Today, all fifty states are under fire from a well-organized effort to totally discredit public education. The efforts come in a variety of guises: No Child Left Behind followed by Race to the Top; Standardized testing with built in failure; ridiculous attacks on science education with a push for pseudo-science teaching, such as Intelligent Design; Revisionist History; elimination of Hispanic and other ethnic study courses; privatization designed to ruin education, such as we are seeing in Louisiana; sub-contracting evaluations and assessments to private companies who have a financial stake in rating failure, such as we are seeing in nearly every state; the inflated data on Charter and Private school success. Republicans and Democrats are equally at fault here. Neither party can govern in regards to education. That is clear!
I have been a professional educator for over 20 years as both a teacher and as an administrator. While I am an insider, make no mistake, I am no huge fan of the system of education we have in America. While we don’t fail as many students as pundits would have us believe, we fail too many because in most cases we operate in the same form we used in 1930, 1950, 1980 and 2000, with little more than the cosmetic changes that blow in with political movements. Sure we have on-line classes now. We have more “accountability” while we end up with less and less local control. But not much real change has occurred in the past century. The entire system needs a dramatic overhaul. But if we continue to make changes based on misleading data and false storylines we will exacerbate problems rather than fix them. There is money—huge profits—in convincing the American people that schools are doing worse than they are but there is even bigger money in not really fixing the problems.
Below, I try to shed some light on many of the popular and widespread criticisms of public education. I have written a long diary. But there is a lot to say and a lot of misinformation out there that needs correcting.
Anyone paying any attention at all will have come across the following statements at one time or another—and most likely has heard these things repeated so often that it would be hard not to believe them.
- High school graduation rates nationwide are alarmingly low, particularly for ethnic groups.
- American students are not prepared for college and need remediation in math science to be eligible for college level courses.
- Because we aren’t doing well enough in math and science we aren’t graduating enough engineers from college to meet the current needs of American business.
- American high school students do so poorly in math and science compared to the rest of the world that they are not prepared to compete internationally.
- Overall, American public education is in decline.
What about graduation rates? The Official U.S. Dept. of Education Blog Site made this post on January 23, 2013:
A new report from the Department of Education shows that high school graduation rates are at their highest level since 1974. According to the report, during the 2009-10 school year, 78.2 percent of high school students nationwide graduated on time, which is a substantial increase from the 73.4 percent recorded in 2005-6. The report shows that graduation rates were up for all ethnic groups in 2010, and that the rate for Hispanic students has jumped almost 10 points since 2006. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsb0407/
So yes, the graduation rate is alarmingly low. It always has been. That is a tragedy. However, it isn’t new. What is new is that the public education system is working to correct the problem with more success now than in the past 40 years. Graduation rates are up not down! And this is despite the dynamics of an economic crisis and two wars. If we were scoring this one I would have to give it to the schools.
But just because we are doing better doesn’t mean our work is exemplary. One out of every four students who enters American high schools still does not graduate. The rate is getting better yes, but not at a fast enough pace. The problem here is that the popular and well-funded solutions being proposed will not do any better, and may likely make things worse. But schools are not doing enough, largely because they are buying into and are being force-fed a steady diet of medicine that only makes the patient worse.
What about the charge that entering freshmen are simply not as prepared as their predecessors for the rigors of college coursework? In a report published by ASCD it seems pretty clear.
Another measure of lack of college preparation is the proportion of students who find themselves in remedial college courses, often because they fail a readiness exam after they have been accepted. According to 2004 Department of Education data, 43 percent of all students attending public two-year institutions and 29 percent of those attending public four-year colleges said they had been required to enroll in a remedial course. And these data, the report points out, do not include the approximately 1.2 million students who dropped out of college that year. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Unprepared-for-College.aspx
However, once again the full truth is not as clear. Yes, there are more freshmen entering college who are not fully prepared. But there are apparently more freshmen entering college who are prepared, too. And the reason is so simple one wonders why we are even discussing this. More freshmen are actually entering college. A lot more! And that growth has been pretty consistent for quite a while.
During the period of 1975 through 2010, the immediate college enrollment rate [for high school graduages] ranged from a low of 49 percent to a high of 70 percent. Specifically, this rate increased from 1975 to 1997 (51 to 67 percent), declined from 1997 to 2001 (to 62 percent), then increased from 2001 to 2009 (to 70 percent). There was no measurable difference between the rate for 2009 and that for 2010 (68 percent). http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_209.asp
But what about ethnic groups?
During the longer period of 1975 to 2010, immediate college enrollment rates increased for White (51 vs. 70 percent) and Black high school completers (43 vs. 66 percent). After accounting for possible sampling error, there was no measurable difference in Hispanic rates over this period of time (approximately 60 percent in both years). In each year between 2003 and 2010, the immediate college enrollment rate of Asian high school completers was higher than the rates of White, Black, and Hispanic high school completers. The immediate college enrollment rate of White high school completers was also higher than the rate for Hispanic students in every year during this period and for Black students in every year from 2003 to 2009. In 2010, there was no measurable difference between the rates for Whites and for Blacks. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_209.asp
To summarize: More students are entering college unprepared. More students are entering college prepared. More ethnic students are entering college unprepared. More students are entering college prepared.
To summarize further: High schools are doing a pretty good job of getting their students into college. Better than ever, in fact. Colleges are doing a pretty good job of accepting students they would not have accepted and taken money from in the past. And by the way, taking money for remedial classes is really big business on campuses. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/college-inc/post/study-two-fifths-of-high-school-graduates-are-unprepared/2011/12/12/gIQArZKnpO_blog.html
What about high schools and colleges not producing enough scientists and engineers? Doesn’t this one sound believable? For those of us who are old enough to remember, this is reminiscent of the “missile gap” of the 50’s. Without enough scientists and engineers the United State will fall behind all of the other nations that are trying to beat us at…anything. Much of this fear comes from a 2004 warning from the National Science Foundation that there is “an emerging and critical problem of the science and engineering labor force.” (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsb0407/) Since that report was made public it has been echoed by publication after publication and has been mentioned in speech after speech. And America is worried. In fact we have specific measures designed to increase these positions.
But is it true? This response comes from Sharon Begley at the Daily Beast:
Let’s not exaggerate: science and engineering are not the new Comp Lit or philosophy, those undergraduate majors for which employment prospects are so dicey your parents practically beg you to go to a trade school instead. But about those claims that the nation suffers from a shortage of scientists and engineers—claims such as the National Science Foundation’s warning in 2004 of “an emerging and critical problem of the science and engineering labor force”—Vivek Wadhwa, founder of Relativity Technologies and executive in residence at Duke University, has a terse response: “It’s a lie.”
“Science and engineering are perceived as so crucial to our economic engine and national security, it’s easy to get people panicked over the possibility of a shortage,” says demographer Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. But those who do not have a financial stake in getting more students to choose S&E (the more job hunters, the less you have to pay them) are catching on. Science magazine recently noted “the striking discrepancy between the glutted market for early-career scientists and the numerous prestigious reports [about] … a looming shortage.”
A 2008 report by the RAND Corporation, requested by the office of the Secretary of Defense, concluded that “there is no evidence of a current shortage of S&E workers.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/08/17/or-maybe-major-in-comp-lit.html
And this from In the Pipeline, reprinted on the Discover web site:
1. Companies, in most cases, are not moving R&D operations overseas because they just can’t find anyone here to do the jobs. They’re doing that for the same reason so many other employers have sent jobs abroad: because it’s cheaper that way (or appears to be; the jury’s probably still out in many instances)—people in many other countries simply do their jobs for less money. And it’s often the ordinary grunt work that’s being outsourced, which makes the “we even need mediocre scientists” line especially wrong-headed.
2. We are not, as far as I can see, facing the constant and well-known “critical shortage of scientists and engineers.” There have been headlines with that phrase in them for decades, and I wish people would think about that before writing another one. Some fields may have shortages (and these vary over time), but that’s a different story entirely.
3. And that brings up another point, as mentioned above: while the earlier stages of science and math education are a common pathway, things then branch out, and how. Saying that there are so-many-thousand “science PhDs” is a pretty useless statistic, because by that point, they’re scattered into all sorts of fields. A semiconductor firm will not be hiring me, for example. http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2012/06/06/how_not_to_do_science_education.php
Summary: No there is no shortage of scientists and engineers of the kind the fear mongers and school critics claim. Sources as diverse as the Rand Corp., Discover Magazine, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, various scientists and college professors are telling us that this is simply false.
What about American high school students do so poorly in math and science compared to the rest of the world that they are not prepared to compete internationally? It seems that every news source in America makes this claim. Is it true that American students do worse than their counterparts in other nations? Yes. Or no. It depends on who the “counterparts in other nations” are. Certainly the results of recent international tests among 4th and 8th graders show that students in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Finland outperform the US. In the Asian nations we must remember that there is a strong culture of testing and rote memorization at the expense of creative and critical thinking. Finland has virtually no poverty and, while it de-emphasizes a testing culture, it has a strong culture of respect for schools and teachers.
So when we compare ourselves to our “counterparts” in other nations what is the most important factor? It becomes clear that poverty levels are the most meaningful variable. National Association of Secondary School Principals Executive Director, Dr. Gerald N. Tirozz summarizes the data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), one of the main organizations that does international testing:
A more accurate assessment of the performance of U.S. students would be obtained by comparing the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.
Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.
In the next category (10-24.9%) the U.S. average of 527 placed first out of the ten comparable nations.
For the remaining U.S. schools, their poverty rates over 25% far exceed any other country tested. However, when the U.S. average of 502 for poverty rates between 25-49.9% is compared with other countries it is still in the upper half of the scores. http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2012/06/06/how_not_to_do_science_education.php
Summary: When we compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges we do very well indeed! The problem is not more testing. It is poverty relief.
So, is American public education in decline? No it isn’t. We are educating more students in better ways and sending more students to post-secondary levels of education than ever before. But that is not a satisfactory answer because we can do much, much better. We won’t get better by implementing ill-conceived plans that are built on false data. When we politicize and incentivize profits in the realm of education we lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish and we lose even more our grasp on how to make meaningful and effective changes.