Paul Greenberg
The most depressing development in American education this week, although you surely have your own nomination for that distinction, might have been one right here in little old Little Rock.

It seems the elementary schools out in the county are remodeling the once simple report card. Naturally enough, it will no longer be simple. Instead, it could be rendered incomprehensible. For instead of the old letter grades, the schools are to switch to numbers. Lots of them.

A draft policy for the school district calls for "computer-generated" report cards that would list the students' progress in acquiring 15 different skills, more or less, in three different subject areas such as math and "reading and language arts," formerly just plain old readin' and writin'. It's a firm rule in educanto: The vaguer the idea, the wordier its description.

Vocabulary can be telling, and the educantists' inflated language is a sure sign of their insecurity, which they try to mask by ever more convoluted language. Pretension remains the first symptom of a profession unsure of itself.

The proposed new grading system in the elementary schools would go from 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest. In place of the old A, B, C, D and F grades that parents could grasp at a glance, mom and dad will have to go through about 45 different numbers (15 skills times 3 subjects) to find out how little Johnny or Janey is progressing. Or not. Anything to make it harder to understand how the kid is doing in school. And to give teachers more paperwork to fill out when they could be teaching.

Imagine some of the conversations at home when the new, up-to-date, number-speckled report cards get home:

"Great work, Janey! You got almost all 4s. But what's this 3 doing next to 'uses strategies to comprehend text'? What's the problem?"

"I'm sorry, dad. I knew what the teacher was after, but I just couldn't explain it the way I was supposed to. We read a poem that started 'After great pain a formal feeling comes. . . .' And all I could think of was grandpa's house just after grandma died. But I couldn't take the feeling apart the way I was supposed to. When I did, it went away, the way my doll was never the same after we broke it apart and took the stuffing out. It was all there, all right, but it wasn't."

"You're not making any sense, Janey. You'll just have to keep trying till all the feeling is gone. It's part of being a grown-up. Get past the poetry and stuff. It doesn't help you in the real world. It just gets in the way. You don't have to understand, just sound like you do. That's the trick. To make the sale, you've got to sell yourself first. You want to be a success, don't you? Outline. Analyze. Compare and contrast. All that stuff. Follow the rules. They're simple enough. Cut out the daydreaming. Then, I just know, you'll get a 4, honey. You can do it if you really try."

Janey's problem with strategizing may be much the same as the one some of us have with these long, divided and subdivided numerical report cards split 3 different ways and then resplit into 15 sections. It's not Janey's problem so much as American society's in this postmodern, robotic, deconstructed age. We confuse data with information, information with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom.

All those quite different concepts now seem to mix in one vast computer-generated cloud of educanto. Till we can't tell the difference between them. If they're still recognizable at all. Because if a quality can't be quantified -- like intuition, say, or poetry or faith or insight -- it doesn't exist. At least not to the well-trained mind.

With each such "reform" in basic education, the basics grow dimmer. We seem bent on learning more and more about less and less till we finally succeed in knowing everything about nothing.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.