THE DISASTROUS STATE OF AMERICAN EDUCATION
SAT score decline
High School dropout rate
Quality of Education
Quality of the Teachers
Futility of Reform
Principles underlying government schooling
For the decade ending in 1962 the mean scores on the Scholastic Aptitude
Test varied within about a 10 point range (from 471 to 479 on the verbal
section and from 490 to 502 on the math section).
In 1963 these scores commenced a decline which continued for almost 20
YEAR VERBAL MATH
1962: 478 502
1981: 424 466
From 1981 to 1991 the scores leveled off, holding within a few points of
425 Verbal and 470 Math. Some of this decline can be attributed to the fact
that a wider range of students now take the test than took it in the l960s,
but the Wirtz Commission concluded that about half of the decline represents
an actual decline among students with qualifications similar to those taking
the test earlier.
However, in early 1990 a nation-wide scandal came to light: it was revealed
that school administrators and teachers, in their attempts to improve their
standing in the community and to earn for themselves and their schools
"improved student achievement" bonuses offered by the state governments, had
been cheating on the achievement tests by providing their students with the
answers prior to testing. This makes highly suspect the "leveling off" of the
SAT score decline that was reported in the mid-1980s.
(In any case, the issue will be sidestepped in 1995, when the College Board
will recalibrate the "average" combined verbal and math score (supposedly 500)
to the median of the test group of that year. This will result in that year's
group having a combined score 98 points above that of their predecessors.)
During this two-decade period there was also a precipitous drop in the
number of students scoring at the top 1% level (700 or higher) in spite of the
fact that the total student pool increased by more than one-fourth:
YEAR VERBAL MATH
1966: 33,200 55,500
1979: 12,300 38,900
To say less than words can say is to commit an intellectual crime. Today,
the fruits of that crime hang shriveled on the vine of education, in the form
of millions of students who have been prevented, by their years of schooling,
from developing their capacity for thought.
The situation is further aggravated in the field of higher education.
Observe the number of new Ph.D.s in science:
Physical Sciences Physics Mathematics
1971: 4500 1970: 1500 1978: 619
1984: 3400 1986: 900 1988: 341
-24% -40% -45%
And this sorry situation is by no means restricted to the scientific
fields. It is taking a terrible toll in the arts as well. Between 1966 and
1989 there was a reduction of 77% in the number of public school students
enrolled in music courses.
More than a fourth of the science Ph.D.s and 60% of the engineering Ph.D.s
awarded in 1986 went to foreign students, and two-thirds of postdoctoral
appointees in engineering were foreign citizens. In early 1989, only 7 in 1000
American university students were studying engineering. In Japan the ratio was
40 in 1000. The percentage of American students pursuing a degree in any
science dropped from 11.5 in 1966 to 5.8 in 1988. This paucity of American
science students extends down into the high schools: among the winners of the
1990 Science Talent Search, 57% were foreign students. And again, the arts are
affected along with the sciences: in 1993, thirty-seven percent of the
students at the Julliard School of Music were foreigners.
During the 1960's, American colleges and universities expanded as if the
post-War baby boom that produced the massive youth cohorts of that period
would last forever. (But what else could they have done - in view of the
demands placed upon them?) It did not, and institutions of higher learning are
now confronted by sharply declining enrollments in a period of economic
hardship and insecurity. Faced with this potentially devastating situation,
most undergraduate institutions, including some of the most selective, have
lowered their admissions standards and many have abandoned them altogether.
A 1978-79 College Board survey of 2,600 colleges showed that only 40%
required any minimum grade point average for admission and only 30% set
minimum cut-off scores on the SAT. As a result, percentages of applicants
accepted were very high:
91% at public two-year colleges
86% at private two-year colleges
79% at public four-year colleges
77% at private four-year colleges
The inevitable overall result is that virtually all literate and numerate
students and many semi-literate or even illiterate ones can find some college
which will accept them, if they can somehow arrange to pay the fees. This is
illustrated by University of Wyoming president Terry Roark's comment in
September, 1988: "My plan to stiffen UW admissions standards will not prevent
any high school graduate from entering Wyoming's only university."
While the SAT scores decline, the high-school dropout rate increases: NEA
data for the '85-'86 school year reveal that 30% of America's teenagers are
not graduating from high school. (In 1965 the fraction was 24%) In the large
cities, the dropout rate is 35-50%. Indeed, in Boston for that year more kids
dropped out (52%) than graduated!! Perhaps partly through actual physical
fear: many classrooms require two teachers, one to talk and keep the pupils
amused while the other tries to keep them from killing each other. Teaching someone the difference between velocity and acceleration is irrelevant if that person is hungry and scared. The social cost of this phenomenon is staggering - in part because these dropouts tend not to enter the labor force. In 1987, 19% of the labor force had college degrees, up from 10% in 1963. Only 18% had less than a high school diploma, down from 45% in 1963. "So where are all the dropouts?" you may ask. More than half of the nation's prison population are dropouts. The dollar cost of confining a prisoner can be up to $25K/year - a figure higher than the cost of a year of schooling at either Harvard or Yale.
And this dismal situation exists in spite of an enormous, and growing, financial investment: government spending on education consumes 7% of GNP ($240 billion in 1984). The cost per student of public elementary and secondary schooling was $2279 in 1980, $4810 during school year 1988-89, and $4929 the following year. Between 1950 and 1976, per pupil spending increased nearly 300% (inflation adjusted). In the five years from 1971 to 1976 total professional staff in US public schools went up 8%. The number of supervisors went up 44%. The cost per pupil went up 58%. While the number of students went DOWN 4%. The number of school districts went down by 17%, continuing the trend to greater centralization. These massive changes produced not a nation of scholars but the least educated generation in our history.
The cost of education is more than just taxpayer and parental dollars; it is also the students' time, much of which is wasted. For example, does it really take 12 years to produce high school graduates who cannot read, who cannot find the USA on a world map and who do not know when WWII was? Couldn't the same results be achieved in a lot less time? Is it likely that better results will be achieved with longer school years and extra years in school, as many educators now advocate?
For those who stay in school, the quality of education leaves much to be desired. I have seen estimates of functional illiteracy ranging from 25% to 33% of high school graduates, and up to 13% of the entire adult population. The National Commission on Excellence in Education found 23 million adult functional illiterates, and Daniel Boorstin, head of the Library of Congress, claims the number is growing at an annual rate of 2.3 million. According to the National Council for Geographic Education (corroborated by an independent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one in five American students is unable to locate the USA on a world map. An NSF poll in 1988 revealed that 55% of adult Americans do not know that a year is the time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. Says James Vining, executive director of the NCGE: "We have a situation where Johnny not only doesn't know how to read or add, he doesn't even know where he is." And, I would add, he can't figure out what's going on: the NCEE also found that 40% of 17-year-olds are not able to draw a simple inference from written material. And as time goes on, they have less and less access to even the simplest written material: In 1950, virtually all American households received at least one daily newspaper. In 1970, 98% did so. But by 1993, that had fallen to 63%.
Only nine of the states require a geography course for graduation. Thirty percent of US high schools do not offer a physics course, twenty percent offer no chemistry, and ten percent offer no biology. Almost 75% offer no earth or space science courses. in 1990 less than 50% of the graduates had taken chemistry, and only about 20% had taken physics.
In an examination of 17 countries, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found that US 14-year-olds ranked 14th in their knowledge of basic science. (Hungary was first and Japan second.) US students were also among the worst at age 18. A 1989 international math test included the statement "I am good at mathematics." The Americans led in their agreement with this statement: 68% answered "Yes." (In another survey, 30% considered themselves to be not just good, but "among the best.") But when the test was scored, the Americans ranked LAST in their actual math performance. American students do not know their math, but they have evidently absorbed the lessons of the newly-fashionable self-esteem curriculum wherein kids are taught to feel good about themselves: American kids feel good about doing bad. The US high-school grad used to be highly educated relative to the rest of the world. This is no longer the case, and the economy is now much more globally-extensive. Thus the US grad is relatively dumber.
A 1988 survey found that half of those who had never taken a course in biology did as well in tests as 40% of those who had; apparently, biology courses taught most of those taking them almost nothing.
The institutionalized ignorance described here has another really tragic consequence for American teen-agers: partly as a result of grossly inadequate - or nonexistent - sex education programs, the rate of abortions rose 70% between 1973 and 1988 among American girls under the age of 20.
But what can you expect from an educational process in which reading, writing, arithmetic and science are delivered to students in much the same way as tires, windows and doors are attached to the frame of an automobile on an assembly line? A student moves along this assembly line, at each stage having an additional "education module" slapped onto his mental framework. It is supposed that the end result of this agglomeration process will be a comprehensively educated person. But nowhere during the process does the student acquire the ability to integrate the modules into a coherent whole. In the public schools the students are merely memorizing facts - they are not integrating ideas.
A culture is a collection of values and the behaviors required to achieve those values. Schools do not transmit the culture because they do not teach children how to set long term life goals in the context of a political and economic environment. In fact, what the schools are actually doing is culturally retrogressive, as they are instilling a philosophy of value-deprivation/depravation.
Good teachers are as much victims of this situation as are the students. They are forced to comply with government and school administration "guidelines" ...instead of determining them. The result is that students are "exposed" to subject material instead of being taught it.
Sooner or later America will have to face the fact that angry denunciations of public education and innumerable studies by committees with prestigious appellations have left us blue in the face but have produced not one whit of change. In no field is there more rhetoric about change, and in no field is there less actual change reflecting real improvement.
Many parents turn a blind eye to these developments because they don't want to face (for example) the prospect of having minority students who should be in the seventh grade attending fifth or sixth grade classes with their children. People who support this view point to the overwhelming percentage of minorities in remedial classes as evidence that it is a genuine concern. But when the "right to an education" becomes the "right to a diploma" many students are graduated who don't receive an education.
The National Committee on Excellence in Education remarked: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
And what of the soldiers who are waging this war? Observe: The state of Texas recently heaved a sigh of relief that only 3.3% of its teachers flunked a basic "see-Spot-run" competency test. Still, that is 6579 teachers unable to read, write, or cipher, all early grade-school material, and you wonder how they managed to finish college and get hired. Medals given to the winners of a Los Angeles scholastic competition in 1992 misspelled the word "academic" (acadumbic?)
Using data provided by ETS, Ron Hoeflin compiled this list of median GRE advanced achievement test scores for graduate school applicants in various fields. It shows clearly the intellectual position of teachers relative to other professional groups:
Mathematics 630 Physics 628 Philosophy 627 Biology 609 Chemistry 606 Economics 590 Engineering 583 Geology 569 English Lit. 549 Spanish 549 French 544 German 535 Psychology 533 History 529 GRE (total) 509 Political Sci.498 Geography 486 Music 485 Education 464
The decline in the SAT scores of educators has been just as acute. In 1973, future education majors scored 59 points lower than the national average on the combined SAT; by 1982, they scored 82 points lower. The negative selection of those going into teaching has been aggravated by negative selection among those already in the field. The 1972 National Longitudinal Survey of high school seniors shows that the mean SAT score for those who enter the field of teaching and then leave it is 42 points higher than the score of those who enter and stay. Those who remain permanently in the profession have a combined SAT score 118 points lower than the score of those who have never taught.
In the words of teachers-union president Albert Shanker, "For the most part, you are getting illiterate, incompetent people who cannot go into any other field."
And if you should ask "Well, why can't they clean up their act?" - consider this: The American Association for the Advancement of Science is attempting a radical redefinition of science curricula. The first phase, intended to establish what high school graduates should know, was intended to last six months, but took five years! Many teachers who are honestly looking for ways to improve their techniques walk away without any answers. It's like asking directions to the bus stop and getting a lecture on mass transit systems.
In view of the widespread concern for "classrooms without education" the simple alternative of "education without classrooms" ought to be readily apparent, but no one seems to be aware of it. The belief that classrooms are a prerequisite to education leads to the belief that education comes only from classrooms - that education is a prerogative of the schools. How many times have you heard the remark "When will you finish your education?" when what is meant is "When will you get your diploma?" It is unfortunate that many people, strutting off the stage while clutching in their hot little hands that decorative piece of wallpaper, think "at last my schooling is finished" and then commence to stagnate intellectually for the rest of their lives. Merely sitting in a school room for a period of years is not equivalent to receiving an education.
And for those ambitious students who manage to cope with this state of affairs and graduate from high school, what awaits them when they do get to college? (52% of the graduates of American high schools go on to college.) Just what is the educational philosophy of the modern university? Here are some representative examples:
In metaphysics, the University of Delaware (Newark) presents a course (Course #A5 267-80, Spring 1979) titled: NOTHING. "A study of Nil, Void, Vacuum, Null, Zero, and Other Kinds of Nothingness. A lecture course exploring the varieties of nothingness from the vacuum and void of physics and astronomy to political nihilism, to the emptiness of the arts and the soul." In epistemology, New York University offers: (Philosophy V83.0083, 1981-82) THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE. "Various theories of knowledge are discussed, including the view that they are all inadequate and that, in fact, nobody knows anything."
For ethics, we go to Indiana (Bloomington) and attend course #H200, titled SOCIAL REACTIONS TO HANDICAPS, in which the students will "explore some of the different ways in which the handicapped individual...has been regarded in Western Civilization. Figures from the past such as the fool, the madman, the blind beggar...will be discussed."
There was once a time when college students studied facts, knowledge, and human greatness. Now they study nothingness, ignorance, and blind beggars. A pervasive epistemological and moral relativism is producing a generation of young people who are intellectually impoverished, lacking the knowledge, moral standards or commitment to reason necessary to sustain the cultural and economic institutions underlying America's success.
Most of the colleges of this country have simply classified ignorance and are peddling it as knowledge.
The NEA boasts that in 128 years their goal has never wavered: "Excellence in every classroom, for every child." The dismal picture painted here suggests a more appropriate motto: "Ignorance is our most important product." The effects of NEA policies, and of five generations of John Dewey in the public school system, show clearly that that system has failed. Public schools have failed and will continue to fail for a very simple reason: there is no impetus for success.
Because children HAVE to be in school and HAVE to do what they're told, teachers almost never get any quick and reliable feedback about their teaching. By contrast, people teaching their own children, even if they make many mistakes, are soon likely to become effective teachers, because they get from their children the kind of unmistakable feedback that tells them when their teaching is helpful and when it is not. But public education is accountable to no one. Taxpayers must support it and the majority of parents must accept its product, like it or not.
Much of the legislation concerning educational reform, particularly that directed toward "minority" accomodation, is no more than ideology masquerading as reform, as conflicting pressure-groups fight for control over the school system. From the eighteenth century to the present, domination of the masses through control of schooling has been a major part of the larger struggle for power in a democratic society lacking a securely established institution of individual rights.
Competing educational systems would offer the consumer a wide choice in his purchase of education for himself and/or his children. This would end forever the squabbles over curriculum (more athletics? more academics? Black Studies programs?), student body (segregated or integrated? - shall we bus to integrate?), control of education (should it be in the hands of parents, teachers, voters, the school board, or the colleges?), and all the other questions which are unsolvable within the context of government's coercive control of education. If each consumer were free to choose among competing schools the type of education he valued most, all these problems would be solved automatically. But the government school system preempts the options of the citizens who are obliged to finance it, so that alternatives are dependent on the arbitrary decrees of government committees.
The government has not solved the education problem because government IS the problem.
As American public schools slowly sink under waves of violence, drugs, and illiteracy, supporters search frantically for salvation - but there is none. The internal chaos and increasing politicalization of public education are inherent in its government ownership wherein, without the necessity to compete for customers, and lacking the profit motive, there is no incentive for improvement. As long as local school systems can be assured of state aid and increasing federal aid without the accountability which inevitably comes with aggressive competition, it would be sentimental, wishful thinking to expect any significant increase in the efficiency of the public schools.
The application of individual rights and cognitive competence to the educational system is necessary before sanity can return to the classrooms. The Japanese educational system demonstrates some interesting contrasts with that of the USA. In the mid-1960s math tests were given to 18-year-olds in 12 countries. The AVERAGE Japanese scored at the same standard as the top 1% elsewhere. A second run of these tests in the early 1980s had similar results. Another comparison (in 1981) of 17-year-olds in Japan and in Illinois showed the average Japanese scoring better than 98% of the Americans. In attempting to understand this disparity, it should be noted that the financing of state-owned senior high schools in Japan is about average for economically advanced nations. But 30% of Japanese high schools are privately owned, and although compulsory schooling extends only to age 15 in Japan, 94% of Japanese adolescents voluntarily continue their education, even though they are all required to pay fees for this continuance - whether they choose to attend a state-financed high school or a wholly private school.
Thus, while the American government-controlled schools are barely able to attract half the nation's adolescents, the Japanese experience suggests strongly that schools sensitive to consumer requirements by virtue of their market organization provide a service which virtually all adolescents (and/or their parents) are not only willing to avail themselves of but even to pay for. AND which has fabulously successful educational results!
We should make the public aware of how much better educated their children would be from reading things produced by private foundations rather than from studying the social sciences at a university. What happens in the American Sociological Association is trivial, but what's coming out of certain think tanks (Cato) and certain institutes (Institute for Objectivist Studies) is very exciting and much more central to the real problems of American society. The Laissez Faire Bookstore undoubtedly provides a better selection of educational material than can be found in any university's social science department.
The erosion of confidence in government resulting from continual policy reversals, irresolution in the face of electoral whims, and stifling bureaucracy may eventually lead to a trend toward private funding of education.
To ensure the supply of trained talent, business will have to invest in the private educational system. And to some extent, it already is doing so: the NSF estimated in 1992 that employers in the US spend in the region of $100 billion a year retraining high school graduates in basic skills.
The Savannah symphony orchestra players sign two contracts, one to play in the orchestra, and the other to teach music to high school students for 20 hours per week.
Some students are themselves taking note of and protesting their situation: The "Teach Or I'll Leave" (TOIL) movement is gaining momentum. The movement was inspired by David Karpook, who as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1970s walked out of his Physics class whenever the lecturer stopped making sense. In recent years the idea has spread to campuses across North America and thence to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In recent months (summer 1993), students at several Japanese technical universities have taken up the practice.
American schools are failing in every subject and on a fundamental level; they are doing it methodically, as a matter of philosophical principle. Their courses are a hodge-podge of random and contradictory information that can't possibly be integrated into a consistent whole, and one of the first things they teach students is not to bother to try. The anti-conceptual epistemology that grips them comes from John Dewey, who stands on the shoulders of Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who dedicated his life and his system to the destruction of reason.
About 1900, psychologist William James developed what came to be called the "pragmatic method." It maintained that the value of anything is to be found only in terms of its "usefulness" or actual consequences. It denied the existence of "absolutes" of any kind. Shortly thereafter, philosopher John Dewey seized upon this concept and developed from it the theory of Instrumentalism. It holds that thought is simply a method of meeting difficulties - that its goals are wider experiences and the solving of problems. To Dewey, knowledge equals experience. There are no self-evident truths, no universal verities of any kind. To Dewey, anything in life which satisfies a want is a "good." If one concedes that good and evil have no higher connotation than satisfying or failing to satisfy an individual want or need, then it follows that there can be no positive standards of child behavior, no moral code except a relative one. Knowledge, in this hashish doctrine, is never worth pursuing for its own sake, only for the sake of problems it might solve for the individual. Dewey's pragmatism held the main goals of education to be these: To aid the child to live the life of the peer group, and to enable him to adjust to unknown and constantly changing environmental conditions. There is nothing here, you will note, about the basic essentials of knowledge. Nothing about culture. Or teaching children to use the intellectual tools which the human race has found to be indispensable in the pursuit of truth. Or even simple literacy, for that matter. The American education establishment has embraced this turkey and over the decades continues to prop up its decaying and putrescent philosophical corpse, disguising it with verbal rouge and mascara long after its failure had become blatantly apparent to all save said establishment. It is still cherishing this zombie, no matter how many kids emerge from its clutches illiterate and ignorant.
The world has long observed that small acts of immorality, if repeated, will destroy character. It is equally manifest, though rarely said, that uttering nonsense and half-truths without cease ends by destroying intellect.
Incompetence in cognition creates a caste system. Those who can use language can think and therefore be independent, rational and productive; those who cannot are more ignorant, less productive and more easily manipulated, intimidated and controlled. Thus the American school system has produced generations of citizens who are intolerant of matters about which they are ignorant or have been systematically misled.
If improvements are not made in the educational system, the divisions among people in this country will only become more extreme.
A few horror stories:
City government departments such as Fire, Police, Ambulance, Hospitals, Parks, Electricity, Water, and Streets need to employ people who are at least moderately literate, who possess sufficient education and selfconfidence to make reasonable judgments in everyday situations. NYC's system of public education has failed to produce such employees. It's disheartening to call 911 to report a crime at the playground in Riverside Park at 91st Street and then have the responding 911 employee ask plaintively: "But what is the house number? We have to have a house number..." I had managed to get a person who wasn't familiar with the geography of her own city, probably didn't know how to read a map, and didn't realize that private homes with numbers are not part of the layout of our public parks and playgrounds. This is not so unusual. Incompetent public service does not contribute to a high standard of community living.
A Missouri couple took their local public school to court for failing to teach their child to read and write. The judge ruled for the school on the grounds that the law sets forth compulsory attendance in Missouri, not compulsory education.
Life can be frustrating for graduates who depart college full of a social science know-how that leaves them knowing only how to teach the same stuff to others. A political science professor tried to convince me to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in political science.
"What could I do with a political science Ph.D.?" I asked. "Well," came the answer, "you could lecture to other students getting political science degrees."
"And what would they do with their political science degrees?" "Well, they could teach others..." It sounded like a giant Ponzi scheme, so I left college immediately. If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, It expects what never was and never will be.
.... Thomas Jefferson
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