While it is certainly true that standards in college have dwindled in recent years, this trend is an obligatory response to coddling in the K-12. Because universities cannot issue failing grades to a majority of students, despite the fact that students may perform below expectations, they must just make it easier to pass. This alternative represents a quick fix that eradicates the appearance of the problem. However, a broken thermometer doesn’t actually change the temperature, and inflated grades don’t actually make students any smarter. For America’s softening edge in a globalizing world, it must be said that the colleges are less to blame for the country’s intellectual stagnation than is the K-12 system.
The latest assessment of education in industrialized countries warrants serious concern about America’s prospects for global competitiveness. Although the U.S. remains the most popular destination for foreign students, America’s share of imported talent has been dropping significantly over the last decade. The increasingly meaningless promise of an unparalleled education may be responsible for the decline, as the most recent data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks the United States an embarrassing ninth in literacy among industrialized nations. Unfortunately, the problem is not funding and the fix isn’t as easy as allocating more money to schools. In fact, the U.S.’s per-pupil expenditure is the highest in the world and, at 7.5% of GDP, the U.S. is tied with South Korea for making the largest overall investment in education. America’s stifled learning is more a product of poor decision making on the part of an administration that is ideologically homogeneous and stifled by misplaced priorities.
This scenario is much more difficult to combat: the influential teachers’ union and the practice of collective bargaining may mean that those who constitute part of the problem may be the only ones who can engineer a solution. The teachers’ union, known as the National Education Association, represents probably the most powerful union and lobbying coalition in the country. Although it would be logical to assume that NEA members – teachers with experience with kids and in the classroom – would be an ally in the effort to combat an education system drowning in dysfunction, the NEA’s endeavors indicate otherwise. In their latest convention last summer, for example, instead of devoting their primary attention to the aforementioned task, the NEA defined their chief priority as gaining popular support for same sex marriage – a worthy cause no doubt, but perhaps one that would be better left to those in the country not responsible for educating future generations.
As it is of the few occupations where performance is not considered, greater success and dedication does not necessarily translate to more pay and the most minimal effort provides job security, teaching today is not a meritocracy. Due to the known protection of the NEA and tenure, teachers have no incentive to excel or even perform their jobs well. The educational issue of most importance to the NEA appears to be cultivating self-esteem and tolerance in young people. Self-esteem is great. Tolerance is magnificent. Neither will get you a job and neither will allow you to even read anything more complex than Goosebumps.
Cornell University researchers recently published a study that concluded that the biggest decline in verbal test scores, from 1963 to 1979, was due in some part to the progressive simplification of language in the textbooks. They found that textbooks used in grades four through eight are “at their lowest level in American history” in terms of language. Researchers say high school science textbooks are “simpler than the average newspaper article.” Indeed, the College Board has reported that in the last 10 years, the percentage of test takers with A averages grew by ten percent, but their scores fell an average of 12 points on the verbal portion of the SAT and three points on math. Again, according to OECD, mission accomplished: An overwhelming majority of American students – 72 percent – said they get good grades in mathematics and the highest proportion of any country to describe themselves as “good at math.” The problem is, they are not. Those good grades appear not to mean anything, as just 10 percent of American students were classified as “top performers” in mathematics and overall, U.S. students finished 21st out of 29 countries.