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Teaching to the Test July 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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A recent study of achievement in college courses by Scott Carrell and James West suggests that teaching to the test does not produce long-term learning. They draw their sample from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Students are randomly assigned to professors in a variety of introductory and upper division courses and all sections of each course have identical syllabi and exams. Here is their conclusion:

Our results indicate that professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes. Academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous value added, but positively correlated with follow-on course value-added. Hence, students of less experienced instructors who do not possess a Ph.D. perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course, but perform worse in the follow-on related curriculum.

The authors hypothesize about the mechanisms at work here:

One potential explanation for our results is that the less-experienced professors may teach more strictly to the regimented curriculum being tested, while the more experienced professors broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material….Another potential mechanism is that students may learn (good or bad) study habits depending on the manner in which their introductory course is taught. For example, introductory professors who “teach to the test” may induce students to exert less study effort in follow-on related courses.

Results like this, if confirmed in subsequent studies, may explain why policies like “No Child Left Behind” don’t work. The high-stakes testing regimes that have been implemented in K-12 tend to produce high test scores in the early grades but those gains are lost as students advance to higher grades. The problem is that the early gains are illusory—they are not gains in skill or understanding but simply reflect how well students learned material designed to produce a test score.

This is not education.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Kaplan and the Community Colleges June 22, 2010

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Facing severe budget cuts and drastic cuts in course offerings, last February,  some California Community Colleges announced a deal to outsource some of their courses to Kaplan University, the for-profit “education” company responsible for GRE prep courses, etc.

Kaplan University and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office today announced an agreement to allow California students to take single courses at the online University to help them fulfill their campus-based associate’s degree requirements.

The… program allows California students to enroll in online Kaplan courses that have been approved by individual California community colleges. Students in the Kaplan University Community College Connection program will be eligible for a 42 percent tuition reduction on their Kaplan University courses.

Apparently, this is not going so well.

Months later, though it is unclear how many students have taken advantage of the option, critics view the deal as at best an “evil necessity” and at worst a dereliction by community college and state leaders of their responsibility to ensure a low-cost postsecondary education for state residents. Some also worry that Kaplan’s marketing of the agreement gives prospective students the appearance of a state endorsement of the company in particular and for-profit education in general.

One of the problems is cost:

A standard three-credit online course at Kaplan costs $1,113, and a discounted three-credit course there costs California students $645. By comparison, a three-credit course at a California community college costs a mere $78.

Another problem is that California State University and University of California may not accept these courses as transferable. That is a lot of money to pay for courses that may not be of high quality and that 4 yr schools may not accept.

Public education is a public responsibility. It cannot be farmed out to private business. This is just another example of how we look to private business to solve public problems that private businesses are ill equipped to solve.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Humanities Under Fire May 24, 2010

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The Humanities—literature, the arts, history, and philosophy—are in deep trouble. As budget cuts percolate through our educational system, these disciplines will be the first to be down-sized because they seem to produce little tangible benefit.

And Stephen Mexal takes literature professor Stanley Fish to task for encouraging this trend.

Over the past year or so, Stanley Fish has occasionally devoted his New York Times blog to the notion that, as he put it recently, higher education is “distinguished by the absence” of a relationship between its activities and any “measurable effects in the world.” He has singled out the humanities for lacking what he called “instrumental value,” writing that “the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external” to the peculiar obsessions of scholars. The humanities, Fish claimed, do not have an extrinsic utility—an instrumental value—and therefore cannot increase economic productivity, fashion an informed citizenry, sharpen moral perceptions, or reduce prejudice and discrimination. […]

This sentiment reached its logical apex last year in an article in The New York Times titled, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” […]

So when Fish claimed that the benefits of humanities research were limited to the researcher or the classroom, and that the public should therefore not have to “subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment,” he was drill-baby-drilling into the zeitgeist quite nicely.

As Mexal points out, the issue is not whether the arts, history, or literature (or philosophy) are useful—they obviously are. The issue is whether academic research into these areas is useful. What is the utility or academic analyses of art, philosophy, literature, or history?

Mexal’s answer is that the value of research in the humanities is neither immediate nor predictable. But he cites a variety of examples in which literary, historical, and philosophical works led directly to new developments in fields such as computer programming, national intelligence, and counter-intelligence.

What unites those stories is not that they exemplify times when humanities research has had instrumental value, but rather times when it has had unintended instrumental value. Those scholars did not intend, nor could they have anticipated, the applied value of their work. Yet that’s not to say the application of their work was the point of their work. After all, scholars weren’t studying Shakespeare with an eye toward establishing the CIA. Instead, research in the humanities, like research in all disciplines, is valuable precisely because we never know where new knowledge will lead us.


Be Careful Who You Listen To May 16, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer, gave words of wisdom to University of Syracuse graduates this week-end:

“Throughout my life, throughout this crisis, I’ve seen many people bury themselves by failing to stand up, being mealy mouthed and simply going along with the pack,” said Dimon at the university’s Carrier Dome, where more than 5,000 students received diplomas.

He told students to “do the right thing, not the easy thing” and not to become someone else’s “lap dog.”

Dimon, 54, who was the subject of student protests before the ceremony, was met at the end of his speech with loud applause by the audience of more than 17,000.

“Have the courage to speak the truth, even if it’s unpopular,” said Dimon. “Have the courage to put yourself on the line, strive for something meaningful, even to risk the embarrassment of failure.”

Although this speech by one of the “captains” of Wall St.  who got us into this financial mess provoked some protest, the demonstrations were tame. Perhaps they should have protested more vigorously when they had the opportunity.

As Digby wrote:

That’s the truly sickening thing about Dimon’s speech. Due to his cohort’s hideous professional malpractice, these kids are going into a workforce in which the worker is at a huge disadvantage. It’s not just that 10% workforce is out of a job ( a number which is undoubtedly understated.) The problem of high unemployment hits everyone who’s working as well.

These young college graduates are going to find that they are competing for jobs with people who have years of experience and are willing to take cuts in pay and benefits because they have a nut to crack every month or kids to support and they need a job very badly. But older people are at a disadvantage as well. They tend to require higher pay and expect their experience to count for more (plus employers just don’t like ‘e

Those in between are working in a world in which the competition is so stiff that they can’t afford to “put themselves on the line” or rock the boat in any way. They are doing the work that used to be done by three people (hence “productivity growth”) and they are stuck in whatever dead end job they found themselves in before the recession began because everyone knows you are daft to quit with 10% unemployment. Workers are at the mercy of their bosses, working as wage slaves, getting no raises, feeling trapped and at their mercy. Refusing to be a “lap dog” isn’t on the menu in an environment like this.

When there is 10% unemployment, the whole workforce is under stress. And the longer it goes on, the more frustrated, angry and depressed the average working stiff feels. Masters of the Universe can drone on about being brave and finding meaning and telling the truth even if it’s unpopular, but he might as well be speaking in tongues for how relevant it is to workers right now.

Those kids may not know it, but they soon will. And I hope they find it in themselves to look back on this day and wish they’d turned their backs on that bastard when they had the chance. It was probably their last opportunity for a good long while to follow his advice.


Why anyone still listens to these clowns is beyond me. Their claim to be some sort of paragon of independence and virtue is as delusional as their economic models that predicted endless wealth production based on perpetual ponzi schemes.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Barbarians At the Gate March 16, 2010

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The Texas School Board of Education has finally succeeded in overturning hundreds of years of intellectual history. Via the NY Times:

After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

In fact, this lead paragraph doesn’t quite get at the radical nature of the Board’s decision.

In these revisions to the social science curricula, the word “Enlightenment” has been banned. Students still must “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau…” But Thomas Jefferson has been axed, to be replaced by…Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.

The Enlightenment was a period in European history, beginning roughly in the mid-17th Century, in which science and reason began to replace religious faith as a dominant cultural force; it set the stage for the emergence of democratic government. Thomas Jefferson—who advocated the separation of church and state, as a deist believed that God created a rational universe that can be understood through reason alone, and that God no longer intervenes in the universe—is apparently no longer a representative Enlightenment figure.

Instead, we have Aquinas who lived 400 years before the beginning of the Enlightenment? Now one could plausibly argue that Aquinas was a pre-cursor to the Enlightenment because he believed that God’s creation could be understood through science as well as faith. But he hardly advocated the decline of religion as a cultural authority.

And we have John Calvin who lived 150 years before the Enlightenment. He was a fierce defender of the Reformation, believed that humanity’s fate was fully in God’s hands, that God could only be understood through revelation and scripture, and had the heretic Michael Servetus burned at the stake.

Quite an Enlightenment figure!

And then we have William Blackstone, a Tory and supporter of the British monarchy, who, like Calvin, taught that submission to tyrants is obedience to God, and was vehemently anti-catholic.

This is a travesty that turns history on its head.

As Laurie Fendrich writes:

And who could have guessed that the Texas Board, made up of regular Texans—lawyers, a dentist, a real estate guy, some teachers, etc.—would have ferreted out what Enlightenment scholars have missed all these years: Aquinas and Calvin are critical to understanding the Enlightenment, while Jefferson is not.

The perversion of knowledge into state propaganda resembles nothing so much as what the Communist Bloc did to ideas in the mid-20th century. More fearful of ideas than guns, they simply banned any ideas they didn’t like. In wiping out Jefferson, in particular, the Texas Board looks a lot like the communists who used to airbrush out of official state photos those who had been executed after the famous 1948 Czech show trials.

Why should we care what happens in Texas schools? Texas is the largest market for standardized textbooks in the United States. Publishers use the standards set by the Texas School Board to govern what the school kids in the rest of the country learn.

Child abuse goes national.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Home School Fail March 8, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Science.
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There are lots of reasons why parents home-school their kids, but apparently the dominant reason is to avoid having to confront real science:

Christian-based materials dominate a growing home-school education market that encompasses more than 1.5 million students in the U.S. And for most home-school parents, a Bible-based version of the Earth’s creation is exactly what they want. Federal statistics from 2007 show 83 percent of home-schooling parents want to give their children “religious or moral instruction.”

“The majority of home-schoolers self-identify as evangelical Christians,” said Ian Slatter, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association. “Most home-schoolers will definitely have a sort of creationist component to their home-school program.”

Those who don’t, however, often feel isolated and frustrated from trying to find a textbook that fits their beliefs.

Two of the best-selling biology textbooks stack the deck against evolution, said some science educators who reviewed sections of the books at the request of The Associated Press.

“I feel fairly strongly about this. These books are promulgating lies to kids,” said Jerry Coyne, an ecology and evolution professor at the University of Chicago.

This story has provoked many scientists, such as Coyne, to reiterate the harm such materials are causing children.

And the pushback has begun. Check out any science blog discussing this issue and you will find in the comments section some truly vile invective from people I can only assume are “Christians”.

Since we try to keep the language on this website relatively clean, I will not post the worst cases, but check out this post by Jerry Coyne if you want samples.

As Coyne writes:

Ah, there’s nothing so vile as a Christian insulted!  To those who are constantly whining about the “incivility” of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I suggest that you might first have a look at the behavior of some Christians.

Educating Teachers March 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Teaching.
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I am skeptical of education reform in this country.

One sort of reforming wants to spend more money to improve education despite the fact that throwing money at the problem hasn’t worked. The other sort wants to use standardized tests to measure teacher performance, institute merit pay for successful teachers and fire the unsuccessful teachers. But this assumes that teachers have the knowledge and skills to teach well but are just too lazy to do the job without a financial incentive. This is a wholly unwarranted assumption that has circulated among right-wing, anti-union groups for years and has now escaped into the mainstream, apparently influencing the Obama Administration.

Lack of motivation is not the problem. Most teachers are dedicated people who care deeply about their students. Teaching complex material to unprepared, unmotivated, distracted students will always be a difficult challenge at best. But we have to get better at it if our society is to flourish. Punitive measures are not sufficient.

Most recent attempts to find models of education that work involve cherry picking the best teachers, administrators, and students, putting them together with adequate funding and some new, bright idea about curriculum; and then pointing to their success as evidence that—? Well, I guess that good students will learn from good teachers. But we already knew that.

The problem with these experiments is that they are not scalable. We need thousands of new teachers each year to teach millions of students. Thus, neither the teachers nor the students will be the “cream of the crop”. Educational policy cannot be about hiring the best and the brightest—we need too many teachers for that. Among a workforce of millions of teachers, there will be some good ones and some bad ones. But rewarding the good ones; and firing the bad ones will have little impact on outcomes. What matters is the average teacher. The successful educational policy will get average people to perform to the best of their ability.

This article in the New York Times Magazine is interesting because it reports on new research in teacher training that actually might do some good.

Working with Hyman Bass, a mathematician at the University of Michigan, Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. “Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.”

The idea that just knowing math was not enough to teach it seemed legitimate, but Ball wanted to test her theory. Working with Hill, the Harvard professor, and another colleague, she developed a multiple-choice test for teachers. The test included questions about common math, like whether zero is odd or even (it’s even), as well as questions evaluating the part of M.K.T. that is special to teachers. Hill then cross-referenced teachers’ results with their students’ test scores. The results were impressive: students whose teacher got an above-average M.K.T. score learned about three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score, a boost equivalent to that of coming from a middle-class family rather than a working-class one. The finding is especially powerful given how few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning. Looking at data from New York City teachers in 2006 and 2007, a team of economists found many factors that did not predict whether their students learned successfully. One of two that were more promising: the teacher’s score on the M.K.T. test, which they took as part of a survey compiled for the study. (Another, slightly less powerful factor was the selectivity of the college a teacher attended as an undergraduate.)

Ball also administered a similar test to a group of mathematicians, 60 percent of whom bombed on the same few key questions.

The whole article is worth reading. But what stands out  is the recognition that teachers need to know more than subject matter and educational theory—the two main elements of teacher training. They also need a detailed understanding of how unformed minds can misunderstand the subject matter.

I suspect that the difference between an experienced teacher and an inexperienced teacher is that the experienced teacher has a wealth of information about what is hard about the subject they teach.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Falling Behind March 5, 2010

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In light of the protests yesterday regarding cuts to education budgets, this story from Inside Higher ED is particularly disturbing.

The United States is hardly the only country facing tough economic times right now. But a survey of the worldwide response to the recession suggests that American higher education may be uniquely disadvantaged by the way state and federal governments are responding in the U.S., compared to how the rest of the world is dealing with the crisis.

Most governments elsewhere have avoided the “uncoordinated cutting of funding for higher education that we generally see in U.S. state systems,” says a report being released today by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, at the University of California at Berkeley.

In part, the study says that is because the rest of the world — including many nations facing severe cash shortfalls themselves — embrace the Keynesian idea of using government investment to push an economic recovery. But John Aubrey Douglass, the author of the report and a senior research fellow at the center, also sees problems in the structure of higher education finance in the United States.

The vast majority of students in the United State attend public colleges and universities, which are depending on state governments for operating support for education (even if the research universities among them receive substantial federal funding for research).

What this means, Douglass writes, is that in the United States, most colleges are dependent on units of government that lack the authority to borrow – and so are severely constrained in their ability to pump more money into the economy (at least barring tax increases that aren’t politically popular). That’s not true in much of the rest of the world, he notes, where federal systems for supporting higher education are more prevalent.

The story goes on to describe what other countries—China, Taiwan, Netherlands, and France—have done to avoid the draconian cuts to education that California and other states are experiencing.

The sad fact of the matter is that we simply do not value education much in this country, at least not as a social good to which the nation must be committed. Many people are pleased with their own education and are perfectly willing to see others go without.

In a knowledge-based economy that spells disaster. It is hard to see how the United States will maintain its position as a beacon of freedom and opportunity without a functioning educational system.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Casual Labor Harms Science March 1, 2010

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Conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. educational system does not produce enough scientists and engineers to support our science-based economy.

Scientific American recently published an article challenging the conventional wisdom.

The problem is not a lack of science PhD’s but instead a lack of secure, well-paying jobs, a situation caused by the re-structuring of labor markets that has been going on in academia for decades.

30 or 40 years ago, roughly 75% of science faculty were permanent employees. Today, that percentage has slipped to less than 25% by some estimates. Most science research is done by graduate students or temporary employees with low pay and no job security and little hope of career advancement.

“There is no scientist shortage,” says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers—about 18,000 of them American citizens—who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year. […]

Most PhDs hired into faculty-level jobs get so-called “soft-money” posts, dependent on the renewal of year-to-year funding rather than the traditional tenure-track positions that offer long-term security.

It is no wonder that talented people choose to go into law, finance, or medicine that offer better career prospects. Yet, politicians and the media tell a different story.

Despite these realities, the existence of a technical talent dearth is nonetheless almost “universally accepted” in political circles, where it plays an important role in shaping national policy on science funding, education and immigration, says Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Almost no one in Washington” recognizes the “glut” of scientists, nor the damage that lack or opportunity is doing to the incentives that formerly attracted many of America’s most gifted young people to seek scientific and engineering careers, he says.

If the claim that the U.S. is not deficient in producing science Ph.Ds is false, why is it so often repeated?

As usual, when you want to know the answer to a question, follow the money.

University administrators save money with this system because they don’t have to allocate scarce resources to hiring permanent faculty; state governments (and taxpayers) are happy because they don’t have to support the universities; the few privileged scientists who administer grants are happy because all the money is funneled through their departments; corporations are happy because a depressed labor market keeps the salaries of their science employees low and they can argue for the need for more cheap foreign employees through special H-1B visas; and those politicians and members of the business community who seek to defund American universities and privatize education see their dream continue its ineluctable advance.

Meanwhile, our science-based economy suffers:

…the U.S. …finds itself increasingly dependent on an inherently unreliable stream of young foreign scientists, mostly in the country on short-term, non-resident visas, to do much of the routine labor that powers American research. The American research enterprise—the indispensable engine of national prosperity and the world’s leading innovation establishment—has therefore become vulnerable, observers say, to conditions beyond its borders and its control. At the same time, experts note that recruiting sufficient amounts of the talent needed for vital defense-oriented scientific and engineering work that requires security clearances has become increasingly difficult.

Ain’t capitalism grand?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The End of Education February 11, 2010

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I have thought for a long time that the education reforms put in place over the past 10-15 years will ruin education in this country.

Education expert Diane Ravitch provides a clear account of the problem. She contrasts a traditional superintendent of schools with a new breed:

Whether he (or she) was a business executive, an education entrepreneur, or a lawyer, he is steeped in a business mindset. He wants results. He surrounds himself with business school graduates, lawyers, marketing consultants, and public relations staff. He focuses on management, organization, budgeting, and data-driven decision-making. He shows little or no interest in curriculum and instruction, about which he knows very little. He is certain that the way to reform the schools is to “incent” the workforce. He believes that accountability, with rewards and sanctions, makes the world go round. He plans to “drive” change through the system by being a tough manager, awarding merit pay to teachers and principals, closing struggling schools, and opening new schools and charter schools, all the while using data as his guide. He believes that the schools he oversees are like a stock portfolio; it is his job not to fix them but to pick winners and losers. The winners get extra money, and the losers are thrown out of the portfolio. When addressing the business community, he speaks proudly of his plan to give maximum autonomy to school principals, thus absolving himself of any responsibility for the performance of the schools, and then sits back to manage his portfolio. If a school fails, he is fast to close it. The failure is not his fault, but the fault of the principal and the teachers.

She then compares this fascination for quantitative measures with the  recent revelations regarding the NYC police department who were found to be fudging their crime numbers to make their performance look better.

The data mattered more than truth. Some, for example, would scout eBay and other Web sites to find values for stolen items that would reduce the complaint from a grand larceny (over $1,000 in value) to a misdemeanor. There were reports of officers who persuaded crime victims not to file a complaint or to change their accounts so that a crime’s seriousness could be downgraded. […]

For just as the police officers felt compelled to game the system to meet the demands of CompStat, so educators are now gaming the system to meet the demands of NCLB. Some states have dumbed down their tests; some have rigged the scores to produce greater numbers of “proficient” students. Some districts have narrowed their curriculum and have replaced instruction with intensive test-prep. Some schools of choice exclude low-performing students. All in the service of making the numbers, making AYP, looking good rather than doing well.

There is a general principle at work here:

This is not only a major scandal, it is a validation once again of Campbell’s Law, which holds that: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

The summary judgment:

Anyone who thinks that these methods will produce first-class education for our nation’s children is either a fool or is fooling himself.

Thus far this has primarily affected K-12 education. But this fascination with numbers is coming to a campus near you—and both Republicans and Democrats support it.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com