From a book I’ve started reading, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made Us Prosper, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, has an important tidbit on our deteriorating educational outcomes:
The United States is now a mediocre performer in international education rankings. And we would look a lot worse if we had not done so well in the past. The share of Americans that have completed high school, for instance, remains impressive. Yet this high average reflects our big early lead. Among young adults, high school education rates are subpar (although they have risen in the past decade). The United States now ranks twentieth out of twenty-seven OECD nations in the share of young people expected to finish high school.
This isn’t just a case of other countries racing ahead; it’s also a story of American stagnation. Graduation rates in the US have barely budged since the early 1970s….At the same time, more and more kids who are counted as having finished high school actually receive a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Yet GEDs confer little of the economic and social benefits of graduating from high school….
The big story, however, is our relative decline in higher education….Older Americans are among the most educated in the world. Younger Americans, not even close….
America’s youth fare particularly poorly when it comes to reading and technological skills…In all countries, the young are better at math and working with technology. Older Americans are close to international average for older adults. Younger Americans, while scoring slightly higher, are years behind their international peers….The same is true of the other skills measured by the OECD: The US falls further and further behind as you move down the age ladder.
Inequality is part of this story:
As one OECD researcher put it: “The vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally in every student or disproportionately more in disadvantaged students. The US is one of the few countries doing the opposite.
However, when I went to college (late 1970s) at Harvard, it was widely believed that kids who had attended public schools in Europ were much better educated than their peers in American public schools (in other words, that part of the purpose of college was to bring American students up to the level of education of European secondary schools).
And if Austin-based reader GlobalMisanthrope’s experience is representative, it’s much worse out there in the field that Hacker and Pierson realize. As he wrote yesterday:
I grew up in Houston in the ’60s and ’70s. It was not what anyone would call an intellectual hub.
Nevertheless, in 4th grade we learned about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride and in 5th grade we were required to read a book every two weeks and write and present a book report.
In junior high (middle school) band we were taught music theory. In junior high English we were introduced to poetry and prose as concepts and had to write both. We learned how a bill becomes a law. (Schoolhouse Rock!, baby.) We ran mock political campaigns for the ’72 Presidential election.
In high school my World History teacher dressed in ethnic and period costumes (!) that corresponded to what we were learning and held a mock UN summit. My Government teacher had us compare and contrast capitalism, socialism and communism; and she explained the Texas caucus system to us, saying that if we weren’t going to show up at our precinct conventions, then we might as well not vote in the primaries.
True that my high school American History teacher portrayed unions as being a good idea when they started but unnecessary and corrupt in the end and the ERA (it was 1976) as ridiculous, but he nevertheless covered both subjects in detail.
By contrast, my son, who is graduating from a competitive public high school in May—meaning he had to apply, have the grades, write an essay and audition to get in—can’t tell me how a bill becomes a law. I just asked him. He knows some of it, but only has a vague idea about the process over all and really no idea about the relationships between the different branches of government. He’s a music major and they have only one semester of theory.
His middle school Intro to Algebra teacher knew so little English and spoke with such a thick Thai accent that I could barely understand her. How were all those kids supposed to learn anything? I complained to the Principal and was told that the teacher had a Masters in math and that it wasn’t a “lecture class.”
He can name the presidents back to FDR, but he asked the other day what’s considered the Middle East. The other night he was working on his Astronomy homework when I got home. It was connecting stars to form constellations and coloring them. He’s a Senior. I voiced my shock at the elementary-school level of the work.
He said, “I know. They’re not even preparing us for college. Everybody I know is going to have to take prep classes at community college before they can even start college level work. High school is just a waste of time.” As Lambert would say, ka-ching.
Reader Richard Kline discussed historical examples of educational decline in 2012:
A better comparable might be The Dumbing of Hispania. In c. 1250, the Iberian Peninsula had a culturally diverse (if frequently warring) mosaic of ethnically distinct states, some of them with the best educational and literary cultures in Western Europe. By 1650, Hispania was an intellectually backward, econonmically pallid backwater, living off imperial rents and colonial slavery. That happened when rascist, ultra-conservative, aristocratically choked Castile conquered the rest, expelled or ‘converted’ those different (when not massacring them outright), eliminated any but the most rigidly orthodox education, neutered (and rapidly snuffed) such quasi-democratic institutions as had sprung up, and founded a military conquest state off whose extractions overseas the domestic state lived wildly beyond its means in a zombie-like fashion with utter disregard of the domestic economy. The same trajectory could be argued for several of the all-China imperial aggregations there, or the Persian Empire for instance.
That is what ‘decline’ really looks like in the historical record, folks: ultra-conservative, think-not empires run for the benefit of a tiny, parasitic elite. Historically, the process hasn’t been quick, taking numbers of generations. Whether those trajectories are accelerated int he modern age (since 1600 in most of the world) is debatable, if quite possible. It is a joke of the universe or some gods in it that ‘conservatives’ of the rejectionist sort are literally their own worst enemies in the long run—but they don’t care about the long run, only about staying rich and in power till they, personally, die in any given generation.
So a query to readers with children in or who have very recently graduated from public school: Hacker and Pierson suggest that American education has stagnated. GlobalMisanthrope’s personal data points say it has gotten a lot worse. What do you see?