Friday, April 24, 2015

Tucker Searches for Misplaced Standards

Marc Tucker has been working at education reform even before it was cool (and highly lucrative). While he's best remembered by some folks as the author of the infamous Dear Hillary letter (a 1992 missive that lays out a vision of a centrally organized cradle-to-career pipeline), I've often found him willing to take shots based on what he thinks, rather than what side he's supposed to be on, and that's a quality I always respect.

But it also seems true that folks Of a Certain Age (say, mine-- and Tucker is almost twenty years older) to succumb to the temptation to write screeds on the topic of Kids These Days and Going To Hell in a Handbasket. Tucker has handily combined the two in a EdWeek post entitled "Why Have American Education Standards Collapsed?"

Tucker is honest about his purpose here. In a previous column, he had piled up a big batch o' reports suggesting that the American sky is falling-- college students can't write, textbooks have been dumbed down, colleges are teaching what high schools used to "and not doing it very well."

How could this be? What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years. All I can do is speculate on how and why that happened. Here goes...

I've been known to do a little speculating myself, so I think it's a noble goal. I just happen to think that much of Tucker's speculation is off the mark. But he is spinning an interesting narrative here, so let's see if I can speculate any holes in it.

Chapter I: Death of the Middle Class

Back around 1970, says storyteller Tucker, the US was enjoying prosperity and business mightiness. But then Asian countries challenged us with equally high-skilled workers for less money. Perhaps. What I remember from the time period is US corporate leadership started making cheap crap and trying to pocket money instead of spending it keeping technologically up to speed. US workers may or may not have kept pace with Japanese workers, but they certainly had no control over decisions to make the AMC Pacer, Ford Pinto, or the Pinto's more ridiculous cousin, the Mercury Bobcat. Nor did workers have any say over the steel industry's decision to just keep using the tired tech that had served them for 100 years. But US workers paid the price for management's money-losing ideas.

Tucker also notes the rise of automation in the march to stagnant wages, the loss of men in the employed workforce, and unwed mothers. Yes, he's going to go there.

Put them all together and they spell a crushed, shrinking and demoralized middle class, more poor children, and more children in one-parent homes. Bottom line: more children showing up at school bringing problems with them.

That birthy thing gets complicated. Note these two charts:

Meanwhile, more people are waiting longer to get married even as the marriage rate drops. While some folks view singlehood (and other naughty lifestyle choices) as a cause of poverty, it seems far more likely that the train runs the other way-- people put off marriage until they think they can afford it.

Chapter 2: Grade Inflation Hits

All these poor kids hit school at the same time as a powerful wave of Everyone Must Go To College swept through the culture. Blue color work became cause for "fear and shame" and so everybody has to get Junior into college.

In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college.  So grade inflation made rapid headway in our schools.

I think Tucker probably has part of a point. What he skims over is the source of that tremendous pressure to succeed, in particular the kind of pressure generated by a government that says all students must be ready for college or their schools will be defunded and their teachers fired.

Chapter 3: Teachers Start Sucking

Teacher status declined from 1970 forward, and women and minorities could find better jobs (finally), so "the absolute quality of our incoming teachers declined." I entered college in 1975, so I'm going to assume that he doesn't mean me.But I am confused by this narrative. We have more minority candidates entering teaching than ever. And when women couldn't do anything else-- well, my mom graduated from Keene State Teacher College in the mid-fifties, and she could get a job anywhere anytime she wanted. But that somehow got us the best and the brightest? I'm just not sure how tat worked, exactly.

But Tucker says that the literacy level of teachers was slipping, somehow, and so they had less mastery of the content. And I'm thinking about my mom and my wife, both elementary teachers, and while both are pretty damn smart and literate, I don't think their ability to excel as students in a classroom was the quality that students most valued in them. This point always rests on the notion that how well people take tests is a measure of how good a teacher they'll be. Is there anybody who has never, ever encountered a teacher who was a genius with total control of her subject matter, but who was still a less-than-awesome teacher? I'm pretty sure this whole point rests on measuring oranges to see how high the apple trees grow.

Chapter 4: The Accountability Movement Incentivizes Sucking

Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement.

That sentence tells you most of what you need to know about Tucker's view of Ed Reform History. His conclusion here is partly correct-- most of us can recall the happy days of NCLB when our state would tweak test content and schedules in order to make it look like test results were going up. Tucker is correct. It happened, and not, as some suggest, because politicians wanted to look good, but because schools wanted to avoid punishment that would have hampered their missions.

But all of that only matters if you believe that high-stakes testing is either a driver or reflection of what a school is actually accomplishing. But the Big Standardized Tests don't measure even a sliver of what a school is actually doing, and they "drive instruction" only to the extent that they drive real instruction out of the classroom to make room for test prep. Tucker, like many ed critics, overlooks one other reason that states and schools set out to game the BS Test system-- because they knew that simply doing a better job at teaching students was not going to help.

Chapter 5: The Teacher Pipeline Breaks

Excellent veteran teachers bailed. And top students, "seeing the pressure teachers were under to produce under appalling conditions," avoided teaching careers. College teacher prep programs are dropping faster than a scary elevator ride at Disneyworld. Meanwhile, colleges have been driven to desperate measures, and will accept anyone with a pulse and a pile of money. Other nations became choosier; the US did not.

Meanwhile, a new culprit emerged-- US News and World Report. According to Tucker, their college rankings touched off an arms race to spend money on frivolities like fancy dining halls and student mental health clinics. Kids these days!! Ironically, Tucker faults the magazine because there are no agreed-upon metrics for rating college programs. And yet he believes that there are clear metrics for measuring possible future teacher greatness. This all seems to me like calling Santa bunk while holding fast to a belief in the Easter Bunny.

But his conclusion is that colleges lowered standards because they needed the money. Which on the one hand I can buy but on the other hand, when was the magical time when people flunked out of college right and left because it was so tough?

Chapter 6: In Which I Am Genuinely Surprised (The Draft!)

I have read a great deal about education reform, but Tucker has a theory that I've never encountered before. The end of the draft marked the end, for him, of the nation's biggest vocational training program, with local programs soon to follow due to the accountability movement. So... raise standards by bringing back the draft...?

Bottom Line

What this story comes down to is that the United States, having led the world in educational attainment for more than a century, thereby enabling it to produce the world's best-educated workforce, has, since the 1970s, made no gains at all in either attainment or quality, while close to 30 other countries, some of them abjectly poor in the 1970s, have managed to outperform us on both quality and quantity of education, many by a country mile.  Even more damning, we appear to have lowered our standards for our college students to the standards we used to demand of our high school students and, at the same time, to have more or less destroyed what was once a first-class vocational and technical education system. 

Kids These Days are dumb lazy slackers and because we've loosened up society to accommodate their slackiness, everything is Going to Hell in a Handbasket. Back In My Day, we walked to school uphill both ways in the snow all year, and we liked it, because we had high standards back then.

Tucker has skipped some points like, for instance, a detailed and data-driven description of the hallowed years in which the US led the world in these educational standards. We could also do with a link between these alleged high standards that we once had and, well, anything. If we get all eighth graders to do calculus, the clear result for our nation will be... what?

Tucker has some points. Accountability has pretty much been a disaster for everybody (except disaster profiteers), and the economic shift in our country has been very, very hard on many of our citizens, making it harder for our children to get the best advantages in life, including education.

And we could certainly use leaders who were better, particularly when we consider that much of disruption of the last forty-five years, from the industrial crash of the seventies to the economic disasters of the 2000s, has been human-created. Here's the thing-- I don't think the leaders of the car and steel industries, nor the banksters of the Great Recession, would have avoided all that mess if they had had better SAT scores or a better GPA in college.

Tucker reminds me of a person who sits fearfully in his house, hears a gurgle from the kitchen sink drain, and worries that it means that a burglar is coming in the second floor window. Or a chicken who gets hit with an acorn and fears the sky is falling.  It's not that there aren't real and serious issues, problems that need to be addressed. But he is seeing connections between these issues and other factors that have nothing to do with them. The danger with Tucker is that his core belief, stated through much of his work, is that we need to control everything so that we can make all come out as it should. Any time you find somebody who thinks that kind of control is a good thing and that he totally knows how to manage it, you have found somebody who is dangerous. When you find somebody who believes he can control the entire machine but doesn't really know how the parts fit together, you have found somebody who could make a serious mess. I'm really glad that Marc Tucker is in the world, but I'm even more glad that he's not in charge.


  1. You imply that we need executives with higher ethical standards (which I think most people, possibly only excluding said executives, can agree with). Do you think that is an area that schools can/should address, if we weren't so caught up in the testing madness? How would we go about it?

    Sorry for the essay question- I'm just curious what you think about these things!

  2. Of course, the one stable measure of education we actually, NAEP, has remained relatively stable even as a fair number of his demographic points have happened. Even shown modest gains in the post-integration era.

    So...what does THAT mean, Mr. Tucker?

  3. Mr. Greene,
    Totally off topic here. I read you daily, and enjoy both your wit and your insight. I would like, if you wouldn't mind, your opinion of the whole college and career ready thing. Obviously I am behind the times, since I don't think all children should go to college. Where did that come from, and is it reasonable to tell all children they can and should go to college? Thanks,
    Sue Alexander (south jersey)

  4. I agree with your speculation on his speculation. It's weird how someone who studies philosophy, American literature, theater engineering, and telecommunications can then somehow go out and found a thinky tank called the National Center on Education and the Economy and overnight become a renowned expert on education (and the economy) with no background in education (or economics).

  5. But Peter, you are perpetrating a deep assumption about “progress” the world has been beaten down to accept, for more than a century.

    “and the economic shift in our country has been very, very hard on many of our citizens, making it harder for our children to get the best advantages in life, including education.”

    What “economic shift” is that? In the past decade, the degradation of human work and human workers has sunk to levels not seen since slavery. Except now, with globalization, we can extend the slavemasters’ indifference to the quality of workers lives to all workers everywhere, without even his capital investment in keeping them alive or replacing his workforce.

    Start with the field of education, but please don’t stop there.

    It isn’t technological progress that has made human dignity obsolete, in our schools, in Bangladesh factories, Walmarts, Amazon Fulfillment Centers, and fast food restaurants. We could also use technology to do the opposite. Elevate human labor again, and defend the minute-by-minute quality of workers lives, and protect their right to use the profits of their labor to sustain their own families. It is obscene to frame this discussion in terms of which human children “get the best advantages in life, including education.”