Staring down the big test


Public education built Minnesota. We’ve grown and prospered, anchored by a collective commitment to schooling. Education is so deeply ingrained in us that we barely stop to consider the alternative.

Opinion: Staring Down the Big Test

Yes, there is an alternative. If conservative public policy makers have their way, Minnesota educational policy will increasingly be guided by that alternative vision.

I’m not making this up. Our tradition of providing a quality education is not historically dominant. In fact, democratic education is nearly an aberration.

An education means power and money, something our immigrant forbearers recognized. Educated people make more money than uneducated people. Educated people run things, make policy and build businesses.

Public education transformed our state and nation by creating America’s huge middle class. In policy terms, are we going to stick with that achievement or will we surrender it to the narrow interests of a few?

I like to contemplate alternatives and, in China’s educational system, I find a distinctive and historically dominant schooling tradition. In China, access to higher education and, by extension, to class elevation requires passing a rigid state exam. Few students pass without additional after-school tutoring.

Tutoring costs money. Families with money hire tutors for their children. Those without money, do not. Consequently, higher education is effectively denied to the poor, reinforcing generational poverty.

I’m not talking about China since the 1949 revolution. Rather, I’m thinking about two thousand-plus years of Chinese history. China is slow to change. China’s schools and exam systems are no exception.

Chinese imperial examinations were first instituted in 605 CE but were preceded by the Han Dynasty’s nine-rank system. The Han ruled China from206 BCE to 220 CE.

Chinese emperors consolidated and extended dynastic control though a centralized bureaucracy. In turn, this expanding civil service required a meritocratic entrance standard. The result was a series of standardized exams that were, in theory, objective. Passing the test meant a secure job.

This was a fascinating development. Before the exam system, imperial bureaucratic appointments were filled from China’s aristocratic ranks. An expanding imperial government required more skilled workers than noble families could supply.

The exam subjects were drawn from the Chinese classics. Expensive and time-consuming study was necessary to pass the first level. Less than five percent of test takers succeeded in any given year creating what University of Chicago economist Steven J. Levitt calls a “tournament scheme.”

Tournaments yield a single winner from a large participant field, reserving reward for the one rather than the many. Tournaments work well in golf but they’re no basis for an educational system.

Yet that’s exactly what conservative educational policy makers appear to desire: an education tradition that concentrates learning’s rewards into fewer hands while creating a permanent underclass. It’s a dangerous, insipid policy.

Some of China’s lessons apply to us but most do not. Minnesota is not a feudal society, struggling to modernize. Our education tradition is profoundly democratic. In fact, we’ve repeatedly bet our future on it and that bet has paid off handsomely.

Minnesota has reached a crossroads. Are we going to educate our children to be the most flexible, innovative citizenry in history or will we choose to retreat? Will we invest in our future or turn from it? Recent data is not encouraging.

The 2007 UnitedHealth Foundation “America’s Health Rankings” Minnesota report notes that Minnesota’s high school graduation rates are slipping. By any measure, historic or contemporary, Chinese or Minnesotan, that’s not a good sign.