The Truth-Teller

People in the education policy and funding worlds don’t like Sandra Stotsky. For years she has been a robust critic of too many things educators, ed school professors, school administrators, and philanthropists have hailed and implemented. She doesn’t spare people’s feelings and she won’t relax her standards.

Stotsky’s new book, The Roots of Low Achievement: Where to Begin Altering Them, is certain to arouse education establishment ire.

For example:

  • Starting in the 1970s and continuing here and there today, self-esteem has been identified as a key to academic improvement, especially for poor and minority students. Stotsky’s judgment is, “Not only did the ideas of self-esteem advocates not work, but also they left educational and cultural debris for others to clean up.”
  • Educational theorists never stop inventing new concepts and imagining new methods such as “deeper learning,” which encourages students toward critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration with peers, and self-directed tasks. Stotsky comments on this approach, “Presently, ‘deeper learning’ is a frequent goal used by curriculum supervisors to justify teaching less content.”
  • For 16 years, the Bush and Obama administrations told parents and high school students that college was a necessary step in personal success in the Digital Age, and enrollments did, indeed, increase for most of those years. Let’s not call it progress, though, Stotsky warns: “More students than ever today go to college (and are encouraged to do so), but more students than ever are unprepared for college.”
  • Philanthropic entities such as the Gates Foundation have poured billions of dollars into public schools, each announcement packed with hope and righteousness. But, Stotsky notes, “As NAEP scores suggest (via the Nation’s Report Cards), very little positive change in the achievement level of low-achieving students has resulted from private philanthropy in the past four decades.”
  • Ever since the Coleman Report in 1966, family circumstances have been recognized as a primary determinant of academic achievement. And yet, Stotsky observes, “theoretical scholarship, let alone experimental research, on the ‘family’ is lacking. Whatever there is has not led to effective policy or research…research on family culture has reached a dead-end.”

And so on.

The Roots of Low Achievement surveys the condition of public schooling in the U.S. It’s a handy digest of what’s gone wrong and why. In ten crisp chapters, Stotsky emphasizes facts that educators, funders, and politicians prefer to ignore. Those of us who want to see an academic renewal in America cannot ignore them.

Did you know, for instance, that test scores in the United States plummeted from 1963 to 1979 and have remained largely stagnant ever since? Gobs of money, federal programs, gigantic legislation such as No Child Left Behind, mass initiatives such as Common Core, digital technology, and the political power of the teachers’ unions haven’t produced any gains.

Mark Zuckerberg gave the City of Newark $100 million to boost the schools ($100 million of matching funds followed the gift), but, Stotsky comments, “Overall, the goal that Zuckerberg set out to achieve—to enact reforms that would make Newark a model city for education reform—is considered a failure.”

Education reforms such as Common Core typically pledge to prepare students for college, but over the years the intellectual challenge of high school materials has actually dropped, not increased. “The reading level of most high school textbooks and literary texts is already at about grade 7 or 8,” Stotsky says.

Stotsky’s summation of the state of the schools is worth citing in full:

By the end of the twentieth century, all high school subjects had reduced content, and homework was now minimally assigned in many schools…grammar study had all but disappeared from English classes. Most literary and non-literary texts with high school or college reading levels were replaced by shorter works with lower reading levels based largely on the claim that most high school literary texts in a “traditional” English curriculum were by dead white males and therefore were unappealing to a multicultural student body…In mathematics, proofs had all but vanished from the study of geometry…The philosophical and historical antecedents of the US Constitution were gone, along with much US, English, and European history, economics, and geography…Advanced reading in a foreign language in the upper high school grades had disappeared.

This is a blunt indictment of the whole system and everyone in it who has had the power to shape it. Her targets range from Senator Lamar Alexander (the most prominent education figure in the Senate in recent times) to the progressives who attacked the Moynihan Report back in the Sixties to state boards of education who seem to initiate a new round of standards revisions every few years as if this time they’ll finally get achievement gains going. Their misconceptions are exasperating for anyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the system, but they keep making the same mistakes.

They believe, for instance, that closing racial achievement gaps are the first goal of reform, in spite of the widespread evidence that those gaps have their origin outside the schools, in families and neighborhoods and peer groups. Even if we accept that gap-closing is a proper goal (though Stotsky does not), their efforts have been fruitless.

Moreover, as part of this egalitarian dream, they have focused on one portion of the student population, the low achievers. This selective concern has resulted in the lowering of expectations that Stotsky summarizes in the passage above. After all, if you reduce homework, inflate grades, and lower the cut-off scores on standardized tests (that is, if you make a score of 60 count as a Pass, whereas previously a student had to score a 70), more students will make it out of high school. Many “iffy” ones who go to college will end up in remedial courses and drop out; others who go are not well-prepared and colleges dumb things down to keep them content.

Train teachers more in knowledge of their fields and less in pedagogical theories.

Stotsky’s solution to low achievement is less a program than a non-program. It effectively says: “Stop asking schools to solve problems that have nothing to do with schools!” Schools cannot fix broken homes. They cannot make children complete their schoolwork, either, if all their influences outside the classroom tell them not to do their schoolwork.

What schools can do is focus less on the circumstances and motivations of the children and more on the content of what they teach. Let’s raise the reading levels of 11th– and 12th-grade English classes above the 8th grade. Train teachers more in knowledge of their fields and less in pedagogical theories. Develop end-of-year tests in all subjects and use high school and college teachers as graders. And Congress should “Forbid data collection that sorts American students or their families by race, ethnicity, home language, and religious creed.”

In other words, make educators concentrate on the stuff in the books, not on the lives of the youngsters.

Many years ago, while I was working on education matters at the National Endowment for the Arts, a renowned administrator told a group of us that his favorite saying was, “I don’t teach math or English or science or art—I teach kids.”  He smiled, and the others approved. It is just this kind of personalization of instruction that has led to the reduction of content and lowering of standards for the last half-century. It should be reversed.

The Roots of Low Achievement compiles all the evidence you need to show how badly the student-centered, gap-closing orientation has failed—not just to prepare students for college, but for life. It’s time to remove people who presided over those failures from any further efforts.

Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things Magazine.