Longtime Hillary Clinton compatriot and education nationalizer Marc Tucker recently wrote in his Education Week column on a frequent theme from employers: Many graduates nowadays can’t write, speak, or think worth beans.
My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person. We had close to 500 applicants. Inasmuch as the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked them to produce a one-page summary. All were college graduates. Only one could produce a satisfactory summary. That person got the job.
We were lucky this time. We are more often than not disappointed at the subpar writing ability of the applicants for openings at our organization. Many applicants are from very good colleges. Many have graduate degrees. Many are very poor writers.
…How, we ask, could this have happened? The answers are not hard to find. My friend Will Fitzhugh points out that high school students are rarely required to read entire works of fiction and are almost never asked to read entire works of non-fiction. I know of no good writers who are not also good readers. (emphasis added)
An acquaintance who hires for a midsize nonprofit affirmed these observations, noting that a candidate for a highly paid position at her organization submitted as a writing sample a list of bullet points. “That is not writing!” she said. “Not to mention even this was riddled with spelling mistakes. This article is spot on. I fear we are doomed.”
So we all know these problems are endemic, and neither K-12 nor “higher education” typically address them. Yet Tucker largely blames these real deficiencies on — wait for it — the lack of proper tests. If only we included 15-page research papers as a standardized method of student assessment, he says, then schools would finally require students to read more than bite-sized excerpts of texts and regurgitate more than one-liner or multiple-choice answers!
Tucker ignores that when states have tried out this way of judging students and schools in the past — sometimes called “portfolio assessments” — it never results in higher academic achievement or even substantial changes to the curriculum. That’s because the people who grade the student papers know their grades will reflect on the schools, and are pressured to inflate grades, thereby making them meaningless.
For an example of this dynamic in action, check out recent reports showing inflation in high-school graduation rates. When states and the federal government told public schools they’d be judged by high-school graduation rates, schools began juicing the numbers. They gave poorly performing students low-quality classes and pressured teachers to pass kids whose work didn’t merit it.
This is the typical overall response to government “accountability”: schools game the numbers, and kids and society suffer. A lot of things go into this ecosystem, but the answer is not more numbers for schools to game. It’s to transform the system altogether into something that is directly accountable to the people it’s supposed to serve: parents and taxpayers.
Testing regimens mean well, but layered atop our monopolistic public school system that teachers and local communities have very little real influence over will only further frustrate and fail children and teachers. Teachers can only maintain high standards for students when their administrators and parents are backing them up. That’s true accountability. Government tests incentivize gaming the system rather than true accountability. They function like the observer effect in physics, where the mere act of watching a phenomenon alters its behavior. For this reason, even though a basic system of tests offers some limited value, using them as the lynchpin of an “accountability” system will always distort and dilute education quality. This is why parent choice IS school accountability.
It’s not the fault of the teachers and local governments, but America’s education system cannot be transformed from within. A haze of well-intentioned regulations have turned it into a closed loop. It needs to be transformed by competitive pressure from the outside, which means by parents and private backers deciding to use their purchasing power to stop sending life support to a system that centuries of bad, uncontrollable government rules have condemned to failure.