Good Judgment Comes from Experience

And … experience comes from bad judgment.

The nation’s K-12 educational enterprise – including the Commonwealth of Virginia’s – is failing its students and needs to return to fundamental principles.

Over the past 40 years, according to the Friedman Foundation, Virginia K-12 education spending has grown 120% in constant dollars, yet SAT scores have remained essentially flat. The correlation coefficient between SAT scores and spending is 0.07: that is, mathematically, no correlation exists. Tellingly, detailed examination of the underlying data, by year, reveals that in some years when spending decreased temporarily, SAT scores went up. The reverse is also true.

A second measure of a failing progressive K-12 education system is declining literacy rates, over time. Consider sample results that are, by definition, randomly selected and representative of the US population as a whole over a long period of time: the rejection rate of military draftees for illiteracy during the pre-WWII through the Vietnam era. In the 1930s, draftee rejection rate for illiteracy was 2%; in the 1940s, 4%; in the 1950s, 19%; in the 1960s, 27%. Even though correlation does not mean cause, this era is immediately preceded by the US education system’s adoption of progressive education policies, starting in the 1920s.

Third, compare and contrast teachers’ expectations of their students in the mid-1800s relative to the outcomes in today’s college classrooms. The following is a sample FOURTH grade test problem taken from Three Thousand Test Examples in Arithmetic, by Joseph Ray, M.D., published in 1862: “How much money must be given with nine $100 shares at 15% discount, in exchange for eight $100 bonds at 2% discount.” Or this 1877 mental math problem – no paper or pencil allowed – “If 7 men can do a piece of work in 4 days, in what time can it be done, if 3 of the men leave when half-of the work is completed?” Most of today’s college graduates cannot answer these questions. Instead of learning proven math principles and applying them, they have been taught “Fuzzy Math “or “Everyday Math.”

While one can argue the merits or limitations of these “new” approaches, the fact is that adults today cannot answer “19th Century, career and high-school ready” questions asked of fourth graders in 1862. Assuming that today’s students are no less intelligent, on average, than those in the 1800s, then our expectations and methods must be failing them.

Someone once advised that if you want a new idea, read an old book. If one wants a better education system, perhaps one should look to a past era where a decentralized, classical education approach produced culturally literate people who, in the not so distant past, produced 25 percent of the world’s GDP even though they represented only 5 percent of its population. Such an approach will produce “21st century, career and college ready” citizens.