United States education performance has been degrading over the last 50 years, and no single change will reverse the damage done


By —— Bio and Archives July 13, 2011

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We invest in education to teach our children to become independent individuals and productive members of society.  Schooling is compulsory for all children in the United States, but the age range for which school attendance is required varies from state to state, and can generally be satisfied by educating children in public schools, state-certified private schools, or an approved home school program.  Once upon a time in this country our parents taught us values, manners, and basic interpersonal skills at home and sent us to schools to acquire basic marketable skills necessary to become functioning adults.

Early in this country’s history an 8th grade education was sufficient to become an independent adult, but the standard rose last century when a high school diploma became a necessary prerequisite for adulthood, and now a college degree is becoming the measure of success.  Unfortunately as this education bar has risen the content and goals of each level of education have been systematically corrupted to substitute feelings for merit to protect the fragile egos of the participants, and grade inflation was used to cover lack of objective achievement.  This education transformation coincided with the erosion in the family, increase in single parent homes, and increase in the number of working mothers where parents could no longer closely chaperone their children development into adulthood.  The Department of Education was created in 1979 to monitor education progress and to spend billions of dollars to improve achievement, with little quantitative progress to show for this “investment.”  The erosion of the relationship between education consumer, education provider, and education assessor also contributed to a general unhappiness with the education industry.  Students attended autonomous schools that were taught by unionized teachers, who teach a standardized curriculum set by bureaucrats, and achievement measured by process results, not skills development.  Teaching was an honored profession with an important role to play in our culture, but parental responsibility handoffs instead of partnerships, union contracts homogenizing teachers, and lack of direct and meaningful feedback has lowered the bar of achievement and undervalued this profession. 

Primary (or elementary) education consists of the first six or six years of schooling starting at the age of five or six where the basics of reading, writing, speaking and listening, mathematics, science, history, and logic are introduced.  Parents relinquish control of their children and hand them off to schools for early skills development, but sometimes forget they retain responsibility for their children’s education.  The emergence of secondary education in the United States did not happen until 1910, caused by the rise in big businesses and technological advances in factories that required skilled workers.  Secondary education comprises the formal education that occurs during adolescence, and is designed to prepare the student for their next step, such as higher education, a profession, or the job market.  The United States has invested billions in primary and secondary education, but the return on this investment has been lacking as our education systems have ossified and our former superior performance now trails most other first world countries.

Preschool education programs, such as Head Start, have had some success preparing children for kindergarten, but any advantage has been found to disappear by third grade.  Primary school is where general education skill basics are taught, and these topics are generally taught by a single teacher with assistance from some subject matter experts in select topics.  The following minimum courses of study in mandatory subjects are required in nearly all U.S. high schools: English (usually four years minimum, including literature, humanities, composition, oral languages, etc.); Social Sciences (usually three years minimum, including various history, government/economics courses); Mathematics (usually two years minimum, normally including algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, statistics, and even calculus); Science (usually two years minimum, normally biology, chemistry and physics); and Physical Education (at least one year). Vocational education has been deemphasized as a potential goal.  Completion of school is the goal, with college preparation many times the only alternative focus.  Curriculum is usually approved locally, but in reality is usually driven by the textbooks available which frequently are driven by large states that make large textbook purchases.  Recently several large states have performed comprehensive reviews of curriculum and uncovered examples of partisan or slanted content being injected into various topics.  Unfortunately this curriculum slant has gone beyond skills development to indoctrinating to advocate morals, behavior, and politics.  National standardized tests are used to gauge skill development progress and results are generally positive in primary schools, but tend to degrade in secondary school achievement tests.  In elementary school, grade progression is automatic with rare exception.  Nearly 6.2 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 in 2007 dropped out of high school, including nearly three of 10 Hispanics.  United States 15 year olds ranked 24th of 38 in mathematics, 19th of 38 in science, 12th of 38 in reading, and 26th of 38 in problem solving in global tests, behind those of most other developed nations.  SAT scores declined so sharply by mid 1990s, the examiners were forced to “re-center” the scores by adding 100 points to test scores in order to maintain the 800 point average in blatant grade inflation. There are a number of changes that must be made to return to create a student centered education system:

1)    Defund preschool education / Head Start since these programs have had little long term impact and only serve as government funded day care.
2)    Re-examine primary and secondary school curriculum to return focus to core skills development and defund social and moral education electives as unaffordable and controversial.
3)    Restructure secondary school to deliver common core education requirements in the first two years, then offer parallel tracks for basic, vocational, and college preparation for individual student needs.
4)    Establish Education Savings Accounts that can be used by students to transfer to vocational/specialty schools (for example construction, electrical, plumbing, automotive, and/or IT) that deliver marketable vocational skills and professional certification training, or home schools, parochial or charter schools.

In the United States, teacher certification is handled by each state’s Board of Education, and requirements vary from state to state.  Many primary school teachers begin their career after graduating with a Bachelors degree in Education. Teachers in almost all states must have a Bachelor’s degree with the appropriate teacher preparation course and complete either a content-based or teaching-based Master’s degree within a stated number of years.  Advanced degrees may be credential overkill for generic primary school responsibilities.  Most secondary school teachers first earn Bachelors degree in their content area, prior to earning an Education Master’s degree.  Additionally, to be permanently certified, many states require that teachers pass exams on pedagogy, general knowledge and knowledge of a content area. The teacher profession requires several changes also:

5)    Return control and accountability to the school administration for hiring, firing, compensation, assignments, and performance assessments.
6)    Adjust teacher credentials and compensation to reflect the wide variety of skills and knowledge required at each level (ie: primary school teachers only require undergraduate teaching degree, while secondary and specialty teachers require undergraduate degrees in their specialty areas (English, history, math, science, music, etc.) and a master’s degree in education. )
7)    Require continuing education for all teachers to refresh their knowledge and enthusiasm for their chosen profession.

Depending on the state, teachers may or may not be required to join a teachers union which represents them and negotiates on their behalf.  Unions have negotiated teacher tenure system with last in – first out hiring policy.  Primary communications and feedback is through parent teacher conferences and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).  There is no formal feedback mechanism to gauge student employment or college preparedness by potential employers or by potential colleges. Lack of feedback remains a shortcoming to gauge individual and institution contribution and performance. The United States is tied for first place with Switzerland when it comes to annual spending per student on its public school.  For-profit schools are educational institutions that are run by private, profit-seeking companies. Educational management organizations (EMO) work with school districts or charter schools using public funds to finance operations.  Elementary school teachers are generally viewed positively by both students and parents. A number of changes are needed improve teacher vitality, accountability, and freedom:

8) Enact right-to-work rules for teacher unions.
9) Establish a balanced scorecard for accurate and effective measures of success from consumers (parents and students), suppliers (teachers and administration) and end users (employers and colleges) to link student performance to teacher and institution contributions.
10)  Introduce a teacher merit pay system to encourage innovation and reward extraordinary performance.

United States education performance has been degrading over the last 50 years, and no single change will reverse the damage done.  Throwing money at the education system has not fixed the problems. A complete philosophy change is needed to return to student-centered education.  The national one-size-fits-all approach is not the best approach. Parents and students must regain the ability to make personal choices on education goals, personal choices on education suppliers, and personal choices on how they spend their money on education.  The Department of Education is basically a big government failed experiment that has reached its end of life, and should be abolished.  Returning funding control to states and ultimately to the parents is the best approach since each student needs the ability to select the most appropriate education vehicles to achieve their unique goals and objectives.  Key to this student-centered approach is the ability to measure actual achievement of needed skills to meet the needs of the marketplace or the next step in their education journey.

Once teachers are released from union restrictions they will once again lead innovation and change

Teachers must exhibit free market behavior with accountability and pay for performance. Once teachers are released from union restrictions they will once again lead innovation and change. It will no doubt take decades to repair the damage done to our educations systems, but the painful, but necessary changes are well worth the effort to once again have an end-to-end world class education system that delivers the best educated children to the marketplace.


David Coughlin -- Bio and Archives | Click to view Comments

Dave Coughlin recently retired from IBM after 31 years. He is now a political pundit who manages his web site “Return to Common Sense” and is an active member of the White Plains Tea Party. He was educated at West Point (Bachelor of Science, 1971) and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (Masters, Administrative Science, 1976). He currently resides with his wife in Hawthorne, NY. Dave can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)