By Frank Vernuccio
There are few areas of governmental endeavor within the United States that have fared as poorly as the education system. Despite committing vast sums, American schools have produced stunningly poor results.Marc Tucker, writing for Education Week, has noted:
Originally posted in the New York Analysis of Policy & Government newsletter
… high school textbooks that used to be written at the 12th-grade level for 12th graders are now written at the 7th- or 8th-grade level. I cited a report that said that many community college teachers do not assign much writing at all to their first-year students because they cannot write. I revealed that the community college course called College Math is not college math at all, but is in reality just a course in Algebra I—a course that is supposed to be passed in middle school in most states—with a few other topics thrown in, and many community college students cannot do the work. I pointed to data that says that the students who go to the typical four-year college are no better prepared than those attending community colleges. I then pointed to another study that says that for close to 40 percent of our college students, the first two years of college add virtually no value at all, and ‘not much’ value for the rest. I ended by pointing out that, if this is all true, then colleges are typically teaching most students what we used to teach in the high school college-bound track and are not doing it very well … What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years …
The problem is not new. In 2012, James Marshall Crotty, writing in Forbes, summarized findings from the Council on Foreign Relations:
- The United States invests more in K-12 public education than many other developed countries, yet U.S. students remain poorly prepared to compete with global peers.
- More than 25 percent of U.S. students fail to graduate high school in four years; for Hispanic and African-American students, the number approaches 40 percent.
- Only 25% of U.S. students are proficient or better in civics, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
- Eight in ten Americans only speak English (with no foreign language capability at all).
- According to a recent report by the not-for-profit testing organization, ACT, only 22 percent of U.S. high school students met “college ready” standards in all of their core subjects; these figures are even lower for Hispanic and African-American students.
- 63% of aerospace and life science firms report shortages of “qualified workers.”
- 75% of U.S. citizens ages 17-24 cannot pass military entrance exams because they are not physically fit, have criminal records, or because they lack critical skills needed in modern warfare, including how to locate on a map military theaters in which the U.S. is fulsomely engaged.
The culprit is not something inherent in the national character. Nonpublic schools, including many parochial schools with far less financial resources, produce superior results.
The problem is one of priorities. As the New York Analysis of Policy and Government has previously noted, within the public educational system the actual task of educating students is the lowest priority. Fulfilling union contracts for principals, teachers, janitors, and custodians and responding to the ideological whims of progressive politicians are higher on the list, as is engaging in noneducational activities more appropriate for social welfare agencies. Add in the increasingly politicized bent of the standard curriculum, a problem exacerbated by Common Core, and the recipe for failure becomes obvious.
In October, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in a speech to the Washington Policy Center, noted:
the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me. The union wrote ‘Betsy DeVos says public should invest in individual students. NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’ The union bosses made it clear: they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than they do about students. Their focus is on school buildings instead of school kids. Isn’t education supposed
to be all about kids?
The excessive bureaucratization of public schools was accelerated by the increased role of the federal government. Earlier this year, reported the Washington Times, President Trump signed an “ Education Federalism Executive Order” initiating the process of returning more authority to state governments in K-12 education.
The problem, of course, extends beyond K-12.It’s certainly not for a lack of resources, not for K-12, and certainly not at the college level. A Brookings study revealed that:
He said that previous administrations had increasingly forced schools to comply with ‘whims and dictates’ from Washington, but his administration would break the trend.
Education costs have soared … College tuition, net of subsidies, is 11.1 times higher in 2015 than in 1980, dramatically higher than the 2.5 increase in overall personal consumption over the period. For private education, from pre-K through secondary, prices are 8.5 times higher now than in 1980. For public schools, the rise is lower—4.7 from 1980 to 2013—but still far above general inflation.
… But learning has stagnated … For the nation’s 17-year-olds, there have been no gains in literacy since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began in 1971. Performance is somewhat better on math, but there has still been no progress since 1990. The long-term stagnation cannot be attributed to racial or ethnic differences in the U.S. population. Literacy scores for white students peaked in 1975; in math, scores peaked in the early 1990s. Education productivity growth for U.S. education has been particularly weak. International literacy and numeracy data from the OECD’s assessment of adult skills confirms this troubling picture. The numeracy and literacy skills of those born since 1980 are no more developed than for those born between 1968 and 1977. For the average OECD country, by contrast, people born between 1978 and 1987 score significantly better than all previous generations. Comparing the oldest—those born from 1947 to 1957—to youngest cohorts—those born from 1988 to 1996, the U.S. gains are especially weak. The United States ranks dead last among 26 countries tested on math gains, and second to last on literacy gains across these generations. The countries which have made the largest math gains include South Korea, Slovenia, France, Poland, Finland, and the Netherlands. This weak performance is even more disturbing given that the U.S. spends more on education, on a per student basis, than almost any other country. So what’s going wrong?
The sources of educational failure: For higher education, a major factor driving up costs has been a growth in the number of highly-paid non-teaching professionals. In 1988, for every 100 full-time equivalent students, there were on average 23 college employees. By 2012, that number had increased to 31 employees, with a shift toward the highest paying non-teaching occupations. Managers and professionals now outnumber faculty, who comprise just a third of the higher education workforce. To a large extent, rising costs have been absorbed by increased student borrowing, subsidized by the federal government, and supplemented through grant aid.
Gerard Robinson, writing for the American Enterprise Institute notes:
… a look back at the progress we’ve made under reformers’ traditional response to fixing low-performing schools—simply showering them with more money—makes it clear that this approach has been a costly failure … Since World War II, inflation-adjusted spending per student in American public schools has increased by 663 percent. Where did all of that money go? One place it went was to hire more personnel. Between 1950 and 2009, American public schools experienced a 96 percent increase in student population. During that time, public schools increased their staff by 386 percent—four times the increase in students. The number of teachers increased by 252 percent, over 2.5 times the increase in students. The number of administrators and other staff increased by over seven times the increase in students … This staffing surge still exists today. From 1992 to 2014—the most recent year of available data—American public schools saw a 19 percent increase in their student population and a staffing increase of 36 percent.
This decades-long staffing surge in American public schools has been tremendously expensive for taxpayers, yet it has not led to significant changes in student achievement. For example, public school national math scores have been flat (and national reading scores declined slightly) for 17-year-olds since 1992. In addition, public high school graduation rates experienced a long and slow decline between 1970 and 2000. Today, graduation rates are slightly above where they were in 1970 …
It is long past time to try something new to improve American schools. To give all students an opportunity to succeed, public education needs innovative approaches for the delivery of teaching and learning … Money, while important, cannot solve our nation’s public school challenges alone: It will take new and creative approaches that involve parents and communities, too.