The Continuing Disgrace of U.S. Education

If Americans dared to hope that their K-12 educational system might be improving, several new articles will bring the poor souls back to reality.

The first is a piece by Paul Peterson of the Harvard Program on Educational Policy and Governance.  Peterson notes that on the most recent national test results, only a risible 32% of American 8th-graders scored "proficient" in math.  By coincidence, on the international PISA tests, taken by students from 65 countries and administered by the OECD, our students' scores are at 32nd place.

How do the other developed nations stack up?  In six countries (Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, and Switzerland), at least 50% of the 8th-graders score proficient in math.  Many other nations which don't score that high still outscore us, including Germany (45%), Australia (44%), and France (39%).

Most worrisome is the fact that 75% of Shanghai students scored proficient in math.  As we compete with China for high-tech industry, the ability of its educational system to teach Chinese kids math will give the country an ever-increasing competitive edge, unless ours closes the gap.

Within our country, there are wide discrepancies in math proficiency.  Massachusetts has the high average of 51%, with only five other states scoring above 40%.  (These are Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Vermont).

Depressingly, some of the richest states score lowest in math proficiency, with New York at 30%, Michigan at 29%, Florida at 27%, and my home state of California at a pathetic 24%.

The U.S. does a trifle better at reading.  It takes 17th place among the 65 nations tested, with 31% of our students testing proficient.  But that is nothing to cheer about, since other major trading competitors outscore us by a large margin.  These include Korea (47%), Finland (46%), New Zealand and Singapore (42%), Canada and Japan (41%), Australia (38%), and Belgium (37%).  Shanghai again leads the world, with 55% of their 8th-graders proficient in reading.

Again, as with math, there is tremendous variation among the various states.  Massachusetts leads with 43%, followed by Vermont at 42%, New Jersey at 39%, and then South Dakota (37%).

I have not yet mentioned the delicate subject of race, but I will now.  On the crucial measure  --  math  --  50% of Asian-Americans and 42% of European-Americans scored proficient.  But only 16% of Native-American, 15% of Hispanic-American, and an embarrassing 11% of African-American students scored proficient in math.

In reading, 41% of Asian-American, 40% of European-American, 18% of Native-American, 13% of African-American, and a sad 5% of Hispanic-American students scored proficient.

Now, it is always humorous to me that when I discuss the miserable state of the U.S. public education system with my fellow teachers  --  either K-12 or college level, their response is always the same.  These oh-so-progressive-liberals (for that is almost always what they are) very rapidly reveal a racist streak.  They always say that the inner-city public schools are the ones failing, and they are filled with "minority" kids (a genteel term by which they mean African-American and Hispanic-American kids).  So, they ask with a knowing wink, what do you expect?

The answer is that I expect better of the system we support so lavishly -- we spend more per capita on education than any other nation on Earth but one -- and a system that we support precisely so that the poorest among us will have a chance to succeed.  I don't believe for one minute that the problem is the IQ level of the minority kids -- it is the failing system.  Asian-American kids score worse than kids in many Asian nations, and European-American kids score worse than kids in many European nations, so it the system, not the brain tissue, that is the real issue.

Peterson ends by noting something that economist Eric Hanushek has been urging for years: namely, that the lousy performance of our public educational system is costing us dearly.  If America achieved the math proficiency of Korea, its GDP growth rate would increase by about 1.3%.  Even if it got to just the level of Canada, it would gain about 0.9% increased growth.  Since America grows (on long-term average) about 2% to 3% per year (and a lot slower lately), these gains would be very considerable, indeed.

The second story is that the federal Department of Education has issued a report suggesting that parents are being misled by the results of their kids on their kids' state standardized school exams.  This is because the states are all free to set their own standards for what counts as "proficient," and almost all states set their standards below -- some far below -- what the federal government recommends.

As the DOE spokesperson Joanne Weiss put it, "[l]ow expectations are the norm. Setting 50 different bars in 50 different states is tremendously problematic. That's actually lying to parents."  That's actually true, but actually ironic, coming from an administration that actually lies freely and constantly.

The report found that from 2005 to 2009, many states lowered proficiency standards, although that trend was more pronounced between 2005 and 2007 than between 2007 and 2009.

Part of the problem here is that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed in the early part of the Bush administration.  NCLB scores a state's schools as "failing" if those schools don't meet that same state's own proficiency standards.  (NCLB originally would have mandated that vouchers be made available to students at those failing schools, but Ted Kennedy had that provision stripped from it at the behest of the teachers unions).  So if any state does the honorable thing and raises its standards for student proficiency, its reward is to see more of its schools labeled as "failing."

Such was the case with Tennessee, which raised its standards dramatically, and saw the number of its students labeled "proficient" in math drop from 91% to 34%.

NCLB called for 100% of students to be proficient by 2014, but given that 80% of schools nationwide are going to be rated as "failing" this year, it doesn't look like that goal is remotely achievable.

The third article reports the results of the 2011 ACT tests.  Now, let's preface the story by noting that the ACT is taken by graduating high school seniors who intend to go to college.  It is not taken by dropouts, or even by graduating seniors not planning to go to college.  No, it is taken only by the academically best students.

The results are once again disappointing.  Only 25% of the exam-takers scored college-ready at all four parts of the ACT, so 75% of them will be doing some kind of remedial work in college.

We should note that 80% of students taking remedial course in college had a GPA of at least 3.0 in high school.

The article notes a couple of obvious problems with the fact that so many college students must take remediation.  First, students forced to take classes covering what they took in high school will more likely be bored and therefore be more likely to drop out of college.

Second, our society wastes scarce resources having students learning in college what they should have learned high school.  These costs are not trivial: the Alliance for Excellent Education puts them at $5.6 billion for the 2007-8 academic year alone.

These continuing miserable results of our mainly governmentally monopolistic educational system continue to argue for that system's privatization.

Gary Jason is an academic philosopher and a contributing editor to Liberty.  He is the author of the forthcoming book Dangerous Thoughts.

If you experience technical problems, please write to