The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"California will develop and maintain a coherent system of first-rate schools, colleges, and universities that prepares all students for learning and for transition to and success in the next level of education, the workforce, and society at large, and that is fully responsive to the changing needs of our state and our people."....  ...Proposed new master plan for education in California (2nd draft, July, 2002).

Commentary of the Day - August 17, 2002:  The New "Master Plan" for Education in California - Myths and Realities:

As we noted in our commentary of August 6th, the California State Legislature recently issued the final draft of a new "master plan" for education in the state.  For the past 10 days the IP has been poring over this document in an attempt to understand what it really portends for education in the "golden" state for the coming decades (assuming that the recommendations contained in the plan eventually become law).  This was no easy task given that this new master plan is written in a curiously convoluted style.  It combines the usual circumlocutions of legislators attempting to avoid offending any of their constituents with the dense and sometimes fanciful "eduspeak" common to the community of professional educators.

Having finally worked through all 96 pages of the document, the IP would observe that first, this is great bedtime reading for the insomniacs among us.  It's turgid prose is guaranteed to put one to sleep within a few minutes.  Second, many of the assumptions, features, and recommendations contained within the plan are questionable at best.  In this commentary we focus on some of the myths contained within the plan, and on the corresponding realities.

Before doing that, however, the committee that wrote the plan should be praised for several instances of brutal honesty about the current status of K-12 education in California.  For example, they are not shy about noting that California students score poorly on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in English and mathematics, that the four-year high school graduation rates for Latinos and Blacks are only 57% and 58% respectively, and that some 50% of high school graduates admitted to the California State University system are required to take remedial courses in English, mathematics, or both.

Among the myths contained within the new master plan is the notion that all children can succeed in the K-12 system, where success is defined essentially as mastery of a rigorous academic curriculum.  The reality, of course, is that no matter how talented and engaging the teaching force is there always will be some children who will never be able to master a rigorous academic curriculum.  For many of these children, success is more reasonably defined as helping them to reach their full potential, where that might mean giving them the skills to live independently and to hold a job that does not demand a high level of cognitive skill.

Another myth contained within the plan, though not stated explicitly, is that the goal of most high school graduates should be a college degree.  The reality is that many high school graduates are not well served by the academic programs typically found in American colleges and universities.  At one time high schools in this country offered students a rich variety of vocational opportunities.  This is no longer the case.  To some extent, the slack has been taken up by community college and adult education programs.  However, many students whose talents lie in non-academic areas become bored by the strictly academic focus of our secondary schools and drop out before they reach the community college level.  One goal of a truly integrated master plan for education in California should be the introduction of vocational opportunities early enough to catch the interest of students before they drop out.  Unfortunately, the old high school vocational programs fell into disfavor because they were considered by some to be a discriminatory form of "tracking" that kept certain students from preparing for college.  In the process we have devalued many "blue-collar" jobs that are essential to society.  Many of these are not only honest jobs, but they pay wages that are comparable to those earned by many college graduates.  One unfortunate aspect of our current educational system is that much of the training and education for these jobs is now offered primarily by private trade schools that charge relatively high tuition.

Yet another myth is contained in the concluding remarks section of the plan. "We reject the notion that public education can serve only a proportion of its learners well and that student achievement must be distributed along a 'normal curve.'"  This statement actually conflates two different ideas.  The first is that it should be possible for public education to serve all its students well.  The second is that if it does this then student achievement will not be distributed normally.  The latter statement suggests that the writers have a profound misunderstanding of statistics.  The normal distribution for student achievement reflects the fact that the inputs (talent, motivation, environmental factors such as parental support, etc.) that contribute to achievement are themselves randomly distributed.  Even if all students were served well by the public education system, and even if every student performed at his or her maximum potential, student achievement still would follow essentially a normal distribution.  To be sure, the mean for this normal distribution should be higher; and, their might be a slight skewing of the distribution towards the higher end of the curve resulting from the fact that in such a system the most gifted of students would be challenged to work up to their potential.

Speaking of "gifted" students, it's interesting to note that although many sections of the plan address the needs of students who enter the system unprepared to learn, there is no mention at all of the needs of students who fall into the "gifted and talented" categories.  Public education often assumes that these students will take care of themselves.  The result is that many of those students, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, never are challenged to reach their full potential.

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