Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Can US Education Be Fixed?

The following is an email I received from Lloyd Eskildson, about the failures of US education, especially in comparison with other wealthy countries.
Your book is 'spot on' as the British would say, except for one aspect - needing more money for education. What is needed instead is much greater respect for education and increased parental/pupil motivation. Unfortunately, the resulting potential job attractiveness (also a motivator) would largely be negated by the much lower wage rates in Asia; at least this would cure the functional illiteracy issue. Though I have never taken an 'education course' nor do I have an education degree, I have had a strong interest in education for 30+ years, and have served as consultant to and Chief Deputy at the Maricopa County School Supt. Office. Following are some comments I made regarding a January, 2010 "U.S. News/World Report" that was trying to be optimistic.
The bulk of this issue focuses on efforts to improve U.S. education. Contents include part of President Obama's plan (encouraging a longer school day and school year), D.C. schools' efforts to abandon teacher tenure and implement merit pay, New Orleans becoming the only major city with a majority of pupils in charter schools, and a major 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB) mistake (allowing states to choose their own standards, invariably low). The issue also highlights the provocative question, "Will School Reform Fail?" on its front cover.

The answer, unfortunately, is "Yes - just like all the prior school reform efforts." But first, some background, starting with good news. 1)The "U.S. News and World Report" does not mention increased funding as a need. This follows decades of an emphasis on steadily increased inflation-adjusted funding/pupil (up about 250% in 30 years), with very little if anything to show in the way of improved pupil outcomes - especially at the high-school graduate level. Unfortunately, we have wasted trillions of dollars getting to this point, and continue doing so. 2)President Obama's efforts to extend the school day and year are on the right track. The late Professor Harold Stevenson (Univ. of Michigan) spent years researching differences between U.S. schools and those in China, Japan, and Taiwan. Each of the three nations spends a much smaller proportion of GDP on education, while their upper-level pupils consistently outscore ours. Stevenson found that Asian pupils spent almost 50% more time/week in class and had a school year about one-third longer. (Many Asian pupils also enroll in additional week-end and evening private schooling.) Similarly, years ago I found that the highest-scoring Arizona 3rd-grade readers were consistently located in the same small, farming community - the 'secret' was their teacher spent much more time on reading than others; unfortunately, this effort was not sustained in higher grades and the higher achievement faded as the pupils aged. Regardless, when Professor Stevenson presented his findings at a symposium that I helped organize, educators in attendance downplayed, belittled, and ignored his findings. 3)Studies have repeatedly found that high goals lead to higher achievement - in all areas of life. Hopefully, the NCLB mistake of allowing educators to assign themselves self-defeating low-goals (avoid accountability), will be quickly corrected now that it has been recognized.

Now, the relatively bad news. 1)U.S. educators are not likely to extend the school day and school year to come close to matching the efforts of pupils in the Far East - despite President Obama's imprimatur. 2)Education vouchers, school choice, and charter schools are major components of current reform efforts. All are based on the belief that schools competing for pupils will outperform those that do not. Makes sense, and there is some encouraging evidence. However, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reported (6/15/09) that, 'in the aggregate, students in charter schools (are) not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.' Readers might be tempted to dismiss this finding as economic heresy; however, it is actually an invaluable piece of evidence. 2)The late Professor James Coleman (Univ. of Chicago) conducted one of the largest education studies in history, involving over 150,000 pupils, and intended to demonstrate that minority pupils were short-changed. Instead, Coleman found there was more variation in pupil achievement within schools than between schools - ergo, differences between U.S. schools were not the main key to success! Coleman's findings were derived from sophisticated statistical analysis. However, this major finding has been obvious for decades -sizable and sustained differences in pupil achievement exist between various ethnic and socio-economic groups. Instead of recognizing, celebrating (where appropriate), and acting upon those differences, we pretend they don't exist. When I went to school it was no secret that pupils of Asian and Jewish heritage performed, on average, much better than the rest of us. The rest of us survived a lack of special attention and got over it. Similarly, it's obvious today that minorities, in general, do much worse than most - in both dropout rates and academic achievement. How is this caused by, or to be cured by, the schools?

Coleman's finding is consistent with CREDOs. What's more, both findings are consistent with another of Stevenson's - that Asian parents (and pupils) were much more concerned about and involved with their children's' schooling than their American counterparts. Seemingly, American educators have been inadvertently functioning as education's worst enemies - constantly emphasizing the need for more money and new programs has implicitly downplayed the key role of parental and pupil motivation. Asian societies maximize those motivations through high-stakes college entrance examinations; conversely, the U.S. further reduces these motivations by trying to make it easier for graduates to attend college (already 67%, though about one-half drop out - up from one-fifth in the 1960s) through greater funding for aid and scholarships.

Finally, the really bad news. Education reform has been tried and failed for more decades than even I can recall. We've lurched back and forth from group instruction to individualized instruction, team-teaching to individual teacher teaching, bilingual instruction to English immersion, large schools to small schools, special education to mainstreaming, norm-referenced to criterion-referenced testing, New Math to higher-order thinking to rote drills, ability grouping to not, raising standards to building self-esteem through lower standards, more homework to less, reading instruction via phonics vs. whole language, cultural literacy to multiculturalism to values-free education, peer tutoring to teaching assistants, teacher-directed vs. child-centered, site-based management vs. leadership accountability, public school assignments by residence to open enrollment, vouchers, and charter schools, basic schools vs. 'regular' schools, etc. En route, we've also added kindergarten and pre-school (some areas), teacher professionalization, computers and the Internet, rebuilt and upgraded facilities, reduced class size, added specialists and supervisors, driven out competitive games in P.E., increased time-on-task (until we forgot about it), added compensatory education (Title I), Head Start, and gifted education, increased teacher pay to where it exceeds that of most private school teachers, raised additional monies through special tax programs, bake sales, book sales, and carnivals, and even mentioned parental involvement from time to time.

For what? Dropout rates, and achievement levels for those graduating are about where they were years ago. Its been like Lucie, Charlie Brown, and the football - over and over. The really good news is that Stevenson also found that U.S. children began school with higher achievement levels than their Far East competitors. We've had great educators - Jaime Escalante (Los Angeles), Marva Collins (Chicago), Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin (KIPP), Seymour Fliegel (Harlem), almost all those who taught at my high school (Wheaton High - '59), as well as innumerable successors today. But they can't do it on their own. We just need to forget about education fads, face reality, and demand more - starting with ourselves.

My (DSM) response to this was as follows:

Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. I agree with most of what you say, and especially your focus on the problem of parental involvement (or lack thereof) and student motivation. In my mind, though, the main reason for this in the US, compared to the other countries you mention, is simply the much higher incidence of poverty in this country. Poverty creates so many obstacles to effective education that no "fix" of the educational system is likely to work--as you point out.

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