One of my great joys in life is watching the next clueless meme pop up and spread like wildfire. The latest is that education reform is going to solve this country’s problems. Newsweek hopes that “imposing standardized test-based accountability for schools and teachers and fostering competition among schools” will be the one area where Republicans will work with the Obama administration. The villains in this narrative are the teachers’ unions. Tom Friedman tells us that “countries that outperform us — Singapore, South Korea, Finland — don’t let anyone teach who doesn’t come from the top third of their graduating class.” More interesting is a recent Atlantic piece which points out America can’t use “the diversity excuse” to explain away our country’s failures.
These days, the theory Hanushek hears most often is what we might call the diversity excuse. When he runs into his neighbors at Palo Alto coffee shops, they lament the condition of public schools overall, but are quick to exempt the schools their own kids attend. “In the litany of excuses, one explanation is always, ‘We’re a very heterogeneous society—all these immigrants are dragging us down. But our kids are doing fine,’” Hanushek says. This latest study was designed, in part, to test the diversity excuse.
Actually, the diversity excuse mostly applies to blacks, who are twelve percent of the population and the worst performers on standardized tests, and who have been speaking English (or something that resembles it) for three hundred years. Never mind that though...
So Hanushek and his co-authors sliced the data more thinly still. They couldn’t control for income, since students don’t report their parents’ salaries when they take these tests; but they could use reliable proxies. How would our states do if we looked just at the white kids performing at high levels—kids who are not, generally speaking, subject to language barriers or racial discrimination? Or if we looked just at kids with at least one college-educated parent?
As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.
Parents in Palo Alto will always insist that their kids are the exception, of course. And researchers cannot compare small cities and towns around the globe—not yet, anyway. But Hanushek thinks the study significantly undercuts the diversity excuse. “People will find it quite shocking,” he says, “that even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive.”
The closest thing America has to a bright spot is Massachusetts.
Is it because Massachusetts is so white? Or so immigrant-free? Or so rich? Not quite. Massachusetts is indeed slightly whiter and slightly better-off than the U.S. average. But in the late 1990s, it nonetheless lagged behind similar states—such as Connecticut and Maine—in nationwide tests of fourth- and eighth-graders. It was only after a decade of educational reforms that Massachusetts began to rank first in the nation.
What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn’t do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school—a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy.
Standards for teachers! Why didn’t anybody think of this before? Actually, many people have, it’s just that objective tests for educators have been criticized for being racist. From the first edition of The Affirmative Action Hoax, pages 155-156.
...in the early 1980s, the three main American newsmagazines devoted cover stories to the scandalous performance of American teachers and prospective students on qualifying tests, thus recognizing that it was a vital national concern. However, their stories hid from their readers that the cause was affirmative action university admissions and graduation.
Newsweek did not mention race at all.
Time’s article quoted ungrammatical, barely intelligible sentences written by American teachers and documented their terrible performance on qualifying tests. It offered several explanations, one of which came close to the true one: “In Oregon, a kindergarten teacher who had been given As and Bs at Portland State University was recently found to be functionally illiterate.” At one point, it carelessly included a parenthesis that disclosed how that could happen. Pinellas County Florida, “required teacher candidates to read at an advanced tenth-grade level and solve math problems at an eighth-grade level. Though all had their BA in hand, about one-third of applicants (25 percent of whites, 79 percent of blacks) flunked Pinellas’ test.”
U.S. News and World Report printed a selection of questions from the National Teacher Examination to show how risby easy they were. It constantly blamed the problem on inadequate funding, and its cover showed a white teacher wearing a dunce cap. But in two sentences in the last column on the last page, it mentioned, “In Florida, 84 percent of all those who took the exam last October passed. However, only 37 percent of black students in education passed, which has raised concerns about worsening an already serious decline in the number of black teachers.” Of course, it is exactly this concern that has prevented the use of legitimate qualifying tests.
Steve Sailer has pointed out before that quotas would be preferable to the kind of affirmative action we have in America because you could at least get the most qualified of each race. But if liberals ever get their education reform and find that any test used will reveal the need to fire 80% of black teachers, the exam will be thrown out and even the white incompetents, of whom there are more than there are unqualified blacks in absolute terms, will get a pass.
Unlike most liberal shibboleths, perhaps the teachers matter idea has some truth to it (not as much truth as human biodiversity of course, but you have to start somewhere). On the LSAT, used for law school admissions, and the GRE, taken by prospective graduate students, those who majored in education are consistently among the worst performers. It’s not surprising that a profession dominated by unions attracts the least ambitious and capable people.
Whether liberals ever beat the teachers’ unions remains to be seen. The opening shot in the war going on was this year’s mayoral race in Washington, D.C., where the main issue was school chancellor Michelle Rhee. The Swipples were excited about school reform and thought they knew what was best for blacks, who themselves more sensibly understood that having the public education system as a jobs program was in their best interests. If we’ve learned anything over the past forty years, it’s that our highly intelligent elite can usually get its way against the more numerous but passive and dimmer masses. It’s just that on the issues of school prayer, immigration, affirmative action, etc. the Left had their secret weapon of moral certainty, due to the fact that the enemy was the wrong kind of white people. We’ll see how quickly they lose their zeal when it’s their favorite victims who are standing in the way of their goals.