Opinion: America’s education system is a mess, and it’s students who are paying the price
David Steiner | July 31, 2023
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“Math and reading scores for 13-year-olds have hit their lowest scores in decades.” When the recent NAEP long-term trend results for 13-year-olds were published, the reactions were predictable: short pieces in the national press and apologetics in education blogs. COVID-19, we were told, was continuing to cast its long shadow. Despite nearly $200 billion in emergency federal spending on K-12 schooling, students are doing worse than a decade ago, and lower-performing students are today less capable of doing math than they were 35 years ago.
What is striking has been the pervasive weariness evident in the commentaries on the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The news was heralded as “alarming,” “terrifying” and “tragic.” As for responses? At the end of his piece on the results, AEI’s Nat Malkus concludes that “nothing less than Herculean efforts will make up for such shortfalls” — but on just what those efforts should be, he was silent. Writing for The 74, political scientist Vladimir Kogan concludes that “the new federal data send a clear message that we must do better” — but, once again, nothing about how.
Other responses have been predictable. In her blog, Diane Ravitch wrote: “Will politicians whip up a panicked response and demand more of what is already failing, like charter schools, vouchers, high-stakes testing and Cybercharters? or [sic.]will they invest in reduced class sizes and higher teacher pay?” Her response points to a familiar split in the education policy community: On the one hand, the defenders of public education blame chronic underfunding of schools and of teacher salaries in particular, and an overreliance on teaching to the test. On the other, their conservative critics point to lack of school choice, poor teacher preparation programs and (more recently) the woke invasion of classrooms.
Both sides are partially correct, of course: In multiple states, a heavy reliance on local property taxes to pay for education creates regressive per-pupil funding, meaning that more dollars go to the education of more affluent students. Teacher preparation still relies too much on textbook theory instead of clinical practice (a vital switch the medical profession made a century ago). Tests, especially in reading, are poorly designed (e.g., “Hamlet was confused because … A, B, C or D — circle the right response”). Too many parents are stuck sending their children to underperforming schools.
But these are just symptoms. Factors beyond the schoolhouse door – the legacy of race-based redlining, the underfunding of health care for the worst off, the lack of support for child care and parental leave, and other social and economic policies — remain hugely impactful. But inside the education system itself, the fundamental cause of poor outcomes is that education policy leaders have eroded the instructional core and designed our education system for failure.
Pre-K is a wild West, with the result that students enter kindergarten with large gaps in their readiness to learn. Children aren’t seriously assessed until they are 8, by which time it’s too late for sustained intervention — the gaps never close. Meanwhile, curricula, tests and teacher education programs exist in deep silos, creating a fragmented system where teachers aren’t trained to teach the materials their schools use and tests don’t test students’ mastery of those materials (with a tiny exception in Louisiana).
Almost uniquely among advanced industrialized nations, U.S. school systems disconnect testing from student incentives. State tests are used to evaluate schools but are often irrelevant to students: Only 11 states still require high school exit exams for graduation, and there are often alternative pathways for those who fail the test. We don’t link the results of high school exit exams to college admissions — instead, using grade-point averages and tests like the ACT and SAT, which are disconnected from course curricula. Speaking of GPA, we have steadily inflated grades at school and college: We simply call success what was once failure.
We have also created a preferential ranking of subjects. Student achievement in reading and math, and, to a lesser extent, science, get all the attention, while students who are drawn to robotics, graphic design, the arts, environmental science, etc., can’t take high school assessments that count for entry into higher education. At the same time, with a few shining counterexamples, our career and technical learning options are a pale shadow of the world’s best: While Switzerland designs exacting pathways from school to employment with options for a return to higher education, America shunts millions of students into dead-end experiences, where they discover that their CTE has failed to provide an employment-ready credential. Many of these same students end up at community colleges with extraordinarily low graduation rates.
Perhaps in response to two decades of disappointing results, academic achievement itself is increasingly out of fashion. Critical thinking, metacognition, grit and positive mindset, and “21st century skills” are in — competence in mathematics, not so much. It seems to have escaped us that students cannot think critically about nothing in particular; mastery of content is a prerequisite.
The turn away from academics is rocket-propelled by a genuine problem. American teenagers stare at social media on a screen almost nine hours every day, with one result being surging loneliness and depression. Many American school systems have reacted by putting social and emotional learning at the top of the agenda. Few would argue that students shouldn’t be given effective support — putting mental health counselors in large high schools, for example, makes sense. But the pretense that there is a new science of SEL is largely pablum. When you chase it to ground, what it means is that teachers should encourage, not discourage, students: a poor test result calls for more effort, not the conclusion that the child is bad at math. Such wisdom has been available for 2,000 years.
To top it all off, the American K-12 education system spends at least $30 billon per year on educational technology with essentially nothing to show for it. As it was for the introduction of radio, then TV, then computers, so it is likely to be for artificial intelligence — the latest great hope to circumvent and supplant effective, inspiring teaching of children by a human being.
As we have sown, so shall we reap. The unique sense of achievement that a student experiences when she or he masters a rigorous skill, digs into deep knowledge, creates a piece of writing or art, completes a challenging science assignment or piece of music — this is all being washed away. We are tired of bad news, and our instinct is now to punish, or at least ignore, the messenger. But our students are desperately the worse for the mess we have made of their schooling.