Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hand Wringing About Education

It seems to be our national pastime to worry that today's kids are kind of dumb compared to some ideal representation of past glory. One of the key ways this is expressed is bloviating articles about dumb high school kids that come out every time some national test result is published.

The New York Times is the latest perpetrator of this meme. Despite generally positive results versus earlier years, the entire spin of their article is dumb kids, dumb kids, dumb kids. But the remarkable point to me is what an incredibly high standard they need to invent in order to garner a suitable quotient of worry.

They write:
...more than half of the nation’s high school seniors still showed poor command of even basic facts like the impact of the cotton gin on the slave economy or the causes of the Korean War...

I am in the tiny fraction of humans who enjoyed and excelled at history so much as to enter a PhD program at a top tier university in the subject, and I don't view either of those items as "basic facts". A "basic fact" is something like, "What was the outcome of the Korean war for Korea?" (answer: Partition along the demilitarized zone between North and South).

"Causes of the Korean War" is really quite complicated, especially when subjected to the incredibly imprecise testing method of multiple choice, with questions designed to trick. It's only because I was a very serious war history geek that I knew much about the occupation of Korea by Japan from 1905 through World War II when I was in high school, and any attempt to address the causes of the Korean War which ignores the post-colonial impact of Japan's departure is laughable.

I also happened to study the history of science and technology in grad school, and I find the claim that "impact of the cotton gin on slavery" is a "basic fact" to be downright silly. I suppose that the answer to the question is that the cotton gin made the refinement of cotton into cloth cheaper and faster, driving down its overall price and putting demand-driven market pressure on the South to vastly expand the institution of slavery in order to grow more cotton to process with cotton gins; but I would be extremely impressed with any high school kid who could come up with that; so impressed as to probably offer them a summer internship at my startup.

The reporter, Sam Dillon, closes his piece with an example multiple choice question, which is a rhetorical hook designed to let your typical upper-middle-class, highly-educated New York Times reader walk away from the article shaking their head about those dumb kids:
The test asked students, “What did Abraham Lincoln mean in this speech?” and listed four possible answers.

a) The South should be allowed to separate from the United States.
b) The government should support slavery in the South.
c) Sometime in the future slavery would disappear from the United States.
d) Americans would not be willing to fight a war over slavery.

Fifty four percent of the fourth graders given the test failed to pick the correct answer, letter c). “These are very worrisome results,” Mr. Rabb said.

You've got to be kidding me. That is the trickiest wording imaginable for that question; the right answer is wishy-washy and vague, and the three wrong answers are precise sentences about the key issues of the civil war, with the key word "not" either missing or present to make them false. Knowledgeable is not logical, and logical is not diligent and precise, and I am dubious that this question answers anything more than whether high school seniors are highly logical, diligent, and precise in their test-taking. No. Shock, surprise.

Parents have been griping about the fallen morals and depressed intellect of their children since at least the introduction of that social scandal, the waltz, into England in 1820. Get over it, everyone. Your kids are going to be fine.

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