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!
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!
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.