Apologies for the arcane, perhaps even pretentious title of this post, but being a retired English teacher, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to use a line from my favorite Shakespearean play, Hamlet. While the Bard’s work has nothing directly to do with today’s topic, it does relate to its subject: education.
I mentioned earlier that I have seldom agreed with Globe columnist Margaret Wente’s perspective, but her column today, just as her earlier one, speaks real truth in its exploration of causes of public education dysfunction. While obviously not the final truth, it is well worth considering, and I suspect few experienced teachers (other, perhaps, than those currying administrative favour) will disagree with her observations.
For whom the bell curve tolls
Students vary widely in academic ability, but we pretend everyone can be above average
September 6, 2008
Whenever I write about higher education, I get letters like this: "A large percentage of our students come into college woefully unprepared. Close to half of our first-year students in business are unable to maintain a 2.0 average in their first year, the standard required for advancement and graduation. ... A large percentage have poor note-taking skills, below-average reading comprehension skills, and an inability to solve problems and complete projects without being given step-by-step to-do lists."
The letter comes from a teacher at a local community college, where the first-year attrition rate - to say nothing of the costs in money, time and student self-esteem - is depressingly high. We all think we know what's wrong. It's the public education system. They're handing out high-school diplomas to just about anyone who bothers to show up.
But the education system (for all its shortcomings) doesn't really deserve to take the fall. The real problem is the cult of educational romanticism, which holds that students' abilities are far more equal and far more malleable than they really are. Educational romanticism has led us to believe that every student can become at least average, and that the right teaching strategies can close the achievement gap.
Not so, says Charles Murray, author of a provocative new book called Real Education. You may also know him as the much-loathed co-author of The Bell Curve, and stop reading right here. But hang on, because the central truth asserted by this book is one that is self-evident to every teacher (and every student) I have ever met: Ability varies, and it varies a lot.
Most teachers can tell within a week how their students rank in ability. (So can the students.) These rankings barely budge between 8 and 18. Neither do students' test scores, and neither does the spread between highest and lowest. In terms of academic ability, people stay pretty much where they started out, no matter how good the schooling they receive.
No one likes to talk about this fact, because it sounds both elitist and defeatist. So let's talk sports. A few of us are Mats Sundin, and a few of us are so clumsy that we walk into walls. The rest of us are widely distributed in between. Not all the practice in the world will get us into Junior A, because we simply are not Junior A material.
No matter how hard we try, argues Mr. Murray, "some people are just not smart enough to succeed on a conventional academic track." What this means is, we are asking schools to do the impossible. In the real world, even the best schools will always have students who perform below grade level. The ambitious goals we've set for raising academic achievement across the board are unattainable - unless we water down the tests. And the only way to reach a high-school graduation rate of 85 per cent (that's Ontario's ambitious target) is to grant diplomas to kids whose reading and writing skills are barely more than rudimentary.
So don't blame the schools for watering down their diplomas. The system made them do it. That's why a BA is now the entry-level credential for so many jobs, and why a postgraduate degree has become the new BA. It's a sorting mechanism for employers - a crude certificate of cognitive ability.
Educational romanticism does the most damage to kids who are the least able. For students with low levels of ability, toughening the standards (by, say, forcing "applied" students to take more demanding math, as Ontario recently tried to do) doesn't raise their ability. It just dooms them to certain failure. By forcing them to try work they can't do, we've condemned these kids to 12 years of frustration, misery and humiliation. And by forcing them to share classes with kids of much higher ability, we simply reinforce their sense of failure.
"Educational romanticism pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of education achievement at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity," Mr. Murray writes. How do we get out of this? Restructure the curriculum for vocational students in a way that prepares them for the world of work and channels their abilities toward work they can succeed at.
Educational romanticism has also led us to believe that a BA is a ticket to success - and that many, maybe most, kids should be capable of getting one. Both beliefs are wrong. The job market is exploding for skilled technicians of all kinds, in health care, entertainment, hospitality, and so on. Good community colleges and trade schools - not more second-rate universities - is where we should be investing. Good electricians are harder to find than good lawyers, and not badly paid. But middle-class kids and their parents have been brainwashed into thinking that, without a BA, they're doomed. Even guidance counsellors now see their role as encouraging everyone to go on to higher education. Too many of them don't talk straight with their students about their futures - and if they do, the parents protest.
There's more than one reason why so many kids arrive at business college or university so woefully unprepared. Maybe their high schools really did do a lousy job. But maybe their abilities are marginal. Maybe, no matter how hard they try, they can't do the work.
If you read The Globe and Mail, I guarantee that you are comfortably on the right side of the bell curve. (Don't be flattered. You did nothing to earn it.) You take your reading and calculating skills for granted. All your closest friends are more or less like you, and you probably have no idea what it means to be of average or below-average ability. Real Education might convince you that educational romanticism is the worst thing that ever happened to struggling kids. We don't live in Lake Wobegon after all. And the truth is, we never did.