The Decline of Education 2.

by Donald E. Simanek
Observations on 30 years in the ed-biz, chronicling the decline of education, and a pessimistic view of its future.

[This document was originally two long postings to the PHYSHARE Bitnet discussion group in July 1995. It is an opinion piece intended to stimulate discussion of the very real problems education faces today. I deliberately took positions not often openly expressed. The volume of requests that this be reposted (even from people not members of the discussion group) was great enough that I found it simpler to post it here on my web page for people to download. I thank all of those who privately e-mailed support, and who shared with me their own experiences.]

Related documents: The Decline of Education, Part 1 (1974, 1994), What Is The Meaning Of 'Academic'?, and Designing a math curriculum for today's students.

The problem.

Lately I've had conversations with faculty colleagues, admissions directors and administrators, at several schools, about the declining quality of students we are getting in colleges. A number of facts and insights came out, and the discussions stimulated me to semi-organize my own thoughts on these matters and write them down. This does ramble on a bit, but feedback from you folk may help me polish it. After all, this flows from more than 30 years observation of the educational scene in the United States.

To put my opinions in perspective, I must explain that our small, public university is not the first choice of many of our students. Many applied to other schools but were not accepted. However, I did hear of one student we rejected who was immediately accepted elsewhere. So at least we are not at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Administrators have privately admitted to me that admissions standards have dropped to the point where 'any warm body' can get in. They say this is necessary to maintain enrollments and avoid catastrophic 'downsizing', which could provoke prolonged wrangling with the faculty union. Still, the students who come here show 'good' high school grades, and think of themselves as good and capable students. They have been deceived.

Administrators who care about these matters, and who discuss them with their counterparts at other schools, seriously tell us that "It's bad, and it's going to get a lot worse." One has to look far to find even one optimist, and if you do, he or she has probably been out of touch with reality for a while, or was always so.

College faculty complain that entering freshmen are poorly prepared in:

  • subject matter,
  • critical thinking skills,
  • mathematics skills,
  • mathematics understanding,
  • writing and verbal skills,
  • ability to express ideas effectively in writing or speaking,
  • reading comprehension (they avoid all reading),
  • study skills and library skills,
  • willingness to put time and effort into serious study,
  • genuine interest in anything academic,
  • knowledge and understanding of history,
  • knowledge and understanding of science,
  • knowledge and appreciation of literature.
Did I miss anything?

A significant proportion of them don't know anything academic, aren't genuinely interested in anything academic and can't do anything academic. They may have crammed (and still remember) some information and slogans, mostly trivial and some untrue. But more depressing than these facts about entering freshmen is the fact that we graduate most of them, and they still lack the above characteristics of an educated person. All sorts of pressures ensure that faculty will 'pass them through'. We are now graduating people, with 'good' grades, who, 20 or 30 years ago, would have dropped out of school for academic deficiencies.

Some faculty blame this on the high schools, specifically,

  • Students waste too much time on socializing, sports, and other non-academic activities.
  • Too many teachers are not very competent in the subjects they teach.
  • Too many teachers display only the technical skills of the ed-biz, but demonstrate no love and passion for their academic discipline, no evidence of superior knowledge in it, and no evidence of genuine scholarly zeal for advancing their own understanding of it. Many teachers are not, and never were, scholars.
  • Too many teachers do not encourage and insist upon high academic standards. Some of these teachers were not very good academic students themselves, did not take academically difficult courses, and did not get good grades when they were in college. They simply don't know and understand what it means to achieve a high level of academic performance, for they have never done it.
  • Grade inflation has made grades meaningless as an indicator of student quality.
  • Those responsible for determining the curriculum (school boards and administrators) seem to have the least understanding of academics.
As college faculty throw stones at the high schools, we must remind ourselves that the same criticisms apply to colleges and universities. Also we need to be reminded that high school teachers went through our college classes, were granted degrees by us, and were certified as meeting the (rather low) requirements to be teachers. We, in effect, put our 'stamp of approval' on them; now the chickens have come home to roost.

We need teachers who know their subject forward, backward, sidewise and inside-out, but have the good judgment, perception and common sense to teach it straight.
Someone on this discussion group told of a high school teacher who responded to complaints of this kind by saying to the college critics: "What cause have you to complain about students with poor preparation for college work? You accepted them."

Some say we can't realistically require teachers to meet higher academic standards, for if we did we couldn't possibly find enough teachers to staff the classrooms. Also, there's no way we can pay teachers enough and make their working conditions good enough to compete with other professions that require college degrees. Besides, we'd also have to find a way to replace the present gang of small-minded mountebanks and bean-counters in school administrations with people who genuinely care about academics, know something about academics, and have a background that included real academic achievement.

The scourge of sports.

Personally I feel we'll never make progress toward reversing the decline in academic achievement until we purge the schools of the scourge of sports. Let communities sponsor sports, arts and musical entertainment in separate facilities, leaving the schools for strictly academic activities. By embracing sports, and using your tax dollars to support them, schools have communicated the impression that sports have some sort of equal status with academics—that they are of comparable value, worth and importance to academics. This has diluted the very meaning of the word 'academic', which now merely describes 'any activity that happens in a school'.

So 'equal' have sports and physical education become in schools that teachers from that area often rise to become administrators, bringing to the job their narrow and shallow academic background and their gung-ho support of athletics.

Sports dominate everything in schools. Academic class schedules must accommodate to the schedule of games and practice. Students on teams are automatically excused from classes when the games are 'away'. This situation is maintained by community support. When there's a school strike, the first concern expressed in the media is "Will this strike disrupt the sports programs?" Faculty know they are expected to give student athletes special consideration when they do poorly in academic courses. Woe to the teacher who flunks a star athlete. Double woe to the teacher who catches an athlete cheating on an exam or plagiarizing a term paper. Any other student doing the same thing would get the book thrown at him. With athletes it's strictly 'hands-off'. Some athletic departments even pay for tutoring their athletes. Other students have to pay for their own tutoring.

In education, nothing works if the students don't.

The current culture of education.

Students have become aggressively indifferent to genuine learning. They think they can learn without any effort on their part. The corollary is that "If it doesn't come easily, it's not worth the trouble." Today's students certainly don't let academics interfere with their social life. In class they sit back, smugly, saying "Go ahead. Motivate me. I dare you." Or, "You are paid to teach me, Prof. If I don't learn, it's your fault." It is at least partly our fault that they have this perverted notion of education.

I recently taught a summer offering of a college course in non-calculus physics. It was a freshman level course, but the people in the class were from all levels, even senior level. I could hardly believe the moaning, groaning, bitching and complaining they did when they realized they were expected to actually learn something. I heard questions like these: "Will you collect the homework before, or after, you discuss it in class?" "Will you grade it right/wrong, or just 'attempted'?" "You can't expect us to do homework problems, because we are (working/have other classes)." "It's not fair to expect us to use the library because it's only open when we are at work." "Can you move your office hours so they don't conflict with my work schedule?" I suggested evening office hours, but that conflicted with someone else's work schedule. "I can't understand the textbook unless you go over the chapter first in class." (The textbook was Coletta's.) "We ought to get partial credit if we write down the correct equation." "I have to pass this course. I'm a senior, and need it to graduate." "I'm no good at math; could you explain magnetic fields for me without math?" And then there's the classic: "I understand the material, I just can't do the problems or answer the questions."

Where do they get such ideas? How do they imagine they can take a full class schedule and work too? If they must work, why didn't their advisors warn them that they should take a lighter class load? Also, I might be a bit more sympathetic about their need to work if I didn't see evidence of the amount of money they spend on trendy clothes, entertainment, and cars.

Part of the problem is that most of their instructors did not require homework, and did not require students to learn much of anything to get a good grade. When students encounter someone so old- fashioned as me, who expects that they ought to come out of a course knowing more than when they came in, and knowing something they can use effectively and correctly, they feel they are being treated unfairly compared to requirements of their other courses.

When given a choice they flock to the class sections of professors with a reputation of being 'easy'. They know that a class from a new, untenured faculty member will likely be non-intimidating, for such teachers realize they must get good student evaluations if they are ever to achieve tenure. And it takes at least five years these days to get tenure.

We lost control of the situation when (back in the 60s or thereabouts) we accepted (or at least went along with) the notion that students were 'customers' and we were dispensing a 'product'. Schools tried to tailor the curriculum to student's perceptions of their needs (and desires). The curriculum became a smorgasbord, from which students could pick and choose the tastiest morsels, and it included a lot of 'junk food' with no intellectual nutrition. At some schools students prepared course and faculty rating guides that were circulated or sold. Courses were created to pander to special interest groups.

For a while courses with 'environmental' and 'interdisciplinary' in their name or description were all the rage, and were usually nowhere as demanding as straight science courses. We had courses, and even degree programs in '____ studies' (substitute 'black', 'women's', 'multicultural', 'ethnic' 'interpersonal relations' or your favorite politically correct term for the '____'. Few dared to raise even valid concerns about the academic qualifications of those who taught and promoted such subjects, for such action could generate accusations of personal bias or prejudice.

It got pretty silly for a while, so that even the media noticed. Newspapers reported that one school offered a credit course in 'frisbee'. Another newspaper report told of a small Midwestern trucking company that hired only college graduates as truck drivers. "Why not," the company president said, "They are available, and reliable." The Maharishi University achieved full accreditation. Apparently its philosophy—that one could, through meditation, achieve bodily levitation, the ability to walk through walls, and other good stuff, plus its claims (through selective data) that 'coherent meditation' lowered the crime rate, improved the weather, and reduced global political tensions—was not enough to suggest that this was anything but a normal institution of higher education, with normal, rational, and sensible faculty. This one example alone, convinces me that accreditation is a fraud.

We realized that many students admitted to college needed remedial high school work in reading, writing, and mathematics. But any suggestion that we provide and require remedial courses was met with emotional opposition: "To require remedial courses would be demeaning to students and injure their fragile self-esteem." A more practical objection: "If we require it, they'll just enroll at some other school that doesn't." Administrators and department chairmen advised "Take them where they are, pass them through, and don't lose sleep over whether they learn anything."

Grade inflation was the inevitable result. Professors were fearful of flunking a student who may have been admitted under a program for the 'educationally disadvantaged'. So they raised all grades to prevent that. Profs gave glowing recommendations for mediocre students, rationalizing that their students were competing for scarce jobs with other students who had nothing but rave recommendations. Eventually we painted ourselves into a corner in which we had no way left to rate students' relative academic abilities.

We adopted a new form of non-discrimination; even the intellectually disadvantaged (whoops, I mean 'academically challenged') students had a good shot at getting a degree with no more effort than it takes to watch and understand a Saturday-morning TV cartoon show.

We also went through name inflation. 'social studies' became 'social sciences', 'physical education' evolved into 'health sciences' and 'recreation science', business-training programs are now 'management science'. If we can't improve the product, we can at least re-package it with a more impressive name.

Colleges and Universities, fearful of declining enrollments, began to compete for students. Most every school hired professional firms to prepare informational and promotional materials. These fancy color brochures made even the most mundane school look like a vacation resort—with emphasis on recreational facilities, social events, fun, and games. Even the academic programs were described as if they were unending fun and excitement. Never the slightest suggestion that the work might be demanding, difficult, or even sometimes tedious drudgery. Never any suggestion that it might be possible to flunk out. We sold our schools and our programs as if we were selling a new automobile.

Schools and colleges became no more than purveyors of current fashions. Suddenly the whole rich heritage of academic disciplines became unimportant, irrelevant, and old-fashioned, displaced by the trendy, the fashionable, and the popular. The very ideals of high achievement and high standards were now considered outmoded, discriminatory and 'elitist'.

We foolishly went along with the notion that students, in their innate wisdom, should evaluate faculty, through standard questionnaires. (Students' innate wisdom is so subtle it isn't readily apparent to the casual observer.) A few voices were heard, complaining that if students were so wise, why do they need courses and faculty at all? They were shouted down. The 'faculty evaluation questionnaires' were silly enough, on thoughtful examination, and their value and validity as measures of faculty performance has never been scientifically established (they are only measures of student perceptions and student satisfaction). But they were taken seriously by promotions and tenure committees. Of course, hardly anything in the ed-biz has been truly scientifically established.

We also accepted the unproven (and unreasonable) postulate that 'everyone is educable'. The natural conclusion from this premise is that if any student fails, we haven't found the right teaching strategy. Faced with this impossible situation, teachers made certain that few students failed.

'Accountability' of faculty and schools became a buzz-word. Academic institutions, once supposedly devoted to preparing people for the future, were now being judged on trivial criteria of the 'here and now' by people with no vision of the future, no appreciation of the past and no understanding of the present. Schools and faculty were by now running scared. Everyone seemed against them, and their 'traditional' (spoken with a sneer) values.

During these decades of decline we saw a proliferation of administrators when the real need was more faculty. All these overpaid clerks did was make more work for faculty, asking for progress reports, answers to questionnaires, forms in quintuplicate for even the smallest things. They created more levels of bureaucracy as an obstacle course for any upward-flowing ideas, and as an effective insulator to shield top people from the gruesome reality of life in the classroom trenches. Administrators' primary mandate seemed to be "Proliferate thine own kind." We also saw the spawning of studies, conferences, clinics, task forces, mission plans, and outcome assesments. None of these had any positive impact.

New curricula were devised, new courses were introduced, computers and multimedia came along, promising to revolutionize classrooms. These were desperate attempts to find that 'magic bullet' that might produce results that would magically instill knowledge into indifferent minds. None of it worked. It should have dawned on some of the dimwits involved in this farce that "In education, nothing works if the students don't." We have been rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic goes down.

Economic hard times came along to put the final nail in the coffin of education. Many economic, social and political trends encouraged everyone to take a short-sighted view—to abandon investments of time and money in enterprises whose payoff doesn't come till far into an uncertain future. Students and parents no longer respect the judgment of 'professional' educators. Politicians see no political gain from supporting education, but lots to gain from reducing taxes. Education has very few friends left in a position to make a difference.

Well, that's about where we are now. I hope I haven't been too delicate, restrained, temperate, or gentle in my remarks above. The future story remains to be written. Can we dig ourselves out of this black hole we've gradually slid into (always with the best of intentions)? I doubt I'll live to see that happen.

Political pressures.

As if teachers and school systems didn't have enough grief dealing with disciplinary problems, the decline of parental guidance, the increasing number of single-parent families, ready availability of drugs, and a student body interested in nothing beyond ego-gratification, they must also cope with pressure groups from all sides wishing to impose their own political and religious views of what the curriculum should contain and how it should be taught.

Most visible of these today are the Creationists, a zealous, religiously motivated pressure group. They hold to a very literal interpretation of the Bible, take the Genesis account of creation as literal truth, and reject outright any scenario of natural evolution of life on earth. To them the Genesis flood was a literally true event spanning 40 days and 40 nights, the ark did indeed carry two of every beast (but seven of the 'clean ones'), and there was enough water to cover the earth from a vapor canopy in the sky—'the waters above'.

Stung by the fact that most educated people consider such literalism ridiculous, Creationists fight back by trying to gain 'equal time' for what they call 'creation science' in the classroom. Knowing that the time is not yet right to impose their religious views completely into the curriculum, they have used the political ploy of stripping away the religious language and foundations of their view and repackaging it as 'creation science'. Without apparent shame, they present quotes from scientists out of context, bits and pieces of 'facts' that they claim don't fit evolutionary scenarios, try to engage scientists in debate on complex issues before audiences packed with their bussed-in supporters, who prefer simplistic 'answers' to complex questions. Then in their monthly publication "Acts and Facts" they crow about how their man bested the stupid scientist.

Teachers would do well to read "Acts and Facts" a publication for the true believers in creation. This publication does not hide the fact that the creationist cause is an evangelistic mission—a ministry. Creationists' true motives are clearly presented here. They care little about science as a way of finding out. To them, the only true science is that which squares with their literal interpretation of the King James Bible.

Teachers ought also to read "The Bible Science Newsletter". (Unfortunately, it's not free.) Zealots often have one-track minds, and currently that track is Creationism. But others in the 'Bible Science' camp realize that a literal reading of the Bible also supports geocentrism and the idea of a flat earth. This is presently a contentious issue within the Bible Science movement, with the flat earthers clearly in the minority. Others support geocentrism and the flat earth privately but feel it is presently politically unwise to support it publicly.

Why haven't teachers heard of some of these things? The hard-core instigators of Creationism and Bible Science are few in number. But there's widespread support amongst fundamentalist Christians for the general idea, and they can't be bothered to investigate the facts or question the arguments. Creationists claim some scientists support their view. You can count those 'scientists' on the fingers of one hand. A few small colleges and universities have a majority of Creationist supporters on the faculty, and students there are now getting M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in creationist-biased curricula, and with creation-science thesis topics. As I said before, accreditation has become a sham.

Most teachers, college or high school, would rather ignore what they consider this 'lunatic fringe'. But high school teachers ignore it at their peril. The Creationist strategy, after having lost some very visible state court cases, now focuses on the local school systems. They try to pack the school board with their supporters, then impose curriculum change to include Creationism, or at least to dilute the presentation of evolution by purging it from the textbooks. Textbook publishers, showing the courage of the marketplace, avoid trouble by rewriting the textbooks to omit topics on evolution, or relegate them to an appendix at the back of the book, which the teacher can easily skip.

Lest you think this is only a problem for the biology teachers, think again. The creationist scenario grudgingly admits the universe might have been created as long as 10,000 years ago. (Up from the 6000 years they previously held.) At present they will go no higher. This presents a bit of a problem for the teachers of physics, geology and astronomy. Might as well quit trying to teach about stellar evolution, the birth and death of stars, etc., if the creationists have their way. And the creationist view makes geologists irrelevant, for their whole interpretation of geological time scales and dating methods must be flat-out wrong.

As for physics, the creationists argue that the laws of thermodynamics make evolution impossible. This shows their perverse misunderstanding of thermodynamics, but how many high school physics teachers know it well enough (on a statistical mechanics basis) to see the flaws in creationist arguments? And if they did, and explained it correctly, how many of their fellow-teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents, would understand it?

How many physics teachers are prepared to calculate the volume of water needed to flood the earth to the tops of the highest mountains (a nice Fermi-question)? Or calculate the rate at which that much water would have to fall in the given time? (Could Noah have safely stood on the deck of the Ark during that rainfall?) If all that water were actually previously in a vapor canopy high in the atmosphere (as creationists claim) how much global warming would occur as it fell to earth (conversion of gravitational energy to thermal energy and heat of vaporization need to be considered). Would the oceans get hot enough to boil, cooking the ark and its occupants? Are students prepared to follow thermodynamic arguments at all? When the waters receded, where did they go? Back up into the sky (more thermodynamic implications)? Down into the earth (some serious geological implications)? Physics teachers who advocate rational thought and critical thinking are sitting ducks for attack by zealous evangelicals who prefer emotionally satisfying fairy-tails over science.

How many teachers realize that creationist organizations put out brochures for young people, giving questions that 'your teachers can't answer' and then giving the 'creationist answers'? Do you know that some advise less confrontational kids to answer the exam questions 'the way the teacher expects' but to write beside the answer "But I don't believe this." Apparently this enables a creationist student to get a good grade in biology while maintaining a clear conscience.

This is one issue teachers and schools do not need right now. But as long as we have local control over curriculum, these battles will have to be fought, over and over again.

While this is going on, another controversy brews over the issue of school prayer. Some simple-minded people think that a minute of prayer each day will improve education. That's about as plausible is the claim of the Maharishi University that daily meditation makes the brain waves more coherent, enhancing mental abilities. Schools already include prayers at commencement exercises and other school events, a clear violation of separation of church and state. Some schools have been brought to court for saying prayers in the locker room before games (as if their God really cares who wins). Some think classroom prayer is acceptable if those who object are allowed to leave the room. The proponents of prayer in the schools have, it seems to me, just one objective: to flaunt their religious convictions publicly, and to embarrass and intimidate those who don't agree, or who object to public displays of religiosity. They also want to give the impression that the schools support their religious views, or at least support the idea of prayer to their Christian god, and to dismiss objections from those of 'other religions'. They are simply a new breed of 'classroom bully' convinced that they are right, and therefore have the power to flaunt or impose their beliefs on everyone else. To them, anyone who doesn't share their views is a second-class citizen. They seem to forget that their own Bible advocates private prayer over public prayer. "Go into your closet and pray..."

A reader doubted that the Bible actually said anything of this sort. (You'd think those who make such a big show of believing in the Bible would know it better.) So here's the precise quote from the King James Version, in Matthew 6:

5. And when thou prayest thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

And politicians love to support school prayer. It gets them votes, and costs nothing.

It's no surprise that these same folk oppose multicultural studies in schools, oppose the very idea of treating any other culture's social and religious views fairly and dispassionately. These people have goals 180 degrees away from the goals many teachers try to achieve.

As I suggested earlier, one goal of physics education (and, I think, all education) should be to promote rational and critical thinking. It isn't happening. But what if we did succeed in that goal? Can you imagine the consequences if our students actually started preferring reason over emotion, facts over assertions, rationality over rationalizations, reality over fantasy, fair and objective analysis over prejudice and myths? Why, the teachers would be tarred and feathered and run out of town. Students would question all unfounded opinions, cherished myths, political flim-flam, religions, prejudices of parents and society, and generally cause social upheaval in the community. They'd challenge parents to support their opinions with fact and logic. They'd abandon the religion of their parents. The majority of the community does not want true education to happen in the schools. It wants the schools to uphold the narrow views and prejudices of those in power in the community. In most communities a school that offers a truly liberal education is a school to be feared. That's why I feel that we must reduce local community control of schools, or at least have some national minimum standards of curriculum content and student achievement. In the present political climate that's not likely to happen.

But of course things are not necessarily better at higher levels of decision-making. One member of this discussion group noted a while back that a state task force on education proposed a list of recommended goals for education. The goal 'critical thinking' was on the list for a while, then dropped from the final draft, for it had no strong support.

Even those who support such goals as reason and critical thinking are not at all confident that teachers are capable of promoting them effectively, or that teachers even understand them. This is one reason why some well-educated parents opt for home schooling.

These are just three more examples of the plagues that beset education.

Someone should address a few of the others. One important problem not dealt with above:

The needs of society force schools to devote time to non-academic matters: sex education, drug education, ethics, driver education, parenting, interpersonal skills, etc. etc. This greatly reduces the time available for academics. It further blurs the distinction between academic and non-academic subjects, and fosters the view that they are all 'equally important', especially when grades and credit are awarded for them. Perhaps the answer is to distinguish and separate academic credits, skill credits, and 'personal and social development' credits.

Minor edits, December and August, 1995. HTML conversion, Oct, 1996, reformatting July 2000.

Return to Donald Simanek's page.