November 10, 2013

Education In America: The Real Death Spiral

by Hal Gershowitz

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America faces many domestic challenges, but none are as great as that imposed by the steady decline in the effectiveness of education in America. None!

While the quality of education in our country may be difficult to quantify, the quality of learning is not.  The results are in, and they are horrifying. What we are witnessing is the widespread dumbing down of America. The acquired knowledge of students graduating from our secondary schools and our colleges and universities is pathetic compared to their peers abroad, and there is growing evidence that we are sacrificing critical thinking skills on the altar of Bush-era, government-mandated standardized testing.

This is a problem that will affect all of us — those who are wealthy and those who are poor, those who are intelligent and those who are not, those who work hard and those who don’t, those who are healthy and those who are ill and those who are old and those who are young.

We are relying on a tiny sliver of the population, the innovators, to keep America competitive and strong.  Perhaps, these pockets of innovation — the Silicon Valleys of America — will continue to buoy our economy for the indefinite future, but we wouldn’t count on it.  Chronically poor education achievement will, in time, lead to chronically poor economic achievement.  If our students continue to fall farther and farther behind, our economy will begin to follow suit.  The less knowledgeable our people become, and the less adept their critical-thinking skills, the weaker our economy and competitive dexterity will become.  Now, that’s a real death spiral we should all understand.

So what’s the problem?  Is this just a matter of only getting what you pay for?  Not really. The national availability of money isn’t the issue, although the distribution of available funds is.  We spend more per student, much more, than just about every other advanced country with the exception of Denmark, but if a child is from a poor neighborhood he or she isn’t apt to receive a fair share of the pie. Far from it.  Sad to say, but we are one of the few countries that spends more on schools that serve students from wealthy families than we spend on schools serving students from poor families. Far too much school funding is still derived from local property taxes which guarantees that children from families that live in communities with high property values will have more money (much more) invested in their education than children from impoverished communities with low property values. There is something very wrong with this picture.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently issued its annual education report.  It should be required reading for every politician, educator and parent in America.  First, we learn that in the United States brand-new and experienced teachers alike out earn most of their counterparts around the globe, although increases in teachers’ wages have slowed since the economic crisis hit in 2008.

The 440-page report shows that the United States spent more than $11,000 per elementary student in 2010 and more than $12,000 per high school student. When the public costs for programs after high school education such as college or vocational training are factored in, we spend $15,171 on each young person in the system – more than any other nation covered in the report. Switzerland’s total spending per student came closest to that of the United States at $14,922, while Mexico averaged in at the low end at $2,993. The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person.  So the resources, “on average,” are quite ample, but more than one person has, then again, drowned in streams the “average” depth of which was only two feet. The averages can, and do, mask the disparities between rich and poor and this is simply wrong in public education.

We also spend more relative to GDP than other countries. America spent 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on education (in 2010), compared with the 6.3 percent average of other most developed OECD countries. Only tiny Denmark spends more relative to GDP, with 8 percent of its gross domestic product going toward education.

While the disparity in investment in education between rich and poor must be addressed, it doesn’t begin to explain the difference in achievement. We have far too many graduating college students who are, well, let us be blunt – pretty ignorant.   Last year, the Roper organization issued a report commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that found that nearly half of recent college graduates didn’t know the US constitution established the separation of powers, nearly half didn’t know who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and nearly two-thirds didn’t know the length of a Congressman’s term of office.  And most startling, over a third of college graduates evidenced no cognitive gains during their college careers.  Small wonder, then, that half of the nation’s employers report difficulty in finding qualified recent college students to hire.

Michael Poliakoff, an official with the group that commissioned the Roper study referenced above, minced no words. “Higher education (in America) is facing a real crisis of effectiveness.”

This is very serious stuff with (what appears to us to be) a pretty interesting correlation between the output of our schools and the economic output of the nation.  Far fetched?  We don’t think so.

Here’s some interesting data we came across while researching this essay. According to Robert J. Gordon, a professor at Northwestern University writing in the Wall Street Journal, the average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. Quite a record.  For nine consecutive decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has pretty much done an about face.

No surprise that companies pay better-educated people higher wages. They’re simply more productive.  Professor Gordon writes that the premium employers pay to a college graduate compared to a high school graduate has soared since 1970, because of higher demand for technical and communication skills at the top of the scale, and a collapse in demand for unskilled and semiskilled workers at the bottom.

And this is why what is happening in education and the attendant dumbing down of America is so critical…and so dangerous to the future health of the country. High school graduation rates soared from 10 percent of youth in 1900 to 80 percent by 1970, and, make no mistake about it; this was a central driver of 20th-century economic growth.  But what has been happening in just the last decade or so? The percentage of 18-year-olds receiving bona fide high school diplomas fell to 74 percent in 2000, according to the University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman. Professor Heckman also notes that dropouts who become holders of high school General Education Development certificates (G.E.D.’s) perform no better economically than high school dropouts.

Add to this the unmistakable reality of the declining quality of our schools and we have trouble in River City. The Program for International Student Assessment tests has consistently rated American high schoolers as unimpressive in reading, math and science skills, compared with their peers in other advanced economies. Small wonder our current rate of growth is also unimpressive and destined to remain unimpressive.

While nationally only three quarters of American high school students graduate, the graduation rate is considerably worse in our urban centers.  What is startling, however, is that graduation rates are even worse at the college level.  You read that right. Our colleges perform worse than our high schools.  American colleges, on average, graduate only about half of their students in six years, and some colleges graduate none within six years. While white high school students are graduating at a mediocre rate at best, the graduation rates of blacks and Hispanics are really abysmal.

While barely half of white students graduate college within six years, the median graduation rate for blacks is less than 40 percent and less than 45 percent for Hispanics.  Interestingly, the median high school graduation rate for those of Asian ethnicity is over 90 percent, but the median college completion rate even for Asians is only 50 percent.

Our spectacular growth following the Second World War can largely be attributed to the greatest school voucher program the world had, or has, ever seen.  It was called the GI Bill. For most of the postwar period, the G.I. Bill made education more accessible and more affordable in the United States than anywhere in the world. But, alas, those days are long gone.  We now rank 16th in accessibility. The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who hold a four-year bachelor’s degree is now lower than in many of the more advanced countries with whom we compete. And about one-quarter of our recent college graduates are without work or are accepting low paying jobs.  If that isn’t depressing enough, they have racked up over $1 trillion in debt to reach this sorry state.

Research shows, however, that a college graduate with $100,000 of student debt will still come out ahead in about a dozen years following graduation.  But an alarming number of students are dropping out of college or failing to graduate within even six years.  They face a double whammy because they still will have accumulated huge student debt and they have absolutely no prospect of ever paying it back.  That’s because a college dropout will earn little more than a high school graduate.

Two-year community colleges, which really are a life preserver for many high school graduates and can be a gateway to academic achievement, now enroll 42 percent of America’s undergraduates. But, according to the Center on International Education Benchmarking, only 13 percent of students in two-year colleges graduate in two years, and only 28% graduate after four years. Fortunately, some community colleges such as College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California offer a wide array of skill certification programs that do a very impressive job of preparing students for well-paying careers.

So what does all of this mean?  In a nutshell, we’re compromising our ability to grow at the very time we desperately need strong and sustained growth. Even in today’s lackluster labor market, employers cannot find workers with the needed skills to operate complex modern computer-driven machinery.  The underclass in America no longer consists primarily of those who are the targets of ethnic discrimination. The new underclass is destined to be the under educated and under trained regardless of ethnicity, and once men and women drop into this new underclass they will find future upper mobility extremely daunting.

There have been a multitude of studies that quantify the seriousness of the education crisis. How serious is it?

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress two out of three eighth-graders can’t read proficiently and most will never catch up, and nearly two-thirds of eighth-graders scored below proficient in math. Seventy-five percent of students are not proficient in civics. Nearly three out of four eighth-and 12th-grade students cannot write proficiently, and some 1.1 million American students drop out of school every year.

It is beyond sad. While the United States had the highest high school graduation rate following the Second World War, today, we have dropped to number 22 among 27 industrialized nations.  Our kids rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading compared to students in the 27 industrialized OECD countries. By the end of the eighth-grade, U.S. students are two years behind in math compared to their peers in other countries.  The U.S. ranks behind 13 other countries in terms of the percentage of 25-34 year-olds who have completed some college coursework.

We have, in many respects, the finest colleges in the world, but something is terribly wrong.  Less than half of American students – 46 percent – finish college, placing us last among 18 industrialized countries. Only one in four high school students graduate ready for college in all four core subjects (English, reading, math and science), which is why a third of students entering college have to take remedial courses.  Based on ACT scores only 4 percent of African American students and 11 percent of Hispanic students finish high school ready for college in their core subjects.  According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, two-thirds of college professors report that what is taught in high school does not prepare students for college.

It’s about time we faced facts. We have a failing education system in America and if our education system fails, it will only be a matter of time before our economy fails as well.  First, there’s the matter of lost tax revenue.  Over the course of his working life, an American male with a college degree can expect to earn nearly $675,000 more than his counterpart with only a high school diploma, and an American female $340,000 more.  In other words, Americans who earn a college degree make a 40 percent higher salary than those with just a high school diploma.  Worse, high school dropouts will only earn 5 percent of what a typical college graduate will make over the course of his lifetime.

We can wring our hands forever over the disparity of income in America, but it will only get worse if we don’t get our education house in order. Want to know why Social Security is heading for insolvency?  Because the income we assumed we would realize from Social Security withholding taxes when we last made major revisions to the law have failed to materialize.  Earnings for nearly all Americans have stagnated for the last decade and a half. In fact, Americans with only a high school diploma have actually seen wages fall since 2000. College grads saw stagnant wages, while only those with advanced degrees actually made some gains.  So, all of the rosy projections for income and income taxes, including those for Social Security have failed to materialize.  We have a lot of catching up to do.

Remember, five out of six high school graduates who aren’t attending college full-time are also not working full-time. A recent McKinsey study estimates that our annual GDP could increase by as much as $525 billion if we were to close the gap between white students and their black and Latino peers.  Every annual class of dropouts costs the U.S. $192 billion in lost income and taxes.  According to J. Amos Hatch’s study of education in America, we could see a combined savings and revenue of almost $8 billion each year if even just 5 percent of all dropouts stayed in school and went on to college.

According to a 2011 Gallup poll most Americans now believe that today’s youth will not do as well as their parents.  And here’s a real sea change in America.  A study, “Education and Economic Mobility” conducted by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution concludes that about two thirds of children born to parents in the bottom income strata remain stuck in the lowest quintiles as adults.  Think of that.  And finally, according to the Pew Report, “Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations,” Only 4 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the economic ladder will rise to the top as adults, and nearly two-thirds of African-Americans who grew up in middle class families will fall to the lower rungs as adults. Think about that too.

We have many issues in America, but we believe the crisis in education is the most pressing of them all – greater than the deficit, greater than our national debt, greater than energy independence and greater than the poor state of our infrastructure.  Our destiny is one and the same as the destiny of the nation’s youth. If we fail them, we simply fail.

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8 responses to “Education In America: The Real Death Spiral”

  1. Jim Katz says:

    Great article
    A wake up call for everyone
    AND there is direct correlation to those are lower economic strata and those who are obese. Many contributors to obesity but the lower income strata is one of them

    Our country loses on many fronts including lower economic output as well as a higher cost of medical health care for those who are obese.

  2. Jerry says:

    Hard to believe: a long article about the education problem in our country without a word about the teachers’ unions. Sorry, but money – and the unequal distribution of money – is not the main problem. It may not be a problem at all. Washington DC is at the top of spending per pupil and at the bottom of achievement.
    Education in this country is just another failed government program; one of the largest. As long as the teachers control so many votes and our politicians are for sale, this problem will just get worse and worse.
    Can you imagine? For votes, the Black Caucus (and the president) sell out their own people by voting against charter schools.
    Read A Beautiful Tree.

    • Point well taken! We did deal with the problems of union domination of education in our essay, “The Road to Real Recovery: there are no Express Lanes” (October 13, 2013). We wrote:

      “Get serious about education.
      Our union-controlled, politicized education complex is producing a breathtakingly undereducated citizenry, especially in our urban centers. If we continue to produce second and third-rate students, we WILL become a second and third-rate country. This is a crisis in America and we must deal with it as such.”

      We should have repeated the point in today’s essay.

  3. susan duman says:

    I supervise social workers in charter schools in Chicago.
    There is a lot of attention being paid to underserved communities.
    As youpoint out, it goes up the ladder and includes our best educated.
    Could it be that we are not paying attention to the way kids brains are developing with the internet?

    Whatever, it is depressing.
    Thanks for your research.

    Susan D

  4. mark j levick says:

    Our President tells our youth they are entitled to go to college. Never a mention that most don’t qualify for higher education because they were passed along through a system that relates performance to graduation statistics. The Teacher’s Union and the liberal left dictate a study model which is geared to fairness and fantasy rather than basic reading, math and cognitive reasoning skills. Teachers have no ability to discipline unruly students and many inner city schools are basically daycare centers. Competition to get into the best programs and best schools would be helpful but that’s not on anyone’s agenda because then we would need to admit that all schools are not equal and most study programs are designed for the average student not the exceptional student. Great teachers can spot great talent let’s let them do there job and reward that talent and energy by recognizing initiative as being meritorious. Government models have produced mediocrity at best and as long as that’s good enough for Americans we are destined to be a second rate power per the statistics you have disseminated. A Society that can’t think past a sound bite is doomed. Look no further than our elected representatives for verification.

  5. Dan Newell says:

    It is very easy to describe the ed problems we all see. It is much harder to implement new ideas that experts alike believe would help.

    There are two areas of how to improve ed that I have recently become familiar with. My wife volunteer teaches at Mecca Elementary School, a low achieving school in a rural area near California’s border with Mexico. She presented her observations with suggestions to a local group where we live and included video clips and papers published by experts on how to improve elementary ed at Mecca and elsewhere. One paper was Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece Most Likely To Succeed of 12-15-2008. Don’t miss it. My wife’s focus was how to improve the quality of primary and secondary level teachers.

    Secondly I just finished reading about student application acceptance criteria used by a top flight private American University that many high school kids want to attend. I learned that what most of us might think we want from our secondary schools to prepare kids for life and college might not actually work – or at least in some cases might not work. One stat from this school: 69% of the applying kids who got perfect SAT scores of 2400 in the last 5 year period were NOT accepted by this school as freshmen. Other lower-scoring kids were in fact accepted instead. So why not understand those acceptance factors and prepare our kids in those areas? (Especially if the kid is 7 feet tall and can hit threes from 25 feet.) Seriously tho, why not redo secondary ed to better match entrance criteria used by elite schools that kids want to attend? And of course, give just as much if not more secondary school attention to the less gifted kid.


  6. Donald Borsand says:

    So many things wrong with the USA. Really depressing. Or is it too much time on our hands, especially when retired? My next door neighbors are both Chinese. When I mention all that is wrong in the U.S. & that China will pass us by,they don’t hesitate to say that China is almost “the definition of corruption” &, as as bad as we see things in the U.S., the U.S. is a paradise compared to China.

  7. Michael Rabinovitch says:

    While now a decade old, Professor William Ouchi’s book, “Making Schools Work” is a must read for those interested in how granting a school’s principal the autonomy to spend their budget as they see fit can make an immediate impact on the quality of education at the individual school level.

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