughter had one of their graduates for fourth grade in the local public school. Watching her left me believing that there is a real body of knowledge called “Elementary Education” which she knew and which I did not.

  5. With all due respect this situation didn’t just happen: it was a thoroughly thought-out plan executed over 30 years by people with a lot of money, forward planning skills, and an agenda. Although we know what the motivations of the foot soldiers who assisted them were (remove societal counterweights to extreme fundamentalist Christianity) the motives of those who funded/fund the process & get the laws written is more obscure [1]. But there was clearly long-term and clever planning involved – embedding 15-year time bombs in NCLB was well-done but convincing Teddy Kennedy to sponsor it was masterful. Lets not misunderestimate what we are facing here.


    [1] I’d go with a mixture of true-belief libertarianism and a desire to bring back the Gilded Age an it’s extreme inequality, myself. But it doesn’t really matter; only the observable actions and outcomes are important.

    1. I was secretary of the board of a charter school in 2003. Once we absorbed the practical implications of what the NCLB actually meant to do (and boy has it!), that destroyed all of my respect for Edward Kennedy and his ilk. The intent is right there in the specified algorithms. Coincidently, there was the small matter of a fraudulent, stupid war in that same time frame. I do believe some otherwise worthy Democratic partisans not far removed from these words were enthusiastic, even near blood-thirsty supporters. That’s when I became an unreconstructed leftist.

      I completely agree with you Cranky on what a gloriously executed con this has all been. Very well done.

  6. you wrote: Really helping students learn is complicated, hard to do, and probably expensive; surely there’s some automatic process we can wind up and let loose that operates without anyone having to really think about what it is doing!

    YES. and the same thing is true about developing good software. you mean we can’t design a “wizard” to just generate a bunch of code?

    There are many, many important tasks that have to be performed by highly trained humans, and I’m not talking about brain surgery. I think this is one of the fallacies of technological advancement. We CAN automate lots of things but we will later regret it in many cases. It’s going to take a while to figure out what technology is good at and what it fails at. I hope we have the time…

  7. What is the empirical evidence that the NCLB generation is less prepared than prior generations for the rigors of a college education? I instinctively from complaints like these, because generational complaints about “the kids these days” are one of the few constants in life. I am certainly prepared to believe that NCLB is ineffective (or even harmful), but I’d want to ensure that such a claim is accurate with more than just anecdotes.

    The WaPo piece – as well as this post – is long on emotion but short on real proof. I assume that proof exists – can someone point me to it?

    1. Why do you have a prior either way on this question? Do you know any college faculty who report an increase in the competence of their students over time? My judgment is so universal among my colleagues that it is bromidic in commonroom schmoose. I’d be happy to see a rigorous survey of faculty confirming (or disproving)this proposition, but I’m reasonably confident of my own professional judgment and my sample size is in the thousands. I have a zillion anecdotes about stuff I used to be able to count on as being part of college students’ cultural and intellectual toolkit that is missing now, and I don’t mean they don’t know who the Beatles were.
      I do not recall complaints about students being ‘less prepared than they used to be’ being common among my older colleagues when I started in this business. Now it’s all over the place.

      1. Educational outcomes seem to have improved since NCLB was enacted, and were improving even before then. (Source.) That’s not dispositive of the issue — it could be, for example, that college-bound kids are less competent even though averages are rising, or you could imagine a bunch of other hypothetical scenarios. But it is some evidence that things haven’t gotten dramatically worse.

        1. Well, if the tests are being stupefied and more memorization-oriented, and scores are going up, and graduation requirements are being eased up, and more kids are graduating, I don’t think I’d call that “improved educational outcomes.”

          1. And if the tests are all being made harder and more sophisticated, then it’s great. Why do you have a prior either way on this question?

      2. The deeply held belief that the current generation does not meet the standards of the ones that came before it extends far beyond both academia and the current generation. In many instances it is so obviously disproved that I never take any such claims at face value without some sort of empirical backing. If the best evidence you have is, “My judgment is so universal among my colleagues that it is bromidic in commonroom schmoose,” then I consider this nothing more than speculation.

        Do you have anything beyond that?

        1. Well, I give similar assignments, including early in the semester, to ones I used a decade (or two) ago and students crash and burn on them where they used to do well. I’ve always had a few students who don’t write well, but now I have many who write so badly they really don’t know what they’ve said. I also have that bromidic agreement from my colleagues. There’s also the rapidly increasing fraction who haven’t made a drawing or a painting, or learned an instrument, or had any art course in all of K-12, because those courses have been dropped from school curricula as frills.

          Could you share a few of those “many instances” of refutation? I’m not looking for anecdotes about this or that amazing school, or the student who won the science fair, but evidence about the cohort as a whole.

          1. The most obvious is that every generation of journalists, covering pretty much every sport, insists that the players when they were young were better than the ones they are currently forced to write about. And in every instance it’s pure tripe.

      3. Michael, I haven’t an opinion on your last paragraph based on any personal experience. However, I would point out that in every field of endeavor, that complaint of “less prepared than they used to be” is commonplace.

        In 1954 young Willie Mays won the National League MVP award, having hit a league-leading .345. Ty Cobb had always been critical of the younger generation of players, frequently complaining that they were not as well prepared mentally or physically as the players of his generation. Cobb was asked by a reporter to guess how well he would do in the modern game. Cobb said he figured he’d hit about .320. The reporter said “but Mays hit .345.”

        “Yeah,” Cobb replied, “but I’m 67 years old.”

        When I started college in 1959 my teachers were often heard to express their disappointment in the lack of preparation of the incoming students, as compared to years gone by. This was in an “elite” Ivy League school where over 50% of the incoming freshmen were graduates of private prep schools.

        My guess is that when Aristotle founded his Lyceum, he complained that the new students weren’t as well prepared as hit peers at Plato’s Academy.

        Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

    2. Still rather anecdotal, but it’s necessity is so obvious I’d say it’s a recognizable, if not quantifiable trend, which is the limited attention span of college students these days and the need for instructors to dumb down lessons to keep what little of it they can find. As a student returning to higher ed, it was obvious in the classrooms around me. Students come to discussion in no way prepared to say much to indicate they’d actually read the readings.

      As a teaching assistant, I now have the enjoyable job of dealing with this problem myself. It’s noticeably worse over the ~10 years since I was an undergrad. Students believe you’re responsible for entertaining them enough to keep them interested, when actually reading the readings should have provided them with more than enough entertaining comments and observations for them to make. I can teach, but they still have to crack the books, even if it’s two minutes or 140 characters at a time.

      1. Students come to discussion in no way prepared to say much to indicate they’d actually read the readings.

        This in no way distinguishes the situation from when I was first an undergraduate in the mid 1980s.

        1. J. Michael,
          Not a survey or statistical quantification, but significant evidence nonetheless. Maybe I was just lucky as an undergrad in terms of the discussion sections I drew and most of the rest sucked. IDK. Ten years difference was the difference between me and 3 or 4 others having a somewhat informed discussion and one or two students desperately trying to enliven things enough to get their classmates out of the mud.

          This was in connection with taking, then teaching essentially the same course at the same institution, except the books were intentionally selected to not be as challenging in one case, and general observations in my dept over time. The actual numbers of pages read was down in general, as it’s now a topic of controversy in the dept whether there should be one serious monograph on the list — or none, because why bother if hardly anyone reads it. Pages written are now half of that in the past, but it’s hard to complain about that when most of the writing seems to have come from extensive practice on social media, not something with much substance.

          There were always unprepared students. Now they are nearly ubiquitous and, unlike in the past, most seem to think exercising a minimum level of expertise in basic skills isn’t worth the trouble to try, because, hey, they’ve got points to spare when you remind them about that in the syllabus and in early assignments as you move on with more closely engaging the material. Then they complain about grades…must be bad at math, too, but fortunately that’s someone else’s dept.

          We also weren’t so highly rated as a party school then, either. And it’s not the weed, I know, it’s the booze, to keep this blogo-topical. We’d probably be better academically off if we were closer to the lines of supply…

    3. I think it’s fine to ask for “evidence” on topics susceptible to it. Which this may not be.

      But on the other hand, how could it possibly be true that it could be better for students to fill in Scantron sheets than to learn to write?

      If any of you skeptics here think that’s *even remotely possible,* then let’s hear *your* argument. And remember — someone taught you how to argue and write. Lots of people did. So don’t feel like it’s something you invented.

      1. Of course I agree that as between the scenarios (A) a student writes an essay and gets it back carefully and thoughtfully redlined, and (B) the student fills out a Scantron sheet, scenario (A) is obviously better. But (A) may not happen all that much. I attended a public high school in the suburbs that is reasonably well thought of, where I wrote in total a few pages every month, and I didn’t get much back in terms of markup. The teachers didn’t get much in the way of oversight, either: if a teacher chose not to require papers, or required them but didn’t carefully grade them, nothing would happen. Were the teachers layabouts? No, most did the best they could. But marking up student papers is hard work, and high school teachers with 160+ student classloads are going to face limits as to what they can reasonably do. In the real world, using multiple choice testing to keep students accountable and to monitor their progress or lack thereof has real value. NCLB may not strike the balance correctly, but it might have been an improvement on what came before.

          1. Real estate pricing is all about perceptions of value.

            NCLB is all about perceptions of educational success.

            Sometimes they are congruent with the real world and sometimes they represent fabulous concoctions. The more important the test becomes, the more teaching is oriented solely around the test in a world of dwindling educational resources.

            And people wonder why kids can’t think, let along write those thoughts down in useful fashion. “But they all tested well.” So did all those kids I discussed earlier, many of them from “good schools,” because they’re the preponderance of those lucky enough to be admitted here to the U.

            And good point in the importance of feedback. Without it, most students are clueless about why their grades are so bad. You can only do so much (our classload as teaching assistants is typically 75), so I concentrate doing it in the first part of the semester. It helps some, but most don’t worry about anything not marked up — and they often should, especially if they didn’t like the grade received. Yet I rarely get folks coming to even ask about grades during office hours. All I can say is that a generation too apathetic to complain if they just _think_ they have been unfairly treated is a generation that won’t have much say in its future.

  8. Michael

    I am the author of the piece you are citing. It was written in the Fall of 2012 at the request of Aaron Barlow, the faculty editor of Academe. When people began requesting permission to reprint or crosspost it (which was allowed with credit and a link to the original), it wound up on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog on February 9, where it proceeded to quickly go viral. By the time it died out, it had been Liked on Facebook more than 104K times, and widely redistributed.

    For some reason, someone at the Post (and as of now neither Valerie nor I know who or why) decided to feature it on the Post’s Facebook page on Wednesday Aug 7 where it promptly again went viral. I decided that I needed to provide an update, which Valerie posted yesterday, Teacher who left: Why I am returning to school. As you will see, the one key thing that has changed has been my decision to go back into a classroom, even though I am 67, and even though I will be commuting 45 miles each way, and even though I will not be being paid for all of my experience and education.

    The criticisms I raised about educational policy are, however, still valid.

    They are contributing to experienced teachers who could have stayed but are eligible for retirement leaving.

    They serve to discourage some who could be of value even entering the field, particularly as they see how teachers are being targeted in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

    I appreciate the focus you are giving my original piece by linking to it.

    I am linking to the newer one to provide the appropriate context.

    Oh, and by the way – Mark Kleiman and I are old friends from Haverford, and when he did his visiting professor stint at U of Maryland he came out to my AP Govt classes. Say high for me.

  9. The problem with blaming NCLB is that at least two other developments have been occurring in recent decades:

    1) A higher percentage of kids are going to college than before. It is almost definitionally true that some of these kids wouldn’t have met the standards of yesteryear.

    2) What you’re now seeing in college is the first generation of kids brought up with not just TV and videogames, but computers and cell phones and text messaging and the Internet to distract themselves 24/7.

    In the wake of these huge phenomena, it seems odd to blame NCLB for the offense of trying to make sure that kids aren’t completely illiterate.

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