What if Fifty Million Frenchmen Were Wrong?

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane” – Marcus Aurelius

The Associated Press is reporting today that some 82% of US schools may be labeled as “failing” under the No Child Left Behind Act. The number apparently reflects the schools “not meeting targets for proficiency in math and reading” – it is a shocking number. Before launching into a diatribe that will include allusions to morality of the masses, let me note that I know very little about the No Child Left Behind Act – other than it seems to be quite controversial. If someone would like to post a comment pointing out all of the inadequacies of the law and why the above number is meaningless, or at the very least misconstrued, then be my guest.

There is an interesting trend in the education industry regarding how we assess the goodness and/or fairness of a test. People will quite often subconsciously ascribe some importance to success rate in determining whether a test is fair or reasonable. That is, if 100% of the class passes a test, then, well, we assume they all studied and deserve their grades. If 20% fail then maybe it was a hard test and they need to understand what is expected of them so they can do better next time. But if 80% of the class fails a test, there is implicitly an assumption that the test is flawed.

We see this in more than just teachers – in fact we may be less likely to see teachers reacting this way than say, their students. Have you ever been in a class where 80% of the people failed a test? The response amongst the students is shock and then relief … “surely [the teacher] won’t fail all of us.” The belief is that a large failure percentage implies the test is errant.

Some teachers go along with this mindset, not wanting to flunk everybody; even using it as a means to get more work out of the students by giving them an “opportunity” to make up the grade (nicely done). Some teachers, usually college professors with tenure, will actually take a harder line on the issue – “the test is the test, and your grade is your grade … study harder next time.” These are the minority, from what I can tell.

We’ve also seen the same notion creep into the education arena in a more malicious way. Decades ago, national SAT scores started trending downward. Naturally this implies a weakening of education standards and quality. Not so, responded the establishment, and they introduced a nonlinear score adjustment to stop the downward trend. After all, there must be something wrong with the test if results are trending downward. Right?

Now we see that 82% of schools are potentially missing the mark on reading and math goals. The response of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “No Child Left Behind is broken and we need to fix it now.” That’s right, ladies and gentleman. If 82% of US schools are failing, the test is clearly broken.

Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong – can they?

In the broader sense, we’ve noted a number of times that the morality of the masses is a dangerous thing. That is, if the majority, even a significant majority, agrees on some definition of morality – that alone does not make it right. (Remember, even Hitler won an election.)

And yet, there is an underlying conception in the general mindset of the population that as long as a lot of people agree on an issue they must be right. As long as a significant majority agrees that this or that is acceptable from a moral standpoint, then it is indeed acceptable. Let me assure you friends, there is no “strength in numbers” on the day of Judgment.

Similarly, there is no strength in numbers for the 82%, other than the fact that they may have enough political weight to make some trouble. The federal government is notorious for setting extremely low standards, and I have no reason to believe the No Child Left Behind Act is any different. (Again, I’ll gladly take comments to the contrary – preferably with some factual basis.) 82% still couldn’t hit the mark? This is epidemic.

Is the system really this broken? If so, then it matters not at all that the broken system is very large – other than to say that it will be more painful to fix.

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2 Responses to What if Fifty Million Frenchmen Were Wrong?

  1. “If someone would like to post a comment pointing out all of the inadequacies of the law and why the above number is meaningless, or at the very least misconstrued, then be my guest.”

    Ok. First, I think even the referenced AP article is misleading, or it at least starts out that way. The metric in question (which I’ll get to shortly) is indeed expected to increase this year… but that metric is currently only at 37%, and it is not estimated to reach 82% until 2014. I admit I am not sure how they came up with such a detailed figure 3 years in advance.

    Second, this estimate is of the fraction of schools that will not meet the goal set down by NCLB, which is for 100% of their students to meet the proficiency standards. If a school gets every one of its students to that level, then it lives in the 18% elite. If a school gets 99% of its students to that level, then it lives in the 82% failures. This makes sense when evaluating missile defense systems, but I’m not sure it applies to education.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly a fan of Arne Duncan. But let’s be clear on what yardstick is nonsensical and does indeed need to be fixed. This has relatively little to do with “dumbing down” the actual tests the students take or how they are scored, and more to do with how to appropriately hold schools accountable for progress of students– wait for it– in distribution. If we really believe that not everyone should get an A, and I assume from reading here that we do, then let’s be willing to leave some children behind, and not punish a school for the naturally occurring Fs.

    • nomasir says:

      I figured somebody out there would have insights on NCLB. I think we should all get As … in fact, I think everybody should be above average – and if they’re not then we haven’t done our job!!!!

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