An Interview with Neal McCluskey: When Will They Ever Learn?

Sep 27, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Neal, the SAT scores have come out and people are moaning and groaning and whining and wailing about the scores. To paraphrase someone, “Well, what did you expect?” What should people expect when you have greater and greater numbers of ill prepared students attempting to go to college?

The hope – and, really, the expectation – should be that more people intend to go to college because more people are prepared to handle college-level work and have a need for college-level learning. Unfortunately, one thing the latest SAT results seem to be showing us is that more people are taking the exam, but are not really ready for college.

2)      Now, inclusion and mainstreaming have been going on for some time- and teaching students with special needs takes some teachers attention from the above average students also. But we do not seem to look at this factor- or do we?

It certainly isn’t a primary topic of discussion in education-policy circles, but I think putting emphasis on the kids who are behind to the potential detriment of those who are ahead is a subject on lots of people’s radars. When it is discussed, though, I don’t think the debate usually burrows down to the allocation of time between special-needs and other students by specific teachers. It’s more about which groups of kids does the system mainly focus on.

3)      And more and more kids are growing up on video games, cell phones, I pod, and I pads and not doing very much reading- your thoughts?

That probably doesn’t help, though televisions have been eating up reading time for decades!

I would guess the biggest negative impact of these things would be seen in writing – which has only been assessed on the SAT since 2006 – where tapping out short-hand texts just won’t get the job done.

4)      Spending is up—but what else is new? The only answer some government beauracrats have is to “throw more money at the problem” rather than address human values and a work ethic. Or am I off on this?

No question that what many politicians do in response to poor educational outcomes is “invest” more, though they often pay lip service to higher standards, hard work, etc. But with real per-pupil expenditures having more than doubled over the last 40 years as achievement scores stagnated or sank, lack of investment is clearly not the root problem. The root problem could very well be that Americans have too little motivation or discipline to do well in school – we might have a cultural problem – but in that case there is little government can do to remedy the situation. People have to change their attitudes on their own.

5)      Minimal return on investment- True or False?

Based on the SAT – which has many shortcomings – over the last 40 years we have seen maybe a small positive return in mathematics, and a negative return in reading. Unfortunately, this general stagnation is corroborated in long-term results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. So the answer seems to be “true”: at best, we’ve realized an extremely limited return on our investment.

6)      If a parent really wanted their son or daughter to do well on the ACT or SAT- would they not be better off buying one of those books or even C.D.’s and grilling their child themselves on the weekend, rather than relying on “ the school system”?

There’s a lot in here! Generally speaking, parents would be better off if we all had school choice – an education market – than government schools. You need the specialization, competition, and innovation that comes with educational freedom to put the system on a permanent trajectory of improvement. Interestingly, that probably exists more in the test-prep and tutoring world than the school system, both in the United States and, to a much greater extent, the “cram schools” of East Asia.

In those schools, educators often make huge amounts of money and the students seem to get the desired results. Of course, SAT prep courses might also teach “testing strategies” that can boost scores without students having any boosted knowledge or understanding.

7)      Neal, do you have any breakdown at all as to which states seem to be doing well or better than others? Or do you have any idea how private schools do compared to public schools?

I haven’t pored over all the latest data, but as the College Board warns, making state comparisons is problematic because states have very different test-taking rates. There is also a serious self-selection problem for private schools, which might disproportionately attract college-oriented kids. This isn’t to say the data couldn’t be parsed in some way to mitigate these problems; I’ve just not done it or seen it.

8)      The Writing portion has been around now for six years- which is my mind is not exactly a decade- but six years is a good amount of time to be collecting data. What have we seen or found?

Mainly that scores have dropped steadily, and in 2012, 55 percent of test-takers did not meet the “College and Career Readiness Benchmark” established by the College Board. Not good.

9)      What have I neglected to ask?

I think you got it all.

10)  Neal, as usual, I appreciate your thoughts and input and analysis- any further insights?

Just that the main takeaway from the latest SAT scores is that, especially when coupled with other achievement indicators, we have gotten essentially no return for our constantly ascending education “investment.”

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