While critics tend to rely on the three-decades long decline of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to document the dumbing down of American education, more alarming is our performance against the students of other industrialized countries. By virtually every measure of achievement, American students lag far behind their counterparts in both Asia and Europe, especially in math and science. Moreover, the evidence suggests that they are falling farther and farther behind. As educational researcher Harold Stevenson notes, although “the U.S. is among the countries expending the highest proportion of their gross national product on education, our elementary school and secondary school students never place above the median in comparative studies of academic achievement.”
Part of the reason is that neither our schools nor our students spend very much time at it. The National Education Commission on Time and Learning found that most American students spend less than half their day actually studying academic subjects. The commission’s two-year study found that American students spent only about 41 percent of the school day on basic academics. Their schedules jammed with course work in self-esteem, personal safety, AIDS education, family life, consumer training, driver’s ed, holistic health, and gym, the typical American high school student spends only 1,460 hours on subjects like math, science, and history during their four years in high schools. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Japan will spend 3,170 hours on basic subjects, students in France will spend 3,280 on academics, while students in Germany will spend 3,528 hours studying such subjects – nearly three times the hours devoted in American schools.
By some estimates, teachers in Japan give elementary students three times as much homework as American children are given by their teachers, while teachers in Taipei give their students seven times as much homework as children in Minneapolis. By fifth grade, children in Minneapolis are getting slightly more than four hours a week in homework, while fifth graders in Japan get six hours and students in Taipei, thirteen hours.
Our Best and Brightest
The academic crisis is not confined to low-achieving students. Besides the overall drop, the SAT scores show evidence of a rot at the top – a decline in the number of high-scoring students. Even though the number of students taking the SAT rose by more than 50,000 between 1962 and 1983, for example, the number of students scoring above a 700 on the verbal section dropped from 19,099 in 1962-63 to 11,638. Although the number of high-scoring students in math has risen in the last decade, our best students do not stack up well in comparison with their foreign counterparts. According to the National Research Council, average students in other industrialized countries are as proficient in mathematics as America’s best students. The Second International Mathematics Study found that the “performance of the top 5 percent of U.S. students is matched by the top 50 percent of students in Japan.” When the very best American students – the top one percent – are measured against the best students of other countries, America’s best and brightest finished at the bottom .
When tests compare achievement levels in advanced algebra, for example, twelfth graders in Japan and Hong Kong earn mean scores of nearly 80 points, twice the American mean of 40. The same gap appears in scores for the elementary functions of calculus, where Chinese and Japanese students earn mean scores of more than 60, while their twelfth-grade American counterparts score only around 30. Asians, however, are not the only students to outperform us.
In tests measuring the mathematical ability of eighth graders in 20 countries, American students finished tenth in arithmetic, twelfth in algebra, and sixteenth in geometry. High school seniors fared just as poorly. In comparisons with students from 143 other countries, American students finished in the lowest quarter in geometry and ranked second from the bottom in algebra. Stevenson reported: “On no test did American students attain an average score that fell above the median for all countries.” A test of thirteen-year-olds in Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States found American students dead last in math competence.
Another study of children born in 1974 documents the growing disparities between the performance of American and foreign students. Supervised by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, the international study monitored 24,000 children from twelve countries. When the test was published in the late 1980s, the students were just entering high school. They are now entering the workforce. Seventy-eight percent of the Korean children born in 1974 tested at the 500 level in intermediate math, as did 73 percent of children from French Quebec, and 69 percent from British Columbia. In contrast, only 40 percent of American children achieved at the 500 level. Forty percent of the Korean youngsters scored at the 600 level, which requires a higher level of conceptual understanding, compared with 24 percent of students from British Columbia, and 22 percent of students from French Quebec. Only nine percent of Americans scored at this level.
Apologists for American education often complain that such comparisons are unfair because high school attendance is not as widespread in other countries as it is here. It is therefore unfair, they say, to compare the performance of the exclusive foreign secondary school with the inclusive and democratic high school of this country. But test scores of elementary students gives the lie to such arguments. Elementary education is compulsory worldwide and the same gaps in achievement are found in the tests of younger children.
Comparisons of math scores tend to be mixed for children in the first grade here and abroad. But by the time children have reached the fifth grade, the scores have diverged dramatically. Even when culturally fair tests are used, American students still fail to perform up to the level of their Asian counterparts. As Stevenson reported: “Even the best American schools were not competitive with their counterparts in Asia on mathematics achievement . . . The highest-scoring American school falls below the lowest-scoring Asian schools.”‘
One factor in this international learning gap seems to be that we simply ask less of our students than other countries. While one fourth to one third of the high school students in other industrialized countries pass high-level achievement tests in biology that require in-depth knowledge and reasoning skills, only one in twenty-five Americans students (4 percent) passes such tests. A study by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found that between 30 percent and 50 percent of students in other countries take advanced, subject-specific exams and that 62 percent to 96 percent passed those tests. In contrast, only 7 percent of American students take Advanced Placement Exams and less than two-thirds pass. The AFT reported that “Entrance to most universities in this country is not dependent upon achieving mastery of rigorous science content (or, for that matter, virtually any other subject-matter content).” In other industrialized countries exams requiring extensive knowledge and skills “must be passed by students who want to go on to study in colleges or universities,” and “since the exams are well aligned with the school curriculum, students understand that working hard in school will pay off.”
The study’s author concluded: “In England and Wales, France, Germany and Japan, where students, teachers and parents all know what is expected of the college-bound and what is at stake, a significant number of youngsters rise to the challenge and achieve high standards . . . we are asking too little of too many of our students, and we are giving them very few incentives to work hard.”
The Usual Excuses
Confronted with this dismal record, the educationist establishment relies on a grab bag of excuses and rationalizations. Americans, Stevenson noted, often blame “poor physical facilities and excessive numbers of students” for low test scores and mediocre academic performance. But he concluded: “Our data, especially from Taiwan and China, go a long way toward dispelling such interpretations. Large schools, large class size, and old-fashioned school buildings do not necessarily limit children’s academic achievement.”” American teachers also turn out to have higher levels of formal education than their Asian counterparts.”
|This is so very usual for psychologists and psychologists. They blame everything except themselves and their own methods – which are the true source of the failures. If students in other countries do better than American students with worse buildings, larger student classrooms, and routinely undertrained teachers, then the only obvious reasons for poorer US results are the teaching methods and materials. Education is failing in the United States because the practices and theories it is based upon are incorrect, and effectively sabotage the students’ learning ability. “Professionals” attempt to make it seem so very complex with this study and that study, this situation and that situation, and on and on, but this is all a smokescreen to hide the facts – that they are a chronic failure with education and are destroying the ability of future generations to think and deal effectively with life.|
Other defenders of the status quo have found comfort in blaming our educational problems on television and working parents, but neither excuse works. Indeed, Stevenson and his colleagues have found that Japanese fifth graders “watched as much, if not more, television each day as American children.” Their studies found that the average Japanese child watched two hours of television a day, while the average American child of the same age watched 1.8 hours a day.
If television cannot account for low achievement, neither does the prevalence of working mothers in American homes. In the international comparisons cited above, researchers identified the family background of the test takers. They found that while 35 percent of the mothers of Minneapolis students were working mothers, so were 30 percent of the Japanese mothers, 33 percent of the mothers in Taipei, and 97 percent of the mothers in Beijing. ” Stevenson also notes that Americans comfort themselves with stereotypes in which Asian children are pictured as being under great stress from early ages; that Asian children are somehow “easier” to teach than American kids because they are more docile; that there is little to emulate in Asian teaching methods because they stress rote learning and rely on endless, mindless drill of basic skills. While these false stereotypes “allow us to maintain a view of ourselves as relaxed, successful, effective individualists who are creative, innovative, and independent,” Stevenson wrote, they are “largely inaccurate.”
Asian students may work hard, but researchers have found no evidence that they “suffer greater psychological distress or a greater incidence of suicide than exists in Western children.” Nor is there much support for theories that attribute higher levels of Asian achievement to genetically superior intelligences.
If demographics, television, IQ, and money do not account for the differences, attitudes certainly do. Americans have very different assumptions than do their Asian counterparts about the appropriate role parents should play in the education of their children. Asians, according to Stevenson, expect schools to develop academic skills, while they believe it is up to the home to support the schools and to provide a “healthy emotional environment.” In contrast, Americans expect more of their schools and less of themselves. Stevenson says that many Americans “seem to expect that schools will take on responsibility for many more aspects of the child’s life,” including family roles, sex, drugs, minority relations, illnesses, nutrition, and fire prevention.
The Legacy of Dumbness
The result is a tragic legacy of educational mediocrity:
* More than a decade after A Nation at Risk drew attention to the nation’s educational mediocrity, the reading proficiency of nine- and thirteen-year-olds has declined even further.
* The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that a third of American seventeen-year-olds say they are not required to do homework on a daily basis.
* Only one high school junior out of fifty (2 percent) can write well enough to meet national goals.
* Less than 10 percent of seventeen-year-olds can do “rigorous” academic work in “basic” subjects.
* In the United States today, only one in five nine-year-olds can perform even basic mathematical operations. According to the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only one in six nine-year-olds reads well enough to “search for specific information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations.” Only one in four nine-year-olds can apply basic scientific information.”
* Among American thirteen-year-olds, only one in ten can “find, understand, and summarize complicated information.” Only one in eight eighth graders can understand basic terms and historical relationships. One in eight understands specific government structures and relationships.”
* Only one in eight thirteen-year-olds can understand and apply intermediate scientific knowledge and principles. The NAEP found that the percentage of American thirteen-year-olds who understand measurement and geometry concepts and can analyze scientific knowledge and principles “was among the lowest of many countries in the developed world.”” The 1990 NAEP concluded that “Large proportions, perhaps more than half of our elementary, middle, and high school students are unable to demonstrate competency in challenging subject matter in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. Further, even fewer appear to be able to use their minds well.”
* The writing ability of American students is little short of appalling. American schools, according to the NAEP, produce few students who can write well. Only 3 percent of American fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders can write above a “minimal” or “adequate” level, according to the 1992 “Writing Report Card.” The test, which rated students’ writing abilities on a scale of one to six, found that fewer than one in thirty American children earned a score of five or six, which meant they could write effectively and persuasively. Only one out of four students even managed to write at the “developed” level, which earned a score of four. “Even the best students who could write effective narrative and informative pieces had difficulty” writing persuasively, the study found.” In 1988, only 3 percent of American high school seniors could describe their own television viewing habits in writing above an “adequate” level.
* A “reading report card” finds that 25 percent of high school seniors can barely read their diplomas. A standardized test given to 26,000 Americans sixteen and older “concluded that 80 million Americans are deficient in the basic reading and mathematical skills needed to perform rudimentary tasks in today’s society. 1113 A 1993 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 90 million adults – 47 percent of the population of the United States – demonstrate low levels of literacy. The level of literacy among adults had fallen by 4 percent since 1986 .
* Only 15 percent of college faculty members say that their students are adequately prepared in mathematics and quantitative reasonings lower proportion than among higher-education faculty in Hong Kong, Korea, Sweden, Russian, Mexico, Japan, Chile, Israel, or Australia. Only one in five faculty members thinks students have adequate writing and speaking skills.
* A Washington, D.C., grade-school teacher reports that many of the fifth- and sixth-grade students in her geography class were unable to locate Washington, D.C., on a map of the United States, even though they lived in the nation’s capital themselves. A survey by the Gallup Organization found that one in seven adults can’t find the United States on a blank map of the world. This shouldn’t be surprising. In one college geography class 25 percent of the students could not locate the Soviet Union on a world map, while on a map of the forty-eight contiguous states, only 22 percent of the class could identify forty or more states correctly.
* Despite the growing importance of scientific knowledge, surveys have found that Americans are woefully ignorant of basic scientific facts. A majority of Americans,. for example, do not know that the earth and sun are part of the Milky Way galaxy, and a third of them think humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. A 1994 survey by Louis Harris & Associates and the American Museum of Natural History found that only about one adult in five scored 60 percent or better on a test of basic knowledge of subjects like space, animals, the environment, diseases, and earth.
* Teachers report that the fall of Communism and the demolition of the Berlin Wall was greeted with blank indifference by many students who knew too little about history to understand or care about the events. “I’m sorry,” one high school senior asked during a class discussion of the Eastern Bloc, “but what is this talk of satellites?”
* In the late 1980s, a national survey of high school seniors found that fewer than half could define even basic economic terms. Nearly two thirds of the seniors were unable to correctly define “profit,” and less than half could define a “government budget deficit.” Most seniors were also baffled by the concept of “inflation.” The author of the “Report Card on the Economic Literacy of U.S. High School Students” concluded that “our schools are producing a nation of economic illiterates,” and that the level of economic knowledge of students who had the benefit of twelve years of education is “shocking.”” Especially damning was the finding that even students who took basic high school economics answered only 52 percent of the questions correctly. Students who took “consumer economics” got only 40 percent of the answers correct, while students who took social studies courses were right only 37 percent of the time. A 1992 survey by the National Center for Research in Economic Education and the Gallup Organization yielded similar results. High school seniors answered basic economic questions correctly only 35 percent of the time.
* SAT verbal scores have dropped from a mean of 478 in 1962 to 423 in 1994-a drop of 54 points. The SAT mean math score has fallen from 502 to 479 – a drop of 23 points. While math scores have risen 8 points since 1984, they are still below 1974 levels. The national verbal average has fallen 3 points since 1984. During the same period (1960-90), spending on elementary and secondary education increased more than 200 percent, after inflation. Class size has decreased by one third, enrollment has declined by 7 percent, and the number of teachers has increased by 17 percent. Moreover, the decline in test scores came at a time when average teacher salaries and the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees both tripled.
There are obvious real-world consequences for this decline:
* American businesses are now spending $30 billion on workers’ training and lose an estimated $25 to $30 billion a year as result of their workers’ weak reading and writing skills.
* A survey by the National Association of Manufacturers found that nearly a third of American businesses said the learning skills of their workers are so low that they are unable to reorganize work responsibilities. A quarter of American businesses say their ability to improve their products is limited because of the inability of their employees to learn the necessary skills.
* In a recent year, the Bellsouth Corporation in Atlanta found that fewer than 10 percent of their job applicants met minimal levels of ability for sales, service, and technical jobs. At the same time, MCI Communications in Boston reported that some of its jobs were going unfilled because the company could not find enough qualified applicants.
* In late 1992, executives at Pacific Telesis found that 60 percent of the high school graduates applying for jobs at the firm failed a company exam set at the seventh-grade level.
This excerpt is taken from the book by Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why America’s Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add