What's Wrong with Our Schools? Our Education System Is the Best in the World ... or Not ... Depending on Where You Sit in the Classroom. This Is the First in a Six-Month Examination of American Education and the Policy Efforts to Improve It

By Colvin, Richard Lee | State Legislatures, September 2003 | Go to article overview

What's Wrong with Our Schools? Our Education System Is the Best in the World ... or Not ... Depending on Where You Sit in the Classroom. This Is the First in a Six-Month Examination of American Education and the Policy Efforts to Improve It


Colvin, Richard Lee, State Legislatures


It was 20 years ago last spring that the American people were told, in eve-of-destruction fashion, that the nation's schools were so lax and unfocused that they posed an imminent risk to the nation's economic security. In a now-famous phrase, the Reagan administration report known as "A Nation at Risk" said that had a foreign power done to our schools what we ourselves had allowed to happen it would have been considered an "act of war."

That rhetoric seems overblown given our recent experience with terrorism and actual combat. Also, after the domestic economic expansion of the

1990s and the emergence of financial troubles in two of our most formidable educational rivals, Japan and Germany, the causal link between underperforming schools and an underperforming economy no longer seems plausible.

Back then, however, the unlikely report resonated as a stern, even shrill, warning that the nation's students were failing to buckle down and make something of themselves. What resulted was what is doubtless the longest, sustained period of education "reform" in the nation's history.

And though all this activity has produced little measurable overall progress, politicians remain undaunted. So they continue to search for just the right mix of incentives and directives that will "fix" what ails public schools, as if all that's needed is the tightening of a screw here and the mining of a wrench there.

Many educators, on the other hand, were dubious back then of the report's assumptions and conclusions and remain so today. They consider the report and others of its ilk to be overstated and unfair attacks designed to undermine the public's confidence in its schools.

THE NEGATIVE VIEW

Both sides in this debate over the quality of public education cite evidence selectively. Those who take the negative view say that the high school completion rate, which for nearly 40 years after World War II was growing, is now in decline. Only 81.3 percent of Americans between the age of 15 and 19 are enrolled in school, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. That percentage ranks the United States 15th, behind countries that include Greece, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

More students are continuing with their educations after high school, but that's because there are more students overall. The percentage of Americans age 20 to 24 enrolled in college or technical classes has been falling steadily. The United States is 15th by that measure also.

One reason may be that many students who do go on are not prepared, and so they spend part of their college years repeating high school classes. Today 40 percent of college students are forced to fill in the blanks left by a weak and undemanding high school education. That takes a toll and forecloses future possibilities. Two-thirds of the students who have to take remedial classes in reading drop out before earning a college diploma.

The only test that tracks student performance nationally, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also presents a gloomy picture, at least in reading. Despite some progress, 9-year-olds' overall reading performance is little changed over the past two decades. Data from the latest round of testing, released in June, show about 36 percent of fourth graders and 25 percent of eighth graders read at a level the test givers consider to be "below basic," meaning that they have trouble understanding their assignments.

The news is better in math. In 1990, 50 percent of American fourth graders had a "below basic" mastery of math. Ten years later, only 31 percent of them were that far behind. Eighth graders also made large gains.

Still, international comparisons point to educational mediocrity, in both math and science, American students fall further behind compared with their peers the longer they're in school, according to the most recent assessments. …

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