Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Perspectives on Education in America

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Perspectives on Education in America

Article excerpt

WHEN THE governors and President George Bush set forth national education goals in the wake of the September 1989 education summit in Charlottes-ville, Virginia, we at Sandia National Laboratories took note. We also listened to a challenge from the then-secretary of energy, Adm. James Watkins, who charged the national laboratories to become more involved in education. Because Sandia conducts scientific research for the U. S. government, we have a keen interest in the education system that develops future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Therefore, we initiated several new programs. Much of our past effort was directed toward education at the postsecondary level, but a significant portion of the new emphasis is directed toward elementary and secondary education.

In support of these new efforts, we in the New Initiatives Department of Sandia's Strategic Studies Center were asked to conduct a wide-ranging analysis of local, state, and national education systems to determine where Sandia could make its most effective contribution. The study that Charles Carson, Thomas Woodall, and I conducted produced some interesting results. It greatly changed our initial perceptions in several areas and reinforced our perceptions in others. Overall, it sought to provide an objective, outsider's' look at the status of education in the U. S.

Whenever feasible, we looked at the data over time to put the performance of the current system in proper perspective. To our surprise, on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends. Does this mean that we are adamant defenders of the status quo, as has been suggested? The answer is no - for three reasons. First, it is not clear to us that all the measures analyzed by us and others are appropriate barometers of performance for the education system. Thus the trend data on some of these measures, positive or negative, may be irrelevant. Second, even if a particular measure is appropriate, steady or slightly improving performance may not be adequate to meet future societal requirements in an increasingly competitive world. Finally, on some appropriate measures, the performance of the U.S. education system is clearly deficient.

As our work unfolded in the spring of 1991, we subjected a draft to peer review with the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and other researchers (most notably Gerald Bracey). Within weeks we found ourselves swept up in the national debate on the status of education. The draft report has been the subject of congressional testimony, editorials in the media, an audit by the General Accounting Office, and additional peer reviews. To date we have received nearly 1,000 requests for the final report and have been cited by authors in several publications, including the Kappan. The attention we have received seems to validate one of our five key findings - the need to upgrade the quality of data regarding education. The following is a brief summary of our major findings. The full report will be published in the May/June issue of the Journal of Educational Research.


America's on-time high school graduation rate has remained steady for more than 20 years, hovering somewhere between 75% and 80%. However, some students require more than four years to complete high school, and many dropouts avail themselves of opportunities to reenter the system (night school, the General Education Development testing program, and so on), resulting in an overall high school completion rate for young adults of better than 85%. This rate, which is still improving, is among the best in the world.

However, gross national data can mask underlying problems. For example, the most significant dropout problems are evident among minority youths and students in urban schools. Nearly 80% of white students complete high school on time, and roughly 88% do so by age 25. Only 70% of black students and 50% of Hispanic students graduate on time. …

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