Chris Powell: Of contempt and credentialism

The P.T, Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

The P.T, Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

Joe Ganim for governor? At first the idea might seem as ridiculous as the idea of his again becoming mayor of Bridgeport seemed when he got out of federal prison after serving seven years for exploiting his city with racketeering, extortion, bribery, and tax evasion.

But of course Ganim is indeed mayor again and his recent musing about running for governor may be no more ridiculous than Donald Trump's running for president. Many voters throughout the country saw Trump as the perfect mechanism for signifying their contempt for politics and government. Might many voters in Connecticut view Ganim the same way, even though, unlike Trump, Ganim himself may have been a major cause of that contempt?

In any case Ganim's return as chief executive of Connecticut's largest city has signified more than any contempt felt by voters there. It has signified the catastrophic failure of urban policy in the state for the last 50 years, represented most horribly by the collapse of Bridgeport, once the thriving center of the state's industry, now a swamp of poverty, social disintegration, corruption and political patronage. Ganim's restoration also has signified the demoralization of the city's voters, their desperate belief that a crook's return to office might be an improvement over a mayor who, however ineffectual, at least had stayed out of prison.

That is, Ganim is a symptom of Connecticut's steady impoverishment by mistaken social policy, policy in which state government persists though it only worsens living conditions. No one in authority ever answers for this, and it now seems to be accepted as the natural order of things in the state, beyond discussion in politics.

Indeed, this week Gov. Dan Malloy actually reveled in that mistaken social policy, touting what he said was a sixth year of increase in the state's high school graduation rate. But this increase is meaningless in a public education system that even school administrators have begun to acknowledge is entirely one of social promotion, a system in which there are no standards for advancement from grade to grade and for issuance of a high school diploma.

Congratulating themselves this week, the governor and Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell seemed never to have read the decision issued last September by Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher in the latest school-financing lawsuit, wherein the judge found the financing system unconstitutionally irrational because it fails to deliver education to many students.

The judge's decision recounted testimony by school administrators that schools, especially in Connecticut's cities, are giving diplomas to many students who are essentially illiterate after 12 years of social promotion.

The measure of education is not the mere credentialism celebrated by the governor and the commissioner this week but actual learning. By that standard education in Connecticut is little better than it is in most states, since here, as there, standardized tests show that half of high school seniors never master high school English and two-thirds never master high school math but are graduated anyway.

Worse, many students who have not mastered high school are then sent on to public colleges where they require remedial high school courses and end up with degrees of little value, in subjects like social work, women's studies and sociology, as if this final bit of credentialism will prepare them any better for making a living in the private sector, where they find a terrible shock, since, unlike education in Connecticut, in the private sector results count.  

If mere credentialism is to be policy in education because it lets everyone feel good, state government could accomplish just as much and save a lot of money by issuing high school diplomas with birth certificates, thereby achieving a 100-percent graduation rate.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.