Education Reform and the Status Quo

  • “Education is the most important problem facing the United States today”
  • “Only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the Republic.”
  • “The chronic shortage of good scientists, engineers, and other professionals which plagues us today is the result of time wasted in public schools.”

The above three quotes come from the father of the atomic submarine, Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1958.   In 1962 Rickover wrote the book Swiss Schools and ours:  Why Theirs are Better. He showed how much more was  expected of students in Russia, Switzerland, Holland, and England and why the United States was doomed to failure unless it fixed it’s chronically failing education system.  The students who were in American schools at the time are between about 50 and 65 and somehow we’re still not under Swiss domination.

  • “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”
  • “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

These quotes are from a Nation at Risk, which was published by the Reagan administration in 1983.   They looked at why test scores had dropped dramatically from 1963 on the SAT test and concluded that if we didn’t fix our education system immediately.  This is considered a watershed moment in modern education reform and a report was prepared in 2008 on the 25th anniversary that chided the nation for failing to implement the report’s recommendations.    What people fail to recognize is that in 1990, when George HW. Bush’s Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins commissioned Sania Laboratories to document the study with actual data they broke down the scores into subgroups and discovered that while the overall scores did decline, the scores of all the subgroups had increased.  When the systems scientists broke down the SAT test scores into subgroups they discovered contradictory data. While the overall average scores declined, the subgroups of students increased.  This is known as the Yule-Simpson effect in statistics and simply means that more minorities and lower income children were taking the SATs.  The report came out with little fanfare and was basically buried by people with a vested interest in showing how poor our schools were.

The students in school in 1983 are roughly between 30 and 44 today and speaking on behalf of my generation, I am delighted to say that we still haven’t ruined the country yet, although we did come awfully closes between 2001 and 2008.  My point is not that the tradition of education reform goes back to 1958 because anybody who has ever sat through an education history class knows that it goes back a lot longer than that.   My point is to show that wrongheaded education reformers warning that the sky is falling go back a long way.  In truth, the strength of our country has been our public education system whose rapid assimilation of a constant immigrant population into good citizens is a wonder of our modern world.

The only two sure ways to improve the quality of education is to improve the quality of the students and the teachers in our schools.   If people believe that the current wave of “reformers” like Michelle Rhee will do anything, but lower the quality of teachers then they are sadly mistaken.   Make teaching a desirable job and people will want to do it and work hard to succeed.  I predict there will be a mass exodus of teachers when this economy does finally turnaround.   Schools are too dependent on people working on their own time for free, for people capable of doing other things to stick around where they feel disrespected.

Improving the quality of students isn’t a case of taking the good ones out of the public schools setting like charter schools attempt to do either by selective enrollment or by quickly dismissing students who don’t “fit in” the way that KIPP does.  The countries that educate their children the best are those with the lowest rates of child poverty and the best child medical care regardless of parental income.  Sadly, we continue to lose sight of the real problem.   Schools don’t fail children, countries do.

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4 Comments on “Education Reform and the Status Quo”

  1. Suzanne Says:

    I’ve always expected that lower and falling scores in the US as compared to at least some other countries was due to the fact that so many students are eligible to go all the way through our public school system. No one is filtered out by tests along the way and no one is kept from taking the SATs if they want to no matter how poorly they’re likely to do. Personally, that’s something I’ve always been proud of.

  2. thatsrightnate Says:

    Suzanne, that’s very true and in fact what they found out when they looked at Nation at Risk in searching for data. If you look at the current tests being used to compare the United States to other countries—many other countries do not count non-citizens for example.

  3. Ragav Says:

    Is America really facing a crisis i.e. lack of quality scientists, engineers and technicians?

    Isn’t America really pioneering in research in terms of no. of papers published, patents filed etc?

    Personally I can vouch for the quality of higher education in the US. I’ve personally been through it and it isn’t that bad as compared to that of India (where I come from).

    so, my question is, how come students who undergo supposedly poor education system in public schools (and thus are poorly qualified) able to successfully go through the quality higher education (which would require good foundation)? Am I missing something?

  4. thatsrightnate Says:

    No Ragav, I don’t think you are. Thanks for the comment


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