Yeah, I know. Wow Much Maths. Garrison Keillor can do satire and sarcasm, but understanding such things is a bridge too far for the American educational bureaucracy, even if one might think that its members should understand the implications of basic statistical measures, what with their responsibility for the public instruction of high school math and that kind of thing.
Things might not be so bad if they flat-out admitted that they totally don’t get statistical principles. Instead, they haplessly practice applied statistics on the public. The technocrats promise that the solution starts with measuring everything. Then they measure standardized test scores in troubled cities like York, Pennsylvania, and, discovering that its public school students are outwardly the most ill-educated in the state, since their test scores are the lowest, decree that their test scores must be made to rise. This improvement, they promise, will be accomplished by removing underperforming schools from the district’s control and placing them into indirect state receivership administered by for-profit charter schools. (The technical poli-sci term for this transfer is “fascism.”)
None of this changes the fact that some entity or other will inevitably come in dead last in any ranking. It didn’t have to be York; Reading is a postindustrial hellscape, and many classrooms in Philadelphia are too chaotic, or downright violent, to have anything that can be properly described as a learning environment; but it had to be some district or other, and York City is in bad enough shape to be a contender.
The state has been grading its school districts on a curve and punishing the laggards. On some level it may be York’s fault that its students are doing poorly in absolute terms, but its teachers, students, and administrators have been forced by the state into a dog-eat-dog competition with better-funded school districts. Also, many of York’s public school students are functionally ineducable. There’s no need to cast blame for this unfortunate state of affairs; the important thing is merely to recognize that it is the current state of affairs. Of course this is a political tar baby that no one wants to rock to sleep.
More on this in a bit. First, however, there are some things that should be explained about York, both the city and the county. I lived nearby for fifteen-odd years, and I have known many people from York County, including close friends. For a fleeting but glorious moment in 2002, I kinda sorta dated a Springettsbury chick who knew the district attorney who prosecuted Charlie “Murder is the Charge” Robertson for (duh) murder in a dubious 32-year-old case arising from Robertson’s official conduct as a police officer during a state of hot summer racial unrest. My relationship with this young lady failed spectacularly because life is a vainglorious exercise in tragedy and suffering. More concretely, it failed because she was an incredible hot mess–kind of like a county where the grandstanding district attorney indicts the sitting mayor of the county seat for murder over a decades-old homicide, even though no one really knows what the hell happened because the whole damn city was on the verge of going up in flames. Robertson had passed out ammunition and coarsely abetted others to kill black people, and Lillie Belle Allen was fatally shot hours later. He was acquitted because he claimed, quite reasonably, to be an old man who had been caught up in something evil in his youth.
If he had been interested in keeping up with the angry racist lifestyle as mayor, however, he wouldn’t have had to go far: the Red Lion area is a notorious hotbed of white supremacist carrying-on. There are some hardscrabble cracker hollows in the York County countryside. The City of York, for its part, has severe ghetto pathologies for a municipality of fewer than 50,000. In recent years it has been settled heavily by marginally employable refugees from New York City, as a sort of Hemet-East. These places are bleak. Things simply are not going to look good for kids who are being brought up in such environments.
There’s something else that needs to be understood about these pathologies. Pennsylvania is more aggressive than most states about delegating government functions to municipal governments, many of which are so hapless or corrupt or both that they should never have been chartered in the first place. The York City School District inevitably ends up with the highest concentration of socioeconomic dregs in the county. York County’s suburban and rural poverty is too diffuse to be corralled into a single unfortunate school district, but the York city limits correspond closely to the extent of the postindustrial urban decrepitude, allowing the wealthier townships nearby, like Springettsbury and Dover, to avoid any fiscal or administrative responsibility for the operation of the troubled city schools without resorting to gerrymandering. Pennsylvania has five hundred school districts, which allows for five hundred tinpot Napoleons superintending the medievally scaled constellation of local educational fiefdoms and several thousand additional local grandiosities who seek purpose in their lives through the “public service” of getting elected to the school boards because no one else bothered to run for their offices or examine them for evidence of moral turpitude and mental defect. As it happens, suburban York’s government services are unusually consolidated by Pennsylvania standards, but hell will freeze over before any other school district in the county will agree to merge with York City. That well has been poisoned for decades.
Race has a lot to do with these politics, and class even more so, even if the class bigotry is filtered through a prism of race. York City is dominated by low-class ghettos. Bougie goes to great lengths to avoid paying for the government services used by such neighborhoods, and the lengths required aren’t as great when the municipal geography is as fractured as it is in York County. The city resents the rest of the county for being prosperous and stingy, and the rest of the county resents the city for being a money sink hobbled by the socioeconomic pathologies of poor minority communities.
It’s really fucking ugly. The elephant in the room is the unsettling feeling that the poor in the York City ghettos aren’t intelligent enough to function in American society today. The political minefield that this perception lays is impossible to navigate. The root cause of the trouble here is that the American right wing is overrun with shitbirds who truly believe that it’s appropriate and just to grind other people into the dirt simply because they’re a bit dimwitted. Every other serious faction across the political spectrum has to work around these asshats in the hope of not giving them cause to provoke another mass Two Minutes Hate on the vulnerable.
Consider that Rush Limbaugh is effectively a mainstream American political leader. By First World standards, this is absolutely bizarre. The Front National and Golden Dawn share a certain coarseness with Limbaugh, but they’re essentially roughhewn nationalistic outfits. Limbaugh appeals to a more catholic assortment of resentments, and he does so in a way that is completely beyond the influence of reason. His discourse is limbic, the outbursts of a reptile ministering to other reptiles. A great example is his calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” for advocating expanded health insurance coverage for oral contraceptives. This had fuck-all to do with the actual policies at issue; it was about nothing but a major public figure’s prurient interest in the sex life of a minor public figure. Speculating about how a woman needs more pills for more sex is less intellectually taxing, perhaps, than discussing the regulatory capture quagmire that has been made of the American healthcare and pharmaceutical businesses, e.g., that the prices of oral contraceptives, like those of many other drugs, have been jacked through the roof by pharmaceutical companies and that fixing this mess would break many rice bowls.
The fact that Rush Limbaugh isn’t foaming at the mouth about this shit in some dive bar at two in the afternoon or yelling about slutty bitches while cradling a forty of malt liquor in a bus shelter speaks volumes about American politics. In a morally decent society, it would be possible to concede that the poor are of low average intelligence as a group without provoking a vicious backlash from self-dealing Randroid creeps. Only an indecent people would interpret the low average intelligence of an ethnic group or socioeconomic class as proof of moral turpitude. In the American case, four centuries of powerful r-strategic reproductive pressures on slaves and their descendants has probably had significant dysgenic effects on the black population. Worse, I’d say, is the cultural legacy of slavery, including the white racism and black self-loathing needed to maintain a society in which it is widely considered acceptable to kick the black man while he’s down. The same attitudes are transferable to Latin American immigrants, just as they were once applied to Irishmen and Italians.
A sincere desire to keep the racist asshats at bay is one of the drivers of this school performance standardized testing craze. Insisting that the poor and the dimwitted be treated with basic human decency, just like anyone else, would be too radical. Administering batteries of standardized tests at least buys some time, allowing political leaders to argue that they’re working on the magic formula that will launch every student’s academic achievement into the stratosphere. In point of fact, of all the things that at-risk youth in the ghettos need, one of them is not another fucking standardized test. It’s telling that affluent parents routinely put the kibosh on such testing at the private schools where they enroll their own children. These tests are crazymaking happy horseshit, sound and fury signifying nothing of any worth. Ghetto kids are under all sorts of stress that would freak a bougie the hell out; telling them to do well on a standardized test because otherwise their teachers might be fired or denied a pay increase or their school might be shut down by the state is just plain evil. The modern American school testing regime is American Idol made manifest as educational policy, a junkyard bum fight gussied up as a heartwarming story of all-American aspiration to greatness. American policymakers are willing to punish their most vulnerable constituents and collateral stakeholders who are responsible for their education because they did relatively badly on a battery of absolutely pointless tests. They do this because neurotic measurement of everything, to an extreme verging on augury, is easier than providing the ghettos, barrios, and trailer park hollows with the meaningful social, educational, job training, and other government services that actually have track records of helping the poor break the cycle of dysfunction.
Home-school your kids if you can. The American educational system is deep in the shitter now, and it ain’t coming up for air any time soon.