The Formula for Dumber Kids

By Michael Fumento

November 30, 1995
Copyright 1995 Michael Fumento

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"In California, everything is so-o-o-o touchy feeling," [sic] said actress and comedienne Tracey Ullman, in explaining why she was moving herself and her daughter back to the United Kingdom.

"They are into this silly outcome-based education where it doesn’t matter if she knew how to spell her name as long as she knew who she was. And it didn’t matter if she knew that two plus two was four as long as she had enough self-confidence to ask how to get to the conclusion of the problem. What a crock! She was going to end up as a dumb as a mudflap. Had to get her out."

Europeans have long made fun of two major American products, its beer and its education. But we’re making great progress — with our beer. Education, however, continues to decay, with our students routinely rating themselves among the highest in the world while scoring among the poorest.

The latest indication came with National Assessment of Educational Progress scores recently released showing that "don’t know much about history" has gone from being the line of a song to being the American national anthem. Only 11% of seniors, 14% of eighth graders and 17% of fourth graders are considered "proficient" in U.S. history. They’re comparative geniuses when it comes to geography though, with 31% of the seniors proficient.

Some defenders of the students’ performance claim the questions were really tough. Sure, like the one that asked whether New York, California, Illinois, or Texas was one of the 13 original colonies. Thirty-two percent of fourth-graders got that right.

Of course, 200 years is a long time ago. So another question asked which conflict — World War I, World War II, the Mexican-American War, or Vietnam — was fought to contain communism. Even fewer fourth-graders got that cranium-cracker.

Sadly, test scores have been in decline for decades now, and to place the blame entirely on anything new is somewhat unfair. But they were supposed to be getting better. Blame it on "outcome-based education."

Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? In fact, Ullman’s summary was amazingly void of hyperbole. "Outcome-based education" is a stealth term.

"It was a hijacking of the idea that schools should have been made more accountable but it made them less," author Charles Sykes told me in an interview. "Some conservative reformers in the 1980s began saying schools should be judged on the basis of outcome instead of inputs. Lots of governors and legislators bought into it only later to find out it was holistic healing and environmental stewardship."

Sykes’s newest book is a hard critique of outcome-based education called Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why America’s Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add. The book is replete with chilling "scenes from the front."

Thus, hearing about the poor history scores is hardly shocking after reading that in the upscale Denver suburb of Littleton a principal freely admitted that it was not important for students to learn any specific historical fact, including the ability to define either the Holocaust or World War II. Naturally such "educators" aren’t too keen on tests and grading. Many outcome based school districts have abolished traditional grading entirely, replacing it instead with such as "C" for "consistently," "S" for "sometimes" and "N" for "not yet."

Nationally we have seen the best indicator of the continued mediocrity of our children’s performance was simply erased. Last year the administrators of the SAT pushed up the scoring standard so that scores just above 400 would now be pushed up to 500. In one fell swoop, the ability to compare today’s student scores with those of their predecessors was destroyed.

It’s also now possible to get a perfect SAT score without getting all the answers correct.

Putting self-esteem before success: Another pathetic product of the flower child generation.

"Recognizing they were under more scrutiny to raise academic standards," Sykes told me, OBE administrators "have simply decided to make the standards unmeasurable. A lot of schools are abolishing them and others are making everyone a winner."

Thus many Colorado schools have multiple valedictorians, with Boulder High School producing an amazing 26. And to think poor, inner-city schools can only afford one.

OBE also incorporates the self-esteem movement that has been around for decades. In theory, since high self-esteem and doing well are linked, by increasing self-esteem we can increase performance. But Sykes points out that they’re probably putting the proverbial cart before the, that it’s success that drives self-esteem and not the other way around.

The self-esteem obsession is not only a waste but probably detrimental, he says. "If having kids feel good is top priority, you will be afraid to ask too much of them. In the long run this is a fraud because kids eventually hit reality like a brick wall, in college or the work world."

But Sykes believes there will be an education revolution.

"Public opinion is pretty clear," he says. "And OBE is taking schools in exactly the opposite direction. Add to this that the stakes are higher than ever since kids need to be better educated than they used to be. Old factory jobs no longer exist. The education establishment’s response to all this is denial, vilification of critics, and circling of the wagons. To me that’s a description of an institution that’s ready to collapse.

Let’s just hope it happens before all our kids are dumber than mudflaps.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on education.