Tag Archives: Ron Unz

Skills vs. Knowledge

E. D. Hirsch is all upset because teachers are deluded about the importance of knowledge (content), emphasizing skills such as critical thinking and written expression over content. A Common Core true believer, he is shocked, shocked I say! at the fact that most teachers think they are already implementing Common Core, but think its ability to impact achievement is minimal.

Fundamentally, the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold. It is preventing them from understanding the Common Core standards, preventing them from meeting their own goals as professionals, and preventing them from closing achievement gaps between poor and privileged students.

We see evidence of it everywhere, especially in the MetLife survey. Nine in ten teachers and principals say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards, and a majority of teachers say they are already using them a great deal. At the same time, teachers, especially in later grades, are not all that confident about the effect the Common Core will have.
The fact that so many teachers (62%) say the teachers in their school are already using the Common Core standards a great deal shows that these “thought leaders” are correct: most educators remain unaware of the massive changes that fully implementing the new standards will require. But everyone has been talking about these changes for more than a year. Clearly, the message is not getting through.

I have no dog in this hunt; I emphasize content knowledge in all my teaching subjects, but think Hirsch, who believes the achievement gap can be closed, is a tad deluded himself on its magical qualities. I also agree with the utter invincibility of the teacher population when it comes to resisting changes they don’t want to make, and let it be known that I join with my brethren in this resistance, because a cold, cold day in hell it will be before, say, I teach literacy in my trig class or come up with a project-based implementation of the power laws.

But I thought this graph interesting.


Hirsch on this graph, from the 2010 Met Life Survey:

I’ll let the executives off the hook for not knowing that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they are after depend on the knowledge that they (largely) dismiss. The teachers ought to know better. That just 11% think knowledge of higher-level science and math are essential for college and career readiness is appalling.

Okay. So the executives AGREE with the teachers, and DISAGREE with the thought leaders. But never mind, he’ll be noble and overlook their stupidity, because they were taught using this horrible skills-based method and it apparently didn’t serve them well. Oh, wait.

And please. Can we stop pretending? Trigonometry, chemistry, physics, and calculus are utterly non-essential for success in the real world. They are only essential for signaling to colleges that the student is a smart cookie, and as Ron Unz and Chris Hayes both point out, the value in that varies based on the student race and family SES (including where Mom and Dad went to school).

So can we give it a rest on the pieties?

Of course, now that I think on it, E. D. Hirsch is a thought leader, so I guess it makes sense he’d back his own against teachers and Fortune 1000 executives.

An Alternative College Admissions System

I have a long post about Ron Unz’s essay, but I kept on getting bogged down in too much detail, and it’s five days later. So I decided instead to propose an alternative to his alternative admissions process:

Since essays, personal statements, lists of extracurricular achievements and so many other uniquely complex and time-consuming elements of the American admissions process would no longer exist, students could easily apply to long lists of possible colleges, ranking them in order of personal preference. Meanwhile, the colleges themselves could dispense with nearly their entire admissions staff, since the only remaining part of the admissions process would be determining the academic ranking of the tiny fraction of top applicants, which could be performed quickly and easily. Harvard currently receives almost 35,000 applications, which must each be individually read and evaluated in a massive undertaking, but applying a crude automatic filter of grades and test scores would easily winnow these down to the 1,000 plausible candidates for those 300 Inner Ring slots, allowing a careful evaluation of those highest-performing students on pure academic grounds.

Note to Mr. Unz: Pure academic grounds simply can’t include grades. Besides, your method preserves the exclusivity of the top schools without requiring them to give up anything in return. Is there no way for any other school to break through, if the same group of schools get the top candidates?

So here’s my alternative.


  • All students must apply for consideration in one of five categories: Academic, Specialist (artist, language study, musician, actor what have you), Sports, Foreign National, and Development (people who pay a lot of money, legacy, disabled students who are asking for consideration).
  • Public colleges and universities must limit their admissions to non-remedial, citizen students. Practically, this means community college students at 450 per SAT section, lower tier universities at 550 per section, and top-tier universities to 600 per section. Or equivalent ACT scores. Or another test that hasn’t been invented yet. We need a more competitive market in tests; right now most test requirements should include the phrase “and so shovel still more taxpayer millions into the College Board’s pockets”. (What, you didn’t know how much federal money goes to pay AP fees?)
  • All admissions data is public information: test scores, biographical data, application/admit category (see above). Average SAT scores per university for white legacies, for Asians for blacks, for Hispanics, for Chinese, for whites from West Virginia, for black athletes, for Asian lacrosse players, whatever.
  • Employers have access (with permission) to college application data. It’s time to test Griggs.

  • Either universities pay for test score reports or they end admissions fees. Both would be nice.

Candidate Biography/History:

  • In: Parental education, parental income, race.
  • Out: Everything else, including GPA, transcripts, internships, what they did on summer vacation, jobs, favorite books, and admissions essay.
  • Specialist and Sports candidates have a separate portfolio. Presumably, development legacy candidates are given an amount to fill in on their checks.

Testing, all four year colleges (public or private):

  • SAT/ACT/alternate test to be named later
  • Four Subject Tests: Math 2c, English Lit, US History, Choice of Science.
  • New test series: Students sit for three 2-essay tests: English lit/composition, current affairs/history, and science/math. Prompts vary—say, student could get either free response or the AP DBQ, or some other form of essay question. Essays are graded on two 10-point scales, one for quality of response, one for mechanics and writing quality.
  • Universities can require other tests from Specialists.

That’s it. Students fill out a brief form, take the tests, and select the schools to get the scores.

Anticipated questions:

  1. What, no elimination of legacies or affirmative action?

    Universities blatantly do an end run about any attempt to curb either practice. My method requires absolute transparency, which will be much more useful. Besides, giving prospective employers access to college admissions data will once and for all prove whether elitist universities trump actual abilities: will employers prefer a black Harvard grad with 1800 SAT and an average 500 Subject test score, or a white state college grad with a 2200 SAT and average Subject test scores of 750?

  2. What, no foreign language test requirement?

    Foreign language tests should be reserved for students who are applying in the Specialist category for their facility in learning non-native languages. Why, you ask? Here’s the number and score distribution of all SAT Subject foreign language testers. Here’s the number and score distribution of all SAT Subject foreign language testers who studied for 2-4 years—mostly, but not all, non-native speakers of the foreign language. Can anyone tell me why we’re giving a gimmee to Hispanics, Chinese, and Koreans? Bryan Caplan has his head stuffed up his posterior on immigration, but he’s dead on about foreign language study in high school. Foreign language testing in this country has become a joke. It needs to stop.

  3. Why no admissions essay?

    Oh, come on. Public universities use them as yet another workaround state affirmative action bans. The Chinese and the rich have someone else write the essays. Sophomoric admissions directors pick their favorite sob stories and bias the results. The essay tests will be better. No doubt, the Asians will figure out how to cram for them, but it’ll be a lot tougher and cost them a lot more money. Plus, it will really hurt foreign admissions.

  4. Again. Why aren’t you banning affirmative action?
    If the transparency argument doesn’t do it for you, then I offer up my requirement of a public university SAT/ACT/other test score basement. As elite colleges have become ever more competitive and expensive, state schools should be an affordable alternative that still provide a good education. Instead, they’re drowning under a flood of unqualified, often near-illiterate, certainly innumerate students. Getting out of a decent state school usually requires 5-6 years now, simply because the schedule is too crowded with remedial classes. Lower division educational quality is often abysmal because the universities are highly committed to graduate anyone who does manage to escape remediation, even if they can’t factor a quadratic or read at an 8th grade level. So actually qualified students mark time and wait for openings until they get to upper level courses, where things are a bit better.

    State schools will improve dramatically with those score basements. They might not have the prestige, but qualified students can choose a state school instead of drowning in debt and know their peers will be equally competent and the needs of qualified students won’t be subordinated to an ideological obsession with equal access.

    Great idea, you say, but how does this affect affirmative action? Well, only 6% of African Americans get over 600, 23% over 500, and barely 40% over 450 on any section of the SAT. (Cite). As is always the case, Hispanics are just a bit better, but not much. An SAT/ACT limit will annihilate public universities’ ability to commit affirmative action; URMs with scores above 600 will be heavily courted by the privates.

    Given that most public universities have a remedial score requirement around the level I’m proposing, they will be hard pressed to argue that the test basement isn’t valid. Students can simply go to community college until they can achieve the necessary score. And if they can’t hit 450 per test, they shouldn’t be going to college at all. Hopefully, that will be enough for the inevitable disparate impact lawsuit.

  5. What’s your problem with grades?
    I’ve written before about the problem with grades on the URM side of things (The Problem with Fraudulent Grades, Homework and Grades, and a bit in The Parental Diversity Dilemma). But I haven’t written directly on the issues with grades and Asians.

    Yes, I understand that Asians, as a group (but specifically Chinese, Koreans, and Indians), outperform whites on tests. But the overrepresentation of Asians in colleges is explained more by their dominance in GPA than it is test scores. And that’s harder to fix. It’s easy enough to tell white kids with high test scores to go to test prep and maximize their scores, but by junior year, the GPA damage has been done. Public universities use grades as a workaround for affirmative action. Private universities—and here, I’m just guessing, but it’s a reasonable guess—have one grade standard for “development” and affirmative action but then, in order to keep their overall numbers up, they need extraordinary high GPAs from the students who don’t fall into their discount categories.

    And so, grades become phenomenally important to admissions. Little room for, say, the idiosyncratic white boy who scores 2250/34 on the SAT/ACT, scored 4s and 5s in 7 AP tests, got 780, 730, and 690 on the US History, English Lit, and Math 2c, but whose weighted GPA is a 3.8, unless he’s a legacy. Lots of room for kids with 4.2 GPAs, regardless of their AP scores, and here, Asians win over whites in a huge way.

    So just raise the GPA, you say. White parents need to raise their expectations for their own kids. Unless the white kid is ruthlessly driven and competitive on his own volition, parental pressure as a means of raising his or her grades to the degree needed to compete with Asians is a non-starter. Amy Chua isn’t kidding. If a white parent tried to drive her kid the way Amy Chua did hers, the kid would end up in therapy, and the therapist would make the parent stop. Asian parenting techniques are abusive in white people world. Full stop. (What disgusts me most about Chua’s story is not her own behavior, as she doesn’t know any better, but that her white husband stood by and let her abuse her daughters. But then, I’m a white parent.) Not only does this difference between white and Asian cultural expectations lead to lower GPAs for whites, but smart white kids with B averages are then denied access to AP classes (in most Asian schools, access to AP is strictly limited by GPA), which put even a lower ceiling on their GPA.

    And finally, understand that those Asian good grades do not necessarily translate to a well-educated student. Here I offer anecdata, but it’s a lot of anecdata. As my primary second job, I teach enrichment at a private educational company (aka, an Asian cram school), which over seven years adds up to a lot of Asian high school students. I love them. They’re great kids. But my experience has taught me to question any straightforward comparison between white and Asian academic credentials. All of my enrichment kids, as sophomores, are taking honors English and pre-calc. Maybe 10% of them can reliably read a complex text and offer an interesting or informed analysis without referring to Wikipedia and repeating verbatim what they read there, and in seven years and probably 300 kids I have never once had a student who could explain the derivation of the quadratic formula (that is, the generalized case for completing the square). I also teach an AP US History prep course every year, at two different locations, to a dozen students per class. All but a few kids each year will have taken six months of APUSH by the time my class starts, and fewer than a quarter of them have ever known who wrote the Federalist papers, or the most important achievement of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, when the class begins. Very few of them can even make a stab at naming the presidents in order, or even identify any of the “forgettable” presidents. These are kids attending public schools with some of the highest SAT averages in the country, more than a few of them topping out at 2400.

    In comparison, I’ve tutored and taught (as a public school teacher and a tutor) a lot of bright white kids. Their awareness and retention of their own education, including the above benchmark questions, is far superior, on average. Many white soulless swotters and creative inquisitive Korean eccentrics exist to skew the stereotype. But the betting goes the other way.

    Grades are lies at the bottom end of the scale and culturally skewed beyond all recognition to reality at the top end. Unless or until we move to a system in which grades are taken out of teachers’ hands and determined by outside standardized tests, grades must be eliminated from any truly meritocratic admissions process. End rant.

    I’ve been focusing on whites and Asians regarding concerns at the top end of the GPA problem, but: 1) bright Hispanic and black kids are far more like white kids than Asians, but they are rarer and are going to write their own tickets regardless; 2) just as Asian test performance may overstate their abilities, black test performance may understate their abilities because the tests focus too much on abstraction and generalized situations—and yes, I know that thus far, SAT scores show black underperformance. It’s just a hunch I have. That’s another reason I want to see a more competitive test market, to determine if the bottom half of the ability spectrum is tested accurately.

So there’s my plan. I think it’s preferable to Unz’s in that it allows universities more agency and the public more transparency. They shouldn’t be bound to a lottery. But they also shouldn’t be allowed to lie or fudge about their admissions process. Public universities shouldn’t be allowed to pursue their ideological romanticisms at taxpayer expense.

I also think my plan, or something like it, allows excellent students to thrive in any number of environments, rather than being forced to go into debt to prove they are worthy of one of the few slots an elite campus holds open after the mandatory legacy, athletics, diversity, and foreign student spots are all filled in. We really need to get control of our public university system again and stop using these schools to pretend that any illiterate can get a college degree if he or she just jumps through enough hoops.