America’s poor education achievement is a policy choice

10/11/2013 3:45 PM

10/12/2013 5:45 PM

Tired of bemoaning the deplorable rankings of American students when their test scores are compared to their peers in other developed countries?

Lighten up and look in the mirror. It seems the problem begins a generation back, if not two or three. If we are becoming a nation of educational slackers, the roots of the issue might be with mom, dad, grandma and grandpa.

In a new report, American adults are ranked as poorly against their counterparts abroad as our schoolchildren were a little while back. The report is based on tests conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the same international organization that has ranked school performance in member nations. It is first widespread sampling of math, literacy and the problem-solving technical skills of 16- to 65-year-old adults in developed countries.

American adults placed near the middle in literacy and close to the bottom in basic math and technology skills when ranked against adults in 23 other developed countries. At the top of the charts were Japan, Finland and Sweden.

In math, just 9 percent of Americans scored in the top two proficiency levels, compared with a 23-country average of 12 percent, and 19 percent in Finland, Japan and Sweden.

More than just painting an unflattering picture of the skill levels of American adults across several generations, the report also sounds familiar and troubling themes regarding economic divides and the impact education has on the functioning of a civil society.

Not surprisingly, divides in skill level can be found between the employed and the unemployed. In the U.S., the cleavages in skill levels between the highly educated and the under-educated is more pronounced than in peer nations, with fewer people occupying the middle ground.

That is, there’s a strong correlation between poor education and poverty, and it ought to serve as a warning that the American faith in upward mobility may be meaningless for future generations.

Whenever such studies emerge comparing countries on academic achievement, they set off alarms of impending economic doom. Unless we do something about it, the U.S. will lose its pre-eminence in the global system.

But the report also touches on the impact of less-discussed aspects of learning; the ability to solve problems, to communicate effectively, to self-manage and to keep up in a fast-changing job market.

The report’s summary noted: “In all countries, individuals who score at lower levels of proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with higher proficiency to report poor health, believe that they have little impact on the political process, and not participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, individuals with lower proficiency are also more likely to have lower levels of trust in others.”

Clearly, more than the GDP is at stake with subpar education. It impacts government, charity, the very nature of a society.

Jonathan Jacobs assessed what this may mean for American civic society in a September essay in The Wall Street Journal.

“The decline in education means a decline in the ability of individuals — and ultimately the nation as a whole — to address political, social and moral matters in effective, considered ways,” wrote Jacobs, chairman of the philosophy department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

He lamented that, too often, the education system itself, even at the college level, fails to teach students to make distinctions between “theories, beliefs, hypotheses, interpretations and other categories of thought.” Learning how to think is replaced by “ideological scorekeeping,” and “the use of adjectives replaces the use of arguments.”

This concern takes on a certain piquancy in light of the stalemate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling. Never mind the uneducated masses; look at the gross dereliction of civic responsibility on display in Washington!

It’s tempting to think that we are governed by moral and rhetorical incompetents because we let our standards slip. We’re getting soft. We’re not stern or rigorous enough with our students and our teachers. But that’s too easy. Such a pat explanation fails to address another salient point made in the report.

Educational policy has a strong bearing on the country-to-country differences in the standings. Some countries do a better job at ensuring equitable educational outcomes and at providing consistent opportunities for learning throughout people’s lifetimes, and not merely for a select portion of a population.

For nearly two generations, an elite has been busy remaking our nation into a plutocracy, and part of that project has been the degradation of our public education systems, which have historically been balkanized along race and class lines.

This elite has made war against any policy that aims to produce equality of outcomes. As long as we permit that orthodoxy to prevail, it’s doubtful these OECD studies will bring any glad tidings to the United States.

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