The "Virtue" of Low Academic Standards
By Bryan Caplan
Further critique of Goldin-Katz in David Labaree’s Someone Has to Fail:
Early in the book, the authors [Goldin and Katz] identify what they consider to be the primary “virtues” of the American education system… “public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.”
Note that none of these virtues of the American school system speaks to learning the curriculum… But for the human capital argument that Goldin and Katz are trying to make, these virtues of the system pose a problem. How was the system able to provide graduates with the skills needed to spur sustained economic growth when the system’s primary claim to fame was that it invited everyone in and then was reluctant to penalize anyone for failing to learn? In effect, the system’s greatest strength was its low academic standards. If it had screened students more carefully on the way in and graded them more scrupulously on their academic achievement, high school and college enrollments and graduation rates would never have expanded so rapidly and we would all be worse off. But of course, this doesn’t fit the narrative of the Human Capital Century, does it? Goldin and Katz are arguing that high school provided a rich store of general knowledge and skill that proved highly useful in the technologically advancing workplace of the twentieth century. Yet their depiction of the system’s virtues seems to tell a different story altogether. [emphasis original]
Question: What do you think would happen if we embraced “social promotion” – giving diplomas to everyone based solely on age? Most economists’ answer, I suspect, would be the same as mine: social promotion would redistribute jobs and income from better to worse students. Bad students could “pass” for normal – and dilute the credibility of everyone else’s education in the process. But as Labaree suggests, isn’t dilution of standards the main way America managed to boost educational attainment in the first place? And if everyone went to college, wouldn’t we just end up repeating the same mistake all over again?