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Academic Plateau: The Worse-Off Generation

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The great dream of all parents is that their children will grow up to have even better life circumstances than they do. Parents want their little ones to have more materially and academically. In America, this desire has translated to a reality in general terms. Robert J. Gordon of the New York Times reports that a typical American was four times as "well off" in 2007 as in 1937, and eight times better off compared to 1902. He points out that these numbers of improvement have traditionally had a direct correlation with the level of education achieved. As the American public has become better educated, its quality of life has risen.

But just how far up can improvement numbers rise? At what point do Americans become so comfortable with their ways of life that they simply stop trying to achieve more?

If you look at the education system, beginning with the K-12 years and extending into the college years, it looks as if current generation of Americans may end up worse off than their parents, and potentially their grandparents too. In 1970, 80 percent of Americans graduated with an official high school diploma. That number was only at 74 percent in 2000. The numbers are climbing back up, with the Department of Education reporting that the dropout rate was only 7 percent in 2011 but the way those numbers are calculated needs consideration. Those who group G.E.D. earners in with other high school diploma recipients when it comes to graduation rates present a skewed view because long term, G.E.D. students earn around the same amount as high school dropouts.

Initiatives to democratize education, like No Child Left Behind, have actually hurt schools by placing too much emphasis on teacher performance and ignoring the learning needs of the students. Increasingly K-12 teachers have to prove themselves to onlookers and at the demise of the young people who are there to learn. Certainly factors outside the school environment can affect the likelihood that a student will earn a high school diploma. In 2011, 14 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of high school, compared to 7 percent of Black students and 5 percent of White students, proving that minority groups are still at a disadvantage when it comes to the American education system. Poverty, hunger, family dysfunction and just a general lack of educated role models play into the way these numbers add up.

But if the high school dropout rate is higher than it has been in past generations, one of the first places to look for answers is in the classroom. What can educators do to ensure the students sitting at their desks are equipped to outperform their ancestors academically and in their careers? Is there really any way to battle environmental factors and stringent teacher accountability metrics and come out on the winning side of educating America's youth?

For the graduates of 2020 and beyond to live up to their parents dreams of a better life, a better foundation is needed in K-12 years. The flame of desire when it comes to academic achievement must be fanned in the foundational learning years. A future that is "better" than the present is one that not only has material gains, but academic ones too. At some point, having things will simply not be enough anymore. American students will need a renewed love of learning to come out ahead of past generations and that passion will need to be born in K-12 classrooms.

In what ways do you think this generation of students will be worse or better off from its parents' generation?


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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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