American students are slipping further behind their peers from overseas, according to a study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Out of sixty-four countries surveyed, the US earned a grade of “average” in reading and science, and “below average” in math.
The ranking system is a little confusing because thirty-four countries count themselves as members of the OECD, but the organization studies and ranks sixty-four.
The poor showing in relative rankings appears to be the result of improving scores in other, mostly Far Eastern countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan. Our raw scores stayed fairly even while theirs shot up, resulting in a decline in relative standings. In math, American kids were twenty-fourth out of sixty-five in 2010 but twenty-ninth in 2012. Reading isn’t exactly our strong suit either—we dropped from the tenth position to the twentieth in just two years. How embarrassing. At this rate we’ll be on par with banana republics ten years from now.
The boondoggle of public education is an American shame. There’s something very wrong with our schools that seems to defy all of our most well-intentioned remedies. Without a clear diagnosis as to what ails our education system, we’ve stumbled around, searching in vain for the right medicine.
A few things haven’t worked, that’s for sure. No Child Left Behind seems to have left plenty of children behind. The Department of Education has not stopped our freefall through the educational rankings. “New math” and other educational fads are a flop too. As it turns out, finding the right mathematical answer really is important. The OECD awards no points for having the right process.
The federal school lunch program is another failure. The original rationale for providing free or reduced lunches was to improve academic performance. Johnny can’t read, you see, because Johnny’s hungry. So we instituted a program that worked about as well as any other government program. If the latest OECD report is any indicator, Johnny’s still illiterate. In the United States, one of the most overfed nations in the world, hunger is always an excuse not a reason.
I know that my liberal colleagues would say that money is the issue. Our kids have old textbooks and lack of access to computers, they would argue. Our teachers are underpaid and the class sizes are too big. But is money really the issue? We have ample reason to believe that it isn’t. Throwing more money at the problem seems an ill-conceived solution when you consider how much we currently spend.
The United States spends more on education per pupil than all but four of the nations in the study. The total cost of educating an American child from the age of six until the age of fifteen, the age at which the test is administered, is $115,000. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway spend more.
Now some people might roll their eyes and say “But education is worth it!” Others might complain about the military budget, which is actually less than the combined educational budgets at the federal, state, and local levels. Those people would be missing the point, of course, which is that we spend more and get less.
There are other indicators that more money doesn’t equal better educated kids. Poland is kicking our tails. So is the Slovakia. South Korea, which had the strongest showing in math, spends well below the OECD average on its schools.
Could it be that our schools are fatally flawed for reasons that we don’t dare address? This amateur says yes. My only credentials as an educational theorist are this—I was a victim of the public schools, kindergarten through twelfth grade.
My layman’s diagnosis is pretty simple—our schools fail because ours society fails. Every societal ill eventually finds its way into schools, from unwed motherhood to drugs. Too many kids aren’t motivated to learn and too many teachers aren’t motivated to teach. It’s a baby-sitting service.
Here’s what I remember about being a student in a public school—kids with bangs in their eyes and bad attitudes, waiting for the bell to ring so they could steal away and smoke pot. I remember teachers trying to fill the day with time-consuming fluff, which is so much easier than teaching. I remember educators who chose the profession for ulterior motives, which were almost always political and left-liberal in nature. They taught their students that gay is good, America is bad, and there’s a racist hiding under every bed. Regardless of what subject they were hired to teach, certain teachers invariably blazed their own paths, incorporating white guilt into English class and environmentalist junk science into geography lessons.
What a cruel trick it is for the OECD to measure aptitude in math, science, and reading. That’s not what American students learn. American kids would be at the front of the class if they were quizzed on how to put a condom on a banana, for example.
My experience in public schools didn’t impart a spirit of learning. That’s something Americans have to adopt for themselves. If you want to be smart in this country, it’s best to get a library card and a sense of autodidactism. Without it you’re screwed—just another high school grad with nothing of value to show for thirteen years in a classroom.
Public education is not what it should be. Here’s the good news: fixing it won’t cost a dime. Unfortunately, it will require a cultural sea change.