A Problem America Won't Solve in Our Lifetime: Education

We're getting dumber.

Posted Feb 19, 2009

Okay, that title's too pessimistic - let's instead call this, "A Call to Action for America." However, the reason I know these issues can't be solved is because they re-appear front and center every election campaign, only to worsen in time for the next one.

Education: Have you heard anybody say lately, "Our only hope for the future is improving our education system?" Or did you hear that four years ago, or eight years ago (remember the bipartisan - or was it bipolar - "No child left behind") or was that during the Carter or Kennedy-Johnson presidencies (remember Sputnik and the rush to improve education under JFK)?

There are two components to this problem - successfully integrating minorities, principally African and Latino Americans, into the educational mainstream so that a solid majority succeed in the school system and thus prosper throughout their lives, and increasing the technical, scientific, and basic literacy of Americans at large, without which we fall behind the nations with which we are increasingly competing for world leadership.

How do you feel we're doing in the area of educating deprived minorities? Although we point with pride (as we should) to the accomplishments of people like President Obama and his attorney general (Eric Holder), and others, non-Asian minority performance in American schools remains distinctly - many would say disastrously - poor. And this is correlated with all sorts of life problems down the road. The facts that neither Obama's nor Holder's father was born in America, and that both attended elite schools, suggests their success might better stand for our failures in this area rather than our triumphs. In fact, the division between the haves and have-nots is increasing, primarily due to education.

And how do you think American children are doing in learning technical topics? The United States ranks 19th in student scientific literacy and #24 in mathematical ability. Oh, by the way, do you know that several primary candidates for the American presidency last election - and several American governors - don't believe in evolution? In fact, a February 2009 Gallup national survey found that 39% of Americans accept evolution - as a reslt of which, many school systems around the country are retreating from teaching the subject! While we're at it, American kids rank #12 in reading ability (do you think they're going to improve in this area or worsen in coming years?). Lastly, if you feel kids in the U.S. have that legendary American know-how - they rank #26 in the world in problem-solving ability.

And, in fact, our rankings in these areas have been falling relative to other countries. This has produced much hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing: "The U.S. caters to students' needs and wants," said Matias Sueldo, a sophomore majoring in international relations who spent part of his education in Argentina. "Kids here learn to pass a test, but they don't learn the concepts. In Argentina, you either know it or you don't." Emily Gamelson, a junior majoring in history, thinks that the low student achievement in U.S. schools has a lot to do with the lack of competition. "Ambition and the motivation to achieve aren't really inspired in our education system."

And, in fact, most American kids asked what's wrong with the educational system answer that it is too demanding, requires too much objective knowledge and has too much testing, asks kids to do too much reading and writing, etc. With growing frequency, students at all levels, despite their objectively poor scores, are filing complaints against their instructors for the grades they received -- even, often, when these are "B"s or even "A-"s. Although American kids expect good grades, which they are generally given, they are mainly worried about communicating with one another, followed by . . . . you fill in the blank.

So, let me repeat my question - do you think American education and student performance will be improving in the coming years?

Note (April 28, 2009):

The greatest concern among American educators ifor many decades has been to remedy persistent group differences in academic performance.  On this date, the New York Times published the following:

Persistent Racial Gap Seen in Students' Test Scores

By Sam Dillon

The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics, according to results of a federal test considered to be the nation's best measure of long-term trends in math and reading proficiency.

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President Bush's frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.

Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law, the official description of which is "An Act to Close the Achievement Gap."

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