“By every measure and employing any number of standards, America’s education system is failing. The consequences for America will be severe.” – The Lonely Realist
America became the greatest nation in the world largely because it built and developed the world’s best education system … from elementary through high school, again at the college level, continuing through postgraduate studies, and for public as well as for private schooling. The American system dwarfed in size, ambition and quality the opportunities offered anywhere else. Excellence in learning was the American Way. Obtaining an education was a linchpin of the American Dream. With the world’s best-educated citizens, America became the wealthiest and most successful nation on Earth. Americans excelled, building, inventing, investing and creating seemingly endless opportunities for themselves and their children.
Shockingly, more than half of today’s Americans – 54% of those between the ages of 16 and 74 – read below the sixth-grade level. By 21st Century standards, they are functionally illiterate, ignoring the written word in favor of their preferred social media source. Also shockingly, the 2018 study of international education in math, reading and science by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the U.S. 37th out of 79 countries in math, 13th in reading and 18th in science. The U.S. slid further during the COVID pandemic as American students from kindergarten through 5th grade experienced comparative annual declines of 20% in reading and 33% in math … with consequent expanding inequality.
Educating America’s children hasn’t been the priority for America’s partisan politicians. Their priority has been re-election. Education after all is not the single-issue vote-getter they crave. And, yet, a nonpartisan super-majority in Congress in 2015 decided that Washington knows best, enacting the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that requires nationwide standardized testing. Although ESSA purportedly shifted educational accountability from the Federal government to State governments, it nevertheless requires States to submit goals to the Department of Education for approval, its purpose being to distinguish high-performing schools from low-performing ones so that States could use competitive/comparative analyses to improve overall educational performance.
It hasn’t worked.
Even though America’s politicians spout platitudes about smaller government, individual choice and local decision-making, both Republicans and Democrats instead promote Statist policies. The Constitution does not vest educational decision-making in the Federal government, and State constitutions do not vest State governments with such authority. Educating America’s children is a local affair that is best-overseen by local parental majorities. Federal and State uniformity in educational policy-making conflicts with American values and, of equal importance, has been unsuccessful. It nevertheless is true that local choice has resulted in book-banning, reflecting localized differences, specifically “anti” attitudes reminiscent of the 1930s. Although those local trends conflict with American values, what history has taught is that localities that limit freedoms fall behind. Educational competition that pits school district against school district therefore is healthy. It improves the overall quality of education. Moreover, because education also is a competition between America’s schools and their counterparts in China, Germany, Finland, South Korea and everywhere else, internecine competition among American schools improves America’s competitiveness. That international competition is fierce … and today America is losing. Should that trend be allowed to continue, America’s children necessarily will fall further down international scales.
The educational success of America’s competitors is instructive. Germany provides state-supported nursery school for all children ages 1-6 – an important early start-to-education absent in most of America – after which elementary school is compulsory. Lower-secondary education provides a basic general education to all children and upper-secondary education thereafter involves making a choice between higher academic learning and vocational training. University is the route of those on the academic path, with apprenticeships being available for those on the vocational track. Because education in Germany is the responsibility of each individual German state, practices vary, adding both diversity and internal competition to Germany’s educational system.
Finland places a premium on teaching excellence. Finnish teachers perform better because they are socially-valued and well-compensated. Finland’s pre-school program is funded by the state and is followed by compulsory basic education that, similar to Germany’s approach, leads to either an academic education or vocational training. Finland, unlike America, has not adopted nationwide standardized exams. Instead, classroom curricula are diverse, selected by Finland’s teachers. A rigorous “process approach” to teacher-training coupled with the delegation of classroom autonomy to teaching professionals has placed Finland’s children near the top of international rankings. The Finnish system differs from America’s in part because it is designed to develop thinking and problem-solving rather than memorization and standardized exam-taking. The diversity of such an educational approach encourages creativity and individual excellence, both in teachers and their students.
American schooling does not follow either the German or Finnish models. Neither Federal nor State governments have made teacher-excellence a priority (which is one reason for teacher shortages). Moreover, America’s public schools rarely offer free pre-school programs. And America’s schools have even more rarely experimented with vocational options. Instead, there’s been an over-emphasis on standardized testing with an unfounded belief that all Americans benefit by receiving a college degree, even if doing so results in un-repayable student loans. Success in life, needless to say, is not measured by a college diploma. Success requires a marketable skill. Moreover, although education in America is not centrally-managed, Federal and State legislation requires that Federal, State and local authorities all participate in coordinating standards and responsibilities in order for State and local school districts to receive Federal funding …, bureaucracy by another name.
Americans decided in the early 20th Century to make education a national priority … and at great cost made free, compulsory education through high school the national standard. That was an unprecedented leap forward in policy and practice … 100 years ago. It’s past the time for America to face the harsh realities of its accelerating educational decline … and to do so before the damage to the next generation of American children becomes irreversible.
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Finally (from a good friend)