Three things on topics academic this morning:

(1) A note to The Chronicle of Higher Education: Putting up an op-ed from an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a “free-market” “think” tank so right-wing that it makes AEI look like the Comintern) does not help your credibility.

(2) Colorado College in (not surprisingly) Colorado is offering a new major in Education that operates a little differently. Good on them.

(3) If you read only one of these, read this one from Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed. The destruction of public education is not limited to K-12. Public education (from pre-K to PhD) remains the greatest potential creator of *true* equality, and as such it’s a threat to the oligarchs. That’s why we have the funding inequalities described here. That’s why we have MOOCs and for-profit “schools” pushed – and pushed hard – by people who would *never* send their own children to one.


My old friend and fraternity brother Tom Musgrave, who was an outstanding journalist and is now an outstanding civil servant (and has always been an outstanding musician), gives us his thoughts on a Kentucky high school that had twenty-two valedictorians out of a class of about 400.

To his wonderful and spot-on thoughts, I would add the following.

(1) I would agree that there has to be a way to get that number down. Tom suggests involvement in extracurricular activities as one such filter. He backs this up by referencing a conversation he had with an admissions officer at a selective liberal arts college. I would agree, but in this age of hyperparenting, this would lead (and in some cases has led) to parents demanding their child volunteer/participate 24/7, to the exclusion of sleep and basic mental health. More about this in a moment.

(2) I suspect there’s grade inflation/lower standards at work here as well. I don’t blame the classroom teachers for this (trust me, as a classroom teacher myself, I would never do that), but I do blame administrators. I know it makes the school look good when a whole bunch of kids from that school get fat scholarships for being the valedictorian, but still…when you do this, you do not adequately prepare kids for college. I may not know much, but I do know what kids should know coming into college, and any school that has 22 valedictorians most likely has…issues with standards. Standardized tests likely factor into this as well, but that’s a topic for another time.

(3) Kids know, man. They know more than for what we give them credit. They see through “everyone gets a trophy.”

Tying points (1) and (3) together: Parents, KNOCK IT OFF. Time was, the goal of a parent was to get the kid to adulthood with love, humor, basic human decency and the knowledge that you don’t stick a fork in an electrical outlet. Now, parents are hypercompetitive; they are scared to death what other parents think about them. If their little spawn doesn’t sit atop the class and get into Harvard, the parents get all mopey and are convinced other parents think they failed and should have their kids taken away by Child Protective Services.

You hear people talking about how there’s too much emphasis on self-esteem these days. I would agree. However, the problem is not the self-esteem of the students. I contend the bulk of the problems facing schools today are because people are too concerned about the self-esteem of the parents.

And that, my friends, is the biggest threat to education of all.

Bonus – I wholeheartedly agree with Tom’s last statement (in italics). I’ve even heard that some schools do graduation-like ceremonies for every elementary grade. When everything is made into a ritual or ceremony, the important ones lose their luster. I’m sorry, but getting through Kindergarten is not remotely like graduating high school or college.


(NB: This was originally a note on Facebook from last summer.)

I just finished rereading one of my favorite books – Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

That seems like an odd way to start a post on education, since the book is about Moses’s acquisition of power in New York City and the State of New York. Education is barely mentioned, and then only to discuss the schools that weren’t built while Moses was building roads, bridges, and parks. However, there is one striking parallel between Moses’s roadbuilding and modern American education.

The map of New York was irrevocably changed by Moses. He built bridges and roads to lessen the load on existing bridges and roads, then built more bridges and roads to lessen the loads on the ones he built, then built more bridges and roads…well, you get the idea. Everytime he built a new bridge or road, he promised it would reduce traffic on some other bridge or road. However, this never happened. A new bridge would open and almost immediately become clogged, but the bridge which was supposed to get relief never did. Traffic was now horrible on two bridges. So he’d build a third, which would promptly fill up; now there are three congested bridges and no relief. Moses remained convinced that one more bridge would always do the trick, and he used his power to make sure he could keep building those bridges – to the detriment of tunnels, subways, buses (he purposefully built some roads and bridges in such a way that buses could not run on them), railways, etc. His refusal to see anything wrong with a system that clearly did not work – indeed, one that made things worse – not only led to the metastisizing of that system, but also made it impossible for alternatives to develop or flourish.

Let’s take a look at high-stakes testing. Now, this is just me blowing off steam on Facebook, so I haven’t actually done anything real like looking at data, but anecdotally – I’ve been in the classroom since 1998. I’ve seen standards drop right and left as testing has become more important. Anyone else notice this? The oligarchs, anti-teacher types, and “we should run education like a business!” folks looooove tests as the arbiter of funding and status because they remove actual education from the equation. Test scores may go up and down, but I have seen nothing to indicate that learning is any better than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. In my darker, more conspiratorial moments, I believe this is a feature, not a bug. Public education was the great equalizer, and if there’s one thing oligarchs hate, it’s an equalizer.

And so, like Robert Moses with bridges and roads, the all-testing-all-the-time types shut down other means of education reform, tie teacher pay and school support to test scores and not to learning, and use the force of funding and law to make sure a non-testing-based approach to school quality assessment never has a chance to develop, all the while piling more and more tests and clogging up the system further. This system cannot long endure.