Just as the quarter comes to an end and dead week approaches, it begins: the frenzied rush to the library, a mad dash for caffeinated products and a renewed interest in going to office hours. Like many students at Cal Poly, I am motivated to do this by a combination of three factors: fear, greed and love. For the most part, fear is my motivating factor, because I really don’t want to fail any classes. Greed comes in as a close second, because at the end of the day, a higher grade means getting into a better graduate school or getting a job with a higher salary. Lastly, there is a little love, (call me somewhat masochistic) because there is a perverse joy in pushing oneself to the limit of sleep deprivation and completely immersing oneself in school work. Of course, all of the hard work and motivation that students put forward comes down to a grade.
Unfortunately, the grade we receive isn’t really an objective measure of anything. For instance, certain professors are much more difficult than others. Likewise, professor teaching the same class often go over different material, test in different ways and weight categories differently. Of course, a common final or a standardized test over the relevant material might put everyone on a level playing field and actually objectively measure the information learned by a student, but this rarely happens.
Commonly, teachers in America have been giving out higher grades for substandard performance (notable exception; Cal Poly engineering department). By combining the subjective nature of grades and a movement among teachers who want to raise the self-esteem of students, the result is grade inflation. For instance, The Washington Times reported that the average grade point average for graduating high school seniors in America in 1990 was 2.68, but in 2005 it had increased to 2.98.
Of course, if it wasn’t for standardized testing, most Americans would see this GPA increase as a dramatic success for public schooling in America. However, looking at nationally standardized tests, specifically those conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2005), since 1990, the share of students lacking even basic reading skills has risen, from 20 percent to 27 percent. In math, only 23 percent of graduating seniors reached proficiency. It’s worse on international testing, with the United States routinely scoring lower than third world countries. While grade inflation may shield students from failure, standardized testing is entirely transparent. Likewise, teaching to a standardized test that actually tests the skills desired in students might just focus both teachers and students alike.
Of course, there is a lot of blame to go around for America’s deteriorating public education, but two obvious candidates come to my mind: Democrats and teachers’ unions. Democrats are to blame because the majority of Democrats oppose giving parents and students a choice in their education options. For instance, a school voucher program would allow students and parents to choose the best school, public or private, and would allow the best schools to flourish, while letting the worst die off.
Ironically, many of these Democratic politicians who oppose school choice are hypocrites. Take the Clintons as an example. In 1995, Bill Clinton vetoed a bill that would have allowed low income families in Washington, D.C., to use public funds to send their kids to public schools. However, at the same time, guess where he sent Chelsea to school? No, not a public school in Washington, D.C., but rather the elite and private Sidwell Friends School. What about Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, who proclaimed, “America has two school systems – one for the affluent and one for everyone else,” but is against school vouchers? That’s funny, because guess what, Edwards must be part of the first system; he sends his kids to a religious school, not a public one. The list of hypocritical Democrats goes on and on in the same way. Al Gore opposes school vouchers, but sent his kids to private school. Even our favorite Barack Obama, who called school vouchers “Social Darwinism,” sends his child to a private school in Chicago.
These Democrats may be hypocrites, but they’re no fools. Their position on school vouchers and education gives them the unyielding support of the all-powerful teachers unions. These Democrats are willing to pour dollar after dollar into education without any accountability (money into the pockets of the teachers unions) while students in America suffer. By denying school choice, the teachers unions of America are guaranteed a competition-free environment.
While Democrats claim the problem with education is money, it isn’t. In 2004, America spent $454 billion on education (significantly less than the third world countries that continually outperform the U.S. in education), nearly as much money on defense ($536 billion), even in a time of war. Adjusted for inflation, per pupil spending in America has more then doubled since the 1970s, but on average, we’ve actually become less intelligent. Perhaps, if there were a greater priority on standardized testing, accountability and school choice, and less on money, we could actually change our education system for the better.
Brian Eller is a materials engineering junior and Mustang Daily political columnist.