Is American Education as Bad as They Say?

Seal of the United States Department of Education

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As a professor I have grown accustomed to the litany of doom regarding American education. We are repeatedly told that American schools are failing, that colleges are not teaching, and that the students of today are not as good as the students of the past.

There are, of course, problems with the education system. Because of economic disparity, some schools are significantly better than others and the ideas of equality of education and equality of opportunity are cruel jokes. However, the mere fact that there are some serious problems does not entail that all the dire claims are true.

One stock claim is that America has fallen behind the world in education in terms of performance on various tests. While the fact that America is behind other countries is a point of concern, there are at least three points worth considering here. The first is the above-mentioned disparity which will tend to result in lower performance when taking the average for America. The second is that many countries have put considerable effort into improving their education systems and hence it is worth considering that America’s decline is also due to the improvement of others. The third is the matter of the measures—do they, in fact, present an accurate picture of the situation? I am not claiming that the data is bad, I am merely raising a reasonable concern about how accurate our picture of education is at this time.

Another stock claim is that American students are doing badly on standardized tests. While there is clearly value in assessment, it is reasonable to consider whether or not such tests are a proper and adequate measure of education. It is also worth considering whether the obsession with these tests is itself causing damage to education. That is, as teachers teach to the test and student learn for the test, it might be the case that what is being taught is not what should be taught and what is being learned is not what should be being learned. My view is that standardized tests seem to exist mainly to make money for the companies that sell such tests and that their usefulness as a tool of education is dubious. However, such a claim would require proper support, ideally in the form of a properly funded assessment of these assessments.

It is also claimed that schools are failing and that even colleges are not providing worthwhile education. I do agree that the cost of college education has become ridiculous and there are problems in the entire education system. However, it is certainly interesting that along with the mantra of “public schools are failing” there has been a strong push to funnel public money into private and for-profit schools. Now, it could be the case that the for-profit and private schools are merely being proposed as solutions to the alleged problems. But, it seems worth considering that the “public schools are failing” line is being pushed so that people will support and favor shifting funding from the public schools to the for-profit and private schools. Interestingly, while traditional private schools generally do well, the for-profit schools have been plagued with problems, as I have written about in earlier essays.  As such, the idea that for-profit schools will save education seems to be a dubious claim.

One last matter I will consider is the idea that students are worse now than ever. After hearing colleagues and professionals say this over and over, I almost began to feel that it was true. However, my familiarity with history saved me from this fate: such claims about the inferiority of the current generation goes back at least to the time of Socrates. Every generation seems to claim that the next is inferior—think of all “when I was kid” claims that people make. “When I was a kid, people respected their elders.” “When I was a kid, we did our homework.” “When I was a kid, we studied hard.” While kids are different in some ways today (they have Facebook and smartphones), the idea that they are inferior must be considered in the context of the fact that people always make that claim. Now, it might be that every generation is right and that we have reached the lowest point in human history. However, going back and considering actual facts in an objective way should show that the kids today are a bit different but they do not appear to be any worse than the other generations.

As a professor I do often hear other professors lament about how kids get worse every year (I have been hearing this for about 20 years). However, there is an alternative explanation. I do admit that the work of students, such as papers, does seem worse than it did in the past. But, this could be due to the fact that I am better at my job rather than the students being worse. When I look back on my own work as a student, I can see the same bad writing and mistakes I see in my students today. I improve each year, but each year I get new students and it seems reasonable to consider that they seem worse because of this and not that they must actually be worse.

I do admit that changes in technology are probably impacting the students of today. They do labor under the delusion that they can multitask effectively (they cannot—they can just multitask poorly) and they also have more distractions than I faced as a student. However, the students seem to be about the same as when I was a student years ago.

Overall, I do not claim that there are not problems in education. However, I am concerned that the litany of doom and despair may contain consider hyperbole. I am also suspicious regarding some of the motivations behind the doomsayers. While some are no doubt sincerely concerned, it is worth considering that some people are motivated by political or economic agendas rather than the needs of students.

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18 Comments.

  1. Michael Balich

    How about you present some data before talking about gains or losses in test scores. Points 2 and 3 both would benefit from looking at the NAEP data.

    You should check out Bob Somersby from time to time at the dailyhowler. The NAEP data has shown we are getting “better”, not “worse”, using most metrics. The media report on the few that have gotten “worse”. I use quotes there because a drop (or gain or difference against other nations) in test scores of a few points is not really all that significant if you look at it from a data set with random variation likely year to year.

    Point 1 is especially poignant though as other nations, e.g. everyone’s darling nation of Finland, are extremely homogenous culturally. It is not really fair to measure kids who are in the process of learning a second language (English) like a large portion of Mexican families, even one or two generations removed from living in Mexico using tests written in English against other nations who have very few immigrants or cultural diversity. Shoot, geography diversity alone can account for a large shift in test scores.

    Also, not quite fair comparing kids in a school where there are kids literally going hungry, or on meds irregularly, or are in a classroom with hundreds or even thousands of cockroaches living in the walls (no kidding, this was the life of my wife last year who is a teacher here in Evansville, IN) against other nations with extremely high tax rates which removes these problems almost completely.

    In short, there is very little information in this post that is new to the discussion.

  2. I believe that I’ve said this before in your blog.

    I live in Chile and I am always pleasantly surprised by the number of people from the U.S. encountered in online forums who write clear and thoughtful English prose, which, methinks, shows that they received a good education.

    In the U.S. there also appear to be (once again, my impression online) many people interested in issues and subjects which transcend those fed us by TV, which indicates an inquiring mind, in most cases the product of a decent educational system.

    Everywhere in the world there is a herd or mass of people who simply lead their lives without much reflection and who, if exposed to the possibility of reasoning critically about themselves and the world around them, will either fall asleep or react with hostility.

    Perhaps the test of a good educational system is not if it turns everyone into a thinking person, but if it reaches all those children (and adults) with the capacity and the will to become thinking persons.

  3. Why is this an American issue but not a North American or European or Japanese or Saskatchewan issue? I can answer that. It is an American issue because the U.S.A. has buggered all of its major components: homeland or gun safety, justice and the legal employment and income system, health care, congress, blah, blah… and education. The teaching is actually pretty good but if MacDonald’s were run the way American universities and colleges are run, a Big Mac would cost $995.95.

  4. Steve Merrick

    I saw an article bemoaning the state of education and children’s learning. It sounded like many other articles I’ve read in recent times. It turned out to have been written by one of the ancient Greeks (sorry, I can’t remember which one). It seems these worries have been around for some time…. :lol:

  5. My point exactly:

    “Administrative Costs

    “Yet UC’s annual spending exceeds that of most state governments, amounting to roughly $100,000 for each of its students. Much of this is unrelated to instructional function. The university’s bureaucracy is famously monumental, centralized and costly: Aside from a full cohort of administrators and support staff at each of the 10 campuses, the central office in Oakland employs more than 2,000 workers, a staggering number (2,358 full-time employees, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). There are 10 “divisions” in the Office of the President, for example. Its “external relations” division lists more than 55 managerial-type employees on organizational charts, and that number doesn’t include support personnel.

    The “business operations” and “academic affairs” divisions are much larger. One senior non-UC university president said to me once that the central office could be reduced by more than half and the university wouldn’t suffer.

    “The university took some budgetary hits from the state in recent years but offset them with huge tuition increases. No serious attempt was made to vastly cut costs. How many senior faculty at, say, Berkeley teach more than 200 hours a year? How much of the so-called research by these professors is read or cited? I suspect a lot of it has little impact. How many buildings lie largely dormant for months each year?

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-15/napolitano-expert-in-bloated-bureaucracies.html

  6. swallerstein,

    “I live in Chile and I am always pleasantly surprised by the number of people from the U.S. encountered in online forums who write clear and thoughtful English prose, which, methinks, shows that they received a good education.”

    Don’t be fooled….There are more than a billion people on the Internet, how many do you see here.

    Good prose is like Jazz; you can not learn it in no school or university.

    “Everywhere in the world there is a herd or mass of people who simply lead their lives without much reflection and who, if exposed to the possibility of reasoning critically about themselves and the world around them, will either fall asleep or react with hostility.”

    This is very true, everywhere. And it has an impact on education and intellectual culture. Literally, a hostility to the disruptiveness of critical thought. But without these disruptions, societies are liable to walk into brick walls – or that they bring more severe disruptions on themselves.

    The worst result of this hostility is people will reject what they do not want to hear, and then they end up believing absurdities, because they feel right. Because they confirm their worst fears.

    There’s a new popular right-wing party in England. The UK Independence Party (It’s not that new, but it’s having a surge in popularity). The Conservative Party, the traditional major right-wing party, have been hemorrhagic supporters to the UKIP. They commissioned a study to see why. And it comes down to incoherent folkish paranoia and fantasies.

  7. Chris Williams

    A timely topic for those of us in education. Perhaps you could expand the post into a follow-up to “Six-Guns” and “Better or Worse Reasoning?”

  8. Swallerstein,

    Good points. I do hope that we Americans are not as bad as we say we are. :)

  9. Boreas,

    Interestingly, without the government subsidies of fuel and agriculture, a burger would cost a lot more. If the true costs of the burger were considered, it would be about $200. Or so it has been claimed.

    The cost of higher education, as you note, is needlessly high. While some increase has been legitimate (inflation, the cost of new technology, etc.) much of it has little or nothing to do with education. As far as controlling costs, one problem is that a big chunk of the cost increase is due to the growth in the administration aspect of higher education. These are, of course, the people who decide how the money gets spent. As you might guess, administrators are generally well paid and generally do not get sacked when budget cuts are made.

  10. Steve Merrick,

    Quite right-a look back at history will reveal people complaining about the same problems over and over, usually also referring to how great it was before.

  11. Boreas,

    Institutions seem to devolve into ticks: ever swelling on someone else’s blood.

  12. Aristophanes reincarnates on this blog!

    Mike says “Boreas,Institutions seem to devolve into ticks: ever swelling on someone else’s blood.”

    In what comedy did he say that? Perhaps one that has been lost. No matter, swelling needs sucking, and the University as Institution sucks the blood of its students as the Furies defecate in the Chancellor’s cornflakes.

    C’mon: do some hardcore economics. When the University President is paid $2,400,000 per annum or $1,250 per hour, how does that cost create value for Countless,Faceless Students? When was any bureaucrat worth as much as a tenth-round NBA draft selection???

  13. Boreas,

    The official line of the ticks is that they create value. That is, they suck blood but poop gold. Or maybe rainbows.

  14. Listen up Mike, good athlete that you are:

    This topic is really getting under my skin. Besides any good Aristotelian ought to be fuming that these University administrators, whose intelligence is mighty high and qualifications are top of the top drawer, refute the principle ‘Man is a rational animal’ every morning that they go to work.

    Except for making the cabal of the University’s Board of Governors feel good about their decisions, there is no economic connection between what the top administrators are paid and the quality of education. The whole thing is the bloody hell of a fashion show whereby the Board can say ‘We pay our Gal more than you pay your Boy; so, we are the better Institution’.

    The whole show needs to be re-engineered outta existence. Check with your local Faculty of Organizational Engineering. They have people who know how to do that sort of thing.

  15. I’ve discussed, with various folks, the idea that salary and bonuses are comparable to the bright feathers, tusks and such of the other species. So, just as a buck shows off with his antlers, humans strut about displaying their salaries. But they know not what is actually good in life.

  16. Mike,
    Perforce I agree. The American Way, it seems, has become bloated and inefficient. In security, justice, health care and, of course, education, Americans pay more and/or get less.

    The discussion has also kicked up the problem of man as a rational animal. Emphasis has shifted from ‘rational’ to ‘animal’ by inclusion of flock behavior re plumage. Well… I’m daunted for a while.

  17. Boreas,

    History seems to show that all empires fall into ruin. If this is an actual quality of empires, then America shall have its twilight.

    But, in America the impossible just takes a bit longer. Welcome to the eternal empire. :)

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