by Martin Harris
With apologies to readers who find references, even metaphorical, to what was once called “the filthy habit” distasteful, here are three anyway. They, too, are distasteful, to two groups of readers: one, the self-appointed better sort, which doesn’t much appreciate their motives and methods being impugned or even identified and criticized; and the other, the rest of us, which doesn’t much appreciate how they’re being “mushroomed”. That colloquial metaphor, too, is distasteful, and not directly translateable in a family-reading venue. A sanitized version might depict the practice of low-ambient-light fungi-culture with intensive use of equine-excrement fertilizer. All three references describe a modern political practice of policy description avoiding underlying agenda mention. The first refers to the original “filthy habit”, tobacco use.
It was originally a 19th century phrase illustrating a common wisdom and understanding that science didn’t recognize until quite recently (remember the ’50’s ads, with MD’s endorsing cigarettes?) namely, that tobacco use isn’t healthful. It gave rise to a spin-off: “blowin’ smoke,” the use of language to deceive. Today’s we’re-smarter-than-you politicians profess to seek the reduction of tobacco use by the less-smart via the imposition of ever-higher taxes, but the underlying argument — “keep on puffin’, we need the money”– explains the not-widely-publicized debate over revenue-loss-and-replacement should smokers actually cut back or quit. And just so for the second example, the political advocacy of tax-the-rich: its advocates never mention the obvious Leftist regulatory cure for too-high individual earnings: cap them. That was proposed by one of the first generation of Progressives, socialist author Edward Bellamy, in his 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward, describing a Year 2000 society in which all citizens are members of an industrial army, all have an equal-value credit card, and all retire at 45. Not a welcome set of ideas to today’s Progressives, who see higher earnings as just another profit centre for taxation purposes, and dismiss the notion that the over-taxed might choose to work less, produce less, earn less, or flee the taxing jurisdiction. The Atlas Shrugged response, you might say. But it’s the third which is (Humble Scribe opinion, here) the most interesting.
Consider this language, in the just-published Content Specifications in Mathematics from the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. It’s one part of a whole new cottage industry turning out prescriptive K-12 educational standards now that parents are getting increasingly restless over the inability of their public-schooled kids to handle words and numbers competently and at grade level. It sets out four criteria labeled Claims, and Claim 1 reads thus: “Students can explain and apply mathematical concepts and carry out mathematical procedures”. Each Claim must be proven by a Content Specification, which for Claim 1 reads thus: “…this content can be assessed using a combination of selected response and short constructed response items, but may also be evaluated at a deeper level within long constructed response items and performance tasks…” and “…factors and multiples: determine factors and multiples of whole numbers 1-100; identify prime and composite numbers…” and so on. You can read more on the EducationWeek website. What you won’t find there is an historical account of how this state of affairs came to be, how basic math –addition, subtraction, multiplication, division– were better taught with just about all students mastering each grade (today that’s called Proficiency) before moving on to the next, and without such elaborate prescriptive language as the above Claims and Content. All that teacher competence and student achievement happened in the years before there even was a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (It seems to date from 1970, but the NCTM website is coy on the specifics.) Commentary on this educational-fall-from-grace can be found in such books as Diane Savitch’s “Left Back” and Thomas Sowell’s “Inside American Education”, but even these don’t explain how, the more the teaching of basic math (for example; the same pattern prevails for reading) is prescribed by such language as that quoted above, the less well it works. How it could have been that when the teaching of basic math was defined in four words –addition, subtraction, multiplication, division– the students came out of the grades knowing it, even if they –we– didn’t yet know factors and bases, sets and functions?
Whether this sort of prescriptive language for grade-school math Proficiency constitutes “blowin’ smoke” is ultimately a reader decision, but the same reader would have little difficulty with the sample math exam questions published in, for example, the NAEP guidelines (discussed in this space last week) and similarly in the Tennessee Common Core Content requirements. Both show precisely the sort of basic math exercises in the four arithmetical disciplines that we, as long-ago grade-schoolers, learned to master long before there was either a National Assessment of Educational Progress, or a multi-State move to adopt a codified set of achievement standards, both of which were quite unnecessary in the better decades of public education. If there’s any fault in the test questions, it’s not in the level of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division exercises (and such later add-on’s as percentages, decimals, squares, roots, and fractions in the higher grades) students are asked to execute, it’s in the mandatory cute little stage-set-with-characters which accompanies each. These became infamous a decade or so ago with the derisively fictitious question “If two men can log a half-acre a day, how many acres can six persons destroy in four days, and how will the squirrels and deer feel about it?” An earlier generation just ran the numbers without irrelevant personifications.
What the NAEP and Tennessee’s Common Core sample questions clearly illustrate is that, in the upper levels of public-education management, competent adults are fully cognizant of the sorts of basic math skills grade-schoolers need. Conversely, what the SMARTER prescriptive language may unintentionally illustrate is an obfuscation effort (for East Overshoe readers, that’s “smoke-blowin'”) designed to create excuse-latitude for non-teaching and non-learning in the frontline classrooms. The unasked and unanswered question is, why?