Marc Tucker and the declension myth in American education debates

This month, Marc Tucker has written two blog entries for Ed Week that together present a frequently-used argument about the decline of America’s schools.1 On April 16, Tucker argued that a reduction in the difficulty level of high school senior textbooks has led to the watering down of college curriculum. Here’s the argument and payoff in a nutshell:

Could it be that many community colleges and even four-year colleges are really offering what used to be a high school college-bound curriculum and many college students cannot even successfully complete that? If so, it would go a long way toward explaining the slowdown in wage growth in the United States.

In other words: We used to be great, but now we are an aging superpower with sagging muscles–uh, brains. We coulda been a contender!  The human-capital explanation of wage stagnation and inequality is common, and would be plausible but for a few small, inconvenient facts, especially this one: the bulk of recent inequality growth is at the very upper reaches of the income and wealth scales. Mr. Tucker, do you really believe that the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 0.1% of Americans is better-educated and more knowledgeable than the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 5%, and that the highest-earning 5% truly knows less than the highest-earning 5% from 50 years ago? This argument feeds into the dynamic of seeing education as the solution to inequality. Jacob Bernstein argues that the primary problem with wage growth in the short term is weak demand. And a bunch of smart economists are worried about secular stagnation in the longer term.2

But apart from my concern about the sloppiness of Tucker’s economic argument, it is his ignorance of education history that is my main focus here. In his latest blog entries, he splices together a number of isolated studies and undocumented claims to make a broader argument about lowered expectations in American education. On April 23, Tucker made the full argument, with the following identified as culprits (in the order of presentation):

  • Increased child poverty and a resulting “collapse of middle class values”
  • Grade inflation from parental “pressure on teachers to give their children grades that would enable them to go to college”
  • “the status of teachers declined”
  • “the absolute quality of our incoming teachers declined”
  • “grade inflation became universal in higher education” as the end of the baby boom led to “an across-the-board fall in admissions standards” and U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities pressured university administrators to “[reduce] the number of hours of instruction provided during the academic year”
  • “Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement. Facing tough sanctions from the federal government for low test scores, many states lowered whatever standards they had for high school students, so they could escape the consequences of poor student performance…. Applications to schools of education started to fall and are now falling ever faster.”
  • The end of the universal draft for military service
  • The decline of vocational education

This is confectionary reasoning, or an attempt to stick together disparate claims in a thin narrative. The fundamental problem is that Tucker is assuming that at some point in the past there was a golden age of public education when vocational education was great, educational expectations were high in both high school and college, families were stable, we took care of poor children, and as a consequence America rocked economically.

It is a tempting story, because it is easier to argue that we have declined from some better point in the past than to explain consistently middling results. But it is the consistency of middling results that is the true history, and there never was a golden age of education in the United States. Tucker’s purported history is pulled from thin air and is wrong on several key points:

  • Child poverty and family decline: Child poverty rates declined in the years when divorce was becoming more common (look at the 1960s and 1970s in the poverty-by-age chart from this source). Teen birth rates have declined dramatically in the past quarter-century, and there is pretty good survey evidence that there are other improving trends in risky behaviors for teenagers.3 We should be ashamed at the level of child poverty that exists, but that is a continuing issue rather than something that has dramatically increased in the past 50 years.4
  • Grade inflation in high school from parental pressures: There is relatively little peer-reviewed research on high school grade inflation. One 2013 article used transcript data from several national longitudinal studies. Based on transcripts, the authors argue that there has been grade inflation at the secondary level since the early 1970s but that there has not been a huge change in the inferred meaning of grade differences–i.e., if there has been grade inflation, we may not need to be worried about it as a motivator or signal of achievement.
  • Grade inflation and lowered standards in college: Tucker’s chronology is all wrong here: if there has been grade inflation in college (see a 2012 article in Teachers College Record), the bulk of the decline in C and D grades happened between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s, with more stable grading patterns for the following 15 years and then a different pattern of inflation since 1990. This does not fit with Tucker’s story: the end of the baby boom hit colleges in the grade-inflation lull, and grade inflation continued during the baby-boom echo’s “traditional age” college years, when the incentives should have reversed.5 Caveat: the 2013 article linked above claims that there is much less evidence of grade inflation in colleges than in high schools.6
  • No Child Left Behind pushed states to lower standards for high school students and diverted energy from the standards movement: The mandated test grades in NCLB were 3-8, with one grade in high school (selected by the state). I may be wrong, but my strong impression is that in the years after NCLB’s enactment, most states were obsessed with elementary and middle school accountability much more than in high schools. While many states may have set the proficiency thresholds low because of NCLB, it is hard to argue that most states had accountability systems with higher expectations before NCLB and suddenly dropped those expectations. More to Tucker’s claim about diversion, it is hard to find a proponent of what he calls the standards movement in the late 1990s who was not in favor of NCLB in 2001. Many self-identified reformers have since backed away from NCLB, and we are seeing further backpedaling from Race to the Top with this spring’s test fiascoes. But as Paul Manna and others have written, at the time NCLB was a consensual policy change for those who called themselves as education reformers. If high-stakes testing is a diversion from standards, it was one fully endorsed by the bulk of those in the 1990s standards movement.
  • A decline in the status of teachers: In every era, American teachers have been the target of criticism. See Dana Goldstein‘s The Teacher Wars for a recent book on the topic.
  • Declining quality of teachers and enrollments in colleges of education: It is hard to parse out the relationship between greater job opportunities for college-educated women and college grads of color, which shrank the pool of potential teachers, and the greater numbers of college attendees with the baby boom, which expanded the pool of potential teachers. The decline in teacher education programs is very recent, essentially since the Great Recession, and is hard to put into a story of declining standards across decades.
  • Declining vocational education: The late W. Norton Grubb was brutally honest about the historical failures of vocational education, from its uses in discriminatory tracking to the weak evidence of effectiveness in recent decades. Grubb and Marvin Lazerson’s The Education Gospel (2007) is the right source for this topic. The point is not that one has to agree with Grubb and Lazerson’s policy prescriptions, but that even in a narrow area such as vocational education, there has never been a golden age.

In the past few years, my morale about education policy has been boosted moderately by more recognition of history in education policy discussions, especially in Washington, DC. I thought the major inside-the-Beltway players understood that Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars was mandatory reading, and also possibly Rick Hess’s The Same Thing Over and Over. So let me just put it out there more generally, as the object lesson from Tucker’s columns this month: if you are tempted to argue that there was a golden age of education, you have not read enough education history.

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Notes

  1. While such claims are sprinkled through the last 100 years, the modern progenitor is the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, with its claims about “a rising tide of mediocrity.” []
  2. This complex picture does not mean that education is unimportant, but that the economic argument for education reform is overstated. In education policy, as in Facebook relationship statuses, life can be complicated. []
  3. That trend is not universal; some risky behaviors surveyed by the CDC are stable or increasing. []
  4. There was an increase in child poverty in and after each of the post-1975 recessions. That’s not a direct result of international competition, unlike in Tucker’s story. []
  5. As many public colleges and universities have recruited from older adults since the baby boom peak, is Tucker implying that admitting older adults is inherently lowering standards? []
  6. This may be an artifact of the starting point for the 2013 article’s data: the 1970s. []