Falling Standards/Failing Students

The rot in our schools is far worse than we want to admit. To get a sense of how bad it is, a quick read of this post https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/how-colleges-are-ripping-generation-ill-prepared-students will give you an overview. The author’s (unimpeachable) data is drawn from the recently-released 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/), which should be a source of grief to one and all. Quoting the linked post: “Only 37 percent of 12th-graders tested proficient or better in reading, and only 25 percent did so in math. Among black students, only 17 percent tested proficient or better in reading, and just 7 percent reached at least a proficient level in math.”

Amazingly, most of these manifestly unprepared high school graduates are sent off to college, where they are offered dumbed-down, and frequently useless, courses of study. The post’s author goes on to write, acidly: “Colleges also set up majors with little analytical demands so as to accommodate students with analytical deficits. Such majors often include the term “studies,” such as ethnic studies, cultural studies, gender studies, and American studies. The major for the most ill-prepared students, sadly enough, is education. When students’ SAT scores are ranked by intended major, education majors place 26th on a list of 38.”

To me, one problem with the linked post is that its author places the blame for the tragic facts that emerge from the National Assessment in the wrong quarter – on the colleges that he says are “ripping off” students by offering dumbed-down courses and ultimately conferring unmarketable and essentially useless degrees. Of course colleges want to fill their classrooms with paying students. A dog’s gotta bark, after all. And if the colleges’ graduates are saddled with unmanageable student loans (which now total $1.5 trillion, nationwide), well, that’s their problem. Or in any event, somebody else’s. The schools are just giving the market what it wants. For now.


The more important questions, it seems to me are, first, why are so many of our primary and secondary schools failing to instill in their charges minimal levels of proficiency in basic skills and, second, why are so many unprepared young adults wasting their time and money in collegiate courses of study that will probably not help them find their ways in the world?

As to the latter question, a college degree has been sold to the American public as the golden ticket to success. Who could be against more education? If college degrees are the ticket, then more students should get degrees. On this logic, in recent decades the government began to lend anybody with a pulse the money to study whatever “–studies” they chose, expecting the that result would be, … success! College degrees slowly morphed from being signifiers of intellectual prowess, hard work and academic achievement into something more akin to the phony medals given to Dorothy’s companions in the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz. (And colleges wonder why demand is falling…)

Too many people have been, and are, going to college. This includes both the woefully unprepared (the author of the linked article asks: “If only 37 percent of white high school graduates test as college-ready, how come colleges are admitting 70 percent of them? And if roughly 17 percent of black high school graduates test as college-ready, how come colleges are admitting 58 percent of them?”) and those whose interests and best prospects have very little to do with what they can be expected to learn in college, such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters and an endless array of other tradespeople. Some of our greatest entrepreneurs, too, have done pretty well without the blessings of the academy.

Once we stop thinking that everybody needs to get a BA, we can begin to think more clearly about what each young person really needs to learn to help him or her reach – and maybe eventually exceed – his or her goals.


The first of my two questions – why our primary and secondary schools are so obviously failing – is harder. No doubt there are many reasons that Johnny can’t read or do basic algebra. Maybe English isn’t Johnny’s native language; maybe his home life is terrible; maybe his teacher is incompetent but union rules prohibit him or her from being fired; maybe Johnny is really bright, but his class is being taught on a lowest-common-denominator basis, so he’s bored out of his mind; maybe he just doesn’t see the point. Failure, in this case, may have many fathers.

Even so, I will focus on one that I think is of pervasive importance: the lowering, or in some cases outright denial, of standards of excellence.

A few years ago when, along with another trustee of Harlem Academy I went to meet the executive director of another independent school (The Waterside School) that, like HA, provides first class, excellence-oriented educational opportunities to otherwise disadvantaged children, the executive director of Waterside said something about the schools that his students would otherwise be attending that made a lasting impression on me: “In poor inner-city public schools, pretty good is good enough.” Excellence isn’t the goal at such schools, getting by is. And judging from the National Assessment’s results, many don’t.

Scratch that: most don’t. Kids get passed along, year after year, whether or not they’ve learned what they were supposed to learn. That’s how we get so many high school graduates who aren’t proficient in reading and other basic skills. There is little accountability for the students – or for their teachers.

What chance does a bright, ambitious child have to thrive in classrooms where that’s the case? Close to nil, I would say.

We need to restore a culture of seeing things – and calling them – as they are. If a kid can’t read, we shouldn’t pretend that he can, or promote him as if he does. Standards need to mean something or the very idea of rising based on merit and effort is rendered risible. Worse than risible: unimaginable.

Amazingly, at the highest levels of academia, there is pushback against the very idea of meritocracy, as conflicting with race-conscious ideas of social justice. Harvard Professor Natasha “Warikoo claims that schools have ‘unequal’ admission processes because black, working class, and first-generation students are underrepresented in student bodies. To fix this, Warikoo recommends that elite universities employ an ‘admissions lottery,’ which the schools would use to randomly admit students who meet certain minimum standards. … ‘An admissions lottery would shift the meaning of selection from an absolute sense of merit—the best of the best—to an understanding that admission is somewhat arbitrary,’ she predicts.” (https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=11281)

Left unanswered is the question of how an admissions lottery with “certain minimum standards” would allow for an increase in “black, working class, and first-generation students”, but it’s implicit from the broader context of Professor Warikoo’s comments throughout the linked article that the standards would be lowered to the point at which admission for be more racially representative. Regrettably, standards would need to be far lower than today’s norms for admission at schools like Harvard.

Warikoo’s isn’t an unusual perspective. Mayor De Blasio wants to de-emphasize test scores in the admissions processes of New York City’s famous public exam schools, and for the same reason. He would rather dilute the quality of a Stuyvesant education – and the meaning of its degree – than live with the racial disparities that arise out of straightforward testing.

What the Warikoos and the De Blasios of the world miss is that a Harvard or Stuyvesant degree won’t mean the same thing if their prospective students are chosen by lotteries based on criteria adjusted to fit ideas of group-oriented social justice. And where would the jettisoning of objective meritocratic standards end? Why stop at undergraduate admissions? Would we have as much faith in our doctors if “certain minimum standards” (as opposed to, say, maximal possible standards) were used as to MCATs in medical school admissions processes? In our bridges if engineering-school admissions were by lottery? Maybe Nobel Prizes in the sciences should be conferred by lottery (on evidence, maybe the Peace Prize already is).


Clear standards of excellence force us to compete to achieve ever better results and give us clarity as to how we have done and what we might be capable of doing next. They focus laser-like beams on our individual achievements, and indirectly on our capabilities. Fudging them only paves the road to future failures.

Or, in the case of our school system, to present ones.


M.H. Johnston

2 comments to Falling Standards/Failing Students

  • Doug McCaig  says:

    Nice post. Hopefully your lobotomy is not performed atop a high rise building engineered by one of these graduates. Instead of your prefrontal cortex, they would screw with your hypothalamus… and the whole building comes crashing down with your libido.

  • Yan Lee  says:

    Great article. We should forget about race or so called social justice in our education system. I think sadly the majority victims under the “minimum standard” are kids with color. They need to have a mind set to compete with everyone at the same level instead of in a system that implies they are less than White or Asian kids. I suspect their academia performance would have much better without the systematic stereotype.

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