K-12: Defining Education Down

In 1993, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a famous article titled "Defining Deviancy Down," where he argued that behavior once considered indefensible is now mainstream.

His subtitle was "How We've Become Accustomed To Alarming Levels Of Crime And Destructive Behavior."  Moynihan put forward the thesis that "we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard."

A perfect example, inconceivable until it happened, was Anthony Weiner sending erotic pictures of himself to women he didn't know, and shortly thereafter running for mayor of New York City.  In earlier years, he would have been locked in a stockade and ostracized by the community.  But there he was in 2013, an acceptable Democrat candidate.  That's a huge shift.

Clearly, the public has been indoctrinated to be more permissive.  Liberals want Americans to feel guilty for preferring traditional standards.  The most obvious examples, as Moynihan noted, are in the fields of crime and punishment.  (Rape and murder used to be capital crimes, almost always.  Now we hear about people spending  five or ten years in jail for even the most serious crimes.)

The next most blatant examples occur in our public school system. Education goals once considered reasonable are now scorned as overly ambitious. Conversely, levels of failure once viewed as unacceptable are now embraced as good enough. Education has been defined downward.  

Instead of improving K-12 education, our Education Establishment came up with a different kind of cure: ridicule standards and then eliminate them.  Improvement, although endlessly discussed, no longer seems a serious goal.  Mediocrity is good enough for the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Kids can't read?  So what's the problem?  They can go on welfare.  Kids don't know basic science, geography, or history?  Never mind: the old standards were totally unrealistic.  Kids cannot do simple arithmetic?  So what?  Everybody's got a calculator.  Kids don't know anything at all?  No biggie.  Everything is on the internet.  Punch some buttons.

From one end of K-12 to the other, standards have been redefined toward dumb.  Levels that schools used to try to reach by middle school are now targets for the end of high school.  Goals for high school have now been deferred to college.

Too often, K-12 is a charade.  The Education Establishment is engaged in spending nearly $700 billion a year, but insiders seem to have privately agreed that not much education need occur.  Take it easy.  Run in place.  Instead of educating children, award everyone a participation trophy and send them on their way.  Proclaim to the media that today's students are better than ever!

Indeed, "grade inflation" is universal, from kindergarten through college, and is the most visible symbol of defining education down.  Most students are given a B or an A if possible.  Parents think their kids are doing great.  The kids themselves may know it's a scam, but not many are going to complain.

Partly, this charade is carried out for charitable or feel-good reasons – so slower kids won't be labeled slow.  (But our Education Establishment, I suspect, is mainly concerned with diminishing opposition.  Poorly educated students will grow up to be pliable citizens.)

But what about the other part of the motivation, where the entire society plays mind games with itself?  The education professors pretend they know what they're doing.  We pretend to believe them.  The schools pretend to be engaged in serious educational activities.  We pretend to admire the emperor's beautiful new clothes.

At some point, living in an alternate reality becomes self-destructive.  An argument can be made that it's smart to keep in contact with reality, that it's wise, for example, to use transparent, readily understood terms so that all participants in a debate can understand what is being said.

K-12 education now is often unconnected to anything real.  The much exploited children are told they are learning to read, but often they're not.  They're told that they will be college-ready and career-ready, but in millions of cases, they won't be.  Parents are told their children will be lifelong learners and readers, but it's unlikely.

So the schools are as beautiful and expensive as ever before in history.  But less occurs inside the walls than ever before.  Our education professors have perfected an array of techniques to keep education always in first gear, always running in slow motion.  Achievement is lower, even as grades are higher; jargon is more pretentious; and promises become ever more grandiose.

It's as if a medical clinic, no matter the sickly condition of the patients, stamped each of them: HEALTHY.  FIT FOR EXERCISE.  PARTY ON.

So what is the obvious solution?  Americans should demand more from their public schools.  It's time to define education realistically, as a prelude for defining it upward.

Public schools should announce simple, easily understood goals and then strive to reach them.  For example, everyone learns to read in the first grade.  In the second grade, everyone can count to 100.  In the third grade, everyone can name the oceans, continents, largest rivers, and highest mountains.  In the fourth grade, everyone can name the ten most important countries (as rated by mentions in Google) and point to them on a map of the Earth.  These are reasonable goals, easily confirmed, and excellent first steps toward a real education.

Pathetically enough, the Education Establishment fight such goals with all the evasions and alibis they can devise.  That's what needs to change.  Professors of education who labor mightily to undercut education should be a national joke, for the same reasons that Anthony Weiner is a national joke.  There is such a huge gap between what we have a right to expect and what we get.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education site Improve-Education.org.  For info on his four new novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com.

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