American students are falling behind. Ranked 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries in 2015, it’s clear that an American education isn’t world-class. In fact, out of the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), U.S. students ranked 30th in math and 19th in science. Why? The answer lies at the very center of America’s educational attitude. It’s cultural. It’s political. And it’s ugly.
First, some context. Over the past month, teachers participated in walk-outs from schools in West Virginia and Oklahoma. Abysmal benefits and classroom shortages fueled the movements. In West Virginia, Governor Justice signed into law a 5 percent pay raise as a result. Just last Tuesday in Oklahoma, Governor Fallin approved funding for a $6,000 salary increase, a $1,250 raise for support staff, and $33 million for textbooks. While laudable, teachers should never have to choose between class time and protest. The fact that they did is a sign of larger problems.
In 1983, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report aptly titled “A Nation at Risk.” To quote a haunting line, “… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future….” Times have changed, but American schools only worsened with them. The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report represented a 12-point drop in average math scores, from 482 in 2012 to 470 in 2015. Worse still, the score in 2009 was a 488. That’s an 18-point drop in six years. Scores are also declining for the SAT, just as the number of A’s handed out increases. 47 percent of students in 2016 had GPA’s in the A range, while their SAT scores dropped from 1,026 to 1,002 on a 1,600-point scale. Paradoxically, close to half of the class of 2016 was academically above-average (itself an anomaly)–even as their PISA and SAT scores declined.
Poor resource availability for schools and grade inflation present a challenge to policymakers. The walkouts of the past month and contradictory measures of student success point to two specific problems. The first is a lack of efficient structural support for teachers. The second is a crisis of mediocrity. While students are doing better in class, when measured against their international peers, they fall short. A crisis of political apathy and low expectations links both issues.
America spends more than any other OECD country on its students. In 2014, an average of $11,319 was spent per elementary school student, compared to the OECD average of $8,733. Federal funding increased from $50 billion in 2002 to $68 billion in 2015. Most of that $68 billion aids low-income families and students. Think of Pell Grants, Title I school districts, and Head Start. The second biggest chunk funds special education. And the rest is bundled into President Obama’s competitive education grants. Race to the Top, now defunct, is but one example. Others include Investing in Innovation, and the Teacher Incentive Fund. Injected with cash as part of the 2009 stimulus, funding for these programs has since dried up. The answer to America’s educational crisis does not lie in these initiatives, however. “Educational competition” allows national representatives to dodge real reform by delegating responsibility to state governments.
America needs to raise its standards. Demanding more of its students and holding them accountable will be difficult. But the best way to improve education in the long run is to strive even higher. Sure, many will find the adjustment hard. There will definitely be fewer A’s, much to the displeasure of parents and students. But instead of playing a game of low expectations, maybe it is time to truly invest in helping students compete with their global peers. That requires strong schools and stronger commitment to chasing high standards. Schools need more resources, and teachers need higher starting salaries to attract better talent. They shouldn’t have to walk-out, and graduate educators shouldn’t have to protest in student unions. The country needs to look in the mirror. Grant competition fails students as they enter a competitive job market. For far too long, policymakers have dodged serious educational reform. It’s time to raise the bar.
Shankara Narayana is a contributor for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .