The argument is, and perhaps is always, between those who would see things as they are (and perhaps as we all would rather they not be) and those who would go on seeing things as they (probably most of us) would like them to be.
I take an example of each position from today’s newspapers, but it probably could have been any day because the spread between appearance and reality, between what we would like and what is, is always present and readily visible.
First there is Thomas Friedman writing in an op ed piece in the New York Times. And second, there are the Thernstroms, Abigail and Stephan, writing in the Wall Street Journal.
Parenthetically I don’t conclude from this that the Times would have things as they would like them to be, and the Journal (as being more apt to accept) things as they are. But this difference between the two publications, as exemplified by the writers, may very well be the crux of the liberal conservative split in our country.
First Friedman and what he would like things to be. This time his subject matter is K-12 education. He sees no reason why all ninth graders can’t remain in school until graduation, and by doing so achieve the sought after grade proficiency in language and math (by 2013 as the No Child Left Behind Law would have it).
Now the way things are is not that. All kids don’t graduate. In fact, only about half of inner city kids finish high school, and in the suburbs more, but still only about seven in ten. The others are dropping out.
Friedman would have it that this doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not programmed in our genes. Rather we are probably at fault in the way we do our K-12 education, and need only change things around, carry out a few reforms, to improve on the graduation rates.
Friedman doesn’t question that high school graduation is within everyone’s reach, and that it falls upon the educators who pull the strings to make it happen. And then we could resume our rightful place as the world’s leader in K-12 public school education. Friedman reminds us that we held this position just one half a century ago, and were without a rival —no Finland, no Singapore, no South Korea at that time.
Friedman is encouraged by President Obama and by his new Education secretary, Arne Duncan, both of whom also seem persuaded that high school graduation is within everyone’s reach, and that now for the first time, with the Stimulus, there may be enough money, some $100 billion, to make it happen.
But Friedman, Obama, and Duncan, and many others, are only speaking about the way they would like things to be. There is absolutely no evidence that, if the bar is set appropriately high, with targets such as mastery of first year calculus, or even pre-calculus, such as the ability to convey one’s original understanding of a book or problem in a finished essay or experiment, there is no evidence that everyone can satisfactorily attain these and other such targets.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. We shouldn’t expect this any more than we would expect everyone to play chess at Expert or Class A level, or play golf with little or no golf handicap.
If not everyone is graduating from high school it’s mostly because the academic demands are not within everyone’s ability to meet, and not primarily because a bad school, a poor teacher, and a abusive and disruptive home situation are in evidence. Let’s hope that the bar will be kept high and that high school graduation will mean something.
The reality is that kids’ learning of any one subject matter or skill will always be best represented on a Bell Curve, and unless the bar is set all the way to the left of the curve not everyone will ever achieve proficiency, or will ever graduate from high school if graduation implies, as it certainly should, the real acquisition of important skills and knowledge.
Friedman is talking about an imaginary K-12 education. Proficiency for all in all areas of study can’t and won’t happen. That’s not to say that K-12 education can’t be improved. However, the way to do so, the way to lower the drop-out numbers, to lessen the achievement gaps between different student groups, is to have clearly in mind only individual goals, goals that are not wishful thinking, but are real and achievable for each and every child.
Friedman is correct in that all kids can and should be learning useful and important skills and knowledge. But he is wrong to imply that all kids can learn the same skills and knowledge, at least to any meaningful extent. For they can’t. Our having for all the one goal of high school graduation and college readiness means that half or more of the “all kids” are always going to fail.
Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, on the other hand, are realists. They don’t expect things to be anything but what they are. In their example it’s not our failing inner city school systems and what significance we should attach to them, but how to use and interpret the results of tests given for advancement to vacant lieutenant and captain positions in the New Haven, Connecticut fire department.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear argument in Ricci (the fireman who didn’t receive advancement in spite of high test scores) v. DeStefano. “At its core,” dissenting Judge José Cabranes wrote, “this case presents a straight-forward question: May a municipal employer disregard the results of a qualifying examination, which was carefully constructed to ensure race-neutrality, on the ground that the results of that examination yielded too many qualified applicants of one race and not enough of another?”
The test results, the “reality” in the New Haven fire department case, was that the highest-scoring black candidate for a captaincy ranked 16th, behind 12 whites and three Latinos. And that on the lieutenant’s exam, the strongest black performers ranked 14th, 15th and 16th.
And then how were the test results used? Did the realists, or those who accepted the test results as being accurate and informative, win? Were the new captaincies and lieutenancies awarded on the basis of merit, and did they go to those with the highest scores as one would expect? Afterall wasn’t this why the test was given, to learn who were the best qualified candidates?
No. Instead the city set aside the results, proclaiming that the test, given that there were no black candidates among the highest scorers, must have been biased.
The Thernstroms point out correctly that, “if sharp racial disparities are the measure, then virtually any test of knowledge is biased…. the authoritative National Assessment of Educational Progress reported its 2005 findings: 29% of white 12th graders — but only 6% of those who were black — scored at the “proficient” level in mathematics. Huge racial disparities also show up in state bar examination results, as well as in those administered to aspiring physicians by the National Board of Medical Examiners.”
Now it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court decides the Ricci case. Will the Judges too place what they want things to be, what they (and we) would like, ahead of what things are, even if we and they would prefer they not be?
The New Haven test results didn’t advance our desire to live, and to work, in a multi-racial environment, corresponding to the multi-racial nature of our people. But is the correct response to throw them out?
The Thernstroms remind us that they are not arguing that racial disparities are a permanent fact of life, but rather that the remedy for lessening such things as racial achievement gaps ought to be something other than racial quotas. For individuals, they say, not groups, have rights in American law (and in America) and ought to be protected.