It is well understood that American educational standards are falling behind those of many other developed nations. I have recently discussed this issue from the point of view of giving more public support to community colleges, as recently proposed by President Obama. But the problem is much broader than this. American college students in general score very poorly in basic critical thinking and communication skills. As the above chart shows, even college seniors are only 60% proficient in these skills and college freshmen do much more poorly.
A new book, “The Smart Society: Strengthening America’s Greatest Resource, its People,” by the political scientist, Peter Salins, provides a good description of the basic problem. It starts long before college! America actually has two different K-12 academic achievement gaps. One, the “Megagap” is the huge test score disparity between middle class students and low-income students, who are largely minorities. This achievement gap is best addressed with expanded early childhood education, as we are beginning to do in Omaha NE where I live.
But as Mr. Salins points out there is also a Mainstream Achievement Gap between what most non-disadvantaged American youth are capable of learning and what is actually expected of them in the typical U.S. public school. It is this learning gap which is primarily responsible for America’s mediocre standing on international achievement tests. Mr. Salins argues that the Mainstream gap is closable because there is such an enormous variation in achievement scores among the 50 states, as shown in the above chart. In particular, in Massachusetts, a top state, the Education Reform Act of 1995 included the following reforms:
The requirement for all state school districts to adhere to rigorous curriculum specifications.
A new statewide diagnostic testing protocol.
More rigorous testing of new teacher candidates.
A statewide uniform high school graduation standard.
Reforms such as these are what make up the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Such high standards are working well in the top performing states. Other states need to seriously implement these same standards. America’s competitive edge depends on it!
In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, two education experts, Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek, write about “The Vital Link of Education and Prosperity”. They point out, for example, that only 32% of U.S. high school students are proficient in mathematics based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Comparable scores for other countries are 45% in Germany and 49% in Canada.
The authors demonstrate a close correlation between academic achievement and economic growth of many countries around the world. The highest academic achievers, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, also have the highest growth rates.
Over the past 50 years, from 1960 – 2009, the U.S. economy has grown 2/3 of a percent faster than would be predicted by our mediocre test scores. But our relative economic advantages, such as open markets, secure property rights, universal K-12 education and favorable immigration policy, are now declining as other countries adopt these same successful social and economic practices. In other words, we need to do better if we want to remain on top.
The authors make a good case that America’s GDP growth rate would be boosted by ¾ of a percent per year if we were able to match the educational attainment level of Canadian students (49% math proficiency vs 32%).
In their recent book, “Endangering Prosperity, a Global View of the American School,” the authors break down the overall math proficiency score by racial group: the white proficiency rate is 41.8%, the African American rate is 11.0% and the Hispanic rate is 15.4%. In other words, almost 2/3 of the American-Canadian math proficiency gap can be explained by the poor performance of American minority groups.
Conclusion: let’s definitely try to improve American K-12 education overall. But in working on this difficult problem, we should concentrate on measures which will have the most impact on minority groups where the problem is greatest. For example, providing early childhood education for all low income families will do more to raise academic achievement overall than adopting the Common Core curriculum (which will mostly benefit already high achieving students).
A front page article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Biggest Changes in a Decade Greet Students in Classroom”, discusses many new and recent developments in K-12 education. The controversial Common Core, with tougher math and reading standards, has been adopted by 45 states. A total of 41 states have agreed to link teacher evaluations to test scores or other student achievement measures and 15 states use, or plan to use, an A – F grading scale to rate schools. Last year there were 5997 charter schools, up from 2559 during the 2002-2003 school year.
What all of this means is that states are hotbeds of educational experimentation. Meanwhile Congress is trying to figure out how to replace the unpopular No Child Left Behind law which was enacted in 2002 and has been renewed on a year by year basis since it expired in 2007. Both the Senate and the House are currently considering legislation to give individual states more flexibility in figuring out how to increase educational success.
The fiscal implications of this whole movement of educational reform and decentralization are huge. The U.S. Department of Education has over 100 separate programs for K-12 education alone, involving massive duplication and inefficiency, with a combined budget of $100 billion per year. A smaller total amount of money could be given directly to the states in the form of block grants devoted to education. The states are able to spend the money more effectively than the federal DoE and at less total cost. Conclusion: better results for significantly less money.
This helps reduce the deficit!
The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke has recently described, in “A-Plus: A Conservative Alternative to NCLB”, a new bill, The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act, recently introduced into both houses of Congress. A+ would allow states to completely opt out of all programs which fall under No Child Left Behind and send NCLB funding back to the states in the form of block grants to be used for the most pressing educational needs.
Under such an arrangement, states would have to describe how they plan to improve education for disadvantaged students. Performance data for various student demographic groups would be disaggregated and states would have to demonstrate how they have narrowed achievement gaps. Many other safeguards would also be in place.
The problems with NCLB are well known. The Adequate Yearly Progress requirement, that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, is unrealistic and has led to the watering-down of proficiency standards. The Highly Qualified Teacher mandate is too rigid and should be under the purview of local education leaders. Standards and assessments, such as the Common Core and national tests, would no longer be dictated by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
There are huge budgetary ramifications of A+. At the present time there are over 80 individual grant programs under NCLB, which have a total annual budget of more than $25 billion. Consolidating all of these numerous individual programs into a single K-12 block grant to each state would easily allow a 20%, or $5 billion, annual savings to the federal government as well as saving states and local school systems much expense in administering the newly streamlined federal education policy.
Here is an example of a good way of improving one particularly large and expensive federal program. This sort of retrenchment needs to happen throughout the federal government. Let’s get started in doing what needs to be done!
Yesterday’s New York Times has an article by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus “Who’s Minding the Schools?”, which makes a strong case against the so called Common Core education standards already adopted by 45 states. Their argument is that the standards are a “one-size-fits-all pathway governed by abstract academic content” which will primarily benefit the affluent middle class students who have strong parental support and who will go on to attend selective colleges.
About a year ago Mr. Hacker wrote another NYT article “Is Algebra Necessary?”, pointing out all the grief resulting from requiring high school students to learn algebra. The Common Core standards have a strong algebra component and so they will tend to solidify the expectation that all high school students study algebra and learn it well. This is an especially big challenge for low income and minority students who have the least academic success in high school and are the most likely to drop out before graduation.
Both the U.S. Senate and the House are currently considering legislation to renew No Child Left Behind by giving states more flexibility in figuring out how to increase educational success for their own students. This makes a lot of sense and should make it possible to cut back substantially on the approximately $100 billion per year spent by the federal Department of Education on grants to the various states. In other words, for various reasons there is currently taking place a shift in educational policy to give more control and responsibility back to the states. The Common Core standards are attempting to move things towards more federal control and therefore are likely to face very strong headwinds.