What is the truth about claims that American public education is in crisis and what is the evidence to support such claims?

As much as I admire and respect public school teachers, and as important as it is that we pledge our support to them, they are no better positioned to judge the efficacy of public education in America than cooks, waiters, and bus persons are positioned to judge the quality of the food their restaurant serves. Such judgments must always be left to the customer and, as we shall see shortly, sometimes our teachers are a customer of the system.

It is clear to this observer that the American educational process is failing in spite of the valiant efforts of the men and women who stand at the front of a classroom. While it is a gross disservice to lay the blame on our teachers, we must look objectively at the system’s performance.

So what is the evidence that suggests that our systems of public education are in a state of crisis?

Let’s start with what motivated the business men and women, whom we often refer to as “corporate reformers,” to focus so much attention on education. These business executives are motivated by the frustration they feel when it is so incredibly difficult to find qualified workers for their operations and it doesn’t matter whether they are seeking skilled or unskilled labor, or professionals.

Applications for work are submitted, daily, from prospective employees who are unable to understand and apply basic mathematical and scientific principles, who are unable to craft a coherent sentence or to express themselves effectively, whether orally or in writing. They are young men and women who demonstrate minimal motivation to do their best and insufficient self-discipline to earn the status and prestige to which they consider themselves entitled.

The quality of this labor force requires that employers allocate enormous sums of money and inordinate time on the part of their trainers, supervisors and managers to teach these young adults what they need to know; what most of us believe they should have brought to the table in the first place. The sheer mass of the resources diverted for such purposes has a measurable adverse impact on both productivity and profitability of business entities.

Not sufficient proof, you say? Then let us ask the classroom teachers in our more challenging public schools, particularly in middle- and high school classrooms, about the disruptive behavior, lack of motivation to learn, willingness to copy a classmates work without the slightest remorse, and about the apathy and/or hostility of the parents of these youngsters who make no attempt to be supportive of their children’s teachers. Yet these parents are fully prepared to accuse teachers of incompetence and of unfairly picking on their children.

Ask the teachers in our best schools how many of their students could do so much better if only they tried; if only their parents were more supportive; if only teachers were able to give them more time, attention, and encouragement. All of these “ifs,” by the way, are activities and investments of time and resources that our current educational process is not structured to support.

Still not enough? Let’s ask the military services how many young men and women, the majority of which are high school seniors or graduates, who are unable to earn the minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for enlistment. Ask them what percentage of the enlistees who do qualify are able to do more than the most basic jobs in the military? How many are qualified for the highly technical jobs or for officer candidacy? The answers are most disturbing.

Need more evidence? Let’s examine NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) results that indicate that only forty percent of American eighth graders are able to score well enough on NAEP assessments to be categorized as “proficient” or above. Let’s keep in mind that the definition that has been established for “proficient” is:

“solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this      level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

The emphasis is mine and it is vital that we consider the significance of this expectation that students gain the ability to apply what they have learned “to real world situations.”  It means it is not enough that students are able to earn certain scores on the assessments for given subject matter, they must also be able to utilize what they have learned throughout their lifetimes.

This means that a full 60 percent of American eighth graders have not acquired sufficient mastery over subject matter that would enable them to utilize, on the job or in solving other real-life problems, the math, science, reading, and writing skills that they were supposed to have studied in the classroom.

Let’s examine NAEP results further to see that only 10 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Hispanic students are able to earn the achievement level of “proficient” or above in math, science, reading and writing. This is the most glaring fact in all of education and most teachers and other educators are reluctant to even talk about this performance gap. Corporate reformers don’t talk about the performance gap, either, they simply offer vouchers programs so a handful of such students can escape their “failing schools.” We talk around the performance gap but we do not deal with it.

Ask yourself whether there are any circumstances in which we should be satisfied with these performance levels of American school children. Should we, in fact, be anything less than appalled by these data?

We won’t bother to go into detail about the performance of American students on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), as some have questioned the validity of such measures. Shouldn’t we be concerned, however, that our response in the face of unfavorable comparisons with between American kids and their counterparts in other nations, is to cry “foul?” Rather than accept these data as worthy of our serious attention and accept responsibility for them, we revert to claims that such assessments are biased and/or unfairly administered.

The unpleasant truth is that China, India, and other developing economies (not to mention Europe and Japan) are dedicated to replacing the U.S. as the richest and most powerful nations in the world. If we continue to scoff at these challenges, make no mistake, the future of American society will be decidedly unpleasant for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It is this author’s assertion that, in spite of the best efforts of dedicated American school teachers, our educational process and the system in which it functions are poorly structured and minimally prepared to meet the needs of American children, irrespective of their relative position on the academic performance continuum, on the affluence continuum, or their race or ethnicity. I would suggest to you that our educational process inhibits all students, even our most accomplished, from reaching their full potential and this reality demands our attention and compels us to action.

The United States is a competitor in a dynamic international marketplace. Like competitors in any sport, success is contingent upon the efficacy of one’s player development program.  I suggest to you that the American “player/student” development program has languished for long enough.

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