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The Primal Scene of Education


It is said that American prosperity is fading in a bleach of educational incompetence, and that a large proportion of our incoming work force can neither adjust to new technologies nor perform high-level communicative tasks. “In math and science,” the education researcher John Chubb recently observed, “U.S. students rank dead last in any comparison with students from the nations that are our leading competitors.”1 Last October, an editorial in The Washington Post commented on

the education-linked difficulty facing the large number of workers in this country who, not that long ago, could qualify for a wide range of entry-level, decently paying jobs without sophisticated technical skills or in many cases a high school diploma. As we constantly hear, these jobs are mostly gone, replaced by more technically demanding and autonomous jobs that need employees with higher-order skills. Many employers, especially urban employers in cities with troubled school systems, say they cannot fill these jobs with the available high school graduates.2

Current public concern over filling jobs and competing with other nations offers a historic opportunity to improve all dimensions of American education. Today, more than in any earlier time in our history, purely utilitarian aims happen to coincide with the highest humanistic and civic purposes of schooling, such as promoting a more just and harmonious society, creating an informed citizenry, and teaching our children to understand and appreciate the worlds of nature, culture, and history. These aims coincide today with those of economic utility because the information age has made purely vocational training obsolete. Vocations change their character so rapidly that the most appropriate preparation for today’s workplace is an ability to adapt to new kinds of jobs that may not have existed when one was in school. The best possible vocational training is to cultivate general abilities to communicate and learn—abilities that can only be gained through a broad humanistic and scientific education.

At a conference of college deans this fall, I heard a chorus of anecdotes about the declining knowledge and abilities of entering freshmen. To these administrators, the debate over Stanford University’s required courses seemed interesting but less than momentous compared with the problem of preparing students to participate intelligently in any university-level curriculum. American colleges and universities at their best are still among the finest in the world. But in many of them the educational level of incoming students is so low that the first and second years of college must be largely devoted to remedial work. In the American school system, it is mainly those who start well who finish well. Elementary-school teachers have told me sadly that among their third and fourth graders they are able to identify future dropouts with great accuracy, because they know that the school system will not overcome the initial academic lag of poor minority children. Business leaders and the general public are coming to recognize that the gravest, most recalcitrant problems of American education can be traced back to secondary and, above all, elementary schooling.

The latest news of American school performance comes from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Of the educational reports that have numbed our minds recently, none is more informative than the IEA’s 1988 report on science achievement in seventeen countries.3 The schools of all nations teach the same basic knowledge about chemistry, physics, and biology. Hence, achievement in science is an excellent point of comparison for national systems of education. In the IEA comparisons, the rank order of the US was low for all three age groups tested: ages ten, fourteen, and sixteen to seventeen. But, as the report points out, the most significant results concern fourteen-year-olds. Age fourteen is pivotal, since children haven’t yet started intensive training in specialized high schools, but they have, in effect, graduated from elementary school. Their test results are undistorted by variations in the sequence of instruction in different elementary systems. Moreover, international comparisons at that point in schooling are inherently fair, since at age fourteen, 90 percent of all children in the developed nations are still in school. We Americans cannot claim that our results are inferior because our schools virtuously cast a broader demographic net than do other nations.

The performance of American fourteen-year-olds was singled out for special mention in the IEA executive summary, from which I quote:

The U.S.A. was third to last out of seventeen countries, with Hong Kong and the Phillipines being in the sixteenth and seventeenth places. Thailand had a score equal to that of the U.S.A…. The IEA conducted its last survey of science achievement in 1970…. The United States has dropped from seventh out of seventeen countries to third from bottom.4

Why has there been so little discussion of such immensely significant news? Five years after the much publicized National Commission report A Nation at Risk, such reports perhaps no longer startle us or add to the picture we already have. Perhaps education reporters may assume that so much energy and thought are already going into school reform that it serves no useful purpose to add to the literature of alarm. But my experiences with apologists for American education as well as with its critics and reformers during the months since the publication of my book Cultural Literacy have led me to think otherwise. Most reform efforts, including many that are highly promising, concentrate on the organization and administration of schooling. Recently, for example, there has been much emphasis on establishing cooperative relations with parents of poor children from minority groups, on merit pay for good teaching, and on the development of magnet schools. The IEA science report, with its empasis on knowledge, has a special value because it encourages us to consider the specific curriculum of the elementary school.

Of course science is just one field of instruction in elementary school, and its significance can be exaggerated. More important than specific information, according to the most influential American education experts, is the possession of general academic skills. I shall not retrace the steps by which I argued in Cultural Literacy that a misguided emphasis on skills has been the single most disastrous mistake of American schooling during the past forty years. An emphasis on skills coupled with a derogation of “mere facts” is a cast of mind that distinguishes the thought-world of education professors from that of common sense. Ordinary people, as Aristotle observed, think facts are important, and take pleasure in knowing them. They assume that facts are essential to knowledge and education. This is not the case with most of the interlocking institutions that make up the educational establishment, including the people responsible for running most teachers’ colleges and school districts, as well as professional curriculum organizations such as the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) and the publishers and buyers of text-books. Most of the experts who are in a position to affect the school curriculum think mere facts are deadening, unless they are instantly made meaningful by being “integrated” into the child’s world.

This ambivalent attitude to specific information, so different from the attitude of most ordinary people, has a double importance to the educational establishment. American schools of education are conceived on the principle that pedagogy itself is a skill that can be applied to all subject matter. Many of the courses taken by prospective teachers emphasize techniques of teaching and ways of improving students’ “inferencing skills” and other general abilities as they are defined by theories of educational psychology. Thus the principle that abstractly defined skills are more important than specific information cannot be relinquished without compromising the fundamental assumptions of education schools. If educationists did not assert that skill in pedagogy is more important than mere information (which can always be looked up) they would not be able to resist the common-sense view that the best teachers, in both the early grades and the later ones, would tend to be those who are well prepared in the subject that they teach. The derogation of mere facts, besides serving the institutional interests of education schools, is also politically useful to educational administrators in a contentious and diverse country where parents can often be depended upon to raise objections whenever the specifics of the school curriculum are openly discussed. An approach emphasizing “reading skills,” for example, conveniently avoids argument about what is read.

The 1970 IEA report on science ranked the US seventh and the present IEA report ranks the US third from bottom. Our 1970 average scores on the verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test, soon after their high point around 1965, were also significantly higher than they are now. The historical parallel is significant, although the year 1970 was of no particular significance in educational history. Nineteen seventy happened to be the year that the previous IEA evaluation of science achievement was made and also a year when SAT scores had not yet reached bottom in their inexorable movement downward between 1965 and 1980. The causes of that decline had less to do with the turmoil of the 1960s than with the miseducation that had established itself on a vast scale in the preceding decades, when the high school graduates of the 1960s and 1970s were entering elementary school. During the 1940s and 1950s a new generation of educators, well indoctrinated in an antitraditional pedagogy emphasizing skills, finally gained control of the nation’s schools and textbooks. Thus the 1940s and 1950s, not the 1960s, were the watershed decades in the recent history of American education.5

The verbal SAT has been much criticized for various kinds of bias, but studies correlating its results with school records have shown that it is a reliable indicator of the general level of education of the students who take it; so we would in any case expect the verbal SAT to show a close historical correlation with results on IEA achievement tests. By the same token, the latest IEA report on science knowledge has implications that are much broader than its immediate findings regarding science. In order to interpret those implications I shall try to explain why these two very different tests—the verbal SAT and the IEA test of science—show the same pattern of American decline between 1970 and the present. To understand that pattern is to begin to grasp one of the things that have gone wrong.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test is misnamed. As its critics have observed, it only measures aptitudes if we understand the term aptitude to mean acquired aptitude. It is really a vocabulary test, and the bookish vocabulary that it tests is inherently related to standard academic disciplines; it does not normally ask questions involving the vocabulary of popular culture. The test is divided into four question types: antonyms, analogies, sentence completion, and reading comprehension. All of these types of questions are ultimately grounded in vocabulary. The one exception might seem to be analogy questions, which are assumed to test thinking skill, but I doubt that they do so to any significant degree. For instance, most seventeen-year-olds will correctly answer the following question:

  1. 1

    Nathan Glazer, John Chubb, Seymour Fliegel, Making Schools Better (Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, 1988), p. 4.

  2. 2

    October 29, 1988.

  3. 3

    International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Science Achievement in Seventeen Countries: A Preliminary Report (Pergamon, 1988).

  4. 4

    IEA report, p. 2.

  5. 5

    See Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (Basic Books, 1983), especially pp. 43–80.

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