Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Standards

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show yesterday while driving around, performing various errands related to having been laid off last Friday. The show was all about higher education and its various woes, from the broken-down system of tenure to the threats of default from "sub-prime" student loans. One of the guests lamented the sorry academic state of many college freshmen, especially where writing skills were concerned. One of the other guests attacked him, saying something like, "I'm so tired of people blaming the high schools. The high schools are doing the best they can, and it's not for us to tell them what to do. Our job is to take who we get, where we get them, and educate them as best we can."

At which point, I dearly wished for a radio that had a button allowing me to remotely smack people in the studio.

So this is where we are, after more than a decade of the so-called standards movement: college entrance is not a goal to be attained, but an entitlement to which all comers are...entitled, regardless of readiness. You don't get to go to college when and if you're ready for college-level work; you simply go. Whenever. Ready or not. And their job is to do with you whatever they can manage to do. They don't get to call the shots or set the agenda.

A standard is supposed to be a benchmark or goal that you meet in order to qualify for something. Advancement, reward, whatever the case may be. You meet the standards? You qualify. You don't? You don't. A standard is supposed to be an immovable object. But we, in our infinite wisdom, decided to adopt standards while, at the same time, embracing a self-esteem movement dictating that everyone must qualify, so that they don't feel badly about themselves. And this idea became an irresistable force.

And as the song says, "something's gotta give."

Well, what's more likely to give--a standard of excellence which requires hard work, and which not all people will attain, or a general feeling of syrupy goodness about ourselves? I'll give you one guess.

All across the country, academic standards that took millions of taxpayer dollars to develop are being subverted by dumbed-down standardized tests (that also took millions of taxpayer dollars to develop), or by good tests with subversive grading rubrics. We talk a good game, but in the end, everyone, or nearly everyone, moves along the line. And college, which once upon a time was an elitist institution (acadmically elitist in the best of times, instead of simply socially elitist), entrance to which was a badge of achievement, is now simply the next step that everyone must take. And if the kids aren't ready to do that work, we'll just give them work they are ready to do. We don't want to be unfair.

I had thought, silly me, that the whole point of this exercise was to spend energy and resources to help more students rise to a higher standard. Instead, we have left the students where they are and lowered the bar to meet them.

And we wonder why our political discourse is idiotic and barbaric? We wonder why "Jersey Shore" is considered great entertainment? We wonder why anyone and anything that smacks of erudition or sophistication is mocked into silence?

If our only standard is going to be smug satisfaction with ourselves, why don't we save our taxpayers a lot of money, and our schools a lot of grief, and just stop the whole charade?

1 comment:

Sandy said...

Amen. The entitlement hardly starts in college, though; my dad taught Jr. High for 30+ years, and witnessed the shift from parents saying "you'd better do well in school" to saying "aw, did that mean teacher give you a bad grade, you poor little angel? Let's threaten to sue and get it changed!" For the record, HE never stopped expecting good grades, and always believed my teachers over me when it came to grades.