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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Equity-driven dumbing down of K-12 education accelerate

American K-12 education has reached new depths in terms of academic achievement. The signs are everywhere in plummeting proficiency scores across all subject areas. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that just 13% and 20% of eighth-graders met U.S. history and civics standards, respectively, the lowest rates on record; only 31% and 26% of eighth-graders were proficient in reading and math respectively (George Will, Washington Post, June 28). Most recently, scores on ACT college admission tests have dropped to the lowest in 30 years (Associated Press, Oct. 11).

The disruption of education due to the COVID pandemic is only partly to explain for such abysmal performance. The larger problem is a long-term, ever-increasing dumbing down of classroom standards and expectations over the past half-century.  

What partly accounts for this pattern is the rise of the postmodern belief in the relativism of factual knowledge and values that meshed well with concerns about not damaging a child’s self-esteem. With no right or wrong answers, how can anyone be held accountable? 

But the main driver of the dumbing-down trend is a well-intentioned if misplaced obsession with “equity” — allowing a concern about educating struggling, low-achieving kids to trump the needs of higher-achieving kids. In trying to accomplish “mass excellence” — an oxymoronic term once used by a progressive-minded assistant superintendent in the Clayton school district — the result instead has been mass failure for far too many children.

As an educator, parent and citizen, I have personally witnessed this phenomenon and attempted to do whatever I could to counter it.

Having just retired as a college professor, I have been cleaning out my office file cabinets. I came across letters I wrote to University City school administrators and school board members some 40 years ago raising concerns then about the lowering of standards I saw happening in U. City schools my children attended. Allow me to quote from just three letters.

In a November 1986 letter to the superintendent: “I hope you will take up the tremendous challenge of serving the needs of all students — Black and white, advantaged and disadvantaged, high-achieving and low-achieving. This means (1) retaining and improving the Challenge courses targeted at our best students (including recruiting more high-achieving Black students not by lowering standards and watering down the courses but by working even harder to cast a wider net to attract those truly outstanding and deserving students with the ability and willingness to work hard academically); (2) seeking out innovative ways of providing enrichment activities as well for the broad cross-section of students; and (3) exploring ways to meet the needs of low-achieving students who with proper help can not only be brought up to grade level but in fact can be motivated to reach much higher.”

In a March 1987 letter to the head of the Gifted Program: “I am deeply concerned about educating all the kids in the U. City system. … However, my concern for equality and fairness does not mean that we have to sacrifice excellence. … If the day comes when requiring students to take a test to demonstrate their competence to be placed in a given level of math or English is considered unfair, then we will have witnessed the end of even the pretense of excellence in the public schools of America.”

In a March 1988 letter to the superintendent: “After eight years in the U. City school system, my wife and I finally have decided to put up our house for sale. … Regrettably, I have seen the school district in the last year or so start down a slippery slope away from a commitment to excellence and toward an acceptance of mediocrity based on a lowest common denominator approach to education. … Our highest achieving Black and white students are being betrayed as expectations for them are being lowered. … In the last year we have witnessed the invidious erosion of merit-based track learning, the virtual destruction of a world-class jazz program at the high school, the institution of a whole group approach to learning in the elementary schools which stifles the brightest, hardest working kids, and I could go on.”

I should note that the overhaul of the University City high school jazz band — it was considered too “elitist” because John Brophy, the renowned band director, dared to require auditions to join the band — was the last straw for my wife and me. Brophy left to head the band at John Burroughs, and my family left for the Clayton school district. 

In my 2000 book “Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids, and the Attack on Excellence,” I explained how the jazz band episode was a metaphor for what ailed public schools as I tried to write a personal memoir of the dumbing down of American education locally and nationally. Although my kids ended up getting a tremendous education in the Clayton schools with some great teachers, it nonetheless required me to continue to do battle with the aforementioned administrator and others who were pushing for the idiotic goal of “mass excellence.” As noted below, even as exceptional a school district as Clayton must contend with the forces of mediocrity. 

In case you have not noticed, dumbing-down is reaching new depths today, driven by the siren call of “equity,” particularly the ongoing effort to narrow “the achievement gap” between races. 

In Clayton and elsewhere, faculty have been assigned to read Joe Feldman’s “Grading for Equity,” which assumes that minorities cannot be expected to do homework, meet term paper deadlines and perform other normal obligations, so that no students are now penalized for such failure. How does one develop “grit” in a no-consequences culture?

Not surprisingly, grade inflation is out of control even as performance on national assessments declines. Student “GPAs have steadily risen — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000 . . . and 3.11 in 2019.” Students typically get 50 points for doing nothing, “even if they plagiarize or cheat.” Teachers feel “they no longer [can] hold students accountable academically or behaviorally” and hence “America’s teacher pipeline is drying up” (Jessica Grose, New York Times, Oct. 4).

Meanwhile, fanciful “mass excellence” continues to be pursued, as across the country we see news headlines about “Honors Classes Cut to Lift Racial Equity” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9). Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution notes that the new California math framework calls for “all students to take the same math courses through 10th grade, a ‘detracking’ policy that would effectively end the option of eighth-graders taking algebra” (Education Next, Fall 2023). The ceiling and the floor are being lowered everywhere.

The question I have is: does anybody care? It would not appear so, when the alarm has been sounded for at least half a century.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.
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