This Glass is Half-Empty, Maybe Two-Thirds

Mike isn’t wrong when he notes with satisfaction that, on some indicators and at some grade levels, poor and minority students in the U.S. are doing better today than a decade a or so back. Only a churl would say that’s not an accomplishment worthy of notice and some pride.

But the big, glum headline over American K-12 education today is essentially the same as when we were declared a “nation at risk” 28 long years ago: our kids on average are woefully lacking in essential skills and knowledge across every subject in the curriculum.

Almost all the major trend lines are flat—at least until you decompose them by ethnicity. Sure, it’s great that minority students have made gains, but what does that do for our international competitiveness if the average score is unchanged or declining? Especially in a time when many competitor nations are moving up on some of those same metrics? And what’s the long-term payoff from early-grade gains if scores and outcomes in high school are flat or declining? Some say the early gains are like the pig in the python’s throat and it’ll just take time for them to reach the tail. But we’ve had enough experience by now with early-grade gains and high-school sags to throw major doubt on that hypothesis. We simply haven’t found—at least on a large scale—ways to sustain and build on academic gains as youngsters move from 4th grade to 12th.

This week’s NAEP geography results (based on 2010 testing) underscore the problem. Indeed, the National Assessment Governing Board’s own headline says it all: “Proficiency overall remains low; lowest performers show greatest improvement; grade 8 remains flat; grade 4 increases, while grade 12 declines since 1994.”

Geography, as we know, isn’t much taught in U.S. schools, a crime in its own right. But that’s not the only reason our kids don’t know much about it, because the NAEP geography results parallel the recent NAEP results in civics and U.S. history, both of which are taught, at least in our high schools. Yet here’s how many of our 12th graders are at (or above) NAEP’s proficient level in those three subjects:

  • Geography: 20 percent (down from 24 in 2001)
  • U.S. History: 12 percent (level since 2006)
  • Civics: 24 percent (down from 27 in 2006)

It takes chutzpah to say this glass is even a third full, much less that it’s filling. And only a naïf would say that we’re looking toward a bright future as a self-governing polity comprised of knowledgeable voters and discerning citizens if we’re producing high school graduates who know this little about their world and their country.

Critics retort that Americans have never known much of this sort of stuff but we’ve gotten by OK over the years as the land of the free and the home of the brave, so not to worry. Well, I worry. I look at the lousy choices we’re making at the voting booth and in the corridors of legislatures, school boards and Congress itself and I see plenty to worry about in this realm. I see colleges adding little or nothing to what young people know in fields like these. Then I see what’s on TV (including what passes for “news” these days and on the internet and in the theaters) and I do not conclude that our national prospects are improving.

The schools, of course, are not entirely, not even primarily, to blame for this situation. Recent immigration patterns, for example, have flooded classrooms with foreign born kids who arrive with scant knowledge of America and must first struggle with the language of the curriculum. But we’ve had immigrants before, lots of them, even. So that ought not be an excuse for long. And we do need to acknowledge that some of our education priorities aren’t helping one bit. Why teach history or geography, for example, if all your school is held accountable for are reading and math scores? Why do your homework for subjects that don’t really count? Why fuss about whether state requirements for licensing “social studies” teachers are light on history and oblivious to geography?

Mike can crack open the champagne if he wants to. But don’t pour me more than a thimble full.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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