In response to:
The Schools Flunk Out from the April 12, 1984 issue
To the Editors:
…[Hacker] seems concerned about the decline in SAT scores, and implies this is a fault of the schools. The ETS study, On Further Examination, and other research has amply demonstrated that changes in both the composition of the test-takers (more minorities, more low-income, more females—all of whom tend to score lower) and the nature of society (more TV viewing, more family disorganization, larger families, etc.) have caused the decline; the wonder is that the decline has not been greater. Perhaps the major contribution of the schools to the decline was in allowing more electives in those areas not tested by the SAT, while requiring fewer credits in those areas tested by the SAT such as math and English. But this quantitative change says nothing of the quality of instruction or the ability of teachers.
Hacker is also disturbed at the increase in the drop-out rate from 23 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 1982, and in the higher rates of 34 percent in New York and 31 percent in California. But what is the relevance of drop-out rates? From 1900 to 1972, they decreased from more than 90 percent to 23 percent. Did that mark a dramatic improvement in secondary schools? Hardly. Drop-out rates are a function of many things, but not of school quality to which they may be inversely related. Legislation on the school-leaving age, the state of the job market and other economic conditions, peer-pressure, school promotion policies and such matters may effect the statistics. Very likely, minimum-competency testing has deprived some students of diplomas in the last decade. The swelling immigration rate has undoubtedly accounted for large additional numbers, especially in California and New York where so many immigrants tend to settle. Hacker correctly points out that more boys drop out than girls who receive better high school grades. Although he acknowledges that “many boys make good records” he leaves the impression of female superiority. He fails to note that boys score higher on both the math and English parts of the SAT. Extreme caution should be taken in attributing greater aptitude or attainment to either sex. Perhaps different attainments, but not higher….
Hacker is pessimistic about increased funding for public education because of a shrinking “constituency it had when birth rates were high and schools were linked to social mobility.” He “can detect no visible sentiment for raising education’s share of federal or local outlays.” But support for education is more than a matter of demographics, just as support for defense spending is more than a reflection of real military weakness. The Department of Defense has periodically gained support by leading us to believe there was a crisis by alluding to a “bomber-gap,” and a “missile-gap” and more recently to a “spending-gap.” Secretary of Education Bell has probably learned that lesson well and has used a similar rhetoric in speaking of A Nation at Risk. There has been much visible sentiment in response to the rhetoric, as state after state has increased its financial commitment to education.
Whether this further financial commitment will accomplish anything remains to be seen. It may well be the case that improvement in education cannot come only through the schools, and it may be the case that it cannot come through the schools as they presently exist at all. Very likely, a new “ecology” (to use Lawrence Cremin’s concept) must emerge between the schools, the family, the church and industry. And within the schools there may need to be a reversal of much that has been done over the last century in the name of progress. Our analytic mood, our division of labor, or worship of specialization may be our undoing. We have broken down our organic experience into separate disciplines; we have broken the disciplines into units; we have broken the units into discrete skills. We group students by age and by ability and by interests. We multiply the instructors they encounter—and dilute the influence of any one—by having subject-matter specialists and remedial specialists and guidance counselors and lunch room supervisors, etc. David Reisman once said that schools should operate counter-cyclically. Neil Postman now uses a similar metaphor of the school operating as a thermostat. If they are right, the schools have erred in reflecting society and in exacerbating its worst tendencies. If they are right, “reform” is not enough; a turning-around, a literal revolution, is imperative. But what establishment commission will tell us that?
Wichita State University
September 27, 1984