Saturday, January 16, 2016

Against School the persistent—and possible deliberate—failures in our school system | New Republic

Against School | New Republic:

Against School

In this previously unpublished essay, Aaron Swartz sought an explanation for the persistent—and possible deliberate—failures in our school system.

Critics of high-stakes testing say that it isn’t working as planned: teachers are teaching to the test instead of making sure kids actually learn. But maybe that is actually the plan.

Despite all the talk about educators and education priorities, the most important people in any school have always been businessmen. They constantly complain that our schools our failing, that they need to cut out modern fads and go “back to basics,” that unless schools get tougher on students American business will be unable to compete.
As Richard Rothstein has shown, such claims are hardly new. Because schools have never been about actual education, businessmen have been easily collecting studies about their failure at this task since the very beginning. In 1845, only 45 percent of Boston’s brightest students knew that water expands when it freezes. In one school, 75 percent knew the US had imposed an embargo on British and French goods during the War of 1812, but only 5 percent knew what embargo meant. Students, the Secretary of Education wrote, were simply memorizing the “words of the textbook...without think about the meaning of what they have learned.”

In 1898, a writing exam at Berkeley found that 30 to 40 percent of entering freshman were not proficient in English. A Harvard report found only 4 percent of applicants “could write an essay, spell, or properly punctuate a sentence.” But that didn’t stop editorialists from complaining about how things were better in the old days. Back when they went to school, complained the editors of the New York Sun in 1902, children “had to do a little work. ... Spelling, writing and arithmetic were not electives, and you had to learn.” Now schooling was just “a vaudeville show. The child must be kept amused and learns what he pleases.” In 1909, the Atlantic Monthly complained that basic skills had been replaced by “every fad and fancy.”
That same year, the dean of Stanford’s school of education warned that in a global economy, “whether we like it or not, we are beginning to see that we are pitted against the world in a gigantic battle of brains and skill.” Because of their failing schools, of course, Americans were coming up short.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed a presidential commission to study how to improve our international educational competitiveness. They found that more than half of new recruits to the Army during World War I “were not able to write a simple letter or read a newspaper with ease.” In 1927, the National Association of Manufacturers complained that 40 percent of high school graduates could not perform simple arithmetic or accurately express themselves in English.

A 1938 study complained that newfangled teaching methods were forcing out basic instruction in phonics: “teachers...conspire against pupils in their efforts to learn; these teachers appear to be determinedly on guard never to mention a letter by name...or to show how to use either letter forms or sounds in reading.” A 1940 survey of business executives “found that by large margins they believed recent graduates were inferior to the previous generation in arithmetic, written English, spelling, geography, and world affairs.”

A 1943 test by the New York Times found that only 29 percent of college freshmen knew that St. Louis was on the Mississippi, only 6 percent knew the original thirteen states of the Union, and some students even thought Lincoln was the first president. It was, the Times declared, a “striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.”

In 1947, the Times’s education editor published a book titled Our Children Are Cheated. In it, businessmen lamented the poor state of American schools. One complained he had to “organize special classes to instruct [his new hires] in...making change. ... Only a small proportion [can] place Boston, New their proper sequence from east to west, or name the states in which they [are located].”

A 1951 test in LA found that more than half of eighth graders couldn’t calculate 8 percent sales tax on an $8 purchase. The newspapers complained that students couldn’t even tell time. In 1952, the journal Progressive Education complained about the “attacks on textbooks that encourage inquisitive thinking and individual reasoning, ... mounting pressure to eliminate the ‘frills and fads’—by which are meant such vital services as nurseries, classes for the handicapped, testing and guidance, programs to help youngsters understand and appreciate their neighbors of different backgrounds”—what today would be called multiculturalism.

In 1958, U.S. News and World Report lamented that “fifty years ago a high-school diploma meant something…. We have simply misled our students and misled the Against School | New Republic: