The Two-Front War on Academic Standards

a deep dive into the equity hustlers destroying American education from top to bottom

This week, a bonus piece on education. Maxwell Meyer reached out recently with an almost unbelievable story about the activist assault on our public schools. First, a total obliteration of opportunity for our brightest students. Then, the revocation of all responsibility for our lowest-performing students. It seems no one can fail in a world where the concepts of failure and success have been erased. It’s a two-front ideological war and we’re losing. An absolute must-read.

-SOLANA


Kurt Vonnegut’s great short story “Harrison Bergeron” opens as follows:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

If you haven’t read it, it’s worth your five minutes [read it here!] but here’s a brief summary:

George Bergeron and his wife Hazel are watching the ballet on television. Because George is stronger and smarter than most people, he's required to wear fifty pounds of weights around his neck and a loud radio in his ear that stops him from using his intelligence unfairly. They watch the TV as the ballerinas struggle to dance due to their neck weights. The most beautiful ballerinas wear masks to hide their faces.  

Then, a man on TV announces that George and Hazel’s son Harrison, a smart and handsome boy who was taken away by the state, has escaped prison. He appears at the ballet, breaks off his physical handicaps, and declares himself Emperor. He chooses the most beautiful ballerina as his Empress, and they dance together passionately and begin to fly, almost reaching the ceiling. Suddenly Diana Moon Glampers, the US Handicapper General, appears and shoots them both with a double-barreled shotgun. 

2021 marks exactly 60 years since Vonnegut published “Harrison Bergeron” and 60 years until 2081, when “everybody was finally equal.” But if you’ve been following American education lately, you might think that some educators are trying to move up the schedule. Okay, fine. We haven’t reached a Bergeron-style dystopia in our schools quite yet, and there aren’t currently any proposals (that I know of) to implant radios in the ears of the best students. But there are several alarming trends in education policy that I believe constitute a serious threat to our country. It’s a Two-Front War on Academic Standards. 

The first front is essentially an effort to rein in our best students, to make sure they aren’t getting any unfair advantages, or doing too much better than others. It takes many forms — eliminating test-based admission at magnet schools, doing away with advanced coursework, etc — but really comes down to one issue: in any system that rewards achievement, differentiated ability produces a gap between students, which is viewed as an inequity. Just like the “wealth gap” or the “gender pay gap,” the “achievement gap” is the subject of almost myopic focus by political activists. And as we know, the solution to some students doing better than others (inequity) is to make all students do the same (equity).

Of course, that’s not how any of this works. Pulling one student down the ladder doesn’t make it any easier for the students below to climb. But let’s suppose that the stated goal of equity is actually earnest. Wouldn’t we expect to see an effort to pull the lower students up - to give them a hand? Theoretically, yes. But in reality, there is no serious effort to raise standards at the bottom of the performance distribution. Instead, we reduce the standards or eliminate them entirely, giving these students the boot. If there are no standards, there can be no failure, nor can there be any blame for the failure. This is the second front in the war: “helping” students who struggle by eliminating all expectations of them.

Front I: cutting down our brightest minds

A battle to eliminate high standards and opportunity for the highest-performing students is being waged all around the country. Boston is upending admission at its competitive high schools. Activists and officials in New York want to do the same to the historic Stuyvesant High School, which has been repulsively framed as too Asian. In San Francisco, school board member Allison Collins says the very idea of merit is “white supremacist.” That city totally eliminated algebra from the middle school curriculum a few years ago because not everyone was ready for it. Just over the Canadian border in Vancouver (a 40% Asian city), all honors courses have been terminated in the name of equity. At the posh Dalton School in Manhattan, teachers have demanded that advanced courses be abolished unless they achieve complete racial equity in enrollment and results. Nowhere is it worse than in California, which we’ll get to presently. 

While researching these efforts, from the scholarship to the media to the public policy documents, I was shocked by the extent to which nearly all of it leads back to one person, leaving a trail of citations and quotations numbering in the hundreds, probably thousands. That person is Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She’s a British former teacher turned PhD, a math “reformer,” and the self-appointed Handicapper General of American mathematics education. 

Boaler’s work, to quote her, focuses on “mathematics teaching and learning - in particular, how different teaching approaches impact students' learning, how to teach mathematics for a ‘growth mindset’, and how equity is promoted in mathematics classrooms.” Her writing is peppered with a lot of fluffy language to parse — Limitless Mind, Mathematical Freedom — butI would characterize her specific policy goals like this:

  1. Eliminate or substantially reduce “tracking” in math, which sorts students into classes based on ability and performance. Instead, Boaler would adopt heterogeneous classes, in which students of varying abilities are taught together. 

  2. Discredit the idea of “gifted” students and natural mathematical ability and eliminate or substantially reduce special programs for gifted students. 

  3. Reduce standardized testing and traditional methods of measuring performance in favor of measuring “mindsets.”

Now, as with most other professors in graduate schools of education, one’s instinct when encountering the work of someone like Boaler is to turn around and run like hell. But unfortunately, she isn’t just some professor to avoid on campus. In fact, she is one of the most cited education researchers in the country, and she has published influential books and started a non-profit organization to promulgate her work. Worst of all, she is the co-author of the proposed K-12 mathematics education framework in our nation’s largest state. 

To say that the 2021 California mathematics framework is a ridiculous document would be a colossal understatement. It begins with a stirring proclamation: “A fundamental aim of this framework is to respond [to] issues of inequity in mathematics learning; equity influences all aspects of this document.” With this goal in mind, the authors lay out, in thirteen excruciating chapters and hundreds of pages, a new vision of mathematics education. The framework criticizes the “rush to calculus” and suggests that maybe we shouldn’t offer calculus in high school at all, or algebra in middle school. Echoing another pillar of Boalerthink, the framework declares: “We reject ideas of natural gifts and talents.” 

Boaler’s landmark 2008 paper, the so-called “Railside Study,” purported to show that at a school (identified only as Railside) that placed students into de-tracked, heterogeneous classes, students in all ability groups improved performance compared to two traditional schools. This result was widely lauded as a victory for de-tracking and reform mathematics. A Stanford mathematician, R. James Milgram, was skeptical of the results, and he asked to see the data; Boaler refused, citing privacy concerns. Her refusal to share data with a qualified researcher raised alarm bells for Milgram, so he continued to investigate, and was able to identify the real Railside school using public data. Despite Boaler’s vigilance in protecting the data from scrutiny, Milgram conducted a thorough review of the study along with Wayne Bishop and Paul Clopton, also mathematicians.

They found numerous errors in the tests Boaler gave to students, which they concluded “could not have been an accurate measure of the mathematics the students knew.” They said the paper’s claims were “grossly exaggerated and do not translate into success for her treatment students.” The key research failure is that Boaler chose a stronger subset of students at the experimental Railside school than at the non-experimental schools to take her “test.” That these students performed better on it is therefore not a surprise, and certainly not a sufficient basis to declare victory for de-tracked math. In fact, Milgram, Bishop, and Clopton found that on other standard measurements, the traditional school groups fared significantly better than the Railside group. Other de-tracking research has been mixed at best, with some finding modest gains for some students and losses for others. But as with many education studies, as Milgram points out, methodologies are shoddy, and the results should be treated with appropriate suspicion.

But suppose that we de-track the math classes on a massive scale — say, all of California. What exactly will these students be learning in the single, more equitable curriculum? Well, the framework answers that question, and it’s not flattering for Boaler and other de-track-tivists who insist that their practices don’t sacrifice rigor. The framework even offers several “culturally competent, critically conscious” math lessons for middle school. Here’s my favorite, called “What’s a Fair Living Wage?”

The teacher begins the lesson by assigning students different identities. For example: “a Latinx family with two children under the age of five,” or “a two-mom Black family with two children… both moms work full-time… for Amazon... [for] $13.00 per hour,” or “a young, single Black woman… working full time… you make 64 percent of what men at the company make.” Next, the students calculate the minimum income a family would need to afford various rent payments in different apartments and cities. The questions are of medium complexity and encourage students to work together to determine which families are being paid “fair” wages and then determine their own “fair wage.” A little nebulous, but it is technically math, so I’ll take it. 

Unfortunately, the mathematical activities are just a prelude to the main event, in which union organizers are invited into the classroom to recruit students and teach them about “ongoing labor justice efforts.” Students are to be presented with petitions to sign, write to their representatives, and create social media posts about increasing the minimum wage.

While I admire the straightforwardness of the lesson — union activists literally replace the teachers — it doesn’t strike me as an improvement over algebra. You’d think that the people proposing to upend decades of established mathematics coursework (flaws notwithstanding) would suggest something slightly less conspicuous than an activist training session. But to their credit, the framework authors have made very clear what their real agenda is. “Equitable math” is about politics, not math. 

In order to justify grouping students with vastly different abilities into a common (read: lower level) curriculum, you would need to believe that there aren’t really kids who are smarter than others. To that end, Boaler has published a series of books about “mathematical mindsets,” which she asserts are more important than natural ability in mathematics. In one perplexing excerpt called “The Myth of the Gifted Child,” she attacks the idea of innate talent existing at all, saying it’s a “damaging” idea because… equity. Boaler even suggests that Einstein succeeded in physics due to his “positive mindset.” While reading this particular Boaler theory, all I could think about was a very talented youngster in the news recently: Zaila Avant-Garde, the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. I think she makes for an instructive example to dispel the idea that natural gifts are a triviality, or a myth, as Boaler would have us believe. 

In under two years Zaila went from never having competed in a spelling bee to becoming the national champion. Outside of spelling, Zaila holds multiple Guinness World Records in basketball juggling, including the record for most basketballs juggled simultaneously (6) and most bounces in 30 seconds (307). She has taught herself how to speed read and has finished, at 14 years of age, over 1000 chapter books, more than most Americans will read in a lifetime. Zaila can also divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head (42421/59, anyone?). She says she hopes to attend Harvard and then work at NASA and coach in the NBA.

Zaila Avant-Garde is what we call a “gifted child.” Only a seriously deluded ideologue would deny this obvious fact or suggest that her ability to learn 13,000 words a day is just a “positive mindset.” But remember the dogma: the concept of “gifted children” is a myth rooted in white supremacy. There is no innate talent! Could it be, perhaps, that the reason these people insist that talent is a myth is to rationalize their own utter lack of it? 

We live in a time of slowing economic growth, serious technological challenges, and increasing global competition against countries like China, even India. Our top students are a national resource on which future standards of living, human and environmental health, technology, and our common defense all depend. Who could possibly benefit from forcing Zaila Avant-Garde to take the same math class as a student who can’t do basic arithmetic? It is in the interest of everyone in this country that we do all that we can to allow students like Zaila to soar. This means advanced coursework, special opportunities, and yes — *gasps* — more resources. The returns will compound many times over, and the supposed inequity of the investment will pale in comparison. These edge-cases are a small group, no doubt, but if this country progresses technologically at all this century, we will owe it to our edge-cases. Intentionally handicapping our brightest students will be national suicide.

Front II: the fight to eliminate all standards for our lowest-performing students.

Given that the handicapping of our top students is supposedly being done in the name of their less performant peers, it’s worth taking a look at how the system actually treats those at the bottom.In New Mexico, 40% of high-school students failed a class last year. In Houston, it was 42%. In St. Paul, 40% of all grades were Fs. In Los Angeles schools, there were so many F grades in Fall 2020 that LAUSD simply ordered teachers to stop giving them out. Las Vegas has adopted a similar strategy: in order to prevent more failing grades, they’ve instituted a minimum grade of 50%. In Baltimore, over 40% of high school students earned a 1.0 GPA or lower this year. If you go school-by-school instead of averaging districts and states, you’ll find plenty of schools with 70% of students failing.

Now now, I know what you’re thinking. Max, those numbers are just the pandemic. It can’t be that bad all the time! Nope. Baltimore’s below-1.0-GPA percentage just before the pandemic was 25%. Double digit failure rates have been common for decades in America. In Los Angeles, just 16% of students are considered proficient in math. In Newark, 9%. Nationwide, that figure is 25% for high-school seniors. In several major cities, only 70% of high school students graduate. One high school senior in Baltimore ranked near the top half of his class this year with a 0.13 GPA, having passed only three classes in four years. The school never informed his mother that he was failing and advanced him to the next grade each year. Now, he’s been moved back to freshman year, and the district will spend another $76,000 on four more years. This last example is somewhat extreme, but the point remains: failure is ubiquitous. 

If these numbers shock you, it’s understandable. Most readers of Pirate Wires will probably be more familiar (or directly concerned) with the insanity affecting top students than anything happening at the bottom of the system. Do you know any 8-year olds who can’t read? Do you have a child in your household failing multiple high school classes, or one who will never graduate? I’d guess not. But I hope to convince you that this is a problem worth more attention from all of us. For one, I still care about living in a diverse society with equal opportunity and upward mobility — the essence of the American Dream — and education is an important element of that. But if that’s too lofty for you, I’ll put it like this: unabated chaos at the bottom of our school system will eventually produce unabated chaos everywhere — economically, socially, and politically. 

There are a lot of really complicated causes of education failure and no easy solutions, yet over and over again, the bureaucrats, legislators, and educators presiding over the failure take exactly the steps most likely to exacerbate the problem. The most obvious case of this recently is the tooth-and-nail fight of the teachers’ unions to keep kids out of school for as long as they could during the pandemic. Sometimes, it’s more subtle; instead of directly exacerbating failure, they simply ignore it, or try to cover it up. 

SB 744, a recently-passed law in Oregon, suspends testing requirements for three years, as well as the requirement that high school students demonstrate basic reading, writing, and math skills in order to graduate. So, through 2024, Oregon, which was one of the last states to re-open schools during the pandemic, will grant high school diplomas to students who cannot read at a basic level and send them on their way. The changes have been billed as temporary, but a group lobbying for the bill said that eliminating the requirements would make the state’s high schools more “inclusive and equitable.” This raises a big question: if cancelling graduation requirements is inclusive and equitable, why not do it permanently?

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention for the past year, you’ll realize that the best way to institute a permanent policy is to start with a “temporary” one. For the education establishment, the pandemic is only a pretense, an opportunity to achieve a longtime goal that in normal times wouldn’t survive scrutiny from lawmakers and the public: eliminate all standards of performance and accountability in public schools. By ceasing to measure reading ability, Oregon hopes to conceal from the public that a growing number of students can’t really read. As for the unfolding generational catastrophe of learning loss due to union-backed school closures, there are efforts to cover that up as well. The New York Times asks: Does It Hurt Children to Measure Pandemic Learning Loss? I have a better question: does it hurt children to intentionally worsen learning loss by closing schools for months longer than was scientifically necessary? 

Readers with children will know that at all levels of K-12 education this past year, standards and expectations were seriously reduced. But while many students were simply not required to do anything, students without the proper resources to engage in “distance learning” (a pernicious term, if you ask me) were in effect not permitted to do anything. Here’s an anecdote from a teacher I know, who works with some of the least advantaged and lowest performing students in their school district:

At the beginning of the pandemic, the priorities for teaching these students were simple: make sure that they checked in a few times each week with their teachers and that they were safe. Food and shelter were understandably more important than progress in geometry. But some weeks in, optional learning resumed for students who wanted to. One bright but needy student wanted to keep up with the work, but without adequate internet, a printer, or access to a public library, could not do so. The teacher, as one does, wanted to help, and thought to take some printed homework pages to the student. But they couldn’t, because school officials had announced a blanket policy against such action due to “equity issues,” the implication being that taking printed material to this student would be unfair to the students who were not trying to keep up. 

Theories on paper are one thing, but an incident like this speaks volumes about the real values of the education establishment. This is how the deranged, zero-sum thinking of “education equity” manifests itself in our school system when it matters most. 

Speaking of deranged thinking: I haven’t even mentioned wokeness and “anti-racism,” which are both prominent features of the campaign to cut nonwhite students loose while pretending to help them. One would think that with such widespread failure among these children, we’d want to teach them things like arithmetic instead of “alternative forms of knowing.” Not so! Kentucky’s lowest-performing school district, which is over 50% Black and Latino, is spending an entire year training math teachers in “anti-racism” to eliminate what they call “curricular violence.” No word yet on whether they plan to train the math teachers in math, or — God forbid — teach it to the kids. A leading non-profit in California, endorsed by the nation’s largest mathematics education group, says that classrooms are “sites of pain and violence for Black and brown students.” The aforementioned Jo Boaler advocates teaching children that they have been “math-traumatized.” One group in California says that teaching “precision and accuracy” to students is a form of white-supremacy and that “upholding the idea of right and wrong answers perpetuate[s] objectivity…” In order to promote equity, Las Vegas has decided that students should not be graded for attendance, participation, homework, or “responsibility.”

By attempting to relieve disadvantaged minority students of discipline, rigor, and expectations in math and other subjects, the foot-soldiers of “equity” reveal they don’t believe these kids deserve to know the positive effects such values can have.

III

Where do we go from here?

With appropriate instruction, expectations, and effort, children at all levels can succeed. The success at the bottom of the distribution necessarily looks quite different than at the top, but that is not an excuse to abandon the bottom altogether. Nor should we delude ourselves into thinking we can achieve equal results that look anything like the top half. But just such nihilism and delusion are pervasive in the system. The test scores crater? Cancel the test. The students can’t read? Tell them they don’t have to! This is no way to run a school system; it’s an abdication of duty. If our education leaders really don’t think they owe our students anything at all, then they ought to step aside for people who do. This won’t happen, obviously, because the purpose of the education monopoly is power, not service to the public. 

There are a few glimmers of hope this year: parents are beginning to put school officials on the defensive about school closures and critical race theory, among other things. The insane California framework has even been temporarily paused after major backlash. But none of this can obscure the fact that we are still losing ground on both fronts of this war, and we are vastly outmanned. The public education establishment is highly motivated, ideologically extreme, and wields incredible power over our nation’s largest political party. It does not consider itself subject to democratic accountability and is willing to use state power to protect its interests, kids be damned. The establishment no longer believes in meritocracy, and only believes in education at all to the extent that it benefits its other political goals. With total control over the schools of education that train teachers and produce “research,” the unions, and most of the state and federal bureaucracies, this establishment is deeply entrenched.

While I encourage people to fight back at all levels, and use political power to do it, I remain very skeptical that a hostile takeover of this system can ever be successful at scale. In the long run, there is only one option for us: go around the current system, which is destroying itself, and build something new in its wake. 

So get in, losers, we’re building a new school system! How? Well, I haven’t figured out all the details yet, but as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. And there’s no bigger necessity than schools for our kids and our future, so we need to figure this out.

-Maxwell Meyer