The other Crisis in American Education

DANIEL J. SINGAL

A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre public educational system-the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.


Two crises are stalking American education. Each poses a major threat to the nation's future. The two are very different in character and will require separate strategies if we wish to solve them; yet to date, almost without exception, those concerned with restoring excellence to our schools have lumped them together.

The first crisis, which centers on disadvantaged minority children attending inner-city schools, has received considerable attention, as well it should. Put simply, it involves students whose habitat makes it very difficult for them to learn. The key issues are more social than educational. These children clearly need dedicated teachers and a sound curriculum, the two staples of a quality school, but the fact remains that most of them will not make significant progress until they also have decent housing, a better diet, and a safer environment in which to live.

The second crisis, in contrast, is far more academic than social and to a surprising extent invisible. It involves approximately half the country's student population — the group that educators refer to as “college-bound.” Although the overwhelming majority of these students attend suburban schools, a fair number can be found in big-city or consolidated rural districts, or in independent or parochial schools. Beginning in the mid-1970s these students have been entering college so badly prepared that they have performed far below potential, often to the point of functional disability. We tend to assume that with their high aptitude for learning, they should be able to fend for themselves. However, the experience of the past fifteen years has proved decisively that they can't.

For most people, any mention of the problems of American education almost immediately conjures up an image of the wretched conditions in the stereotypical urban ghetto school. But can we really explain the sharp decline in college-entrance-exam scores by pointing to the inner cities, where only a tiny fraction of students even take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT? Do so many freshmen entering prestigious institutions like Harvard and Berkeley display a limited mastery of basic historical facts, not to mention of their own language, because they come from crime-ridden neighborhoods or school districts with no tax base?

If one looks at the aggregate statistics of American education from this perspective, the full dimensions of this other crisis become strikingly apparent. Consider the recent history of the Stanford Achievement Test, which has long served as one of the main instruments for measuring pupil progress in our schools. According to Herbert Rudman, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University and a co-author of the test for more than three decades, from the 1920s to the late 1960s American children taking the Stanford made significant gains in their test performance. They made so much progress, in fact, that as the test was revised each decade, the level of difficulty of the questions was increased substantially, reflecting the increasing level of challenge of the instructional materials being used in the schools.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, however, we managed to squander the better part of that progress, with the greatest losses coming in the high schools. During the past few years the Stanford and other test results have shown some improvement in math and science, and in language skills at the elementary school level. But there has been little or no movement in the verbal areas among junior high and high school students, and seasoned test interpreters have also seen a tendency for the gains made in the early years of school to wash out as the child becomes older. In effect, the test numbers substantiate what the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded — quoting the education analyst Paul Copperman — in 1983 in A Nation at Risk: “Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”

The blame for this wholesale decline in test scores is often put on a throng of underachieving minority students thought to have been pulling down national test averages, but in fact just the opposite is true. To be sure, it is possible to attribute much of the relatively small initial drop in SAT scores, from 1963 to 1970, to the fact that blacks and other minorities began taking the test in larger numbers during those years, but since then the composition of the test population has not changed in any way that would dramatically affect test scores. Most important, blacks have made gradual but significant gains in the past two decades, as measured by school achievement tests like the Stanford and by college-entrance exams. Although their average scores still fall substantially below those of whites, their combined (verbal and math) SAT scores rose by 49 points during the 1980s alone.

“Perhaps the most untold story of American education in the past few years is the achievement of black students,” Gregory R. Anrig, the president of the Educational Testing Service, declares. “The hard data are encouraging.” The sad irony, of course, is that this progress came at a time when the Reagan Administration was proposing drastic cuts in the amount of federal scholarship aid available to students from low-income families, most likely leading many young blacks to believe that a college education was not within their reach.

While students in the bottom quartile have shown slow but steady improvement since the 1960s, average test scores have nonetheless gone down, primarily because of the performance of those in the top quartile. This “highest cohort of achievers,” Rudman writes, has shown “the greatest declines across a variety of subjects as well as across age-level groups.” Analysts have also found “a substantial drop among those children in the middle range of achievement,” he continues, “but less loss and some modest gains at the lower levels.” In other words, our brightest youngsters, those most likely to be headed for selective colleges, have suffered the most dramatic setbacks over the past two decades — a fact with grave implications for our ability to compete with other nations in the future. If this is true — and abundant evidence exists to suggest that it is — then we indeed have a second major crisis in our education system.

Sixty points lost on the SAT

Look at what has happened on the SAT, a test that retains its well-deserved status as the most important educational measuring device in America. Despite the test's many critics, the number of colleges relying on the SAT keeps increasing, because it provides such an accurate gauge of the basic skills needed for college-level work, among them reading comprehension, vocabulary, and the ability to reason with mathematical concepts. The SAT also has the virtue of having a rock-steady scoring system: it is calibrated, by the College Board, so that a score earned in 1991 will represent almost exactly the same level of performance as it did in, say, 1961. Thus, by tracking the percentage of students coming in above the benchmark of 600 on the College Board scale (which runs from 200 to 800), one can get a good sense of how the country's most capable students have fared over the years.

The news is not encouraging. In 1972, of the high school seniors taking the SAT 11.4 percent had verbal scores over 600; by 1983 the number had dropped to 6.9 percent, and, despite modest gains in the mid-1980s, it remains in that disheartening vicinity. That's a decline of nearly 40 percent. The decline since the mid-1960s has probably been closer to 50 percent, but unfortunately the College Board changed its reporting system in 1972, and earlier data isn't available. The math SAT presents a somewhat different story. Though the percentage scoring over 600 dropped from 17.9 in 1972 to 14.4 by 1981, it has climbed back up to 17.9 in 1991. However, an influx of high-scoring Asian-American students (who now make up eight percent of those taking the test, as compared with two percent in 1972) has apparently had much to do with this recent upsurge. To grasp what these national figures really mean, it helps to approach them from the standpoint of the individual student. How, we should ask, would the drop in SAT scores affect a typical top-quartile senior at a well-regarded suburban high school in 1991? To my knowledge, no published studies have addressed this question, but the available information, including my own research, suggests that our hypothetical senior would come in roughly fifty to sixty points lower on the verbal section and twenty-five points lower on the math than he or she would have in 1970.

Consider the trend in average freshman scores at selective colleges. Indeed, perusing a twenty-year-old edition of Barron's Profiles of American Colleges is an experience equivalent to entering a different world, with tuitions much lower and SAT scores much higher than at most schools today. In 1970 students arriving at top-ranked institutions like Columbia College, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, and Pomona College posted average verbal SATs from 670 to 695; by the mid-1980s the scores ranged from 620 to 640, and they have stayed roughly in that neighborhood ever since. The same pattern appears at colleges a notch or two lower in the academic hierarchy. To take a few examples from different geographic areas, from 1970 to 1987 average verbal scores went from 644 to 570 at Hamilton College, from 607 to 563 at Washington University, from 600 to 560 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and from 560 to 499 at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The point is not that these particular schools have slipped in their relative standings. They all currently receive ratings the same as or higher than those they received twenty years ago from Barron's in terms of competition for admission. One could pick almost any selective institution at random and find the same trend (an exception: the stronger schools in the South, where test scores held steady or rose in the wake of desegregation). Nor can one attribute the drop in scores to a change in the size of the test population or in the percentage of high school seniors taking the SAT (the latter figure has risen significantly only in the past few years, too recently to have affected the 1987 scores). To be sure, an increase in the number of minority students attending these institutions has been a factor, but the basic problem remains: with a 40 percent decline in the proportion of students scoring over 600, there are far fewer high-scoring students to go around.

But do these numbers matter? Does a loss of sixty points on the verbal SAT translate into a significant difference in a student's educational experience at college? The testimony of those who teach at the college level suggests that the answer is yes. When a national poll in 1989 asked professors whether they thought undergraduates were “seriously underprepared in basic skills,” 75 percent said yes and only 15 percent said no. The same poll asked whether institutions of higher learning were spending “too much time and money teaching students what they should have learned in high school.” Sixty-eight percent said yes. Professors feel like this, I should add, not because they are old scolds given to grousing about students but because their work brings them into daily contact with the manifold ways in which the American education system has failed these young people.

Those who tend to dismiss those sixty lost SAT points as insignificant haven't seen a college term paper lately. It's not that freshmen in 1991 are unable to read or write. Most of them possess what the National Assessment of Educational Progress calls “satisfactory” skills in this area. But is that enough for college? Do they have sufficient command of the English language to comprehend a college-level text, think through a complex issue, or express a reasonably sophisticated argument on paper? Those of us who were teaching in the early 1970s can attest that the overwhelming majority of freshmen at the more selective colleges arrived with such “advanced” skills. Now only a handful come so equipped.

The context of ignorance

Take reading, for example. “While the nation's students have the skills to derive a surface understanding of what they read,” the NAEP recently reported, “they have difficulty when asked to defend or elaborate upon this surface understanding.” That's what most college faculty would say. Emilia da Costa, a Latin America specialist who has taught at Yale for the past eighteen years, estimates that whereas 70 percent of her students can pick out the general theme of an essay or a book, only 25 percent come away with in-depth comprehension of what they read. David Samson, a former lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, likewise observes, “No one reads for nuance. They pay no attention to detail.” My own experience confirms this. Countless times I have been amazed at how little students have managed to glean from a book I know they have read, to the point where they are often unable to recall the names of prominently mentioned figures. So much escapes them; even those of above-average ability absorb no more than a dusting of detail from a printed text. And without such detailed information it's impossible for them to gain a real understanding of what the author is saying.

Equally distressing is the rate at which today's students read. A friend of mine at the University of Michigan remembers that in the 1960s the normal assignment in his courses was one book a week. Now he allows two to three weeks for each title. He has also reluctantly had to adjust the level of difficulty of his assignments: even a journalist like Walter Lippmann is too hard for most freshmen and sophomores these days, he finds. Again, this is typical. Twelve to fifteen books over a fifteen-week semester used to be the rule of thumb at selective colleges. Today it is six to eight books, and they had better be short texts, written in relatively simple English.

As one might expect, students who don't read at an advanced level can't write well either. Their knowledge of grammar is not bad, according to Richard Marius, the director of the expository writing program at Harvard, but “the number of words available to express their thoughts is very, very limited, and the forms by which they express themselves are also very limited.” The average incoming Harvard student, he observes, has a “utilitarian command of language” resulting in sentences that follow a simple subject-predicate, subject-predicate format with little variation or richness of verbal expression. Harvard, of course, gets the cream of the crop. Those of us teaching at lesser institutions would be happy with utilitarian but serviceable prose from our freshmen. More often we get mangled sentences, essays composed without the slightest sense of paragraphing, and writing that can't sustain a thought for more than half a page.

Along with this impoverishment of language comes a downturn in reasoning skills. Da Costa laments that students are no longer trained in logical analysis, and consequently have difficulty using evidence to reach a conclusion. R. Jackson Wilson finds this to be the greatest change he has observed during a quarter century of teaching history at Smith College. “Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing attitudes toward things rather than analyzing,” he says. “They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions.” Again, these complaints are amply substantiated by data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On one test of analytic writing measuring “the ability to provide evidence, reason logically, and make a well-developed point,” only four tenths of one percent of eleventh graders performed at the “elaborated” (what I believe should be considered college-freshman) level.

Finally, no account of the present condition of college students would be complete without mention of the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic abound — and they are probably all true. I will never forget two unusually capable juniors, one of whom was a star political-science major, who came to my office a few years ago to ask what was this thing called the New Deal. I had made reference to it during a lecture on the assumption that everyone in the class would be well acquainted with Franklin Roosevelt's domestic program, but I was wrong: the two students had checked with their friends, and none of them had heard of the New Deal either. Another junior recently asked me to help him pick a twentieth-century American novelist on whom to write a term paper. He had heard vaguely of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but did not recognize the names of Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Saul Bellow.

Indeed, one can't assume that college students know anything anymore. Paula Fass, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, remains astonished that sophomores and juniors in her upper-level course on American social history are often unable to differentiate between the American Revolution and the Civil War, but rather see them as two big events that happened way back in the past. Alan Heimert, a veteran member of the Harvard English department, encounters the same mushy grasp of historical knowledge and blames it on the “trendy social-studies curriculum” now taught in most high schools which covers broad thematic topics rather than history. “They are aware that someone oppressed someone else,” he says with only slight exaggeration, “but they aren't sure exactly what took place and they have no idea of the order in which it happened.”

Though not always recognized, a direct connection exists between this deficit in factual knowledge and the decline in verbal skills. Most reading, after all, is at bottom a form of information processing in which the mind selects what it wants to know from the printed page and files it away for future use. In conducting that operation of selecting, interpreting, and storing information, the reader constantly relies on his or her previous stock of knowledge as a vital frame of reference. No matter how fascinating or valuable a new detail might be, a person finds it almost impossible to hold in memory and have available for retrieval unless it can be placed in some kind of larger context. Providing that basic intellectual scaffolding used to be a major function of a good high school education. Year-long survey courses in history and literature, covering the United States, Europe, and the world, were designed to ensure that college-bound students would have the necessary background to make sense of the new subject matter they would encounter in college. Yet few high schools today teach that kind of curriculum.

Little wonder that so many students experience great difficulty in absorbing detail; since they have no context in which to fit what they read, it quickly flows out of their minds. Unable to retain much, they find little profit in reading, which leads them to read less, which in turn makes it harder for them to improve their reading skills.

One often hears this generation accused of laziness. They don't perform well in school or college or later on the job, it is said, because they lack motivation. I don't happen to subscribe to that theory. The percentage of students who are truly lazy — that is, who simply have an aversion to work — is probably no greater today than it has been in the past. The real problem, I'm convinced, is that college-bound youngsters over the past two decades have not received the quality education they deserve. As R. Jackson Wilson observes of his students at Smith, this generation is typically “good-spirited, refreshingly uncowed by teachers' authority, and very willing to work.” They enter college with high ambitions, only to find those ambitions dashed in many cases by inadequate skills and knowledge. The normal activities required to earn a bachelor's degree — reading, writing, researching, and reasoning — are so difficult for them that a large number (I would guess a majority at most schools) simply give up in frustration. Some actually leave; the rest go through the motions, learning and contributing little, until it's time to pick up their diplomas. We rightly worry about the nation's high school dropouts. Perhaps we should worry as well about these silent college “dropouts.”

How good schools buck the trend

What has caused this great decline in our schools? The multitude of reports that now fill the library shelves tend to designate “social factors” as the prime culprit. Television usually heads the list, followed by rock music, the influence of adolescent peer groups, the increase in both single-parent families and households where both parents work, and even faulty nutrition.

Those who attribute the loss of academic performance to social factors don't take account of the small number of high schools around the country that have managed to escape the downturn. Some are posh private academies; a few are located in blue-collar neighborhoods. What they have in common is a pattern of stable or even rising test scores at a time when virtually all the schools around them experienced sharp declines. There is no indication that the children attending these exceptional schools watched significantly fewer hours of television, listened to less heavy-metal music, were less likely to have working mothers, or ate fewer Big Macs than other children. Rather, they appear to have had the good fortune to go to schools that were intent on steering a steady course in a time of rapid change, thus countering the potentially negative impact of various social factors.

It would seem obvious good sense to look closely at this select group of schools to determine what they have been doing right, but as far as I can determine this has been done in only two national studies. The better one was issued by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in 1978, under the somewhat pedestrian title Guidelines for Improving SAT Scores. Now out of print and hard to find, it contains one of the most perceptive diagnoses available of the underlying malady in our schools.

The report identifies one main characteristic that successful schools have shared—the belief that academics must invariably receive priority over every other activity. “The difference comes,” we are told, “from a singular commitment to academic achievement for the college-bound student.” These schools did not ignore the other dimensions of student life. By and large, the NASSP found, schools that maintained excellence in academics sought to be excellent in everything else they did, they “proved to be apt jugglers, keeping all important balls in the air.” But academic work came first.

Two other factors help account for the prowess of these schools in holding the line against deterioration. The first is a dogged reliance on a traditional liberal-arts curriculum. In an era of mini-courses and electives, the tiny group of high schools that kept test scores and achievement high continued to require year-long courses in literature and to encourage enrollment in rigorous math classes, including geometry and advanced algebra. Though the learning environment in those schools was often “broad and imaginative,” in the words of the NASSP, fundamentals such as English grammar and vocabulary received heavy stress. The other key factor in preserving academic quality was the practice of grouping students by ability in as many subjects as possible The contrast was stark: schools that had “severely declining test scores” had “moved determinedly toward heterogeneous grouping” (that is, mixed students of differing ability levels in the same classes), while the “schools who have maintained good SAT scores” tended “to prefer homogeneous grouping.”

If attaining educational excellence is this simple, why have these high-quality schools become so rare? The answer lies in the cultural ferment of the 1960s.

The incubus of the sixties

In every conceivable fashion the reigning ethos of those times was hostile to excellence in education. Individual achievement fell under intense suspicion, as did attempts to maintain standards. Discriminating among students on the basis of ability or performance was branded “elitist.” Educational gurus of the day called for essentially nonacademic schools, whose main purpose would be to build habits of social cooperation and equality rather than to train the mind. A good education, it was said, maximized the child's innate spontaneity, creativity, and affection for others. To the extent that logic and acquired knowledge interfered with that process, they were devalued.

This populist tidal wave receded by the late 1970s, but the mediocrity it left in its wake remains. The extent of the devastation has varied by subject area: math and the natural sciences, which continue to be blessed with relatively widespread agreement on what should be taught, have escaped the worst damage (though test scores in these areas still fall below average in comparisons with scores in other industrialized nations), while English and history now lie in ruins in all too many schools. The latter, of course, are the disciplines primarily responsible for inculcating verbal skills and for supplying the broad framework of knowledge that students need for success in college. Yet it is precisely in these areas that the spirit of the sixties remains most evident, hovering over the high schools and junior highs like a ghost.

Consider the teaching of English. The Great Books, of course, are out of fashion. A few get assigned as a token gesture, but are rarely set in chronological order. The results of a questionnaire I recently distributed at Hobart and William Smith Colleges suggest that less than a quarter of the college-bound population now gets a real year-long survey of American literature, with probably no more than 15 percent taking such a course in British or European literature. Instead, students all too often are given works that, as the English department at one highly ranked independent school puts it, are “age-appropriate” and “reflect [a] concern for social pluralism.” “Age-appropriate” means giving students assignments “that reflect their interests as adolescents, that they can read without constant recourse to a dictionary, and from which they can take whatever they are inspired to take.”

Nor are they asked to read much. Most ninth- and tenth-grade English reading lists are limited to four or five titles a year. According to Arthur N. Applebee, the director of the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning, the typical college-bound high school student reads only sixty-five pages a week (even with Advanced Placement courses factored in), or less than ten pages a night. A check of the typical high school curriculum would disclose that plays are favorite choices these days (they tend to be much shorter than novels and make easier reading), along with personal memoirs. The rich diet of fiction and poetry that used to be served up — Dickens, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Thoreau, Dickinson, Milton, Melville, and Steinbeck — is increasingly hard to find.

These changes in the teaching of literature matter greatly because reading is the primary vehicle by which students absorb the rhythms and patterns of language. The more a person encounters sophisticated prose, the more he or she will pick up varied sentence structure, vocabulary in context, and even spelling, as well as advanced descriptive techniques and narrative strategies. Feed a student the literary equivalent of junk food and you will get an impoverished command of English, which is what we too often see in the current crop of college freshmen. And yet, because most new teachers these days are themselves the product of this new English curriculum, the trend continues to run the wrong way.

The rest of the English curriculum also reflects the impact of the sixties. If the reports I get from my students are accurate, it would appear that formal drills on grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and diction are infrequent these days. Teachers may toss an occasional drill into the schedule to keep parents satisfied, but the assumption is that students will absorb these things automatically from their reading. Given what students currently read, however, that's a dubious assumption. As for writing, when it is assigned (there seems to be wide variation among schools on this), it tends to take the form of “personal expression”—with assignments calling for first-person narratives that describe what the student has seen, felt, or experienced. Essays in which the writer marshals evidence to support a coherent, logical argument are all too rare. Since that kind of exercise might dampen creativity, it must be minimized. The outcome is utterly predictable. “Analytic writing was difficult for students in all grades,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress noted in summarizing the results of its various writing tests in 1984, while students “had less difficulty with tasks requiring short responses based on personal experience.”

In sum, this is a generation whose members may be better equipped to track the progress of their souls in diaries than any group of Americans since the Puritans. But as for writing papers in college, or later producing the sorts of documents that get the world's work done, that's another story. In contrast, a survey conducted by the Educational Testing Service in the mid-1960s, just before countercultural innovations swept away the old curriculum, discovered that over twice as many high school students of that era said that they “frequently” wrote papers criticizing the literary works they were studying (a valuable pedagogic strategy because it forces the student to become a much closer reader) as said that they “frequently” wrote papers based on personal experience.

The shock of college-level demands

The same tendency appears in other key subjects. Students headed for college used to get a solid grasp of both American and European history at the high school level. Now, as most people are aware, they pass through an array of social-studies courses designed to impress upon them the central values of the sixties, including concern for the natural environment, respect for people of different racial and ethnic groups, and women's rights. These values are important and should certainly be included in the curriculum. But teaching them in such a superficial manner, devoid of any historical context, simply doesn't work—as the alarming increase in racist and sexist incidents that has plagued college campuses in the past few years would suggest. Above all, this spotty social-studies approach deprives students of that vital base of in-depth knowledge they must have to succeed as undergraduates.

Accompanying this pervasive dumbing-down of the curriculum has been a wholesale change in school philosophy. In place of “stretching” students, the key objective in previous eras, the goal has become not to “stress” them. One hears again and again that kids growing up “need time to smell the roses.” (That they are more likely to spend their free hours in front of a television or cruising a shopping mall seems never to be considered.) Placing serious academic demands on them, it is thought, might impede their natural development and perhaps even render them neurotic. But the stress they avoid in high school often comes back to haunt them in college. An extensive survey of college freshmen recently found that an increasing number say they are “overwhelmed by all I have to do.” “We have very high suicide rates among college students now,” the survey's director, Alexander Astin, says. This should come as no surprise: having had little previous experience with stress, students are not well equipped to face the normal and necessary pressures of either college or the “real world.”

Perhaps most crucial, the sixties mentality, with its strong animus against what it defines as “elitism,” has shifted the locus of concern in American education from high to low achievers. All over the country educators today typically judge themselves by how well they can reach the least-able student in the system, the slowest one in the class. Programs to help the culturally disadvantaged and the learning-disabled have proliferated, while those for the gifted receive no more than token interest.

The prevailing ideology holds that it is much better to give up the prospect of excellence than to take the chance of injuring any student's self-esteem. Instead of trying to spur children on to set high standards for themselves, teachers invest their energies in making sure that slow learners do not come to think of themselves as failures. These attitudes have become so ingrained that in conversations with teachers and administrators one often senses a virtual prejudice against bright students. There is at times an underlying feeling, never articulated, that such children start off with too many advantages, and that it would be just as well to hold them back until their less fortunate contemporaries catch up with them. At a minimum, the assumption goes, students of above-average ability will in due course find their way to classy colleges and thus don't need any special consideration from their schools.

In adopting this posture, one must remember, the education profession has simply been carrying out its social mandate. In the wake of the sixties the country seemed to be telling the schools that the prime mission now was to produce equality rather than excellence — to lift up those on the bottom, whether they were there because of race, class, ethnicity, or low ability. As the test scores tell us, the education establishment took this mission to heart. Those in the bottom quartile have shown slow but steady progress, while those in the top quartile have exhibited a sharp decline. Only since the appearance of A Nation at Risk, in 1983, with its warning about “a rising tide of mediocrity” sweeping over the schools, have we started to realize the sizable hidden cost that this currant educational strategy has exacted.

Here it is necessary to be precise: the problem is not the pursuit of equality as such but the bias against excellence that has accompanied it. If anything, the effort to help children who start off life severely handicapped by their socioeconomic circumstances deserves more money and attention than it has received to date. However, that effort need not and must not obscure from view the quite separate problem of restoring academic quality to our schools. If real change is to occur in this regard, we must make clear to teachers and administrators that their mandate has been revised — that we want to move toward social equality AND academic excellence.

Four remedies

Most of the reform proposals currently on the table fail to speak to the other crisis in American education. The majority are designed to raise minimum standards or to cut the high school dropout rate. To the extent that higher-level academics gets mentioned, the discussion usually centers on such topics as critical-thinking and “process writing” skills and cooperative learning groups, as if a few minor adjustments in technique could make a significant difference. Almost no one addresses the fundamental, substantive issues that must be dealt with if we really want to restore excellence to our schools.

If that IS our objective — if we are determined to recover the ground we have lost since 1970 — then we should take the following concrete steps:

1) Dramatically increase the quality and quantity of assigned reading for students at all grade levels. By the senior year of high school, college-bound students should be reading the equivalent of at least twelve books a year FOR CLASS, not counting textbooks, along with six to eight additional books under the rubrics of independent and summer reading. To build up to this amount, the reading load should be adjusted in each of the preceding grades so that students become gradually accustomed to reading more each year. (A good rule of thumb might be to have college-bound students read the same number of books each year as their grade number — eight books in the eighth grade, nine books in the ninth, and so on.) Since reading is a learned skill that can almost invariably be improved by practice, the sheer number of pages counts — the more the better. But there should also be an effort to make the assigned texts as complex and challenging as possible. In the end, nothing builds a true command of language faster than this kind of regimen.

I can already hear a chorus of educators declaring this proposal to be utterly unworkable. “Kids just don't read anymore,” they will say. But the fact is that this sort of reading load, which was standard in the best American schools a quarter century ago, is still standard in some schools today. At McDonogh, an independent school just outside Baltimore that enrolls college-bound students from a wide range of ability levels, fifteen to twenty assigned books a year in English class is not unusual for eleventh and twelfth graders. College admissions officers I know rave about how well prepared McDonogh graduates are and how enthusiastic about learning. The secret, I'm convinced, is in the reading. I see no reason why other schools can't follow McDonogh's example.

2) Bring back required survey courses as the staple of the high school humanities curriculum. There are many different ways to do this. My preference would be to have one year of coordinated courses in history and English focused on the United States, another year focused on Europe, and a third year devoted to the non-European world. Issues of race and gender would naturally arise; it is hard, for instance, to cover American literature without including black and women writers, or to discuss our past without spending considerable time on slavery and segregation. But the main purpose of this curriculum would be to ensure that students enter college with a firm knowledge of how the world they will inherit has developed. 3) Institute a flexible program of ability grouping at both the elementary and secondary school levels. Few issues in education can raise tempers faster than ability grouping, and few are more badly misunderstood. The most common error is to confuse ability grouping with “tracking,” a practice in which students are sorted out at an early age according to their scores on intelligence tests and placed in separate “tracks” for fast, medium, and slow learners, where they remain through high school. Reformers in the 1960s rightly objected to that kind of predestination, pointing out that minority and working-class children were often routinely put in the slow track and thus deprived of the chance to advance themselves through schooling. But unfortunately this assault on tracking soon broadened to include ability grouping, a somewhat murky term that I would contend should be defined as a system for dividing students up on the basis of their actual performance in individual subjects. Under ability grouping a student might start off in the fast group in math but the slow one in English, with the placements changing from year to year depending on his or her progress. The guiding principle is not to give privileged treatment to any one group but rather to provide instruction closely tailored to the learning needs of each child.

Does ability grouping work? The research can supply whatever verdict one favors. Until roughly the mid-1960s most of the studies tended to show that ability grouping was beneficial. Then came the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. For the next two decades researchers found that ability grouping was damaging to most students, especially those at the bottom. The pendulum now seems to be swinging back the other way, with a number of recent investigators suggesting that such grouping does not harm anyone and can be of great value to those of above-average ability, provided they get a special curriculum that is truly challenging rather than simply moving through the standard curriculum at a faster pace. Moreover, these newer studies suggest that ability grouping may actually enhance the achievement of slower learners if they, too, are given a curriculum and teaching style specially designed for them. A unique program at South Mecklenburg High School, in Charlotte, North Carolina, has even found that ability grouping can significantly help those in the middle ability range, though once again the crucial element is instruction tailored to their needs.

Since the research is contradictory, perhaps the best way to decide the issue is to apply common sense. It is obvious that with children of different ability levels in the same classroom, everything will tend toward a level just a notch above the lowest common denominator. Instead of being challenged to develop their talents to the fullest, the most capable students will be forced to work, in effect, at half speed. The math problems set before them will require little effort on their part to solve; the English texts will not stretch them in the least. As a result, these students quickly discover that there is no reason for them ever to extend themselves, that they can coast through school with minimal effort.

Ability grouping continues to face formidable political opposition; last year, regrettably, the education task force of the National Governors' Association took its first major step by denouncing it (though its statement was so brief that one has difficulty telling whether it opposes ability grouping or tracking). Thus compromises may be in order. One possibility is the system of intensive courses adopted by the Waynflete School, in Portland, Maine. An intensive section in English entails a heavier than normal load of reading in more-advanced texts, more-sophisticated writing assignments, and faster-paced instruction. The key is that all students are free to try an intensive section; there is no teacher placement involved. Those doing so run little risk: since the curriculum includes the same core material covered in a regular section, students unable to handle the demands can drop back at any time during the school year. This arrangement has several advantages. One is that the “regular” sections are truly regular, rather than “slow” or “remedial,” so that those enrolled in them feel no stigma whatsoever. Better yet, students who voluntarily contract to be in a special section are especially motivated. Administrators at Waynflete report being pleasantly surprised at the number of kids with middle-range academic ability who perform well in intensive sections because they enjoy the challenge. And of course, this is a reform that can be implemented with relatively little disruption to other programs and at virtually no extra expense. It seems clear that more schools should be trying this system, yet to date, so far as I can tell, it remains unique to Waynflete.

4) Attract more bright college graduates into the teaching profession. It is astonishing, but all too true, that the average verbal SAT score of the young people drawn into teaching has hovered around 400 for more than a decade. “Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects,” bemoaned A Nation at Risk. Clearly, if we want top-notch instruction for college-bound students in the years ahead, we must find a new supply of capable teachers.

To the familiar prescriptions of offering much higher pay and better working conditions I would add that it's time to abolish certification requirements for teachers, at least above the elementary school level. When they first came into being, those requirements served the important purpose of helping to raise standards, but today their only function is to discourage talented would-be teachers from entering the profession. Indeed, certification actually serves to lower standards: instead of acquiring a thoroughgoing knowledge of their subject, future teachers spend far too much of their time in college and graduate school taking Mickey Mouse courses on how to construct a lesson plan. Private schools do not require certification, yet they manage to attract a teaching corps of much higher quality — even at lower salaries than the public schools pay. “Our teachers never learned how to teach, which is why they teach so well,” quips Laurance Levy, the former head of McDonogh's first-rate English department.

My impression is that many in the top quartile of the class at our best colleges would flood into teaching if they could do so on the basis of a liberal-arts bachelor's degree — and if they could avoid the kind of stifling bureaucratic control that is all too often a teacher's lot today. Some states, including New Jersey, have experimented with letting young teachers of this description loose in their classrooms, apparently with much success, though, alas, these new teachers are eventually required to obtain certification. And programs at various selective private colleges and universities permit would-be teachers to combine a liberal-arts degree and professional training. But for the most part the cumbersome, outdated apparatus of the teaching profession remains in place.

The solution? While it is probably not politically possible in most states to dismantle the existing system in the near future, why not set up a parallel system to provide an alternate career path for new teachers? Those liberal-arts college graduates choosing the new path would go straight to the classroom and be exempt from all formal professional training. They would, however, have more-experienced teachers in their schools serving as their mentors. Attracting these people into the profession would necessitate a much higher pay scale but also something more. When I recently asked a group of exceptionally capable students at my college if they would consider a teaching career along these lines, three quarters at first said yes, but soon reversed themselves. They had witnessed the demeaning conditions under which most teachers work, they explained, and wouldn't want the job even if salaries were more appealing. The only way to lure them into the classroom, it became clear, would be to give them considerable freedom to shape their own curricula, allow them to choose instructional materials, and spare them the petty annoyances like the ubiquitous loudspeaker announcements that can suddenly disrupt a class. If the governors really want to do something useful to upgrade education, establishing this alternative career path is perhaps the most valuable project they could take up.

A moral issue

The other crisis in American education has ominous implications for the well-being of our political system. According to a recent study by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, titled “The Age of Indifference,” young Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine are remarkably uninformed. They do read, the survey found, but primarily lightweight publications like People rather than serious newspapers or periodicals. Most striking, a majority of these young adults report that they often first become aware of political candidates from television commercials. This response cuts across all educational levels: college graduates and high school dropouts alike displayed a troubling ignorance of political facts and a reliance on sound-bites as their basic source of political knowledge. The “limited appetites and aptitudes” of this generation, the Times Mirror Center concluded, are already adversely affecting “the practice of politics and the nature of our democracy.”

One could advance a host of reasons — economic, social, and cultural — why this other crisis in education needs immediate attention. But in the end the most important is probably moral, having to do with the responsibility of each generation to look after the well-being of its children. Observing the performance of students who have been arriving at college campuses over the past decade, one can only conclude that the present generation of American parents has been failing in its obligation to provide its offspring with a high-quality education. It seems safe to predict that this failure will have specific consequences in a lower sense of professional fulfillment for these youngsters as they pursue their careers, and will hamper their ability to stay competitive with contemporaries in many European and Asian countries, where college-bound students typically do get the benefit of first-rate schools. Is it right or sensible to place our children at such a strong disadvantage before they even begin their adult lives?

As the United Negro College Fund aptly puts it, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. It's time to recognize that we have been wasting far too many good ones.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Singal, Daniel J. “The Other Crisis in American Education.” The Atlantic Monthly vol. 268 #5 (November 1991): 59-74

Reprinted by permission of the author, Daniel J. Singal.

THE AUTHOR

Daniel J. Singal is Professor of History at Hobart & William Colleges at 639 South Main Street, Geneva, NY 14456-3379, USA. Email is: singal@hws.edu

Copyright © 1991, Daniel J. Singal. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly


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