An American Education Update

America’s education system is falling further behind.” – The Lonely Realist

As TLR has repeatedly maintained over the past 5 years (e.g., here), America owes its unparalleled success, power and creativity to the fact that it has had the best education system on Earth. While America’s unique Constitutional democracy, capitalist economy, diverse population and “American exceptionalism” each made significant contributions to American wealth and prosperity, what has set America apart ahead of its global competitors has been the superior education it has mandated for its children via a system that provides every American with 13 years of publicly-funded schooling and the freedom to pursue private or home-schooling. Having fashioned a nationwide education system that provides Americans with the opportunity to maximize their knowledge and abilities, America’s economic engine has been stoked with the raw material necessary to incubate the best businesses and the highest-paying jobs. For over 100 years, the American education system surpassed in size, ambition and quality educational opportunities offered anywhere else in the world. Excellence in learning was the American Way. Obtaining an education was a key to the American Dream. With the world’s most highly-educated populace, America became the wealthiest and most successful nation in history. Americans excelled, building, innovating, investing and creating seemingly endless opportunities for themselves and their children.

The sad reality is that America no longer leads the world in education. It has fallen far and it has fallen fast. America today is being bested in more and more areas of innovation and performance. There are a number of reasons for the decline in American education. In part, it’s because America has failed to hold its educators accountable and, in part, it’s because America has failed to modernize its education system, fractionalized educational responsibilities and content, and avoided making difficult decisions about the breadth and depth of curricula, relying instead on the inertia of localized, hidebound education policies and practices. The world’s education systems have progressed. America’s Federal and State education systems have not. Politics have gotten in the way, prioritizing tribalism over pragmatism, parental control over teaching expertise, conformity with identity/cultural/religious mores over quality …, all of which have stifled free speech, encouraged book-banning at one extreme and woke-ism/DEI at the other, and furthered (rather than suppressed) divisions, surefire ways to undermine learning and encourage educational mediocrity.

Proof can be found by source-checking, for example in the most recent ranking of national education systems in math, reading and science by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the leading evaluator of international educational performance. PISA reported on December 5, 2023 that U.S. educational performance continued to deteriorate – it was 18th overall in 2022 based on the test scores of ~700,000 15-year-old students in 81 OECD member states and partner economies (most of which are developing countries with limited education budgets). Although the report appears to be an improvement over America’s 2018 PISA ranking of 28th out of 79, it is not. America’s performance declined in all three tested areas – math, reading and science –, the relative “improvement” being attributable to the worse performance of students in countries more adversely affected by the COVID pandemic. Notably, the U.S. saw a decline of 13 performance points in math, ranking the U.S. 34th, “among the lowest ever measured by PISA in mathematics” for U.S. students, a decline of 1 point in reading (where U.S. students ranked 9th) and 3 points in science (where U.S. students ranked 16th). Students at America’s global competitors scored higher. A similar study by McKinsey showed that American students from kindergarten through 5th grade had experienced comparative annual declines of 20% in reading and 33% in math during the pandemic years. These results were confirmed by a more recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics showing that reading and math assessments for 13-year-olds have declined by 4 points and 9 points, respectively, from their 2019-20 scores and by 7 points and 14 points over the preceding decade. Data addressing other core subjects have been even worse. The 2021 results published in the Nation’s Report Card (distributed by the National Center for Education Statistics) shockingly showed U.S. history scores among 8th graders plummeting to their lowest level since recording began in 1994, with only 13% of students testing at or above the minimal proficiency level … and only a quarter showing minimal proficiency in civics.

If education indeed is key to a nation’s success, America has misplaced the key.

It therefore is not surprising that a recent poll by YouGov/The Economist shows that “20% of respondents aged 18-29 think that the Holocaust is a myth [and] an additional 30% of young Americans said they do not know whether the Holocaust is a myth.” That’s 50% of America’s young adults who lack knowledge of a core 20th Century fact!, a percentage that exposes the deep roots of America’s deteriorating education system that unsurprisingly has nurtured – and, without change, will continue to nurture – rising extremism … and antisemitism. It evidences the failure of America to effectively educate its youth. Antisemitism accordingly is not only a product of a progressive, DEI-driven educational emphasis. It is a product of general educational failure.

America’s education system will continue to degrade without concerted action by both voters and legislators. Global and societal pressures are mounting, driven in part by rapidly-changing technology, particularly artificial intelligence (AI). Although changes in technology in the past have resulted in the automation of physical labor, recent AI improvements are expected to impact disproportionately on the highly-educated. The Pew Research Center has concluded that workers with a B.A. or higher degree (27% of workers) are most likely to see their jobs replaced and their earnings reduced. Those highly-paid workers include computer professionals, actuaries, accountants, lawyers and doctors. “[Their] skills include critical thinking, writing, science and mathematics,” precisely the areas in which AI excels. Mechanical skills, on the other hand, will experience minimal impact from AI. AI also can be expected to revolutionize education delivery systems and the necessary contents of 21st Century education. A recent study by Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence concluded that AI will require major adjustments in and out of the classroom. America’s public education system is neither prepared for this rapidly-approaching future nor is today’s education system flexible enough to address the challenges. It needs to be. The Stanford study concluded that “The full impact of AI in education remains unclear at this juncture, but … things are changing and now is the time to get it right.” Exactly.

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1 Comment
  • jeffcsiegel
    Posted at 15:25h, 08 January

    I suspect the AI concerns covered here and elsewhere are probably overblown. For over 30 years the tech industry has had several cycles of the automation scare, AI by any other name, and employment has increased. In some ways it has puzzled us all, but that is what happened, and will likely still happen.

    The new AI, that is scaring everyone, by tackling language so well, hits a different job segment including writers and lawyers. A lawyer friend of mine told me he uses the AI function to “change the tone on his demand letters” and he loves the results. In the past that function may have been done by a paralegal. In the end it will just probably make folks like him more productive and slightly lessen the need for as many paralegals.

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