Monday, December 19, 2005

The Underground History of American Education - Discussion #2



Is modern education in a dismal situation? You tell me. Here are just a few of Gatto's words...
By 1940, the literacy figure for all states stood at 96 percent for whites, 80 percent for blacks. Notice that for all the disadvantages blacks labored under, four of five were nevertheless literate. Six decades later, at the end of the twentieth century, the National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Educational Progress say 40 percent of blacks and 17 percent of whites can’t read at all. Put another way, black illiteracy doubled, white illiteracy quadrupled. Before you think of anything else in regard to these numbers, think of this: we spend three to four times as much real money on schooling as we did sixty years ago, but sixty years ago virtually everyone, black or white, could read...

In 1882, fifth graders read these authors in their Appleton School Reader: William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others like them. In 1995, a student teacher of fifth graders in Minneapolis wrote to the local newspaper, "I was told children are not to be expected to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came, can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, have, he, home, if, in, is, it, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off, out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their, them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went, where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts?"...

Do you think class size, teacher compensation, and school revenue have much to do with education quality? If so, the conclusion is inescapable that we are living in a golden age. From 1955 to 1991 the U.S. pupil/teacher ratio dropped 40 percent, the average salary of teachers rose 50 percent (in real terms) and the annual expense per pupil, inflation adjusted, soared 350 percent. What other hypothesis, then, might fit the strange data I’m about to present?

Forget the 10 percent drop in SAT and Achievement Test scores the press beats to death with regularity; how do you explain the 37 percent decline since 1972 in students who score above 600 on the SAT? This is an absolute decline, not a relative one. It is not affected by an increase in unsuitable minds taking the test or by an increase in the numbers. The absolute body count of smart students is down drastically with a test not more difficult than yesterday’s but considerably less so.

What should be made of a 50 percent decline among the most rarefied group of test-takers, those who score above 750? In 1972, there were 2,817 American students who reached this pinnacle; only 1,438 did in 1994—when kids took a much easier test. Can a 50 percent decline occur in twenty-two years without signaling that some massive leveling in the public school mind is underway?...
And he goes on and on with the facts, looking at everything from grade schools to high schools to colleges. Feel free to read the rest of what he says in chapter 3, "Eyeless in Gaza". They're pretty depressing facts though.

Eventually, I might get around to sharing some of Gatto's follow-up thoughts on just what the problems are, where they come from, and how we might solve them. For now though, I think this pathetic statistics are worth ruminating on.

By the way, I still can't get over what fifth graders were reading in the 1800s (see paragraph 2 in above quotation)—AMAZING!

8 Comments:

At 12/19/2005 10:48:00 PM, Blogger Meggers said...

What a long way we've come, from Shakespeare, Thoreau, Twain, and the likes to Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children for fifth graders.

In a sixth grade reading test, I tested at a post-high school reading level (what exactly was meant by that, I am unsure) and it was suggested that I read books at a more difficult level. What books did my reading teacher suggest? Well, because I had liked Nancy Drew in elementary school, I should read mystery novels written at a post-high school level, such as those by Mary Higgins Clark.

Now it's not that I have anything against Clark's writing or books, it's just that I can think of many books that are of greater literary value for a person who is able to read at said level. I wonder now if the curriculum set by my school influenced my teacher's suggestion, or if it was an innocent choice of books on her part.

 
At 12/20/2005 01:15:00 AM, Blogger The Village Idiot said...

When I was in second grade, I read some of my Dad's old Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books after said parent determined that I was beyond the Boxcar Children books in could finish in a half an hour.

A houseguest, catching me with the 150 page Tom Swift said I had to be reading at the fifth grade level to be reading that.

Now in college, I go back and read such adventure books for fun, as well as reading all the classics, when I have time, finishing the old adventure books in little time at all.

I am amazed at the list of fifth grade reading materials as you are. That is just awesome. However, simply becuase I was able to read those books in fifth grade doesn't mean my classmates could and I went to a "good private school" whose picture was in the paper every year as people waited outside in lawn chairs at 5am to enroll thier kids.

Consider this: I have attending private, religious schools my entire life. I am a sophomore English Major, and I STILL haven't read Henry Thoreau, Sir Walter Scott, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Kinda makes me feel like an idiot to be thus far in my education and still unread.

 
At 12/20/2005 07:35:00 AM, Anonymous Sarah Jane said...

Chris --

Are you as wary of the way he's using these stats as I am? Statistics are incredibly easy to manipulate, especially when they are referenced without citing the full extent of the survey or study that they came from. The fact that Gatto cites them with such confidence, and especially the fact that he thinks it's *possible* to adjust for an absolute 1:1 correlation between current stats and 50-year-old stats concerns me. Either he doesn't have a very solid grasp of how easily statistics can be skewed to support a particular argument, or he's assuming that his readers will be ignorant enough that they won't catch on to the shakiness of his argument.

As far as 5th grade reading requirements, I see several problems with comparing an 1882 reader to a present-day reader. First of all, American students in the Nineteenth Century generally started school a couple years later than present-day students, and the schoolhouse system made it easy for a bright child to move quickly through the grades, while a struggling child could be held back until she was ready for the next reader. This would, I suspect, have resulted in 5th graders who, on average, were older than today's 5th graders. They also would have been students hand-picked by the teacher as ready to learn the material in the 5th grade reader.

A second problem results in assuming there's a 1:1 correlation between a student reading Benjamin Franklin in 1882, and a student reading him in 2005. The present-day student is disadvantaged by more than a century's worth of changes in culture, political climate, and language usage. While Franklin's work would have been close to 100 years old by the time a late-Nineteenth-century student found it in her reading book, she would still have lived in a world much more similar to that of Franklin. Her own experiences, language, and political understanding would have given her a definite advantage in understanding the works, while a present-day student would need significantly more background information to comprehend the same reading.

Perhaps more relevant than assuming that modern 5th graders should be reading from that same list of authors, we should ask whether they're reading from the relevant authors and works of our own times. Are they being exposed to George Orwell, Anne Frank, and Erich Maria Remarque? Have they read MLK Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech? Well, perhaps not in 5th grade, but you get my point.

Finally, it might be helpful to remember that in 1882, relatively few students progressed beyond 8th grade, while in 2005 it's expected that students at least finish 12 grades. So the reading material in the old 5th grade might be more comparable to modern-day readings for highschool freshmen -- which often do include Shakespeare, Franklin, Twain, and Emerson.

I'm not trying to completely defend modern public schools, which I think face a lot of significant problems. I'm more troubled by the way Gatto is making his argument, because I think he's hurting his own case by using flawed or undocumented statistics, and failing to mention the significant differences between school systems a century ago, and school systems today. It's hard for me to buy Gatto's argument when he must rely on such shaky evidence to make his case.

... Also, I'm the product of one of Gatto's public schools. Not a particularly good one, either; mine was small, poor, and incredibly rural, plagued by a more-than-50% drop-out rate and some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. I was also one of those 750+ SAT students, and I got a scholarship to a good college, and now I'm in graduate school. I believe that education is, above all, what you make of it. And I believe really strongly in public education, not because it'll raise test scores or have students quoting Shakespeare by the age of 10, but because it exposes kids to all different kinds of people, and teaches them that the world does not always cater to their particular needs. It's a powerful equalizing force in a society that claims to be equal, but grows increasingly unequal by the day.

I'm not at all opposed to making improvements to the system we have, but it bothers me to hear folks bashing it without considering the good that it does have to offer.

SJ

 
At 12/20/2005 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Sarah, thanks as always for your comments. Are you still not reading the book? ;-)

I agree with you that statistics can easily be manipulated. I also think some statistics are better than others. Lastly, I am completely in accord with you that it would be better if Gatto cited his sources more often. Nonetheless, I don't agree with all of your assessments.

You said,
"The fact that Gatto cites them with such confidence, and especially the fact that he thinks it's *possible* to adjust for an absolute 1:1 correlation between current stats and 50-year-old stats concerns me."

I don't understand what the problem is. In the last two paragraphs I thought it pretty clear that he was looking at the actual number of students. There was a significant decline in the actual number of students who score above 600 and 750, despite an increase in the total number of students taking the test, as well as (this I cannot confirm) an "easier test" in more recent years. I need you to elaborate why you think this is a problematic citation.

"As far as 5th grade reading requirements, I see several problems with comparing an 1882 reader to a present-day reader..."

I think you raise some valid questions in this paragraph, but I can't verify the information you provided either. Additionally, one thing you're forgetting, which is well documented is how literate the American population was as a whole in the 1800s (much more than any other country in the world). There is evidence to support this, if you want me to share. You can see the dramatic drop in the 20th century even in the first paragraph I cited. Personally, I think that this helps to support the general legitimacy of Gatto's pointing to the reading curriculum in the 1800s as being more challenging. It might be a little more complex, as your questions suggest, and there may be exceptions to the case, but I think Gatto's main point is still in general correct. Let me know what you think.

"A second problem... The present-day student is disadvantaged by more than a century's worth of changes in culture, political climate, and language usage."

I agree this can account for some of the discrepencies. But you yourself seem to admit that in general we're not even reading that sort of literature more akin to our "modern" life. Additionally, from my own experience, I wasn't reading Orwell or Frank or other modern authors of that level any earlier than I was reading Twain and Shakespeare and the older bunch. Plus, it didn't even make a difference always...sometimes I enjoyed the latter more than the former.

"Finally, it might be helpful to remember that in 1882, relatively few students progressed beyond 8th grade, while in 2005 it's expected that students at least finish 12 grades."

Yes, but the reason things are like that is because of the government and businessmen and elites pushing for a longer education. I won't deny that it has value in some ways, but let's also not forget that what many Americans were reading by age 8th grade. I'd argue that there 8th grade was in many ways like our 12th grade. We just drag things out a bit longer nowadays.

"... Also, I'm the product of one of Gatto's public schools. Not a particularly good one, either; mine was small, poor, and incredibly rural, plagued by a more-than-50% drop-out rate and some of the highest poverty rates in the nation."

Congratulations. Perhaps you are an exception to the case. ;-)

"I believe that education is, above all, what you make of it."

I agree in large part. But as much as I value the power of our freedom, I'm not going to deny that our environments do often have an impact on us.

"And I believe really strongly in public education, not because it'll raise test scores or have students quoting Shakespeare by the age of 10, but because it exposes kids to all different kinds of people, and teaches them that the world does not always cater to their particular needs."

I'd hope that family life doesn't teach them that "the world always cater to their particular needs". If it does, I think the parenting isn't being done right. Now, I do agree with you that public education exposes one to all different kinds of people.

"It's a powerful equalizing force in a society that claims to be equal, but grows increasingly unequal by the day."

Hmm, if society's growing increasingly unequal, than isn't this point moot? Perhaps the education system isn't equalizing after all, eh?

"I'm not at all opposed to making improvements to the system we have, but it bothers me to hear folks bashing it without considering the good that it does have to offer."

I don't think Gatto hasn't considered the good that it has to offer. I'm sure he's aware of it, seeing as he taught for 30 years and was teacher of the year for New York City and New York State. But he's also become aware of a lot of problems, perhaps more than us who were only in the system for a fraction of the time he has been and also not as conscious of all that was going on around us.

 
At 12/20/2005 01:23:00 PM, Anonymous sarah jane said...

Chris --

Thanks for responding. You're right, I'm still not reading the book. I do have slightly more time now that the fall semester is over, but I'm picking and choosing my reading material pretty carefully, and it's largely stuff that's still related to school & my plans for next semester. And, frankly, I simply don't like Gatto from the excerpts I've read on your site, so why should I invest yet more time in reading his work?

You bring up the issue of the SAT. I didn't address it in my earlier post because I don't know as much about the history of the test, how scores have been calculated, or who has taken it. I do have some questions, though, that would need to be answered before I could be convinced that the change in test scores is solely due to America's highschoolers getting stupider.

First, I would like to know how the 1972 test was formatted and graded in comparison with the format and grading of present-day SATs. I know that the test has changed over time; the all-multiple-choice test I took as a highschooler in the late 90s has now been replaced by a test that includes an essay-writing secion. Who knows what other changes might have taken place between 1972 and the present?

I'd also like to know more about the average student who took the SAT in 1972 versus the average student taking it today. Were the 1970s test-takers a highly elite group when compared with present-day test-takers? I'd also like to know about the average college admissions standards in the early 70s, which might tell us a little bit about what that 750+ score meant at the time.

I wouldn't be surprised if the test has gotten easier, but I also wouldn't be surprised if some of the other statistics have changed as well. Perhaps in modern times it's easier to get an overall score of 1000 (a typical minimum requirement for getting into college) but it may also have become significantly more difficult to get an overall score of 1400 or higher, thus making the top scorers a more elite group. Without knowing more about the test design, a straigh comparison of average scores doesn't actually tell us a whole lot.

I agree with you that about the 1882 reading material appearing to be more rigorous, and the likelihood that educated Americans are significantly less literate than we were a century ago. However, I'm not sure that this is solely a result of the educational system. I think it reflects the values of our culture as a whole. As an example, in the Eighteenth Century, no well-educated person was ignorant about art; today, nearly everyone is ignorant when it comes to art. I think that reflects our larger cultural values, however (art having become "strange" and inaccessible in this Postmodernist age, thus making it largely irrelevant to those not directly tied to the art world) and is not directly a result of poor education.

You say: "I'd hope that family life doesn't teach them that "the world always cater to their particular needs". If it does, I think the parenting isn't being done right."

I agree that it's not a parent's job to cater to every one of a child's needs. At the same time, do you think that education should coddle children *more* than their parents do? I certainly don't. Home is a place where you can let your hair down some, and where people treat you like you're special; school is a place where you learn. I don't think it does kids a favor to try and rig the system so everything works out perfectly for them, because that's certainly not the way it will be for the rest of their lives.

Maybe this isn't the most coherent response, but I hope you'll respond and we can continue the conversation. As much as I disagree with you at times, Chris, I do enjoy the thoughtful discussions you host here.

Thanks!

SJ

 
At 12/20/2005 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Sarah, I agree some of your points are worth looking into regarding the SAT test comparison, but you still haven't said much about the drastic increase in illiteracy in our country.

Additionally, perhaps I should have included more of Gatto's own words, since he doesn't really care for the SAT tests in the first place...

=============================
[Footnote to last paragraph cited in original post]

3. The critics of schooling who concentrate on fluctuations in standardized test scores to ground their case against the institution are committing a gross strategic mistake for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that in doing so they must first implicitly acknowledge the accuracy of such instruments in ranking every member of the youth population against every other member, hence the justice of using such measures to allocate privileges and rewards. An even larger folly occurs because the implicit validation of these tests by the attention of school critics cedes the entire terrain of scientific pedagogy, armoring it against strong counter-measures by recruiting the opposition, in effect, to support teaching to the test. The final folly lies in the ease with which these measures can be rigged to produce whatever public effects are wanted.

------------------------
[Text continued]

In a real sense where your own child is concerned you might best forget scores on these tests entirely as a reliable measure of what they purport to assess. I wouldn’t deny that mass movements in these scores in one direction or another indicate something is going on, and since the correlation between success in schooling and success on these tests is close, then significant score shifts are certainly measuring changes in understanding. This is a difficult matter for anyone to sort out, since many desirable occupational categories (and desirable university seats even before that) are reserved for those who score well. The resultant linkage of adult income with test scores then creates the illusion these tests are separating cream from milk, but the results are rigged in advance by foreclosing opportunity to those screened out by the test! In a humble illustration, if you only let students with high scores on the language component of the SATs cut hair, eventually it would appear that verbal facility and grooming of tresses had some vital link with each other.

=============================

So even Gatto doesn't ultimately put much weight in the test results, other than that they do show something is going on, seemingly for the worse. He then goes on to look at other cases to further bolster his point (including the literacy problem). I guess I didn't cite the best passage for the opening post then.

I might respond to some of your points later on, but I have work to get done right now, and frankly, with a couple of them, I don't understand what we're arguing about or why. Alas, the limits of communication via Internet (and also revealing of my limits of communicating via the written word).

Anyways, you also said that we often disagree, but I'd like to think that we probably would agree more often than not...we just don't realize it perhaps.

On another note, I realized I never responded to your comments on my "advent" post a while back. I just replied, in case you want to "argue" with some other ideas of mine. ;-)

 
At 12/20/2005 03:17:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Btw, I can't thank you enough for your critical comments and questions, especially since you're the only one who seems to be giving them.

To be honest, I'm surprised you keep coming back.

 
At 12/20/2005 05:09:00 PM, Anonymous Sarah Jane said...

Chris --

Eh. I keep coming back because, while we don't always agree at first, I appreciate your ability to analyze your thoughts and respond intelligently. I really like the Xanga community, but it's definitely lacking for thoughtful conversations.

You said: "Sarah, I agree some of your points are worth looking into regarding the SAT test comparison, but you still haven't said much about the drastic increase in illiteracy in our country."

I guess that's because I'm not sure what I should say about it. I do think that Americans *value* literacy less than we did a century ago, and there may be some practical reasons for that. With the advent of the telegraph, and later the telephone, fax, e-mail, and instant messenger, there is no longer a need to write long, eloquent letters to communicate with friends and colleagues. With the onset of radio programs and television news sources and documentaries, there is less reason than ever to pick up a book or newspaper to find out about our world. The art of a well-told story has exchanged hands from novelists to movie-makers, while the art of a well-turned poem has been handed over to pop musicians. In a sheerly utilitarian sense, literacy has lost a lot of its value.

I'm not saying this is a good thing, or that there isn't a wealth of rich reading material that quasi-literate folks are missing, but you can't deny that America is a nation that values practicality, and high literacy is becoming decreasingly practical.

Part of this can be blamed directly on the schools, and some portion of that can be blamed on the public school system in particular. But I think it's a cultural problem. "The times, they are a-changin'," wrote Dylan (Bob Dylan, mind you, not Dylan Thomas) and I think this is one more symptom of our digital age. Blaming it on a system that's only one small part in the greater problem doesn't help us to develop a solution.

I appreciate you posting Gatto's footnote follow-up. His assessment of judging schools on test scores and then complaining that they're "teaching the test" seems spot-on. I find it interesting, however, that he assumes that large-scale changes in test scores can be so significant, when he admits that individual test scores probably don't mean that much. I'll have to think about that one to see if I agree; it doesn't seem terribly logical at first glance.

I'll post more later.

SJ

 

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