Monday, November 01, 2010

The American Decline: Education

By Sean M. Kennedy

The following is Part 1 in a three-part series documenting 'The American Decline'. You can read Part II here and Part III here.

If you're not aware of how bad the high school dropout problem is, there is good reason. For many years, states, school districts and administrators tried to hide the depth of the dropout problem, which might be better classified as a crisis.

According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, nationally about 1 in 3 high school students quits school. Among black and Hispanic students, the rate is closer to 50%.

Yes, it's that bad.

School officials in most states obscured the problem for decades with lax accounting. Some states wouldn't even submit graduation data. In fact, many couldn't even agree on what exactly constituted a dropout. If a kid merely promised to get his or her GED, they weren't counted as dropouts.

But the majority of analysts and lawmakers now admit that the dropout rate has remained steady at approximately 30%, despite two decades of intense educational reform.

In 2001, Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, published a study which found that the national graduation rate is anywhere from 64% to 71%. Most researchers say this rate has remained fairly steady since the 1970s, despite increased attention and a vigorous educational-reform movement.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, kids from the lowest income quarter are more than six times as likely to drop out of high school as kids from the highest.

In essence, the dropout problem is creating a permanent underclass.

Some blame the dropout problem on a lack of funding. However, according to the Manhattan Institute, spending per pupil has doubled since the '70s, and the problem still hasn't improved.

Incredibly, nearly half the states allow kids to drop out at the age of 16 without parental consent. That makes it pretty easy for a troubled, unmotivated, or bored kid to just walk away.

Interestingly, the Gates Foundation funded a report which found that 88% of dropouts said they had passing grades in high school. Asked to name the reasons they had left school, more respondents named boredom than struggles with course work.

Whatever the reasons are, the dropout problem is an issue for more than just the dropouts themselves; it creates huge social problems and leaves America less competitive in a global economy.

Kids who drop out of school are typically relegated to a lifetime of unskilled, low-paying jobs. As a result, they are more likely to be poor. And a 2002 Northeastern University study found that nearly half of all dropouts ages 16 to 24 were unemployed.

Dropouts are also more likely to be incarcerated; an estimated 67% of prison inmates nationwide are high school dropouts.

And dropouts are more likely to raise future dropouts, creating a generational problem of failure and often hopelessness.

The US is the only industrialized nation in the world where children are now less likely to receive a high school diploma than their parents were, according to a 2008 report by the Education Trust.

At the same time, two-thirds of new jobs in the U.S. require at minimum a college degree.

This education gap affects the US economy in that many companies feel compelled to move overseas, or simply outsource additional jobs to foreign nations.

The problem isn't just that dropouts are more likely to be unemployed; they are often unemployable, typically lacking even the most basic skills.

No matter how you slice it, US students are falling behind globally, and that does not bode well for our nation's future prospects.

Money alone will not solve the crisis. In fact, the US ranked 5th in cumulative K-12 education spending per student in 2006. Only Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland outspend the US.

From 1971 to 2006, there was a 123% increase in per-pupil spending in the US. Yet, there was a 0% change in the academic performance of 17-year-olds in a national test for reading.

It seems fair to say that a lack of money isn't the issue.

Despite all that spending, the US still trails most other rich nations in science and math scores.

Consider the following:

• US students ranked 21st in science literacy out of 30 developed countries in 2006

• US students ranked 25th in math literacy out of 30 developed countries in 2006

• In 2009, 69% of eighth-graders scored below proficient in reading

• In 2009, 68% of eighth-graders scored below proficient in math

Some point to larger class sizes as part of the problem. However, we currently have the smallest elementary class sizes in 45 years. In 2007, the US student-to-teacher ratio was 16:1, compared with 22:1 in 1970.

And yet our kids — even the more affluent, suburban ones — perform worse than kids in comparable nations.

The failures in education and graduation affect the nation as a whole. It ultimately leads to higher unemployment, higher incarceration levels, higher poverty rates, and less global competitiveness.

Far too many young Americans are unprepared for the modern American workforce, in which the best jobs — sometimes the only jobs — are high skill jobs.

Taken as a whole, all of this is just further evidence of the American decline.


  1. Anonymous3:50 PM

    So what are the causes? I firmly believe that many of the root causes are cultural. Our popular culture as American's is pure garbage. It's "cool" to be an idiot. Hip hop music culture promotes violence, misogyny and holds that being a ruthless thug is admirable. Paris, Lyndsey and all the other vapid characters, male and female, of Hollywood promote stupidity, entitlement and promiscuity to young women and men. Pro wrestling, violent video games, reality TV shows. It is stunning what a vast disservice the entertainment industry as a whole has done in promoting and expanding an American culture that champions the worst human traits and values. I believe this is a fundamental factor in the decline you describe in a day and age when parents are spread thin working multiple jobs to make ends meet and kids are increasingly guided by what they see and hear on television and the internet.

    -Jim Duggan

  2. The lack of education is a generational problem. Parents are supposed to teach their children to value education. But, sadly, that doesn't happen in far too many families.

    Too many parents are totally disconnected from their children's education. They don't attend parent-teacher conferences, and they don't assist their children with homework or test preparation. Heck, many don't even encourage their children to do better, or to be the best they can be. Ask any teacher in any big city school system.

    For example, the graduation rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District's are alarming. Just 39% of Latinos and 47% of African Americans graduated in 2002. That's pathetic and has consequences for the entire city, not just poor blacks and Latinos.

    Any reasonable person would agree that all public schools should be adequately funded and receive all of the basic necessities such as books, paper, chalk etc. Classrooms should not be in disrepair, but should be well-maintained, well-lit, and properly cooled or heated, according to the time of year and environment.

    But beyond that, more money won't get parents to care or get them involved. And if parents don't care, who can reasonably expect their kids to? Most kids simply don't like school. It's always been that way. But kids need to given a sense of consequences and understand the implications of not graduating.

    To not seek a higher education, or vocational training, after high school is an act of self-destruction that will only continue the cycle of poverty as well as the resentment of those who have. Their parents, grandparents and neighbors are often the finest examples, yet it doesn't seem to matter.

  3. Anonymous8:40 PM

    Hearing that we at so low compared to other countries leads me to wonder what the top five are doing differently? Maybe we need to investigate what works for them and adapt it here.