Chester E. Finn, Jr. President, Fordham Foundation Academic Questions, Spring 1998e:
What’s going on in the college curriculum cannot be laid entirely at the doorstep of the K-12 system. Indeed, as Allan Bloom figured out a decade or more ago, it has as much to do with our educational culture, indeed with our culture per se, as with our schools. Cultural meltdown afflicts both sets of institutions. But each also inflames the other.
What is the crisis in K-12 education? There is, of course, a faction within the profession that insists there is no crisis, that the schools are getting a bum rap, that they’re doing a good enough job, or as good a job as they ever did, or as good a job as our nasty, Philistine society deserves, or as good a job as they can, given the decay of parents and families, or as good a job as the money we are giving them will buy, and so on. There is a popular book in educator-land called The Manufactured Crisis which trots out all these arguments and adds that the unwarranted criticism of U.S. schools is the result of a Machiavellian rightwing plot to discredit public education in order to replace it with vouchers, for-profit schools, home schooling, and other variations.
Most Americans, though, agree that we have a crisis in K-12 education. Employers say so. College admissions officers and professors say so. Elected officials at every level say so. A number of honest educators say so. And lots and lots of surveys make plain that most of the public believes this to be the case and, incidentally, is out there busily seeking alternatives to mediocre schools for their own kids.
People highlight various aspects of the crisis. For some, discipline, violence, and drug issues are paramount. For some, it is the collapse of big city school systems. This critique is usually brought by people who (wrongly, in my view) suppose that rural and suburban schools are doing a good enough job. For some, it is character issues like cheating. For some it is dropouts and other forms of non-completion. All of these are genuine problems and they all affect the colleges. But the core of the K-12 crisis is the weak academic skills and knowledge of a huge fraction of high school graduates, the tiny fraction who are truly well educated, and the sizable fraction who are more or less illiterate at the end of twelve or thirteen years of schooling.
That is the first of ten elements of the K-12 crisis with special salience for the college curriculum. What does it mean to enroll a freshman who does not know when or why the [U.S.] Civil War was fought, who has never written a paper longer than a couple of pages, whose math goes only to algebra, whose acquaintance with literature is more apt to involve Maya Angelou and maybe Hemingway than Dickens, Faulkner, or Milton, who cannot distinguish Dred Scott from F. Scott Fitzgerald, and who could not accurately locate more than six countries if handed a blank map of the world?
What does it mean for the college curriculum? Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it means that the college curriculum is forced—like it or not—to become more like what the high school curriculum ought to be. College becomes the place to get a secondary education just as, for many young people, high school is the place for a primary education. Is it any surprise that many employers, wanting to hire people with a bona fide tertiary education, are insisting on postgraduate degrees?
Second, young people entering our colleges are unaccustomed, by virtue of their K-12 education, to serious intellectual standards. They are well accustomed to praise, deserved or not. Middle school classrooms dripping with self-esteem, something called “emotional intelligence,” and other forms of affective learning turn into grade inflation in college. Try giving these students a C or D—or even a B—and see what reaction you get. Not only have they been allowed to get by with slovenly academic work, they have also been told they’re fantastic. Which is, of course, why, in all those international comparisons our kids do so much better on the self-regard measures than on actual performance.
Third, they are not used to working hard. They got through school without rewriting papers, without doing long division by hand (they had calculators), without wrestling with difficult texts, or without burning the midnight oil at the library. Lots of them had jobs, they had boyfriends, they were on athletic teams, they partied a lot. They may have been busy as can be, but many of them minored in academics while in high school. They are used to coasting—and getting by.
Fourth, school has not nurtured their character, their virtues, their values, or their moral fiber. Lots of schooling is still self-consciously value-neutral and lots of teachers are still self-conscious about “imposing values” on their students. The curriculum encourages relativism, too. So concepts of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, noble and villainous—these distinctions may be a little murky to arriving college students, unless they picked them up in church or at home.
Fifth, they do not have good study habits. They did not need them to make a go of high school. Often they could avoid homework, cram at the last minute for tests, avoid participating in class discussions, borrow term papers from the Internet, and use plot summaries and other short cuts rather than wrestling with the textbook, much less an original text. If, like many schools, theirs emphasized group work and cooperative learning, and minimized competition and individual attainment, then they are accustomed to sharing the work, not doing it themselves and being held accountable.
Sixth, they have received an ample dose, if not an overdose, of political correctness, multiculturalism, and other ideologies before they’ve even reached the ivy-covered walls. They learned to be nice, to be sensitive, to be inclusive, and not to say anything offensive or provocative. They did not learn it only from high school, of course. As Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia made painfully clear in a brilliant Harper’s essay, much of this worldview comes from television. But today’s schooling contributes its fair share and more.
Seventh, if they went to a typical U.S. high school, they are used to a curricular smorgasbord and are probably unacquainted, or minimally acquainted, with some core subjects. They may have taken bachelor living instead of civics, consumer math instead of geometry, black history instead of ancient history, and psychology instead of physics. They very likely took some technical or vocational or “school to work” classes instead of a comprehensive program in the liberal arts. Yes, they had to satisfy certain graduation requirements, but if psychology counts as science and journalism counts as English, why take the real stuff?
Eighth, they’re accustomed to mediocre teaching. They may have had a favorite teacher, perhaps a great, inspiring, deeply knowledgeable teacher. Jaime Escalante is not the only such, after all, among 2.7 million teachers in U.S. schools. But the odds are that a number of their teachers were time-servers, not terribly sophisticated about their own fields, and perhaps more interested in whether kids are properly entertained, enjoyed the class, and were feeling good about themselves, than in how much they learned from it.
Ninth, college-bound students are not accustomed to many consequences. They are not used to feeling that it really matters in their lives whether they study hard, learn a lot, and get top marks in hard subjects, or coast along with so-so grades in fluffy courses. They know that results count in some domains—like sports—but not in class.
I have turned into something of a behaviorist. I do not believe that anything has really been taught unless it was learned, nor do I think that educational reform is real until and unless it actually boosts student achievement. And I do not expect that to happen until young people actually alter their behavior: take different courses, study harder, and rise to higher standards. But what is going to alter their behavior if their real world continues to signal that it does not make any difference, that there are few tangible rewards for learning more, and practically no unpleasant consequences for learning very little? What does that say to a sixteen-year-old faced with a choice between rewriting his lab report and studying for his history test, or going out with his friends. Sixteen-year-olds, in their own peculiar way, are rational beings. They are forever going through a crude calculus that boils down to “does it really matter?” The answer we keep giving them is no, it doesn’t, not unless they’re part of that small sub-set of the sixteen-year-old population that is gunning for admission to our handful of truly competitive colleges and universities.
This may not be well understood by intellectuals, so many of whom have kids in that little pool of aspirants to Princeton and Stanford and Amherst. For those young people, yes, it makes a difference how they spend their Tuesday evenings, and most of them know it. But what about everyone else?
Third grade teachers can fake it with eight-year-olds by handing out gold stars and threatening them with summer school. To some extent, school systems can even fake it with teenagers by telling them that they are not going to graduate unless they pass certain tests or take certain courses. More and more of that is happening around the K-12 system. But it is all a bit unreal—a bit fake—because the sprawling U.S. higher education complex keeps whispering in kids’ ears, “Never mind, we’ll be glad to have you anyway.”
Tenth, finally, our young people are thoroughly accustomed, long before they reach the university classroom, to the educational regimen that E.D. Hirsch calls romantic naturalism—a product of Rousseau and Dewey and the rest of the Teachers College faculty of eighty years ago, but still the regnant intellectual theology of the education profession. Let us abjure a long excursion into this “thoughtworld,” as Hirsch terms it, and not rehash its lack of any serious scientific moorings. Its immediate relevance is that kids are coming out of school having been told that all they need to learn is what they feel like learning, that their teachers are escorts or facilitators, not instructors, that knowledge is pretty much whatever they’d like it to be, and that their feelings and sentiments are as valid as anything that might be termed successive approximations of objective truth, if indeed there is any such thing as truth.
What are the implications of all this for the college curriculum? To reduce it to a sentence, our universities are having to build a house atop a cracked and incomplete foundation.
How much repouring of the foundation does the university undertake? At whose expense? Instead of what? Does the remedial work count for credit? If so, does it subtract from the amount of so-called college level work that is expected, or does it add to the total, thus taking more time and demanding additional resources? Or does the college give up? Or try to do something altogether different, not repairing the foundation but, let’s say, pouring a slab and proceeding to build?
I have my own view of all this, but I know it is naive, my own form of romantic utopianism. My view is that the colleges should leverage the K-12 system to make the kinds of changes that both systems (not to mention the larger society) urgently need.
Shoulder-to-shoulder the nation’s universities should stand, proclaiming as with a single voice that, starting some reasonable number of years in the future, none will admit any student (under the age of, say, thirty) who cannot demonstrate mastery of certain specified skills and knowledge. If that demand were honestly enforced, it would have a dramatic, catalytic effect on the nation’s high schools, one that would reverberate back through the elementary schools. And if major employers were to make common cause with the institutions of higher education, the effect would be more dramatic still. The second-order effects on our colleges and universities would be striking as well.
But it is not going to happen. Employers would cite legal reasons, civil rights reasons, business reasons. Interest groups and editorialists will talk about equal opportunity. As for the colleges—well, their need for students is greater than their need for standards. So the higher education system is apt instead to persist in its peculiar love-hate relationship with the K-12 system, complaining about the system’s products while contributing to and exacerbating in myriad ways the bad habits and fallacies that produced them.
The worst of higher education’s crimes against the K-12 system is the abandonment of entry standards, which of course is a corollary of the universalization of access to higher education within the United States.
Let me be clear. I am not opposed to everyone’s having a shot at a college education. I do not begrudge financial aid measures that make it possible for many people to enroll. What I oppose is the devastation that is wrought on high school standards—and thereby, on primary school standards—by the widespread understanding that all can go to college even if they do not learn a doggone thing in school. The greatest tragedy of open admissions is not what it does to the colleges but what it does to the schools and to efforts to reform them. By holding the schools harmless from their own shortcomings, and signaling that young people are welcome in our colleges—well, some colleges—regardless of what they took or how much they learned or how hard they worked in high school, the endless expansion of higher education fatally undermines the prospects of doing anything about our schools. Moreover, it contributes to what we might term the “highschoolization” of colleges themselves. (Of course, it we come to count on our colleges to provide secondary education, then it is not unreasonable to expect access to them to be universal. I think President Clinton, among others, has figured that out, though of course he never says it that way.)
Admissions standards, or their absence, have a profound effect on the schools, and are the first of five ways in which the crisis of the college curriculum adversely affects the K-12 system.
Second, the university’s intellectual and curricular fashions have a trickle down effect. Every idea that seeps down through the academic limestone eventually creates stalactites within the K-12 curriculum. The whole postmodern intellectual enterprise has infected what is taught in grade schools. Deconstructionism in the university become constructivism in fourth grade—both progeny of the same ancestors. Where do “fuzzy” math, cooperative learning, whole language reading, and “history from the victim’s standpoint” come from? Where did those wretched national history standards come from? Whence cometh the emphasis on so-called higher order thinking skills and the scorn for specific knowledge and facts? They are all gifts that higher education has bestowed on the schools.
Third, there is the disaster area of teacher training. Upwards of a hundred thousand education degrees are awarded by U.S. colleges and universities. People in the arts and sciences sometimes delude themselves into believing that the dreadful, wrong-headed content and low standards built into most of these degrees are the problem of some other wing of the university. Perhaps so. But I do not see how any serious discussion of the college curriculum can proceed to cloture without at least pondering the intellectual carnage of our education schools. Somebody in higher education has got to be responsible for that!
Consider that a new first grade teacher with twenty-five kids in her class, if she remains in the profession for thirty years, will profoundly affect the lives and educational futures of 750 youngsters. If she is a high school teacher with, say, 100 students a year, the number whose lives she will touch over the course of a classroom career rises to 3,000. Where did she get her own education? Who decided what she needs to know before being turned loose on children? Who decided when she had learned enough of it? Who trained the principals and department heads who will supervise her? Who supplies the “in service” training and “professional development” that will salt her career? Who writes the textbooks that she will use and the professional journals that she will read? These are all the responsibility of the university and its faculty. The K-12 virus that has sickened and will infect generations of future students in the university can be traced right back to the university campus itself.
Fourth, permissiveness with respect to behavior and morality also trickles down. If it is taken for granted on the college campus that it is fine for eighteen-year-olds to indulge in drugs, sex, binge drinking, class-cutting, over-sleeping, and all the rest, it is naive to think that seventeen-year-olds on the high school campus will not adopt the same practices. Which means that fifteen-year-olds, and thirteen-year-olds, and eleven-year-olds, and so on down through the grades, will do their version of the same things. If the college winks at state drinking laws, why shouldn’t the high school? If the college sophomore in the family boasts about his exploits, what do you suppose will be the effect on the high school sophomore who is his younger sister or brother? What are the effects on parents trying to bring their kids up properly?
Fifth, and finally, the university is the wellspring of such social and political values of the K-12 curriculum as multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, scorn for patriotism, affection for governmental solutions to all problems, and so forth. These creep into fourth-grade textbooks, into the videos and television programs that teachers show, into the magazines and newspapers and workbooks that they assign, and into the belief structure of the teachers themselves. Indeed, the activist groups that seek to propagate those values throughout the society are especially eager to target the young and vulnerable. Thus “peace education” has evolved into conflict-resolution courses and science and geography classes are awash in radical environmentalism. I do not say that this is entirely the fault of our colleges and universities, but if these beliefs were not firmly grounded there, their position in our schools would be a lot shakier.
Entropy describes a closed system in which everything deteriorates. Webster’s refers to “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity.” That is how I have come to see the all-but-sealed world in which the schools and the colleges deteriorate together, each worsening the condition of the other.
Is anything to be done? I see small signs of hope on the K-12 front: the movement toward standards, tests, and accountability; the spread of “charter” schools and other new institutional forms; the growth of school choice and the concomitant transfer of some authority from producers to consumers. But it is a slow process and so far not one that has yielded palpable results in terms of student achievement.
One can also point to new islands of excellence in the postsecondary seas and to other modest indicators of progress.
Perhaps it will all come together. Certainly there is evidence of mounting discontent on the part of governors and legislators and of greater willingness to take such obvious policy steps as yoking college admission standards to high school exit requirements.
But what we need most is a renaissance of the will and the spirit, a rebirth of the concept of educational quality. As Roger Shattuck put it in a grand essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[W]e need to reexamine our fundamental beliefs about educational excellence. If we do not confront these assumptions, we shall never be able to change the ways in which our two levels conspire to lower standards.”