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Why Have American Education Standards Collapsed?

In my last blog, I described how high school textbooks that used to be written at the 12th-grade level for 12th graders are now written at the 7th- or 8th-grade level.  I cited a report that said that many community college teachers do not assign much writing at all to their first-year students because they cannot write.  I revealed that the community college course called College Math is not college math at all, but is in reality just a course in Algebra I—a course that is supposed to be passed in middle school in most states—with a few other topics thrown in, and many community college students cannot do the work.  I pointed to data that says that the students who go to the typical four-year college are no better prepared than those attending community colleges.  I then pointed to another study that says that for close to 40 percent of our college students, the first two years of college add virtually no value at all, and "not much" value for the rest.  I ended by pointing out that, if this is all true, then colleges are typically teaching most students what we used to teach in the high school college-bound track and are not doing it very well.

How could this be?  What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years.  All I can do is speculate on how and why that happened.  Here goes...

First of all, the period I have just mentioned started when American business, riding high since the end of World War II, was challenged by Asian countries offering much cheaper manufacturing workers with the skills as high as the typical American manufacturing worker.  Not long thereafter, automation began to replace Americans doing low-skill and routine work at an ever-increasing rate. This led first to a stagnation and then a fall in real wages for the average employed American worker, a steep decline in the labor participation of men in the employed workforce and an equally steep increase in the rates of childbirth among unmarried women.  These trends have combined to greatly increase the proportion of children entering the first grade who live in poverty, one-parent homes and in poor health.  The issues here are not simply lack of money and the things money can buy.  They go much deeper to a collapse of middle class values as the middle class is demoralized and its numbers dwindle.  Little wonder that school teachers believe that society has dumped all of its problems at the schoolhouse door.


Source: Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics via "Real Wages Extend Fall as Food, Oil Prices Soar", by Brett Arends, The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2008.

But it only begins there, before children first come to school.  As globalization and automation put increasing pressure on the middle class, parents everywhere put pressure on teachers to give their children grades that would enable them to go to college.   Forty years earlier, Grandma was the first in the family to finish high school.  Twenty years ago, Dad was the first to go to college.  Now, all the kids have to go to college.  For families in which prior generations were proud to be a boilermaker or electrician, now fear and shame would come if Junior were not a professional.  In other countries, grades are the result of a student's performance on an externally graded test.  Everyone gets together to help Junior meet the high standards.  In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college.  So grade inflation made rapid headway in our schools.

Second, prior to the 1970s, teachers were often the first in their family to leave the working class and to go to college.  There was pride and status attached to being a teacher.  But, as more and more young people became college graduates and the relative standing of teachers among college graduates declined, and more then entered graduate school, the status of teachers declined.  The emancipation of women and minorities in the professional workplace opened up opportunities for talented women and minorities who would otherwise have been teachers.  So the absolute quality of our incoming teachers declined.  As the level of literacy of teachers starting slipping, their mastery of the content they were learning slipped with it, which had consequences for the literacy levels of their students.  Further, standards in the universities these future teachers were attending slipped as grade inflation became universal in higher education too, for reasons I will get to in a moment.  This, too, contributed to the steady slippage in the literacy levels of our future teachers.  As literacy declined, so did mastery of content.

Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement.  Facing tough sanctions from the federal government for low test scores, many states lowered whatever standards they had for high school students, so they could escape the consequences of poor student performance. 

Notwithstanding what I said about the long-term trends, there were many excellent teachers, many of them veterans, in our schools.  But the accountability movement was the last straw for a large number of them.  Many bailed.  And the best of our high school graduates, seeing the pressure teachers were under to produce under appalling conditions, decided not to choose teaching as a career.  Applications to schools of education started to fall and are now falling ever faster.  Other nations, seeking higher student performance, have greatly upgraded their standards for entering teachers colleges and for getting licensed to teach.  The United States did not do that, and we have been reaping the rewards of that failure.


Source: "Steep Drops Seen in Teacher-Prep Enrollment" by Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, October 21, 2014.

In the 1980s, experts, seeing the baby boom winding its way through our colleges and universities, predicted that, when the cohort of college-age students retreated to its normal size, the number of places in the colleges and universities would fall dramatically and many would be forced to close.  It did not happen.  I interviewed a number of college admissions officers at the time.  With surprising candor, they told me that they would take the best students they could find, but their primary goal would be to fill their seats, whatever that took.  What it took was an across-the-board fall in admissions standards.  Once those sub-par students were admitted, the word went out to college faculty that professors who continued to use their former standards for grading would be punished.  The institutions could not afford to lose the students they had gained by lowering their standards.

ft120410-fig1.jpg Source: U.S. Census Bureau Data via Investors Insight, April 10, 2012.

Later, as the competition for students among institutions heated up, the arbiter in the admissions game became U.S. News and World Report.  The rankings emphasized the quality of amenities provided rather than the quality of the academic program, for which there were no agreed-upon metrics.  The institutions, forced to compete on these terms, invested heavily in nicer student accommodations, fancier dining halls, climbing walls and student mental health care facilities.  As the competition for students stiffened, universities spent ever more on very sophisticated college recruitment schemes.  As regulation of universities increased, administration blossomed.  Facing these cost pressures, the universities considerably reduced the number of hours of instruction provided during the academic year.  They charged more for what they offered, but they provided less instruction.  The combination of lower admissions standards, less instruction and the need to retain the students they had admitted irrespective of their academic performance, led to a general across-the-board decline in standards.

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that the ending of the draft after the Vietnam War ended brought with it a catastrophic decline in the skills of the American civilian workforce, because the military—previously the nation's leading source of well-trained high school graduates for a wide range of civilian jobs when draftees reentered civilian life—kept their trainees in the military under the all-volunteer army.  The phenomenon combined with the collapse of selective vocational high schools in our big cities after the Vietnam War and the rise of the standards movement, which crowded vocational courses out of the high school curriculum.  Vocational education has also often been a casualty in our community college programs because vocational courses cost more to deliver then academic courses and carry less prestige for the faculty.  All these forces contributed to a broad decline in the standards for vocational education in the United States in the period following the Vietnam War.

What this story comes down to is that the United States, having led the world in educational attainment for more than a century, thereby enabling it to produce the world's best-educated workforce, has, since the 1970s, made no gains at all in either attainment or quality, while close to 30 other countries, some of them abjectly poor in the 1970s, have managed to outperform us on both quality and quantity of education, many by a country mile.  Even more damning, we appear to have lowered our standards for our college students to the standards we used to demand of our high school students and, at the same time, to have more or less destroyed what was once a first-class vocational and technical education system. 

The very high quality of our best public schools and independent schools, of a handful of colleges with strong liberal arts curricula, of a few leading community colleges, and of graduate education in our leading research universities generally has masked the collapse of standards in the great mass of institutions serving our students at all levels. Fixing all this is not impossible.  It is actually essential.  But it cannot be done at all until we fess up to the consequences of our willingness to tolerate an across-the-board decline in standards and a failure to modernize our system for 40 or more years.

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