UGA prof: The real educational crisis is manufactured educational crises

UGA professor Peter Smagorinsky has penned another provocative essay for us to discuss on whether all the laments about the state of education have an underlying purpose: To further profits and agendas.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I recently read a document about the need to improve high school writing instruction so as to prepare students better for the expectations that await them in college. Like just about every story written about education these days, the paper opened with the rhetoric of crisis. The argument goes like this: High school teachers aren’t doing their jobs well, because 32 percent of all high school graduates, according to some studies, are performing on writing tests at rates that do not meet the standards for quality writing at the college level. We therefore need to intervene to improve this horrid rate of success, so that kids can better compete in this global economy.

From there, the authors took their own direction. To them, what we need is more university research on the qualities of good writing, so that university researchers can give high school teachers the tools and information to teach writing better. The authors were university researchers who had just such a package to deliver. Consulting fees available upon request.

Others might take this information in a different direction. The problem, they say, is that there’s no competition; what we need is an educational open market where teachers pit their students against those of their colleagues in order to beat them out of whatever merit pay, status, job security, or other rewards are available to the victors.

Others say that individual competition is insufficient; what we need is a broader competitive system, where whole schools, or whole districts compete. Or perhaps what we need is charter schools, which as “Waiting for Superman” demonstrated, are far, far superior to ordinary public schools and should become more widely available.

Vouchers also might solve the problem of inadequate high school writing instruction, since kids going to ghetto schools could use their voucher money to transfer to Phillips Exeter Academy, or perhaps the Choate School, and then go to an Ivy League university.

Since class size doesn’t matter, at least to Bill Gates, another solution would be to double class size to 40+ students, which will get rid of the bad writing teachers and concentrate all students in the classrooms of high-performing teachers, for whom doubling the number of essays they read will not produce any problems.

Here’s another solution, one I see as quite different from what others see as a crisis of incompetence among our nation’s teaching of writing: Read the data properly. If 32 percent of the nation’s high school graduates are not ready for college writing standards, that means that 68 percent of them are ready. Let’s dig a little further. How many high school graduates attend college?

Today, 68 percent of all high school graduates attend college. Furthermore, recent reports detail recent small increases in overall writing test scores.

Well, rats, there goes the crisis. It appears that writing teachers aren’t doing such a terrible job at all, if writing scores are to believed (and I find evaluating writing produced in the 25-minute time periods provided during assessments to be a dubious practice). In fact, one could reasonably argue that writing teachers are doing exactly what is necessary, and doing so with students who are increasingly diverse, who learn writing conventions through social media and other tools that provide them with habits of abbreviation that teachers must address in their teaching, and whose engagement with texts outside school is much more likely to involve images and sounds than words.

Could school be better? Of course it could, and just about every student, teacher, and administrator I know would agree. But focusing on the wrong problems will make things worse, not better. I see the current wave of “reform” focused on problems that are manufactured, and based on solutions with little to no empirical support. One solution would be for the public to be more wary of what edupreneurs are offering for profit as a way to solve problems that, in many cases, either don’t exist at all or exist to a far lesser degree than more complex problems that are harder to sort through and figure out.

Public education is complicated stuff. Let’s stop looking for easy fixes based on whims, hunches, rumors, misinformation, and the profit motive.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

90 comments Add your comment


June 13th, 2012
12:27 pm

Uneducated workers have less demands and options when it comes to getting pushed around. Many like this fact.


June 13th, 2012
12:38 pm

Uneducated voters don’t know when their interests are being compromised by politicians beholden to well financed special interests.


June 13th, 2012
12:49 pm

A majority of voters are uneducated and incumbents like that because it eliminates accountability.


June 13th, 2012
12:51 pm

Professor, I agree with you completely. It is like, “Here is a solution. Let’s find a crisis to stick it with!” These cure du jours that make so much money for their companies are just profit-making answers looking for a crisis with which to align.

There is a constant drumbeat of failure attached to public schools now, have you noticed? Is it really because the schools are doing such a bad job with more diverse and troubled students, or is to discredit public education, or is it to call for a “program” to fix it? And someone “just so happens” to have a miracle program they will sell to the schools for millions of dollars.

I have been teaching long enough (almost 4 decades) to remember how it used to be. Some of what it used to be wasn’t good (we can name a lot of things here) but some of what it used to be was functional–it worked. There was a separation between home issues and school issues that we certainly don’t have now–home issues ARE NOW expected to be solved by the school, for example.

My system wasted years being involved in Reading First. FOB made BILLIONS of dollars from the taxpayers for this “solution” which was built on faulty “research.” Just one example of pairing a “solution” to a problem, which in the end hurt the very students it was supposed to help.

Just like the Dr. S has pointed out, we need to look critically at the “problems” that are identified, and then examine the “solutions” that just might be aimed at profit making, at the expense of our students.


June 13th, 2012
12:52 pm

Interesting correlation by Dr. Smagorinsky. To me the next logical question is what percentage of those thirty-two is going on to obtain a higher educational degree? My unscientific rationale tells me that many of those who do not succeed (I define such as those who do not acquire a diploma) fall into the thirty-two percent whereas those who graduate are/were college writing ready upon their graduation from high school. Who knows…..

……along those lines I’ve always thought the SAT score in Georgia has been historically lower than other states because of HOPE. Crazy, right? My anecdotal thought processes tells me border-line college/university students take the SAT thinking they can maybe, just maybe qualify for HOPE. This false hope (pun intended) does not exist when folks from many other states are discerning about wheater or not to sign-up for the SAT. Just more food for thought.

another comment

June 13th, 2012
12:53 pm

I love that he wrote about graduates of Choate. I the white scholarship, public school kid, whose father owned the mobile home park did better in College than the Choate grad across the hall.

Maybe it is that I went to Catholic School for the first 6 years when then only charged $100 for 4 kids. Those were the days when I had nuns teaching me for 5 out of 6 years. Yes, there were 40 kids in my first grade class but there was discipline. I clearly remember in the second grade my boyfriend Robert getting paddled, by the nun with a ping pong paddle at the front of the class on his butt. Then boys being sent to the office to wear pink paper ties when they arrived with out any. When the richest kids in the class got caught between 5th and 6th grade stealing some tape recorders from the library. They were made by the priest to paint the rectory all summer. There parents the scions of the small town, did not try to pay their way out of it. They knew the next punishment was painting the convent, they never got that far.

The girl from Choate just ended up someplace in the middle of the Catholic College that I graduated from. A school that was known to be level below the Ivies. We had a mix of the Full pay rich kids that couldn’t get into the Ivies and then those of us who were lower -middle class and on scholarship. The funny thing was those who were spending our own money and were on scholarship did better.

My best friend grew up in the same town as “Katie” from Choate, she knew all about the family. After, getting to know “Katie” who also grew up in Wallingford , Conn. where Choate is, it really was the story of the poor little rich girl. She was sent to live at Choat on campus even though they lived in the same town, so her parents could travel all of the time. After all they were in the Aerospace industry.

Jane also a public school grad, her father was the Principal of the local school and I both graduated at the top of the glass. Where the Choate student was someplace back with the “C” students. We and none of our friends have ever heard about her since graduation. So I suspect, someone probably married her to get into Daddy’s company. She was just getting an appropriate degree for Society, like the late Mary Kennedy.

Living in an outdated ed system

June 13th, 2012
1:03 pm

With all due respect, this professor is living in a fantasy world.

Georgia and education not compatible

June 13th, 2012
1:08 pm

Really appreciate this article and the term, “edupreneurs,” priceless.

Education IS big business. Voters please educate yourselves and vote the career politicians out.


June 13th, 2012
1:09 pm

As someone who has read and graded college student writing for 25+ years–and of course such writing occurs in many classes besides English ones– I haven’t seen much change over the years. There have always been a certain number of students who don’t write up to par when they arrive…that’s what college is for.

One change I HAVE seen over the last decade or so is that more students than before expect to be allowed to rewrite endlessly if they don’t do well the first time, to get no grade lower than a B, to miss class without penalty, and to get passing grades without doing the assigned work. Wonder where they got these ideas? Wonder if a consulting company could fix this?

Not another comment please

June 13th, 2012
1:12 pm

I love it when somebody posts a comment about how well educated they are and their (not there) post is riddled with incessant grammatical errors. Talk about punctuating the irony….

Peter Smagorinsky

June 13th, 2012
1:23 pm

To Prof, one big change since I began teaching HS English in 1976 is that teachers are, in general, more attentive to the whole of the process of writing. So their expectations for opportunities to revise are actually welcome news to me.

I can imagine it getting annoying, though, if they submit revisions without putting effort into each draft. The idea of revising isn’t to allow for cruddy work along the way, but to keep pushing yourself to produce better work. If that commitment is lacking, I could see their expectations about yet another revision opportunity being trouble for those teachers whose expectations are for every draft to involving a stretch of thinking and writing, not just the last one.

I also know that many schools now provide endless opportunities to catch up, as Jennifer Lee wrote in this space . So there could be more than one reason for this expectation.

Hey Professor

June 13th, 2012
1:30 pm

Good article. You have a lot of great points that I think most open-minded people should consider.

I do have a question. You write:
“Let’s dig a little further. How many college graduates attend college? Today, 68 percent of all high school graduates attend college.”

Don’t 100% of college graduates attend college?

The Ghost of Edward R. Murrow

June 13th, 2012
1:37 pm

When your schtick is funded by school taxes, you are dependent upon the taxpayers remaining schmucks.

If the schmucks find out you’re a schnook, then your schtick is over.


Maureen Downey

June 13th, 2012
1:41 pm

@Hey, Good catch. That has been fixed.


June 13th, 2012
2:07 pm

@ Peter Smagorinsky. I agree with you about genuine revisions of student papers–although if there are many more assignments to come, it might be better after the first revision for students just to push on to the next assignment and try to do well on that one. However, I have found that generally students mean they should be given a chance to correct all the grammatical errors noted on the paper and then hand in the “revision” for a better grade.

And yes, I know about K-12 public schools providing endless opportunities to catch up. I was being ironic: I have quite a good idea where they got these notions.

Public School Teacher

June 13th, 2012
2:08 pm

I could not agree more with this essay.Maureen, I appreciate your articles due to your sense of balance. Have you read,” Coming Apart” by Charles Murray? I know he is somewhat controversial due to his book ,”The Bell Curve”,but Coming Apart explains the so-called problems of public education. At the risk of being accused of blaming the victim I will say it. Our problems in education are social problems beyond the scope of schools.

Ron F.

June 13th, 2012
2:24 pm

“Our problems in education are social problems beyond the scope of schools.”

But if the reformers are to be believed, we can fix it all,can’t we? If only we had charter schools and vouchers, then the problems would disappear. What surprises me is how many truly believe that all we need to is to do away with public schools. The bigger picture of how we change society’s view of the need for success in education is something many refuse to talk about or even admit is needed.

Ron F.

June 13th, 2012
2:29 pm

Prof: we have to make sure they show “mastery of the standards” even if it means we give them multiple opportunities and all but do the work for them. I’m all about revising and teaching writing as a process, but at some point we have to accept that some just aren’t college material and focus our energies on helping them find their passion in life, be it in college or career. Some of my smartest kids aren’t college material. They have amazing abilities to do, to make, to fix, and passion for many vocations that don’t require college writing skills. I’m hoping the number crunchers will come to realize that the 32% who aren’t writing on a college level are needed in society in different roles that they can fill successfully without a college degree, and we need to focus them on a career track that doesn’t require all the college preparatory level courses.


June 13th, 2012
2:38 pm

I agree with the Professor adding this caveat. The ultimate goal behind many of these screams of failure is to implement a school Voucher payment system. That too is a boondoggle and we all must
come to together for the sake of “ALL” of the children that it does not succeed. The Voucher system
will further degrade our educational system from where it is now and will only benefit a select few while completely ignoring the needs of Poor and disadvantaged. Utilmately providing marginal success will pumping more public Tax dollars into private schools and many more newly starting religious educational schools. Ultimately, Its a back door way to get prayer back into the schools.


June 13th, 2012
2:49 pm

@ Bernie, why is it that up thru grade 12 it is acceptable for a kid to be assigned to a school based solely on geography yet after the magical “graduation” it is then OK for the kid (and their family) to finally make a decision based upon their best educational interest?
We allow Federal and State funds to support school choice past grade 12 but scream and holler at any attempt to touch the sacred K-12 cow.

More union myths

June 13th, 2012
2:51 pm

Yet another tract which Maureen has found in her daily quest to talk-up the failed status quo in public K-12 education. And to ward off reform.

The above apologist is no different from the thousand others who’ve poo-pooed the sorry facts over the span of entire decades. Longer than many readers have been alive. And their objective is always the same: to keep the gravy train on the rails until THEY TOO can cash in on fat retirement benefits many of the rest of us can only marvel at.

If writing skills and graduation rates were so good—parents would surely know it. Wouldn’t they? But this comes across like Obama’s trying to tell us the economy is “okay” or “improving.”

We should all—like the Obamas—have a right to rescue our kids from failing public schools. And to take our tax dollars to better ones.

Hillbilly D

June 13th, 2012
3:02 pm

To them, what we need is more university research on the qualities of good writing, so that university researchers can give high school teachers the tools and information to teach writing better. The authors were university researchers who had just such a package to deliver. Consulting fees available upon request.

Hear the man.

Hillbilly D

June 13th, 2012
3:04 pm

Some of my smartest kids aren’t college material. They have amazing abilities to do, to make, to fix, and passion for many vocations that don’t require college writing skills.

As a regular poster at a different AJC site likes to point out, there’s a difference in schooling and education.

well, let's THINK

June 13th, 2012
3:09 pm

@Pompano: You do know the state is required to offer a free public education for grades K-12; there is no such requirement to provide a free post-secondary education. Your comparison is not valid.

Teacher in it for the long haul

June 13th, 2012
3:14 pm

Not to be critical, but I believe many of you are missing the point. As long as we fall into the trap of viewing public education through a derisive lens, true reform is unlikely to happen. From this viewpoint, schools are both the REASON for all that ails our society and the SOLUTION – ultimately the battleground for political and economic interests.

That our student population AND societal expectations (i.e. technology-based job market, globalization) have changed should be considered before public educations’ often misperceived lack of achievement is used to promote various agendas.

Real educational reform will take place when we recognize schools as an integral PART of our broader American society and our local communities rather than an instrument that is either failing or that, with changes, will fix our problems.

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
3:15 pm

Want to bet the essay’s author sends his own kids to a private school? Or to a public one far enough out in the suburbs to ensure … they escape what he prescribes for your’s and mine?


June 13th, 2012
3:22 pm

@well, let’s THINK. You still didn’t answer the question – why is it acceptable for the money to follow a student after grade 12 but we enslave students based on geographic location prior to High School? State & Fed funds are used for secondary education based on where the student chooses to attend. Why are K-12 funds protected – they still come from the same taxed citizenry? Your ‘free public education’ statement still doesn’t address my question.

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
3:30 pm

Well put, Pompano. Other readers, too, await the anti-reform side’s answer.

bertis downs

June 13th, 2012
3:32 pm

@Parents at large. I bet he doesn’t.


a lot of very obvious truths in this article. And well-stated. Thank you.

See also

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
3:52 pm

@bertis: I bet he does. He’s in a position to know just how dangerous urban public schooling is to his own kids’ future. Much like the Obamas with their own privately schooled children. (With the entire Washington DC school district to choose from—not a single school measured up? Not even ONE?)


June 13th, 2012
3:53 pm

Pompano – 2:49 pm, After grade 12, that is no longer a KID, but an adult! they then become a integral part in helping to pay for that choice themselves….which many of them have always done and still do to this date. Your argument is a straw Man!

BAM! watch him FALL………:)


June 13th, 2012
4:10 pm

There is a lot of money to be made. How much has already made its way into the campaign coffers of friendly elected officials? Or into their back pockets?

bertis downs

June 13th, 2012
4:13 pm

@Parents at large. I bet he doesn’t.


click on the link–

then click on this one:

as for your silly stereotyping– ever hear of successful highly-challenged, high achieving high schools? A lot of people have.


June 13th, 2012
4:16 pm

fascinating point, pompano.


June 13th, 2012
4:18 pm

@Bernie – you still haven’t answered the question yet – why is grade 12 the magic cutoff for ALL kids? High School graduates grow up and pay school taxes as well – so not sure what your logic is there.

Post high-school, they still attend publicly funded state Institutions (or Private if preferred) on publicly funded scholarships & grants.

Still waiting on an intelligent answer as to why it is acceptable to enslave a kid to a school for 12 years based on where their parents can afford/need to live but it’s OK for the money (in even greater sums) to follow the kid to support their educational choice.


June 13th, 2012
4:27 pm

Pompan @ 4;18pm Obviously you have problem with reading and comprehension too!

most kids after grade 12 typically are at the age of 18. Age18 is considered an adult in the U.S., they are no longer KIDS. Simple and a matter of fact!

Adults are free to make choices of their own……..and besides no one is enslaved but your way of thinking.


June 13th, 2012
4:29 pm

My answer to the “cure du jour” is to listen politely, nod in the right places, and then go back to my classroom, close the door, and teach my way. My students are doing quite well, thank you very much. There is discipline in the room, and while I welcome parent partnerships they do NOT run my classroom. The results speak for themselves, so my principal leaves me alone to get the job done.

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
4:30 pm

@ Dr. Pete,,

I agree, but in a different direction.

I’ve been with GPC for a long time. I have watched agenda driven education take
a solid academic legacy (DeKalb) and turn us into a national disgrace which is about
to layoff 200 or so staffers because of the actions of a morally corrupt administration
and a state system which enabled them

At GPC for the duration of its existence, two different presidents have chased every
quick fix trend and embraced every feel good social agenda. we’ve dabbled in tech
trends and wholesale embraced left of center social engineering. we encouraged
faculty to turn on each other, for staff to try to cozy up to admin to secure advancement.

we’ve done everything but worry about the quality of the education and the environment
educators work in.

for at least the last 10 years, as a culture: GPC has given lip service to the importance of
quality education, and max effort on promoting ourselves as agents of societal evolution.

the crisis in education is that education has long since stopped having anything much
to do with actually educating. it’s all about social engineering and self promotion

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
4:34 pm

@ more union myths

my pay has only moved down in 10 years. how exactly does that qualify as a gravy train?
its not even a gravy boat

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
4:52 pm

@Bertis: Yes, I’ve clicked on your links—and they prove nothing much about where the essay’s author sends his own offspring. Do they, for instance, attend public schools FAR from the troubled inner city … such as it may even exist in Athens, GA?

Nor do your red herring diversions excuse the Obamas. Like the Clintons and Gores before them, they’ve bailed out on the public schools they profess to have SO VERY MUCH confidence in.

What is it you don’t understand about the way rich Democrat politicians TALK versus the way they CHOOSE when it comes to their own children’s education?

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
4:53 pm

@ pompano,

1) different sources of funding.
2) the state has no legal responsibility to provide post secondary education. therefor it may allocate funds as it wishes. mostly to the University of Georgia.
3) simple math. more students in HS than college. fewer colleges on a ratio of 10-1 (maybe more?)
the same standards don’t apply
4) further, competition for students which matter. no such thing in public HS, discounting football.

lastly your enslaved comment is as stupid as it is wrong. but nice attempt at silly flame throwing.
a student can be home schooled, private schooled, religious schooled, alternate schooled, and in some cases exempted from schooling.

it may not be exactly what YOU want in exactly the way YOU want it, but its hardly slavery.

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
4:56 pm

Hey, blabney farnsworth—Try getting a retirement benefit in the real world where you and your spouse’s healthcare costs FOR LIFE are 75% paid for by the taxpayers!

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
4:57 pm

anyone who expects POTUS to send his kids to public education is a demagogue of the
worst order.

in today’s world, only a private school has the infrastructure necessary to support the
circus which goes along with educating POTUS kids.

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
4:59 pm

@ parent

sorry, wrong again. you might wish to visit the TRS website before you post further
that way you might not make QUITE as much of an ass of yourself

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
5:00 pm

@ parents

are you a product of Ga public education?
if so, we obviously own you an apology

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
5:04 pm

@blabney farnsworth: You embarrass yourself. Those same POTUS kids will attend countless in- and out-of-school events in their K-12 years, AND they will attend very open university campuses thereafter.

Face it: Even Democrats won’t send their kids to the K-12 schools run by unions.

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
5:08 pm

@ parents

after you’re done looking up how our non union pensions are really funded and administered, you might then want to do some digging into what goes in to safely protecting POTUS children/family

I am truly sorry we have failed you so badly in your education. and I hope your health plan has mental health coverage to help you with your anger issues

Jerry Eads

June 13th, 2012
5:09 pm

As always, nicely done, Peter.

Some folks might want to remember that “intelligence” – measured these days in many ways, all of them FAR from perfect – ranges from the extremely disadvantaged to “genius.” If we were to lean on Wechsler’s approach for a moment, IQ ranges from 40 to 160. Average is 100. Once upon a time, it was said that one needed an IQ of at least 115 to complete a 4-year degree (I remember that from grad school but couldn’t find a reference for it today). If that were actually the case, it would mean that only about 16% of the total population could complete a 4-year degree. Yet Peter points out that 68% now attend college. THAT means it now only takes an IQ of 86 (far below the “average” of 100) to attend (if not complete) college. NOW: that INCLUDES those attending 2-year technical and community colleges, and more power to them. Fantastic.

And we’re teaching all those kids to write satisfactorily? Also fantastic. And the “crisis” is that our schools are failing to teach kids below an IQ of 86 to succeed in college? (YES, I know, not everyone graduates from high school, so really we should adjust these scores to reflect only those who actually graduate.)

Certainly we should help those lower ability students learn to do the absolute best they can do, and in spite of the negative press, most schools do that very well indeed. But should 100% go to college? Just exactly how far should higher education standards be lowered?

bootney farnsworth

June 13th, 2012
5:13 pm

@ Jerry

I’ve long been a supporter of requiring lower level kids to attend and graduate from community college before they can apply to big boy college. we’re much better able to figure out who can make it and who can’t than our four year counterparts.

100% attendance is neither possible or desirable.

Parents at large

June 13th, 2012
5:24 pm

@ blabney farnsworth: Sorry to seem relentless in embarrassing you. But you do make it far too easy, as readers will attest.

As for how our teacher health benefits are actually funded, please read from the AJC and educate yourself:

And thanks for your concern—but I was privately schooled elsewhere, though I did go on to serve 12 years in metro Atlanta K-12 public school classrooms.