Bryan Caplan  

The "Virtue" of Low Academic Standards

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NYT's Jeff Sommer's Shoddy Rep... Inside the New Poverty Measure...
Further critique of Goldin-Katz in David Labaree's Someone Has to Fail:
Early in the book, the authors [Goldin and Katz] identify what they consider to be the primary "virtues" of the American education system... "public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system."
Labaree's reaction:
Note that none of these virtues of the American school system speaks to learning the curriculum... But for the human capital argument that Goldin and Katz are trying to make, these virtues of the system pose a problem.  How was the system able to provide graduates with the skills needed to spur sustained economic growth when the system's primary claim to fame was that it invited everyone in and then was reluctant to penalize anyone for failing to learn?  In effect, the system's greatest strength was its low academic standards.  If it had screened students more carefully on the way in and graded them more scrupulously on their academic achievement, high school and college enrollments and graduation rates would never have expanded so rapidly and we would all be worse off.  But of course, this doesn't fit the narrative of the Human Capital Century, does it?  Goldin and Katz are arguing that high school provided a rich store of general knowledge and skill that proved highly useful in the technologically advancing workplace of the twentieth century.  Yet their depiction of the system's virtues seems to tell a different story altogether. [emphasis original]
Question: What do you think would happen if we embraced "social promotion" - giving diplomas to everyone based solely on age?  Most economists' answer, I suspect, would be the same as mine: social promotion would redistribute jobs and income from better to worse students.  Bad students could "pass" for normal - and dilute the credibility of everyone else's education in the process.  But as Labaree suggests, isn't dilution of standards the main way America managed to boost educational attainment in the first place?  And if everyone went to college, wouldn't we just end up repeating the same mistake all over again?


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
GlibFighter writes:

Social promotion, of a less extreme form than suggested, is commonplace in the US educational system. But we also have standard metrics (SAT & AP tests, as well as GPA conditioned on difficulty of courses taken) that allow for rather efficient ranking and filtering.

Essen writes:

@GlibFighter:
SAT a means of filtering? Ask Prof Perelman of MIT.

Essen

GlibFighter writes:

@Essen: Ok, factor out (a lot if you wish) the SAT Writing test. But do you know lots of not-too-smart students who got top scores on the SAT Math, Reading, Physics, and Chemistry? And vice versa?

Stephen Karlson writes:

Didn't Adam Smith and Karl Marx have a simpler explanation for productivity growth: a division of labor in which people learn to do one task well and repeatedly? Both Smith and Marx noted the downside, most famously in the "appendage of the machine" observation. School might have had relatively little to do with it, labor-augmenting technical change (consider the picture pre-sets in McDonald's cash registers, so even a semiliterate can ring up an order) plenty.

mike shupp writes:

Once upon a time, in the unimaginably distant past of which no one can now conceive -- the early 1960's, let's say -- a very strange barbaric primitive nation known as "the USA" allowed students to drop out of the educational process at an early age. 8th grade as I recall things in Ohio.

Those who didn't drop out demonstrated certain types of behavior. Some got A's, in other words, some got B's, some got F's and were forced to repeat courses for credit before graduating from high school.

Suppose now we change things and don't let people leave until they've reached 10th grade. Obviously we'll have more kids with A's now, more kids with B's, likely many more unenthusiastic kids with D's and F's. But does this greatly disrupt the previous pattern? Are masses of what had been A and B students now getting F's? Are all the old D students now receiving C's? Or is the prior pattern basically intact?

In other words, we can imagine circumstances in which educational access was broadened without really demolishing standards. It's been some time since I was a high school student, and perhaps you can indeed make the case that academic standards have fallen from the skies like Icarus in recent decades as more and more students have been kept in school, but I don't think you can make a case that broader admissions inevitably MUST lead to lower standards.

And given that high school graduation rates actually seem to be declining, the urgent need for this concern seems slight.

Surely you bright clever folk at GMU have better things to do with your time then bewail the fates of modern high school kids! Why not hire 3 or 4 old retired geezers looking to supplement their social security, and pay them 3 or 4 bucks per hour to worry about the youngsters? It's a natural skill of old folks; they can weep and moan just as enthusiastically as you folks with Ph D's and just as usefully.

Floccina writes:

As I like to say: If you want a lot more people to get college degrees you are going to have to make school easier and more enjoyable.

BTW I actually think that you could make school easier, more enjoyable AND have students learn more but still you destroy the signal.

Dalton Herrell writes:

That thought of social promotion in itself is just a terrible thing. How any country in the world through out any point in time can consider giving people any type of reward based just on a fact of aging is just appalling. Age is a factor of life that people cannot change in any way. It would be like giving the presidency to a random person just because they are American. The way the world is now is in need of the go getters and the people that work hard to be where they are not in a state where the people in this country that sit around and don’t try not only get all types of ridiculous government aid but also a document that I just got done working 4 years of my life striving to get that states that they are better than they actually are. It is just telling all kinds of kids all over the world that even though they have been told that they need to work for everything that they get, they can just do nothing and a few years down the road it will be given to you. That thought process is why America is slowly losing its world value.

Walter Sobchak writes:
Question: What do you think would happen if we embraced "social promotion" - giving diplomas to everyone based solely on age?

Do you mean that "social promotion" is not a precise description of the American educational system in the early 21st century?

lemmy caution writes:

Social promotion seems like a bad idea but it is probably better than grade retention.

http://books.google.com/books?id=u-0azU5bcL8C&pg=PA51&lpg=PA51&dq=Hard+Facts,+Dangerous+Half-Truths,+and+Total+Nonsense+Social+promotion&source=bl&ots=5qxrXOZQuW&sig=zdgJy8VaiZbXtr_UIbaB1QtevSU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=dSfsTvvDH-XXiQK12bH7Aw&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Hard%20Facts%2C%20Dangerous%20Half-Truths%2C%20and%20Total%20Nonsense%20Social%20promotion&f=false

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