The sad state of American education

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The sad state of American education

This Mercerian certainly has his priorities in order.

This Mercerian certainly has his priorities in order.

This Mercerian certainly has his priorities in order.

This Mercerian certainly has his priorities in order.

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The United States’ mediocre education system needs help, badly. Contrary to popular thought, increasing funding doesn’t help—it doubled over the past 40 years while students’ test scores stagnated. Instead, we must enact substantial structural reforms before the educated labor force shrinks further and threatens this nation’s future.

Before I can begin to discuss the education system’s specific issues and potential solutions, I must stress how badly students are failing. The state with the best education system is Massachusetts. It ranks 17th internationally. (In regards to standardized test scores, that is.

As a side note, I realize such testing is no perfect measure of learning, but it’s better than nothing.) Georgia scores half as well as the Bay State, ranking just slightly above Serbia, which spends much less on its students.

Such is the case nationally—the United States loves to spend on education. American students receive more dollars per pupil than most other countries, yet they perform terribly. Yes, many children in Georgia are graduating from high school with 4.0s, but they cannot read at an 8th grade level. College students, who incessantly gripe about stress and finals, study half as much as collegians 40 years ago.

However, university graduation rates and GPA averages remain the same, suggesting  a proliferation of widespread grade inflation and with less rigorous coursework. Today, many university graduates leave with a degree in one hand, overwhelming student debt in the other, topped off with a brain void of critical thinking and civic skills.

Why is our education system failing on so many levels, and what can we do to improve it? For starters, all must share the blame: parents, politicians, school administrators and teachers. Many parents take little interest in their children’s education or discipline. If they actually happen to notice their child’s poor performance, they blame the teachers first instead of recognizing their own failures.

School administrators, under pressure from politicians and parents to churn out “successful” students, hand out 4.0s like candy instead of actually improving classroom policy. (As recently witnessed in Atlanta, they have even forged test scores to increase graduation rates.)

Some teachers perform abysmally, not even passing their own students’ tests. They enjoy excessive benefits and protection from teachers’ unions, such as tenure. Politicians never suggest substantial reform; their uninformed constituencies consider additional funding a panacea.

How can we derive viable solutions from the chaotic circle of finger-pointing? A look at the data might help. A recent paper from the NBER, one of the most respected economic research institutions, proposed the replacement of the bottom 10 percent worst-performing teachers in the United States, resulting in a jump to the top of international math and science rankings.

To target these under-performers, states should require instructors to take their students’ standardized tests. If they fail, dismissal should follow. Like Massachusetts, where legislators successfully executed a similar plan, a sizable proportion of teachers will most likely not make the grade.

To enact this reform, deft political maneuvering will be required of state legislatures and governors. They must spiritedly negotiate with teachers’ unions, perhaps by offering substantial wage increases to the teachers performing in the top 50 percent in exchange for firing the bottom 10 percent. Inane tenure rules and other hurdles might be present, but determined officials can overcome them even if vigorous anti-union rhetoric is required (Here’s lookin’ at you, Chris Christie).

Educational advancement requires reform outside of the classroom as well. Community–driven programs must encourage active parenting. Social Impact Bonds might be up to the task, or at least President Obama seems to think so. The government must clean out incompetent and crooked administrators, such as those populating the Atlanta Board of Education. Schools must extend early childhood programs; research demonstrates their importance in a child’s mental development.

The United States should also look to Germany for higher education guidance. Like those in the booming European state, students who cannot succeed in high school should be required to attend technical colleges. Rather than allowing students to drop out and join the unskilled labor force, where their living standards will plummet as they compete emerging overseas economies for unskilled jobs, a technical education offers a modest future in skilled labor.

There is a lot of work to be done, and time is pressing. Side-effects of the failing education infrastructure are already visible. Schools created so few skilled workers that an imbalance within the labor market appeared, resulting in uneven wage gains between  upper, middle, and lower classes (the very same inequality liberals harp about).

If this country wishes to retain its supremacy, it must foster a future population of skilled workers. Otherwise, both GDP and living standards will drop, accelerating an era of decline for the red, white and blue.

 

Any finger-pointing should be directed toward opinions@mercercluster.com

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