Things We Don’t Know About Education

Just a quickie post, stimulated by doing some grading.

It’s often said that high school and college education has declined in the U.S., But I don’t think that’s something we actually know.

One example that’s often used is a purported high school graduation exam from the late 19th century, which poses questions very few of us could answer today, such as;

  • Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
  • Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwolf and Orinoco.
  • Relate the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War

As Snopes correctly notes,

What [critics] fail to grasp is “I can’t answer these questions” is not the same thing as “These questions demonstrate that students in earlier days were better educated than today’s students. Just about any test looks difficult to those who haven’t been recently steeped in the material it covers”

There are multiple reasons why we don’t know that education that answered those questions was superior to today’s education. First, we don’t know how well the students retained that knowledge. Second, some of those things we don’t teach today because we’re teaching other things that we have decided are more important. You don’t have to agree that everything that in schools today is valuable to agree that knowing that Juan Fernandez is a set of islands off the coast of Chile may not be among the crucial elements of knowledge for success and happiness in the 21st century. We also don’t know the extent to which teachers taught to the test–we tend to assume that’s a contemporary phenomena, but with a test like that (assuming it’s real, which we also don’t know), did anyone back there face different incentives than teachers to today?

Finally, and this is the real issue for me. We don’t know how strictly those alleged tests were graded. I can give as hard a test as I want and let everyone pass by not grading too strictly. Consider the third question above, on the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War. That’s an essay question, open to as subjective a grading standard as any other essay question. When we interpret this, we tend to assume students had to offer a fairly sophisticated explanation, but how do we know that “The king taxed the colonists too much, so they got angry and rebelled and created the best country on earth” isn’t at least a “B” answer by the expectations of those grading the tests?

There are problems with K-12 education today. From my own subjective perspective as someone who teaches recent high school graduates, the fundamental problems are a disinterest in reading, a lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of mathematical competency. When I left high school nearly 30 years ago, I indisputably lacked mathematical competency, I’m pretty damn sure my critical thinking skills were not at the level I thought they were, and while I loved to read I hated reading textbooks (I think students hatred of reading for classes is more a function of bad textbook writing than lack of interest in reading–J.K. Rowling didn’t make her billions solely off the movies and apparel). Do we have actual evidence that it was any different 80 years ago, or 100 years ago?

We don’t, and the alleged test is not evidence that it was different back then. It is at best a proxy measure, and not a particularly strong one.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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9 Responses to Things We Don’t Know About Education

  1. Simple example: mental arithmetic. Good luck finding a high-school graduate today who can figure his trip mileage by the amount of gas pumped and the distance since the last fill-up. I can, but only because I learned arithmetic — and the ability to do it quickly in my head — before calculators.

    Had my teachers allowed more scratch paper in exams, I doubt I would have put in the effort.

    This in no way supports the idea that I received a “better” education in mathematics than my children who learned calculus with access to symbolic calculators.

  2. Phil says:

    It seems obvious, to me, there is a major problem in our K-12 system.
    It’s cause is in part a result of the huge efforts being made within the Evangelical movement to further their cause. They seek power over all the world. That’s what the private school movement is all about for them. Make the public K-12 system a joke.

  3. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    From my own subjective perspective as someone who teaches recent high school graduates, the fundamental problems are a disinterest in reading, a lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of mathematical competency.

    As a math/physics instructor teaching recent high school grads I can second your subjective opinion (at least on points two and three). As proof that my opinion is subjective I offer that my university recently dumped it’s poor scoring, entering freshman onto a community college (IVY Tech, Indiana Vocational Institute).

    The resulting improvement in student ability was refreshing and surprising. It instantly changed my jaded viewpoint that these whippersnappers were sliding down the evolutionary ladder towards Gibbons or maybe even new world Lemurs. Still, I sense a change for the worse.

    Then again, maybe it’s just us old fogies reacting to impertinent new minds that is the issue?

    I’m relatively sure of four things.

    1) These students are not coming to the game with the math and critical thinking skills of my generation.

    2) These little fuckers are being coddled much more than I was.They have a sense of entitlement that I am certain, (meaning I’m just talking out of my asshole) that comes from a generation of boosting their “self esteem”.

    3) There is no reason to expect that the last generation of human progeny has degraded in intellectual capability.

    and…

    4) Teachers have been bemoaning the abilities of incoming students since the time of Plato.
    Leave a Reply

  4. Lance says:

    Ugh!

    I accidentally posted this in the health care thread, and then copied and pasted it here. The first paragraph was a quote from Mr. Hanley and I didn’t take the time to put the “blockquote” prefix and suffix in around his quote.

    Apologies to all.

  5. Matty says:

    This is related to but not quite the same as the never ending debate in the UK about grade inflation. The percentage of students getting top grades goes up year after year and everyone debates are students getting smarter, are the questions easier, is the grading more lax?

    The questions that don’t seem to get asked are what the exams are testing in the first place and what the results are used for. A higher pass rate at maths may be fantastic if your concern is maximising the number of numerate people in society but a problem if you are trying to pick the top 5% of students for an advanced course and the top 10% have identical grades.

  6. James Hanley says:

    Lance, I’m not certain about your point number one, since I don’t really know much about my generation’s critical thinking skills overall. I can remember being a college freshman and try to compare that to today’s freshman, but clearly that’s not a very rigorous approach.

    Your points 2-4 I agree with, and point 2 is a problem. The sense of entitlement is, I think, the biggest problem. From what I’ve read, B is the standard grade at many non-elite public schools now, because so many students assume that just showing up deserves a B that schools have given up fighting them. At my non-elite private college we’re trying to improve our academic standards and reputation, and by ACT score we’re bringing in better students, but we faculty don’t feel much improvement in the classroom, and it seems mostly to be a function of sense of entitlement and consequent lack of work ethic. I’m in a position where I’m probably going to fail between 1/4 and 1/3 of my American Government class, an unprecedented amount, because I have such a large proportion of students who can’t even be bothered to show up for class. Some will even turn in the assignments–that the syllabus says must be turned in in-class–under my office door during the class time, but never show up for class.

    I’ve never had that problem to this extent before, and I’m wondering if I’ve changed and am somehow driving off students, or if we brought in that bad a crop of freshman (except that the problem isn’t limited to frosh), or if–most likely–I just got the really bad random draw of students this term. But what seems to be common to them is that actually putting in the efffort and learning isn’t understood to be a required part of passing.

  7. Lance says:

    I’ve never had that problem to this extent before, and I’m wondering if I’ve changed and am somehow driving off students, or if we brought in that bad a crop of freshman (except that the problem isn’t limited to frosh), or if–most likely–I just got the really bad random draw of students this term. But what seems to be common to them is that actually putting in the efffort and learning isn’t understood to be a required part of passing.

    It could just be, as you listed as a possibility, that you have drawn a bad sample.

    As I mentioned earlier, IUPUI has jettisoned the dregs to IVY Tech and I have enjoyed a pulse of incoming students that actually have the pre-reqs to succeed in my courses. Of course they still don’t think they have to come to class or do their home work, which I collect each class. I am sure this is due to the sense of entitlement we agree has pervaded the student population.

    Also, as you pointed out work ethic is a huge factor. I think it is good that you are going to flunk a good portion of your students. I don’t dare so such a thing. We “adjunct faculty” are graded on what is called our “DFW” percentage. (Percentage of students that get a D, and F or withdraw from our courses.)

    It is made quite clear to us that dipping below a certain percentage is not acceptable and the state legislature appropriates funds based on the universities ability to move the “product” along.

    You may be in a position of greater power to influence the curve. I have to try to motivate these students into performing.

    In truth I’m a big softy. I have always had a very low DFW rate due to a very good repport with my students. Well that is once they get the idea that I am very sarcastic and gruff “seeming”. Some of them don;t get the joke and run off to the department chair every time I poke them into waking up with a embarrassing zinger or make a non-PC joke.

    The department used to call me in for meetings to make sure I wasn’t offending the little dears, especially the ones in “protected classes” but since I’m married to a black woman and they know I genuinely care about the success of my students and imparting to them a love of the subjects I teach they pretty much leave me alone. Christ, I’ve been teaching at IUPUI for over twelve years now and they don’t pay me diddly so they let me run my classes as I wish for the most part.

    So long as my DFW rate stays low and my students don’t get too pissed off.

    I don’t know if our experiences are representative of the over all college student population or not. If they are the country maybe be heading for an extended period of ennui.

    Of course I sometimes think this could be a good thing for us personally. In a society of incurious lazy dullards we could seize control!

    In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is King!

  8. James Hanley says:

    Lance,

    In some respects I’m in a fortunate position. While my college, being tuition-driven, is deeply concerned about retention, our president has done a great job of expanding the size of our student body, and our Academic Dean has little patience with slacker students. So I’ve never had any problems for failing students. Not that I think I’m that tough–you have to really tank to fail American Gov’t, but each term 1-3 students (out of classes that average probably 28 students) manage it. And I’m able to back my adjuncts on failing students or ringing them up for plagiarism.

    But for you, at least, it sounds like having IVY Tech take the bottom end will make it easier for you to avoid the DFW problem while making your teaching task more enjoyable. That’s good–and it’s probably good for those low-end students, too.

  9. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    Having IVY Tech enroll the unqualified students has been good for me and, as you surmise, for them.

    There is no worse feeling than having to flunk a student that you know is trying their best and is just in over their head.

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