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Should US Education Be Fundamentally Reformed?

Far too many students are not proficient in math and reading.

Key points

  • US students' math and reading proficiency scores are low and only getting worse
  • There is a crucial need for reform and expertise from countries that outperform the US should be sought.
  • More of the same is not working for eduction policy.

Recent results from the global education test known as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, revealed that math scores for U.S. students hit all-time low, part of an ongoing downward trend in both reading and math achievement. Although the decline did not change the relative standing of the US in math achievement for 15-year-old students on this test as compared to the rest of the world, there has nonetheless been erosion in the US not only in achievement scores but in all too many measures of achievement.

In a sense, this is not new news; I have written about the ongoing crisis in American education, as have many other scholars [1] and commentators. The point herein is not to once again point out that students are failing because US schools are failing them, their families, and communities. Rather, because this decline has long been in evidence it is time to promulgate criteria to trigger a foundational reform in American education.

Given the importance of education in terms of opportunities for individual students, a hard “floor” must be established that will once and for all make it clear that tinkering around the edges of the current system is not working—and in fact is likely making things worse.

As a thought problem, take a step back and ask fundamental questions about what levels the US should be striving for in terms of student proficiency in math and reading, and when the evidence base clearly indicates that individual students are not only not improving, but are not meeting minimal proficiency levels in key subjects such as math and reading.

One could argue, given that US expenditures per pupil are among the highest in the world, that from an individual student perspective, one would hope that at least 80% or more of students at any grade level achieved proficiency in math and reading. If 50% or more of students fail to reach these competencies, this should inarguably be considered catastrophic for many individual students and a clear indicator that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are teaching children.

As I write about these common-sense metrics, I must confess that I am truly shocked that even these minimal standards for educational achievement in terms of individual student performance have long since been eclipsed—and not in a positive way. There are reams of data available to support the assertion that US students are all too often fall below 50% proficient in math and reading—and this is not the product of “cherry picked” data.

In order to be scrupulously fair, it may be useful to examine pre-pandemic achievement levels, as it is by now well known that there were adverse consequences from closing schools and moving from in-person instruction. As a credible example, consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), "The Nation’s Report Card,” a federal program that provides comprehensive data on achievement and proficiency in the US student population of 4th- and 8th-graders. The NAEP reported in 2019 that only 40% of 4th-grade students were proficient in math, declining to a shocking 33% in 8th grade. In reading, 34% of 4th graders were proficient and 32% of 8th graders were reported as proficient in reading. In 2022, math proficiency declined further: Only 35% of 4th graders were proficient in math and—wow—only 26% of 8th graders. In the 2022 data, only 32% of 4th graders and 29% of 8th graders were proficient readers.

It should now be crystal clear that the American education system is failing students and that any common sense criteria for evaluating proficiency yields the same result and the same conclusions. However, despite these compelling data, education policy arguments too often focus on doing more of the same rather than stepping back and admitting that current methods are not working. This should be triggering a national conversation on comprehensive education reform and one could argue that it is vital that innovative solutions be sought and that evaluation and recommendations for reform not be based on the ideas current policymakers whose initiatives have failed so spectacularly.

Although it cuts against the notion of American exceptionalism, perhaps it would be instructive in invite education policy makers from those countries in western Europe (especially Scandinavian countries) and Asia whose students consistently outperform those in the US to provide advice on how to improve our outcomes.


[1] Sowell, T. (1992). Inside american education. Simon and Schuster.

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