Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Strengths and Weaknesses of American Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Strengths and Weaknesses of American Education

Article excerpt

Taking the time to examine the strengths of the U. S. education system helps to put our problems in perspective, Mr. Kirst suggests. There is no evidence that abandoning our public schools will improve the situation.

The public education system in the U.S. has served this nation well. Today and in the future, it must meet unprecedented challenges. However, arguments about whether the performance of our students has declined over time miss the point. The 1990 Oldsmobile was better than any Olds made before. But was it good enough to meet worldwide competition in 1990? A similar question faces U. S. education: Are we good enough to stand up to worldwide competition?

The time is right to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. public education system. We need to build on its strengths and shore up its weaknesses. We know more than ever about how to do this, but serious questions remain about the resources we are willing to devote to the task and about our political will to get the job done.


Inclusiveness. The U.S. K-12 education system as we know it today was created in the mid-20th century to serve all pupils for 12 years and not weed them out at an earlier age. Until very recently, this policy provided high retention rates compared to those of other nations. Since 1970, however, other industrialized nations (e.g., Great Britain, Australia, and Japan) have increased their retention rates dramatically. The inclusiveness of our system through high school is no longer the competitive edge it once was, although 88% of our young people have earned high school diplomas or the equivalent by age 25.

Nevertheless, we should strengthen our efforts at dropout prevention and expand the second-chance opportunities we offer to dropouts who wish to resume their schooling. The GED (General Education Development) program, broad access to community colleges, and high school adult education programs are parts of the U.S. system that are frequently overlooked. Moreover, their curricular standards are a concern and need to be reviewed, but the role they play in the U.S. education system should not be underestimated.

Postsecondary education. The most commonly cited indicators of the health of education in the U.S. - international assessments, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), scores on college entrance exams, scores on standardized achievement tests, and the results of state assessment programs - all ignore the value added by the postsecondary education system. However, in the international arena, the U.S. system of postsecondary education - including community colleges, trade schools, and universities - is one of our chief strengths.

For example, in 1988 the U.S. spent a higher percentage of its gross national product on public and private higher education than any other country in the world. Moreover, U.S. spending on higher education as a percentage of all education spending was 39.4%, compared to 20.8% for West Germany and 21.4% for Japan.(1) The principal reason for the high level of U.S. spending on higher education is that the proportion of the population participating in higher education is greater here than in any other large nation.(2) But the U.S. per-student expenditure on public and private higher education is also high. For example, in 1988 the U.S. spent about $9,844 per pupil for higher education while Japan spent $6,105 and France, $4,362.(3)

We should also be pleased with the total years or days of schooling that young people in the U.S. accumulate through age 25. Much is made in the press about our 180-day school year, compared to a school year of 240 days in Japan. But it is rarely mentioned that in the U.S. the highest percentage of 24-year-olds in the world graduate from a four-year college or university. Our particular advantage is in the percentage of females who graduate from colleges and universities. …

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