Why doesn't America ever get better at educating children?
During my lifetime, Americans have made progress in many fields—for example, retailing, where Wal-Mart and Costco operate profitably selling at inflation-adjusted prices that would be unimaginably low to past generations.
Yet, our schools keep bumping along, with one fad replacing another, but little if any improvement in results.
In the early 1990s, I frequently visited Bentonville, Arkansas, making sales calls on Wal-Mart. What distinguished Wal-Mart from every other major corporation I'd met with was the ruthlessness of its rationality. Its employees would tear apart the slightest weakness in my sales pitch.
In contrast, the vast education business is shot through with charlatans peddling snake oil because the mindset of the education establishment is anti-rational.
Yet, once people gave up on the idea of turning lead into gold, they found there was a tremendous amount they could methodically do with lead and gold and all the other elements. The age of scientific chemistry had begun, to the great benefit of humanity.
We're still in the Alchemy Age of education, though.
Of course, that's exactly what we're not supposed to do, according to the No Child Left Behind act put together by President Bush and Senator Kennedy.
The unpalatable truth is that success in school depends mostly on the student's intelligence and work ethic. Teachers and techniques can add or subtract from what the student brings to school from home. But we won't make much progress if the education establishment abstains from honest thinking.
For example, one big trend in recent years in the battle against the so-called "soft bigotry of low expectations" has been to set strict statewide standards mandating by which grade each bit of learning will be learnt. In fact, California teachers are supposed to write the Standards on the classroom whiteboards so that the students can make sure that their teachers aren't slacking off and leaving out anything that is officially mandated. (Whether any student has ever complained is unknown.)
Still, what happens to the ones who fail to "memorize to automaticity" in third grade because they aren't smart enough yet? Do they spend fourth grade chanting their times tables?
Are you kidding? The State of California has a whole bunch of new standards for them to master in fourth grade, such as
"Draw the points corresponding to linear relationships on graph paper (e.g., draw 10 points on the graph of the equation y = 3 x and connect them by using a straight line").
There's no time for teachers to go back to assist the laggards.
Therefore, many kids never memorize their times tables. And that means they are never going to be any good at math, because if you don't know your times tables, you'll be slowed down so much by balky mechanics that you'll lag at higher level problem-solving.
If you think in terms of bell curves, you can see how this problem is inevitable with any set of standards. Some kids are ready to learn something in Grade X, many others in Grade X+1, but some won't be ready until Grade X+2.
Yet if you make everybody wait around until Grade X+2, you'll waste too much of the smart and even average kids' time.
So, typically, states compromise and choose Grade X+1 as the standard. Because math is cumulative, however, more and more students fall behind each year and can't catch up, so by high school they aren't close to the standards.
Of course, nobody is supposed to think in terms of bell curves. So too bad about the kids who could have learned their times tables if given enough time. They won't. Eventually, they'll probably drop out of high school, and if they're male and a non-Asian minority (NAM), they'll likely spend some time in prison.
That's unfortunate—but, apparently, it's better than educators defiling their moral purity by thinking about bell curves.
The sensible thing would be to "track" students by ability into classes appropriate for their mental quickness. But tracking is terribly out of fashion. So, the smart kids sit around bored.
The latest fad: teachers should put the smart kids to work teaching the d*mb kids (or as the latest jargon calls them, "low-confidence learners").
What often happens is that we end up with de facto tracking in the public schools, via crypto-selective institutions like magnet schools. For instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, has erected a magnet school application process that's so complicated that only the smarter, more diligent, and better-connected parents can figure it out. When these folks notice that their kids are being abused as unpaid teacher's assistants, they learn how to manipulate the system to get them out.
For an example of how disconnected from simple reality the educrat zeitgeist is, consider the bizarre contortions that a prominent speaker at a math teacher's conference recently went through to try to slip in the idea that some kids are slower than other kids:
"Math students should act more like artist Paul Cezanne and less like Pablo Picasso, author Malcolm Gladwell said Wednesday evening.
"Gladwell, who wrote the best-selling books The Tipping Point and Blink, told math teachers gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference that the Western world's attitude toward learning and achievement has much to do with America's struggle to keep up internationally in math. …
"He said Western culture values people who are conceptual learners and innovators, like Picasso. Picasso was an artistic innovator early in his life. They are people who achieve success quickly and in a big way.
"But that's not the only way to innovate or learn, Gladwell said. Cezanne was also an artistic genius, but his greatest achievements came bit by bit and over time. He was an experimental innovator, Gladwell said.
"Society often forgets that genius and achievement can take persistence and hard work over years. … 'We need classrooms full of Cezannes, not just Picassos.'"
[Author: Be patient when teaching math, by Lisa Schencker, Salt Lake Tribune, April 10, 2008]
Okay … but the problem is that our classrooms are full of kids who are neither current (Picasso) nor potential (Cezanne) geniuses. They're just the normal distribution of children.
I'm hoping that Gladwell knows his talk about "genius" is a joke and that he was just trying to arm teachers with a useful new euphemism:
"Mrs. Smith, your little Johnny is what we in the education profession call a 'Cezanne.'"
If educational theorists get Gladwell's joke, then schools could track students into the Picasso (fast), Monet (average), or Cezanne (slow) classes.
But why won't our education overlords think in terms of bell curves?
The sad things is that there are lots of small ways to improve American schools, but the entire field of K-12 education theory has come to be dominated by fools and hypesters because the key concept—that some kids are smarter than others—is radioactive. And the reason it's taboo is that when you objectively measure performance, you get massive "disparate outcomes" by race. In the U.S., thinking scientifically about human differences always threatens to blow up in your face. So few people do it.
Thus, the quality of education research in modern America resembles the quality of astronomical research in Italy following Galileo's conviction. We're living in a country where, to hold a position of responsibility in education, you have to, in effect, publicly proclaim that the sun goes around the earth.
That's why the education industry is so anti-rational, so swept by manias, by the search for magic solutions that will square the circle: because all thinking is devoted to making the sun go around the earth. You wouldn't want to end up like Galileo, would you?
As a result, our institutions focus on the impracticable problem of eliminating the racial gaps in American students' performance, instead of the much more achievable goal of helping students come closer to attaining their individual potentials.
A friend compares the taboo on thinking about race and IQ to black holes:
The metaphor that's always come to my mind is that of living near some sort of singularity—a black hole.
Basically, anything that gets too close to the singularity falls inside and disappears. People go around their daily lives, when suddenly someone accidentally gets too close—James Watson?—and Bam! He disappears.
Gradually over time, more and more pieces of our world drop inside the singularity and disappear—until eventually the entire society collapses.