All political philosophies have contradictions, or perhaps more accurately, those espousing them have contradictory goals. I don’t identify as a doctrinaire conservative, and certainly not as a progressive. I vote for whoever will be likely to do the least damage to the Constitution and who will be likely to at least slow, if not reduce, the size and power of the federal government. That generally puts me mostly on the side of conservatism, but not always. In the last election, dear oh dear, was that particular voting choice easy.
It is in education that we find profound cognitive dissonance. A foundational conservative principle is limited government, government only big enough to do things we cannot accomplish for ourselves, such as treating with foreign nations, maintaining a military, regulating our national borders, etc. Part of this philosophy demands local control of education—decision and policy making in each community–which is why America enjoys a system of local school boards governing individual school districts. In many ways, this system provides something close to true one man, one vote democracy. School board elections are often won by a handful of votes, sometimes a single vote. Parents can speak with their school board members and school superintendents over the backyard fence, or over a cup of coffee at the local diner. Particularly when parents are interested and attentive, the system works splendidly in reflecting the priorities and values of the residents of a given school district.
The system also works well in providing outstanding educational opportunity. And here is where conservatism breaks down. In the name of “accountability,” many conservatives are more than willing to abandon any pretense of small government and local control. They demand mandatory, high stakes testing, controlled from Washington, or at the very least, from huge, often abusive and hostile to teachers and parents alike, mostly unaccountable state education bureaucracies, and they see no contradiction, because education is “really important.”
In this, they adopt the mindset of progressives, who see all of their goals as “really important,” and who will spare no expense—it’s really easy to spend other people’s money like there is no tomorrow—to see them implemented, nor hesitate to impose any punishment for those that resist. To hell with limited government. To hell with local control, to hell with what teachers have to say; what do they know about education, they’re only teachers! This is really important!
And so, in violation of one of the foundations of conservative principle, the federal government and the states spend hundreds of billions of dollars enriching test-making educational corporations, some not even American corporations, like Pearson, producing tests, study materials for tests, and other related matters. State educrats build huge, wasteful and unaccountable bureaucracies aimed at administering such tests, hiring people to grade them, compiling data and producing voluminous reports that virtually no one ever reads. And local schools spend millions they don’t have and waste huge portions of each school year ruthlessly drilling kids to take poorly written, obtuse tests of a kind no child will ever see again. And all for what? To produce a few data points, a few scores telling us how students did on a specific, poorly written test on one day in their young lives. On this slender reed hang careers, fortunes and the futures of America’s youth. On this deviation from conservative principle do conservatives embrace intrusive big government, top down policy, big brother–progressivism.
Regular readers know my appreciation of the writings of Victor Davis Hanson. However, one need not agree with anyone 100% of the time, nor does one need to see anyone that disagrees as an enemy to be crushed. One of the principles of SMM is polite, intelligent debate. Consider this recent National Review article from Hanson:
Take academia. Right now, the campus is plagued by several interrelated pathologies: staggering student debt and costs, administrative bloat (often in conjunction with the vast investment in race/class/gender politics), an increasing absence of free speech and due process, and a shallow and therapeutic curriculum that does not guarantee the indebted students even basic literacy upon graduation.
So far, so good. Hanson’s assertions, while not universal, are accurate and descriptive of far too many contemporary colleges. As I’ve often written, contemporary colleges, with relatively few exceptions, will accept anyone, including people they know are not remotely capable of genuine college level work. As long as their checks cash, they’re in. To keep them in school, and to suck as much money out of them as possible, colleges have established remedial high schools. Students they know will drop out and never earn a degree are required to take remedial courses in virtually every discipline, particularly English—most can’t hope to write on a college level—that do not earn college credit, but that do cost full tuition, adding years, and tens of thousands to a degree for the few that persevere and earn one.
Trump could announce that he was returning academic emphases away from administrators and professors to the student. That might entail reconfiguring student loans by calibrating them to cost containment on the part of universities (make ineligible for loans any institution whose costs increased beyond the rate of inflation). Truth-in-lending statements would provide students with a breakdown of university income and outlay. Trump could cap tax-free donations to university endowments above $1 billion and provide entering students with estimates of their approximate debt incurred upon graduation, the costs of serving that debt, and the employment prospects of particular majors.
All of these are inherently reasonable proposals, however, students and parents still have the primary responsibility to ensure they’re getting a competent education rather than leftist political indoctrination. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—also applies and is also the responsibility of the parent and student. This is a bottom line expression of local control.
The Department of Education might ensure students due process in all campus investigations as a requirement for reception of federal funds.
Considering the lunacy “suggested” by the Obamites, and gladly implemented by left college administrations, this is an obviously necessary, and entirely constitutional, suggestion. Here’s where Hanson—and far too many conservatives—go wrong:
A national exit test would reassure employers of the value of a bachelor’s degree. (If it’s acceptable for colleges to demand test scores upon entry, why not similarly quantify students’ investments upon graduation?)
Tests like the SAT and ACT are given for very different purposes than the “exit” tests Hanson suggests here. Properly written, graded and considered, they are supposed to be accurate representations of a student’s potential academic success. Granted, such tests have their own, well-publicized problems, and in the contemporary academy, they are usually superfluous. Most colleges will accept just about anybody whose checks cash, and race, favored victim group status and gender are often given far more consideration in admittance decisions than high SAT scores, particularly if the prospective student with a high score has the misfortune to be Asian. More and more colleges no longer require SAT or ACT scores.
Is Hanson right? Will an exit test score actually tell employers anything meaningful about the abilities of a college graduate? Or will mandating such tests—again, a gross violation of the principle of local control—turn colleges into mini high schools obliged to spend years drilling students to ensure high exit test scores which will inevitably be tied to federal funds? Just as in K-12 education, any time lost to test drills is curriculum lost, vital and irreplaceable brain development that never occurs. In effect, mandating such tests ensures less capable—probably much less capable–and knowledgeable college graduates in favor of single data points, huge public expenditures, and voluminous reports no one ever reads.
This is a story I’ve told before, but it bears at least one more telling. In my undergraduate studies, I aced my mandatory college math courses, not because I have an aptitude for math, but because I have significant scholarly skills: I know how to study and take tests. Born without the math gene, I do not gaze lovingly upon equations and find revealed to me the wonders and majesty of the universe.
On the other hand, I was quite good at my chosen field of study: English. Unlike most English majors, I read every assignment, every word, worked very hard on every writing, and carefully considered every position I was required to argue.
Back in the 1400s when I graduated with a bachelor’s, there was a required exit test for all education majors. I believe it was called the National Teacher’s Exam, or something equally catchy. The test was like every such test I’ve ever taken, written by people with little sense of reality. It was not so much a test of what I knew and what I would be able to do as a teacher of English, but a test measuring, quite imperfectly, my ability to choose answers the writers of the test would consider to be correct, not answers that would make sense in the real, as compared to the academic, world.
Back then, the test wasn’t mandatory across the nation, but it was a requirement of my college and several others. Therefore, there was no test drill, no wholesale destruction of the curriculum to ensure minimum test scores. As I understand it, the test has long since been abandoned, and with good reason.
When I finally received my test scores, I was amazed to discover I scored better in math than English, and by about a six point margin! What would such scores tell prospective employers about me? Was I in the wrong discipline? Should I be teaching math instead of English?
Most likely, the particular test I took, by mere chance, was written in such a way that my scores were a foregone conclusion. As math is objective–one gets the right answer or not–English tends to be much more subjective, and I apparently didn’t read the minds of educrats as accurately on that section of the test.
I have no doubt those that chose to employ me cared nothing at all for the scores of that test. They knew what they were looking for in an English teacher, and no test score would change their criteria as long as they saw everything else they were looking for. I’m sure, in fact, that most didn’t consider that test score at all.
When we consider that more and more college students are non-traditional—they’re not 18 year olds right out of high school entering college in the following Fall—such tests make even less sense, unless, of course, one is the CEO of a educational company making the tests, or educrats dependent on testing for their career credibility. Then it’s all about profit.
In any case, it’s absolutely not about conservatism.