Education: Impossible, Preposterous and Catastrophic

Education: Impossible, Preposterous and Catastrophic
Education: Impossible, Preposterous and Catastrophic

“Education is the only field in which the fact that something worked fifty years ago means that we cannot possibly do it now.”

During the last decade of my career in public education, I repeated this sentence many times. My colleagues in the faculty’s lunchroom must have grown tired of it. Nonetheless, it was true then – and nothing has changed since.

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Perhaps it is time for a new catchphrase. “Education attempts the impossible, does the preposterous and is oblivious to the inevitable.”

An example of each has come to light in the last few weeks. This article will discuss each one briefly.


The impossible comes via an article from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute titled “Teaching Teachers to Fail.” It focuses on the “literacy crisis” that has plagued our nation for at least twenty years. The article’s authors describe how most teachers are ill-trained to teach reading.

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Literacy experts define five elements necessary for reading well. They call them the “Big Five” – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Most teachers never learn to teach any of these elements. They might be mentioned somewhere in the teachers’ college curriculum – but they get lost in the avalanche of required material.

The usual method to teach reading is to assign readings that will interest the students. The idea is “Put something in front of the students that they want to read, and they will read it.” This goal is unworkable since no teacher can have access to reading materials for all possible fields of interest at all levels of reading ability.


Some years ago, a universal catchphrase in education was, “Catch them being good.” The idea was that “positive reinforcement” would “extinguish negative behavior.” Thus, teachers should never directly address misconduct. This attitude assumes that Billy will be quiet and do his work if the teacher complimented him for yesterday’s good work. This strategy was ineffective.

This misbegotten concept survives in the field of grading. The “Easy A” is a staple of schools to the point that in many schools, students can’t fail.

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Seth Gershenson with Education Next states the underlying problem, “Over the past 20 years, grade point averages have soared while SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen. As a result, supposedly “good” grades have become unreliable markers of knowledge and skills.”

The “Easy A” was supposed to solve many problems. It would help students deal with stress by removing the fear of bad grades. It would prevent depression by giving students a sense that they could learn the material. Schools could eliminate “unhealthy” competition. Low-achieving students would not fear violent parents angry about grades.

Dr. Greshenson shows that the “Easy A” is a disadvantage for many students. His report, Great Expectations, comes to several useful conclusions.

  1. Students learn more from teachers who have higher grading standards.
  2. Teachers with higher grading standards improve their students’ performance in subsequent math classes up to two years later.
  3. Teachers with higher grading standards significantly improve the learning outcomes of all student subgroups.
  4. Teachers with higher grading standards significantly improve student learning in all types of schools.

Despite the evidence, the “Easy A” is not going anywhere. School administrators may talk about high standards, but most do not mean it. They often want to avoid the parents who complain about low grades and pressure the concerned teachers to make concessions.

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Inevitable Catastrophic Results

Twelve years of compulsory school attendance should yield a meaningful credential for the future. The Hoover Institution calls this situation The Diploma Dilemma. They bluntly describe, “the vexing problem of diplomas that are literally and figuratively paper-thin. This holds for students across the board but is particularly true for diplomas awarded to low-income students or students of color in historically underserved communities.”

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According to the report, the high school diploma serves three functions. First, it means that the holder finished high school. Second, it signals that its holder possesses a particular set of knowledge and skills. Third, it is a sign that the holder is “adequately prepared to pursue further training or for employment, military service, or other productive occupation.”

All too often, function number one is in tension with numbers two and three. School systems and state departments of education concentrated on making sure that students graduate. Students who “drop out” represent a failure of the school’s fundamental mission. The drive to ensure high graduation rates trumps knowledge and training goals, which are very important.

This scenario is typical of socialist systems – and education is by far the most socialist aspect of American life.  The need to make sure that everyone gets something means that nobody gets very much.