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).