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A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 9 - Shoddy Scholarship

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, mainly by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

For this entry, I'm actually going to look at a very short excerpt from his book, America the Beautiful, dealing with the supposed inadequacy of modern education.

To gain a real appreciation of what children were expected to know in early America, one has only to look up an exit exam from middle school grades during the nineteenth century. I suspect that many, if not most, college graduates today would fail that test. Some sample questions:
  • Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
  • Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.
  • Show the territorial growth of the US.
  • Name and locate the principal trade centers of the US.
  • Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
  • Describe why the Atlantic Coast is colder than the Pacific at the same latitude.

As a matter of fact, I recognize all those questions, because I've seen them before in a chain mail. In fact, I wrote a blog entry about it, Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam. It turns out that the test was almost certainly administered to teaching candidates, not students, so Carson's example of nineteenth century middle school education was wrong.

It would be one thing if this was a remark Carson made off the cuff during an interview, but that's not the case here. This was a published book. He had plenty of time, and an ethical responsibility, to research any factual claims he was making. But he got it wrong, and it appears as if his source was chain mail that could have been easily debunked (or at least piqued his suspicion) merely by visiting Snopes. That's really rather shoddy scholarship, and certainly not the type of ethic I'd want in a politician.

But beyond who the test was administered to, Carson was trying to make the larger point that modern education has gone downhill, with negative impacts for the U.S. Here's what he wrote just a couple paragraphs after the above excerpt.

In the mid-twentieth century, however, a series of things began to happen that negatively impacted the quality of public education in the US. Public prayer was banned in school, and the educational agenda began to expand significantly beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.

So, how does a 19th century education compare to a modern one? If you actually take the time to read that test and consider the questions, it doesn't look particularly difficult. To quote myself from that previous entry I wrote about the test, "My daughter has had a much broader education than the hypothetical one from this test, and she won't finish with 8th grade for another year (and this is Texas, which doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation for education)." And if you consider that the test was administered to teaching candidates, not middle schoolers, this difference becomes even starker. And not only that, but that Snopes article I linked to above described a very similar test from the same period that was definitely administered to teaching candidates, and noted that the potential teachers didn't do that well on it. So, what this test really shows is that modern day middle schoolers would do as well or better than 19th century teaching candidates.

As another point, let's take a look at some hard data, using literacy rates as a rough indication of how good education is in the present day compared to the past. Literacy can be measured multiple ways, and I couldn't find a single source with a single methodology that went all the way from the 1800s to the modern day, but I did find one source that went from the 1870 to 1979 (National Center for Education Statistics), and another for recent years (CIA Factbook via Wikipedia). I combined them into the graph below, noting which curve is for which data source.

U.S. Literacy Rate by Year

I think it's pretty obvious that as a nation, we're doing a much better job of educating people, especially in basic reading and writing, as Carson would put it.

So not only did Carson get his scholarship wrong, but if he'd dug a little deeper, he'd have realized that his example didn't support his larger point, and that additional data certainly doesn't indicate that modern day education is worse than that in the 19th century. This may not be the most important issue out of the entries I've written about Carson, but it's just one more in the long list of reasons why I wouldn't vote for him in an election.

Continue to Wrap up

More Info:

  • The website, Uppity Wisconsin, has a little more discussion on this issue, making a few points on the absurdity of trying to say that nineteenth century America was better educated than modern day America, RoJo: Education Was Better in 1830s, But Dems have "Dumbed-Down Our Population" to Get Votes.
  • Simple literacy and functional literacy aren't the same thing. Earlier measures of literacy were very basic - the ability to read short passages or write your own name. Functional literacy is about reading and comprehending enough to get by in society. That's why using the older measures of simple literacy (the type I plotted in the graph), the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99.9%. However, using newer measures of functional literacy (for which data doesn't exist going back much more than a few decades), the functional literacy rate is between 60%-90%, depending on exactly how functional literacy is defined. While this is comparable to the rates in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it's worse than other countries like the UK and Ireland, so there's certainly room for improvement. However, if even simple illiteracy in the U.S. was at 20% back in the 19th century, functional illiteracy was almost certainly higher than today, so simple literacy still supports the idea that modern education in the U.S. is better than in the past. For more discussion, take a look at the Wikipedia article on Functional Illiteracy.
  • Carson also discussed how the average scores by U.S. students in international tests tend to be lower than many other countries. However, Carson saw this as an indictment of the education system in general, when in fact, much of the problem has to do with the high proportion of U.S. students living in poverty compared to other countries. Socioeconomic status plays a huge role in how students perform in school. When you take this into account, comparing advantaged students in the U.S. to advantaged students in other countries, and disadvantaged students in the U.S. to disadvantaged students in other countries, the scores are more similar. The U.S. still lags the best countries, so there is certainly still room for improvement, but it ranks much higher this way. So if you want to fix the problem with U.S. education, you must recognize the true nature of it, and a major part of the problem is the high poverty rate in the U.S. A big way to improve average U.S. test scores would be to improve the social safety net, improving students' home life, which in turn would allow them to better focus on their education. (Of course, we can certainly try other improvements at the same time, since not all of the problem is down to poverty.) To read more, here's a good article/study from the Economic Policy Institute, What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?. Here's another good article, PISA: It's Still 'Poverty Not Stupid'. And finally, here's a commentary from Nature, Making the grade.

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