Marc Tucker asks, "Why Have American Education Standards Collapsed?"  By all means, go, read the whole thing.  Herewith my impressions.  Let's start with his description of the E-T-T-S moment.
First of all, the period I have just mentioned started when American business, riding high since the end of World War II, was challenged by Asian countries offering much cheaper manufacturing workers with the skills as high as the typical American manufacturing worker.  Not long thereafter, automation began to replace Americans doing low-skill and routine work at an ever-increasing rate. This led first to a stagnation and then a fall in real wages for the average employed American worker, a steep decline in the labor participation of men in the employed workforce and an equally steep increase in the rates of childbirth among unmarried women.  These trends have combined to greatly increase the proportion of children entering the first grade who live in poverty, one-parent homes and in poor health.  The issues here are not simply lack of money and the things money can buy.  They go much deeper to a collapse of middle class values as the middle class is demoralized and its numbers dwindle.  Little wonder that school teachers believe that society has dumped all of its problems at the schoolhouse door.
The common culture could have survived either the developing world and the European economies emerging as industrial powers, or the Consciousness Revolution, but both, simultaneously.  What's the point of hanging onto bourgeois values if there's neither material nor moral reward in it?
For families in which prior generations were proud to be a boilermaker or electrician, now fear and shame would come if Junior were not a professional.  In other countries, grades are the result of a student's performance on an externally graded test.  Everyone gets together to help Junior meet the high standards.  In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college.  So grade inflation made rapid headway in our schools.
That is, if those trade jobs are still available. (They are, but they're localized these days.)  Note, though, the inflated grades and the weak universities are more likely to be the sub-prime sector of higher education, the positional arms races among the well-off and the Tiger Moms are still about meeting high standards.
In the 1980s, experts, seeing the baby boom winding its way through our colleges and universities, predicted that, when the cohort of college-age students retreated to its normal size, the number of places in the colleges and universities would fall dramatically and many would be forced to close.  It did not happen.  I interviewed a number of college admissions officers at the time.  With surprising candor, they told me that they would take the best students they could find, but their primary goal would be to fill their seats, whatever that took.  What it took was an across-the-board fall in admissions standards.  Once those sub-par students were admitted, the word went out to college faculty that professors who continued to use their former standards for grading would be punished.
That overstates the case.  But the austerity in state universities that accompanied the shakeout of the unionized oligopoly industries that paid the taxes was an opportunity to raise admission standards and downsize the student body concomitantly with the faculty.  That is not what happened.  Just pick any month of my posts and read about it.

Here, though, Mr Tucker attempts too much.
Later, as the competition for students among institutions heated up, the arbiter in the admissions game became U.S. News and World Report.  The rankings emphasized the quality of amenities provided rather than the quality of the academic program, for which there were no agreed-upon metrics.  The institutions, forced to compete on these terms, invested heavily in nicer student accommodations, fancier dining halls, climbing walls and student mental health care facilities.  As the competition for students stiffened, universities spent ever more on very sophisticated college recruitment schemes.  As regulation of universities increased, administration blossomed.  Facing these cost pressures, the universities considerably reduced the number of hours of instruction provided during the academic year.  They charged more for what they offered, but they provided less instruction.  The combination of lower admissions standards, less instruction and the need to retain the students they had admitted irrespective of their academic performance, led to a general across-the-board decline in standards.
The U. S. News rankings may generate poor proxies for academic quality, but I have not seen any evidence to persuade me from my stance that those guides sell precisely to parents, and to a lesser extent, to prospective students, who do not wish to be mired in the cesspools of access-assessment-remediation-retention.  And the reduction in hours of instruction reflect a reduction in the size of faculties: the department I hired out in had 23 tenure-line faculty in 1986 and eleven when I left.

Now comes an intriguing hypothesis.
Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that the ending of the draft after the Vietnam War ended brought with it a catastrophic decline in the skills of the American civilian workforce, because the military—previously the nation's leading source of well-trained high school graduates for a wide range of civilian jobs when draftees reentered civilian life—kept their trainees in the military under the all-volunteer army.  The phenomenon combined with the collapse of selective vocational high schools in our big cities after the Vietnam War and the rise of the standards movement, which crowded vocational courses out of the high school curriculum.  Vocational education has also often been a casualty in our community college programs because vocational courses cost more to deliver then academic courses and carry less prestige for the faculty.
There was more than the all-volunteer military contributing to the collapse of big city school systems generally, with the vocational schools being collateral damage.  But there's going to be an interesting study in another fifty years of why upscale school districts nationwide allocated resources to state-of-the-art athletics facilities rather than to a manufacturing technology lab or a planetarium.

His conclusion, though, is one I endorse.
The very high quality of our best public schools and independent schools, of a handful of colleges with strong liberal arts curricula, of a few leading community colleges, and of graduate education in our leading research universities generally has masked the collapse of standards in the great mass of institutions serving our students at all levels. Fixing all this is not impossible.  It is actually essential.
Indeed. It's the very simulacrum of a proper education that contributes to the high rewards earned by holders of degrees from the prestige institutions: the graduates of the sub-prime sector can't compete.

No comments: