Robert J. Samuelson notes that decades of educational reform policies have yielded nothing that works:
Standard theories don’t explain this meager progress. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that’s not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008.
“Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York and the District to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge “ineffective” teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards. Michael Kirst, an emeritus education professor at Stanford, estimates that 60 percent of incoming community college students and 30 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges need remedial reading and math courses.
Against these realities, school “reform” rhetoric is blissfully evasive. It is often an exercise in extravagant expectations. Even if George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program had been phenomenally successful (it wasn’t), many thousands of children would have been left behind. Now Duncan routinely urges “a great teacher” in every classroom. That would be about 3.7 million “great” teachers — a feat akin to having every college football team composed of all-Americans. With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school “reform” promises is more disillusion.
There are other reasons: content-free curriculum, touchy-feely exercises instead of academic instruction, and, above all, teacher-training programs that push progressive educational theory even when it no longer works. But Samuelson has a good point about motivation. I’m intrigued by his comment “adolescent culture has strengthened.” And “adolescent culture,” perpetuated by young people associating mainly with people in their own age group, tends to be anti-school, anti-intellectual, and anti-adult.