The lowering of education quality has been noted in the recent past on the PowerBlog (here and here). Last Saturday, Casey Harper noted at educationviews.org that even students are complaining about the declining rigor of American education.

Harper notes that, according to a recent survey,

More than half of eighth-grade history and civics students say their work is “often or always too easy,” according to the report. Twelfth-grade students sang the same tune, with 56 and 55 percent, respectively, saying their civics and history work is “often” or “always” too easy.

Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or for homework, below what many experts recommend for students in middle school.

Thirty-nine percent of 12th-grade students say they rarely write about what they read in class.

According to the study, 37 percent of fourth-graders, 29 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of twelfth-graders say their math work is often or always too easy.

Regarding the decline of reading and writing, Harper quotes Sandra Stotsky, professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who comments, “There’s been a gradual diminishing of outside reading and homework because teachers increasingly found that students were coming to class without having done it.”

This reminds me of Jordan Ballor’s question: “What happens when the student (of whatever age) becomes the customer, and the customer is king?”

In every middle and high school, there will always be slackers (I was one of them) who either do not do their work or only complete it to the minimum that is expected of them. The alarming thing about this trend is that, if Stotsky is correct, the slackers are now affecting educational policy. They demand less reading and writing, so less reading and writing is supplied.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that while students are not consumers—at least not in the sense that the quality of the product (education) ought to be determined by their demands—employers are. At one time in this country a high school diploma was enough to ensure a decent job. While this may partly be due to lower standards on the part of employers, it was equally due to the higher quality of education on the whole. Today many employers are not enticed by high school diplomas like they used to be. The supply has increased while the quality has diminished. And many of our youth who may not otherwise have attended college are paying for the diminishing quality of their diplomas in thousands of dollars of student loan debt, just to qualify for jobs that, in some cases, would have only required a high school diploma fifty years ago.

I know that in my own experience I was not always a slacker. I used to do every assignment to the best of my ability. However, after years of being under-challenged, around eighth grade I just gave up. Why put forth the effort for an A if I can get a B without trying? This outlook was further reinforced by the fact that the year I entered high school mine canceled all of its honors courses. While I do not deny that the primary responsibility for my study habits was upon me, by being under-challenged my poor study habits were incentivized. As a naive teenager with poor foresight, I adopted a slacker mentality, and it took a few years into college before I finally broke out of those poor habits.

Some small steps in the direction of higher standards would be a welcome change. Perhaps it is impossibly unpopular among students’ parents to fail poor students—I realize that the politics of education is complex—but it is ultimately in those students’ best interest. Some of them may simply need the wake up call a poor or failing grade would bring.

If educators are going to treat students like consumers, I recommend that they listen to students’ demands for more challenging coursework rather than less reading and writing. In some cases it may be that, like myself, the same students are actually demanding both: less boring and elementary reading and writing and more intellectually stimulating reading and writing. After all, sometimes the slacker is simply a disappointed, would-be honor student.