All our children left behind

For anyone involved in the “dumbing down” of America – you can stop now, we’re there.

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that a majority of students graduating from four-year colleges with undergraduate degrees lacked basic mathematical and linguistic skills.

Is this a surprise to anyone?

Perhaps I am too cynical. In the age of education reform acts like No Child Left Behind and an increasing focus on state-mandated testing, one might think that U.S. educational outcomes and attendant skills and abilities would be going nowhere but up.

Obviously, these programs and legislation acts aren’t nearly as effective as they were designed to be.

The study used the government-designed National Assessment of Adult Literacy to test four-year students nearing the end of their degree programs, as well as students enrolled in two-year universities. Approximately 75 percent of those students also failed to perform to proficiency on “complex” tasks such as balancing a checkbook, deciphering a credit card offer, or understanding the main arguments in an editorial.

And no, the implication of that last finding has not escaped me. Hello, choir.

It’s been clear that there’s something wrong with the U.S. educational system for a while now. If more people paid attention to the exhaustively researched work on the topic, (notably the writings of John Taylor Gatto and similar education critics), the fact of that our public education system is failing would be more widely recognized. The U.S. spends more per capita on primary and secondary education than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K. – but in 1999, U.S. eighth-grade students lagged behind students in Japan, Canada, and the U.K. in math and science. Also in 1999, a greater percentage of U.S. eighth-graders took remedial language courses than their counterparts in Japan, Canada and the U.K. It should be clear from these and similar statistics that literacy in the U.S., both quantitative and linguistic, is in trouble.

Ironically, the “good news” of this study was the finding that even these depressing results set up current college graduates as more literate than the average American – given that the selection of Americans tested to arrive at “average” include those with little to no education at all.

None of this bodes well for our country’s economic future either. Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan research group, was quoted in a recent Associated Press article as saying that college grads, although they are better at searching text and extracting useful information, still do not do well enough to thrive in a competitive, knowledge-based economy. This is, of course, a matter of opinion, but the results of the Pew study certainly do not encourage one to imagine an intellectual renaissance blooming in the U.S. anytime soon – certainly not the type of renaissance that would encourage economic investment in our intellectual capital. Rather, a very dismal prediction might be the outsourcing of the intellect.

The real question I have about all this research is, why isn’t this sort of analysis done more often? Why shouldn’t state boards of education have concrete, independently verified tabulations of how their individual universities, and school systems as a whole, are doing in providing competitive educational outcomes for college graduates? If the college and university intentions are really about educational outcomes (and not about, say, money and politics), why isn’t there a systematic study of the “best practices”?

Don’t get me wrong – I am not by any stretch of the imagination a proponent of standardized testing. Administering the adult literacy test, however, was a stroke of genius, because it measures real-world skills, rather than abstract knowledge that can be taught an hour before the test and forgotten an hour afterwards.

The one ray of light in all this bleakness may be one of the same strengths upon which this nation was founded on – the self-teaching, learner-centered paradigm of the migrant entrepreneur. As shown by Peter Whybrow, in his excellent research on the American experience, the migrant constitution relies in part on the autonomy of experience and desire for self-improvement. Some of the greatest early statesmen of the nation, including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were partially or completely self-taught, and a great deal of the formal education of early American settlers came from the home – in fact, it was not until the 1890s that school became institutionalized and compulsory, partly as a result of the influence of industrialists and efficiency specialists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Frederick W. Taylor and Horace Mann.

Faced with the results of this recent research, one has to ask, what is wrong with our educational system? How have we gone so far astray from the original three purposes of public education that over half our graduates are unable to perform such basic tasks that will keep their own financial affairs in order? In whose interest is it that our public schooling system has succeeded in producing a majority population that is essentially helpless, uninformed and illiterate, a population dangerously susceptible to the influences of advertising and propaganda, buffeted by the winds of popular opinion and nearly enslaved by their own whims of materialistic fancy?

Answering those questions may lead us down unpleasant and unpopular roads, but that is the process of self-education. If we stand unwilling to find answers to these questions, our nation will remain unquestionably imperiled – and if our public institutions fail us, it is our duty to forsake them.