Dumbing Down K-12 Education
The inability of U.S. students to perform on par with the majority of other developed nations should cause alarm, given its implications for America’s global leadership. Instead, while other countries take their K-12 education seriously, American leaders are satisfied with pumping more money into an outdated system that continues to fail students and produced mediocre results.
Here’s the sad truth. Twenty-five countries outperform U.S. K-12 students. Those leading the way are China, Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Canada. China’s students not only place first overall, but they dominate each individual subject as well. U.S. students straggle in at 33rd in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading.
Of course, you wouldn’t learn this listening to the rhetoric coming out our political and educational leaders. Instead, they tout data that ranks U.S. students against other American students, states boast about their performance relative to other states, and school districts flaunt 2 percent gains in graduation rates.
The reality is even worse than the weak performance on average. The majority of U.S. public school students do not achieve grade-level proficiency. The Nation’s Report Card reveals that only 28.7 percent of 4th-graders, 26.4 percent of 8th-graders, and a mere 22.8 percent of 12th-graders reach basic proficiency levels averaged across seven subjects (civics, geography, mathematics, reading, science, U.S. history, and writing) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. In other words, over 71 percent of our students lack basic academic proficiencies at the end of their 13-year K-12 schooling.
At a time in history when more learning and skill development are needed, the opposite has occurred. As witnessed throughout the 2020-2021 school year, teacher unions led the charge in our government-funded and run K-12 public education system to make things worse. Putting partisan politics and self-promotion ahead of student learning, they refused to allow teachers to return to their classrooms until outlandish demands are met -- including moratoriums on charter schools, defunding the police, and Medicare for all.
Furthermore, the school week was reduced from five days to four days a week, with instruction only provided a few hours a day remotely. When in-person school finally resumed after an entire calendar year, the low norm accepted by multiple governors was a mere 30 percent of pre-pandemic instruction hours -- e.g., two-and-a-half-hour school days, four days a week.
As if to pour salt into the wound, when in-person public schooling was reinstated in many urban areas and beyond, instead of focusing on academic instruction, school boards, administrators, and teachers advanced curriculum agendas centering on a host of other topics. These include gender redefinition and self-selection, a twisted anti-American historical narrative, Critical Race Theory, and other woke academics under the increasingly familiar guise of innocent-sounding terms -- diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice.
Redefining equity as equal outcome rather than equal opportunity, challenging students academically with high standards is now viewed as discrimination. Consequently, advanced courses are being removed because students of some races and ethnicities aren’t represented proportionately.
Lowering of standards and expectations also comes in the form of changing admissions processes. For example, New York City is manipulating the qualification standards for academic programs ranging from gifted and talented programs for kindergarten students to specialized high schools. Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, the number one ranked high school in America, known for its rigorous STEM curriculum, is similarly manipulating admissions standards to racially balance the student body at the expense of admitting academically qualified students. The racial rebalancing comes despite the student body comprising of 79 percent non-white students. Seventy-three percent of students are categorized as “Asian” yet represent more than 30 countries. This high degree of diversity is disregarded because school leaders want to control the racial representation -- of course, in the noble name of diversity.
Disregarded in the drive for uniform results is the fact that each student has a unique background, interest, giftings, motivation, and academic work ethic (at school and home). Defying common sense, children with widely different degrees of learning readiness are placed in the same classroom, with the same instruction, for the same amount of time, and the same learning results are expected. Any variations in educational outcomes are chalked up to the education system being systemically racist -- an easy scapegoat to avoid doing the hard work at home and in school to address educational deficiencies.
Some schools take it a step further and dumb the system down by doing away with standards altogether. The state of Oregon, for example, has thrown out the requirement for students to pass a basic math, reading, and writing test to graduate high school (ostensibly for the next two school years. It remains to be seen if the change isn’t made permanent). The standard for graduation was deemed inequitable because the graduation rates of African American and Native American students were lower than that of their white peers. While Oregon lags behind the national average high school graduation rate, a spokesperson for Governor Kate Brown stated that “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color” would benefit from the removal of the graduation requirement. Alas, “graduating” teens who can’t read, write, or do basic math is anything but beneficial -- to themselves or society as a whole.
Brown and others who champion the lowering of expectations in the name of equity are promoting what President George W. Bush rightfully coined the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” If we continue to dumb down the education of our future generations, the U.S. will not only continue to lose ground on the world stage but will reap the economic and societal consequences at home.
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow at Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.
Image: National Archives
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