Daniel Koretz on the Last 30 Years of American Education

Daniel Koretz:

We started down this road in the early 1970s when a number of states started imposing what were then called minimum competency tests.  These were very easy tests basically aimed at 10 or 15% of the school age population, not the rest, to ensure that kids at the bottom of the distribution had basic skills that policy makers thought they needed to go out and do some work.  The assumption was that most kids are passed, most kids did.  One statistician who worked on this issue at the time said that if the failure rate got above 12%, it was time to go back to the legislature.  This lasted about 10 years, little less, it really swept the country.  By the end of 1970s, a lot of states were doing this.  In the 1980s, there was a somewhat diffused change state by state in several ways.  First of all, there was a growing interest in holding educators in schools accountable rather than kids or in addition to kids, which was a fundamental change.  There was a growing discomfort with holding people accountable only for very easy tests.  There was a notion that we ought to be setting the bar higher.  And so, states began to experiment with ways of holding schools accountable.  It took about 10 years, but by the early 1990s, we were beginning to see the kinds of things that now [sharpened] No Child Left Behind.  So for instance, by 1992, Kentucky, which I’ll use as one example, put in place a policy that rewarded and punished schools for changes in test scores, which is the lynchpin of No Child Left Behind.  They didn’t do it quite the same way the No Child Left Behind does.  But all schools were given targets.  The targets were just as today’s are completely arbitrary.  The time to reach those targets was also arbitrary, it was… in that case, 20 years rather than the current 12.  And then, every school received either rewards or punishments depending on how much better than expected or worse than expected [perform] in test scores.  By the time No Child Left Behind was passed, the majority of states had something like that in place.  About half the states had so-called high school exit exams, a test that kids had to pass in order to get diplomas, though that constantly shifted.  A state would get close to the jumping off the diving board and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, we’re going to fail too many kids,” and they back off.  And another state would go forward.  But, typically, it was about half the states that had either a policy in place or one planned.  So, all of that was basically ready to go when George Bush came to office.  What he did was cobble together policies that states had been building for about 10 years and add a few wrinkles.  And some of those wrinkles seem really arcane but they turned out to be very, very important.  One of them which really does sound [esoteric] is that the typical state system of this sort set a target by 2010, 2020, you’re going to be up here.  And your school, whatever your school was, would have to go up on a straight line.  Every school would have a straight line from its starting point to the target.  This was already fairly draconian because it meant that lowest the performing schools, which often face the most difficult obstacles to improving, had to improve the fastest.  [It’s kind of] I think backwards but it was just the assumption that they would improve faster.  What No Child Left Behind did was to abolish school’s specific targets.  The targets are set statewide.  The rate of progression required to go from starting point to 100% proficient is a statewide target and every school has to be on that line.  So now, if a state had high standards, low performing schools had to make a huge initial jump in performance, which is an invitation to inappropriate test [prep] and inflating test scores because very few people… I’ve taught virtually everything from 4th Grade to doctoral students so I’ve a fair feeling for what it takes to improve teaching.  I don’t know anyone who can generate dramatic gains year after year after year.  It takes time.  And we told schools they didn’t have time.  One Congressional aid who used to be an intercity teacher in Philadelphia said at the meeting last year the No Child Left Behind, the reauthorization for No Child Left Behind was on the table, said rather plaintively, she said, “I know what we should do.  But we don’t have time to do that because we can’t generate rapid enough gains that way.  So isn’t it better that we use simple test [prep] now rather than doing nothing?”  Well that was an enormous mistake in the part of the authors of the bill.  The other thing the bill did is to impose very draconian standards for the teaching of kids at the lower end of the distribution.  And this is, politically, a very, very touchy topic.  For generations, the American educational establishment didn’t really want to look at inequity.  And one of the, in my view, positive aspects of No Child Left Behind is it culminated a process that brought on for 30 years of paying more attention to inequities.  And the logic of No Child Left Behind is that inequities have to be gone away with, which will be fine if we actually had the political will to do that, I don’t think we do.  But if we did, the problem is that even if we had an egalitarian educational system, and for that matter, even if we had an egalitarian society, kids differ.  If you look at really homogeneous countries that have highly effective and equitable educational systems like Japanese schools through middle school, you find that they too have an enormous variation of student achievement.  Our policy currently does not allow for that.  All kids, virtually all, have to reach the same high level.  And it includes, if you read the regulations carefully enough, even students with mild cognitive disabilities, it’s, I think, an unreasonable policy.  I think, in some ways, it’s a very cruel policy.  Ironically, the goal is to help kids at the bottom, but in some ways, it’s very cruel to kids at the bottom.

Daniel Koretz has seen a steady trend toward arbitrarily high graduation standards even for kids with cognitive disabilities.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.