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U.S. in decline--where's the evidence?

One of America's best debunkers of nonsense about America is Gene V. Glass, Regent's professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute at Arizona State University. A good example appeared in the October edition of The School Administrator, published by the American Association of School Administrators.

I think his choice of target, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, was somewhat unfair. Writers as prolific and important as Friedman are forced to step outside their comfort zones in order to keep from getting stale and predictable. They are going to mess up occasionally---that's part of the fun of reading them. One slippery spot for many of them is education.

Glass caught Friedman lapsing into an old line that works well at conferences for politicians and businessmen, where Friedman is often seen, but lacks a solid research base. "...educationally, we are not a nation at risk. We are a nation in decline," Friedman said in an April column, "Swimming Without a Suit."

"Today," he said, "we have fallen behind in both per capita high school graduates and their quality." What is actually happening is some other industrialized nations in Europe and Asia have caught up with us, which seems to me fine if we all continue to progress. We Americans haven't gained much recently, but we are working on it, and in many respects have stronger schools than we did a generation ago. I don't see that it is in our interest to have the relatively high living standards and education levels we have if we do not share these blessings with as many other countries as possible. Who wants to be the only rich guy in town? For one thing, it's bad for business.

Friedman dug himself into a deeper hole, Glass said, by using the Program for International Student Assessment tests to show how far behind we have fallen educationally. In this test of applied learning and problem solving among 15 year olds, we ranked 25th in math and 24th in science in 2006, Friedman points out.

I noted some problems with the PISA test in a column this year. Glass knows much more about this than I do:

"In 2006, nearly 500,000 15-year-olds in 57 countries took a two-hour test, PISA," he wrote. ""PISA 2006 had its share of absurdities and inconsistencies. The United States scores above Israel and Norway in science but below Azerbaijan and Ireland in math. From 2003 to 2006, Mexico gained 21 points in math while France lost 15 points. What possible policy implications could such data hold?"

We will miss Gerald W. Bracey, the education media critic who died unexpectedly this year after completing another annual report buttressing what Glass is saying. I hope Friedman and Glass can be persuaded to debate their differences on some accessible Web forum (I've got one right here) so we can see what evidence they have and work out these issues for ourselves.

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By Jay Mathews  | December 22, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  America in decline, Gene V. Glass, PISA tests, Thomas L. Friedman  
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Next: One way to reduce standardized test load--make them shorter


Yes, stronger schools but less education! It is amazing to see the applications for employment from high school graduates who cannot write legibly and even have trouble printing. Interviews with them are a joke - "like" is interspersed into every sentence at least once. Ask them to make change without a calculator or electronic help - a disaster.

Yes, there are some who actually are educated in our school system but too many are pushed into successive grades without actually achieving the knowledge needed. Too much of what I call "cookie cutter" education - or "one size fits all". No questioning, no new ideas, no give and take of different views - just "teach to the test".

Posted by: Utahreb | December 22, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

'Decline' doesn't begin to describe the collapse. I've been teaching (college) since 1972. As the years have rolled by, my incoming students have displayed an increasingly woeful grasp of basic skills. These include grammar, vocabulary, attention span, and mastery of elementary logic and other reasoning tasks.

Apparently, our primary- and secondary-school "educators" (once referred to as "teachers") have encouraged their pupils to feel, but not to think.

The kids might know how to roll a condom onto a banana, but they can't parse a complex sentence. They know tons of PC drivel (yes, it's rife out there), unsupported by science or analysis, but imposed by authoritative opinion.

Shakespeare? Forget it.

As one of my freshman students put it succinctly, "I've been cheated." And she is right. It doesn't matter that every tax hike is "for the children," if teachers unions consider that money their own to play with.

Solutions? Return all school control to the local level. Abolish tenure (what other position, besides government, guarantees lifelong income, regardless of performance?). Put parents and families first. And, if we're serious, close the federal Department of Education.

As Bob Dylan put it, "country'll grow."

Posted by: chrisinwien | December 22, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I have taught high school English and now teach writing at a junior college. Most of my students then and now do not speech English correctly. They do not recognize commonly used words in print. They speech and write in "text" and "email" mode.

My teachers corrected speech, but today teachers run the risk of appearing "politically incorrect" if they correct children's speech.

Studetns see correct English as elitist. When I tell them that if they lived in France or Germany, schools would expect them to use the language correctly, they see that as different.

Until elementary and high school teachers are allowed to call it like it is and can use the methods that they know work, the public can continue to expect a general population performing below average. Currently, administrations and school boards are buying into methods that appear new but are renamed and repackaged previous methods that waterdown the curriculum under the guise of "modern teaching." Please! Learning to read is learning to read -- and it all goes back to "hearing" the language spoken correctly and being made to speak it correctly.

Posted by: sdl63 | December 22, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Count me as one who thinks that we are doing better internationally than we think we are. I think that the US may be one of the few countries where an academic secondary education is attempted for everyone- not just a select few elites, or those who don't get shoved into a vocational track. We may struggle to meet our goals, but our goals are very high, and very broad. Don't despair! (And enough with the "kids these days" attitude. It is repeated by curmudgeons of every generation.)

Posted by: bubba777 | December 22, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I taught Information Systems in a US university external programme a few years ago. I was so horrified at the standard of education that I refused to undertake any further teaching assignments associated with the so-called reputable NY state university. My daughter was in her eighth year of schooling and she was tackling projects that were way ahead in complexity and knowledge content. If only all those involved in the US educational system can see the contrast first hand. If only.

Posted by: light12345 | December 22, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

"PISA 2006 had its share of absurdities and inconsistencies. The United States scores above Israel and Norway in science but below Azerbaijan and Ireland in math. From 2003 to 2006, Mexico gained 21 points in math while France lost 15 points. What possible policy implications could such data hold?"

Which of those findings is an "absurdity" or an "inconsistency"? I'm guessing that, to most Americans, any suggestion that America is not #1 qualifies as "absurd."

And yet, anyone who has actually observed other First World education system KNOWS that they are universally more rigorous than the weak-and-flabby US K-12 system.

Posted by: web_user | December 22, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

When a high school and junior college English professor claims that his/her students "do not speech English correctly" I think I can see what the problem really is.

I'd think that one of the differences in student preparation between college in the 1970s and college today is that many more high school grads make it to college these days, especially minorities, who are more likely to have attended substandard schools; as you expand the number of students, average preparation declines. Still, I think that having more students attend college is a good development.

The fact is that years ago a B.A. got you a good job almost automatically, whereas today you are more likely to need a Master's degree for the same job. That doesn't mean that people with B.A. were smarter or better prepared before, just that there are many more of them nowadays.

I studied at a community college, moved to a public four-year school for my BA and to a third school for my M.A. I had some pretty bad professors and many unprepared classmates, so I can also share some juicy anecdotes about the awful state of education. In general, though, my professors ranged from good to superb and many of my classmates were educated, competent, motivated people who will, I hope, leverage their education into rewarding jobs.

Te finish: I live now in Switzerland and everybody hear talks about the dismal state of their education system and other variations of the "kids these days..." theme. It seems to be quite a universal concern.

Posted by: dd7786a | December 22, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, two typos in my last paragraph. Got too excited...

To finish: I live now in Switzerland and everybody here talks about the dismal state of their education system and other variations of the "kids these days..." theme. It seems to be quite a universal concern.

Posted by: dd7786a | December 22, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

There are pockets of excellence in the US education system. For example, Thomas Jefferson HS in VA - but the usual suspects (black & hispanic race-hucksters, white-guilt-laden leftists who "just mean well", etc) continually try hard to paint places where excellence is mandatory as elitist and try to tear these places down.

The blame lies with a society that makes it too easy for people who have no business producing children to physically bring these unfortunate youngsters into the world and set them on the path to both intellectual and material poverty. No amount of money for schools can correct for trashy parents.

Posted by: John1 | December 22, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

The top math countries are European and Asian.

The top math students in the USA are descendants from Europe and Asia.

The top sprinters and long distance runners are African.

Blacks and Hispanics in this country, on average, score 100 points lower on their SAT scores regardless of economic background.

The United States has large black and Hispanic populations, so we'll have difficulty competing internationally with European and Asian countries.

However our European and Asian students compete equally with their counterparts in Europe and Asia...except where we handicap our best students by imposing PC rules...and artificially and politically striving to prove everyone and everything are identical...when they are not.

It's PC to acknowledge that blacks are great athletes but racist to suggest whites and Asians are naturally better at math. It's a legacy in this country of white supremacy...we continue to not be honest racially...we, however, have shifted our bigotry, bias, preference, and discrimination from one historical group to our most naturally gifted children...simply to prove, brainwash really, a political point.

Posted by: ram_xxx_ram | December 22, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

** How is the PISA test administered in this (and other) countries. I wonder about this every time I read about these kinds of tests. Are the tests given in the Cafeteria to all the students, who are then told that the tests won't count for any grade or even be linked to them? If so, only an idiot or someone who takes tests for fun would even fill the thing out. How is this an accurate assessment of the US Educational system?

** It was mentioned before, but the decline in preparedness in college has more to do with the expanded numbers that enroll in colleges than a breakdown of the system.

** The US puts EVERY 14 year old on a college track. Do other countries do this? Are we comparing our whole population against the top 20% of European Students? Do other countries have new immigrants on their books?

** I am officially tired of hearing about how great a school TJ is. TJ selects the top 3% of students from one of the biggest, wealthiest school districts in the country. You could lock those kids in an abandoned warehouse for six hours a day for four years and they would STILL have kids get into Ivy League schools. TJ's "excellence" has more to do with their student population then teacher quality.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 22, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse


Sorry about the typo. I am sure from your post that you, as I, did not proof your post: "I live now in Switzerland and everybody hear talks . . ."

Posted by: sdl63 | December 22, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Until we get back to teachers who are not intimidated by government mandates and parents who actually are responsible for their kids, we will continue to short change the kids and later on when they are "adults", this great country of ours. Lets see the kind of leadership that generation elects!

Posted by: Nighthawk620 | December 22, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Your column, is utter nonsense.

It is the economy that is broken, not the education system.

I know dozens of people that were top of their class, went to top schools, completed multiple advanced degrees that are struggling in this economy to find work.

My eleven year old, in a public school is doing the mathematics we did in first and second year of college prep schools, thirty years ago.

The schools in this nation, coupled with public libraries and the internet provide sufficient opportunities to learn.

However, our the way we are operating economic system currently, and our financial sector in particular, are destroying us.

Posted by: knucit | December 22, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

To Chrisinwein-

Elementary and secondary teachers are easy targets for blame. You have no idea what a political minefield it is to try to enforce rigorous academic standards in public schools. You've probably never been threatened to be sued by an angry parent who blamed you because their kid didn't want to do his homework. I've seen it happen. We live in a culture that expects public school teachers to compensate for too many problems that the wider community can't handle.

It's not surprising that you see more and more under-prepared, unqualified students entering college. That's to be expected after nearly a decade of the kind of poor teaching practices encouraged, or even required, by NCLB data-driven curriculum. It's only going to get worse as our education system continues to be judged according to how well students master the art of taking multiple choice tests.

Don't be so quick to jump on the bandwagon that uses public school teachers as scapegoats for a complex series of societal issues. That's lazy thinking.

Posted by: aed3 | December 22, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree with knucit, and would like to add that our country’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is the other major factor. What other industrialized nation has a comparable history?

A large portion of the focus on our "educational woes" is the poor outcomes of low income children who attend segregated urban schools (of course the segregation was initiated and is perpetuated by the urban middle class). Despite increasing overall educational attainment for African Americans over time, a large underclass in that subgroup persists.

Since 1957, the proportion of the African American population with a high school degree increased by 300% (18.4% to 79.2%) and the proportion of the African American population with a 4-year college degree increased by almost 500% (2.9% to 17.2%). Dropout rates have consistently declined. [Kirwan Institute 2004] Even if you choose to devalue some of those achievements, it still won’t account for the fact that, consistently since at least the 1950s, this extraordinarily wealthy country has tolerated having an unemployment rate for its African Americans which is twice as high as that for its Whites.

Knucit’s economic assessment is correct in this case, too. Chronic, dire economic problems are what forced a subset of American slave descendants to resort to an underground economy. A street culture then developed to dictate the behavior within it. In this world, the fantasies and skills needed for mainstream success are illusive, irrelevant, and even viewed as negative -- the feelings of alienation are extremely severe. Our way of dealing with it is to wait and watch for something bad to happen, then lock people up. The number of incarcerated African Americans has increased 800% since the 1950s.

Honestly, most Americans are fascinated with this phenomenon as an oddity that makes for entertaining news and TV. They isolate themselves from it geographically, and don’t really care about changing a thing nor in trying to understand the dynamics. For them it's a lot easier and more satisfying to blame the only middle class people who are willing to have contact with the kids from this world. These would be the public school teachers.

Posted by: pondoora | December 22, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

My youngest brother graduated with honors from a well-respected private university in 2007 (not quite Ivy caliber but still a "brand name" school). He's a bright kid who loves to read, scored >700 on the SAT-V, and always got A's in honors & AP English courses at an affluent suburban high school. He also went through during the "whole language" fad.

As a result, his writing is atrocious! He asked me for feedback on his college honors thesis and literally every sentence had at least one error or awkward phrasing. I had to spend the better part of an evening giving him a crash course in sentence diagramming. After I had finished, he thanked me profusely and was angry that his teachers had never taught it to him like mine had when I went through a decade earlier.

I don't think I'm any smarter than my brother, just that I had better English instruction.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 22, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate the comments by Utahreb, Chrisinwien and sdl63 at the top. Many people would agree. But they sound like old-fuddism to me, the universal cry of the experienced professional that things just aren't done right any more. We have been hearing this kind of stuff for several millenia, and yet the species seems to have improved, not declined as such comments would suggest. I know you believe it. I have similar views myself on issues like automobile design. But our feelings and anecdotes are not evidence. Show me some data and you might change my mind.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 22, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

To Chrisinwein again:

re your comment:

"They know tons of PC drivel (yes, it's rife out there), unsupported by science or analysis, but imposed by authoritative opinion."

Do you really believe that public school teachers get to determine the curriculum they teach? Do you get to decide what is taught at your college?

Sorry to keep picking on you, but your comments show that you really don't know what's going on in schools these days. Your students are indeed being cheated by a system that cares more about appearances than substance, but not because teachers want it that way.

Posted by: aed3 | December 22, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

It's impossible say much about the state of education as a whole. There are many good things and many bad things happening. At one end of the spectrum, we're debating AP versus IB. At the other, we're doing so many test preparation workbooks (and forcing non-learning impaired students into special education so that their test scores don't factor into the general ed calculus) that it's hard to tell what's happening.

And now we don't even Bracey to dispel disinformation for us....

Posted by: -JP- | December 22, 2009 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Jay, Here's some factual data.

Today, McDonald's workers simply have to push keys with pictures on them. They hardly know how to count change, even when the machine tells them the exact change.

Back when I was a teenager working retail, I would not have been able to get a job if I could not add and subtact and balance my drawer.

Here's another - my kids' elementary school teachers do not even know phonics - consonant blends, digraphs, and vowel sounds. They admitted they are not readers, having only learned to sight read, and not very well at that. (btw, this is not really reading, by definition, not to mention that is not possible to "memorize" every word in Webster's by sight) One of these days, I plan to take a couple of college courses in teacher "education" just to see what is taught. I'll bet "not much" other than educational "philosophy" and Bloom's taxonomy.

It is pathetic, but in my opinion, planned. The dumbing down of America has been a political agenda for over 100 years.

When folks talk about how things have changed, they are definitely correct. Education has been on the decline for 40 to 50 years. The data will not show it because (1) the data has been doctored to show what the bureaucracy wants it to show and the keep and even increase the funding and (2) the standards have come down to meet the scores. Sorry, Jay, I am really, really surprised you do not know this!! There have been numerous articles around the state concerning the cheating going on in schools to make the grade.

Two good books on this subject can be read online for free:

John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education:

Charlotte Iserbyt's The Deliberate Dumbing Down:

Posted by: concerned36 | December 22, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

The last Bracey Report can be found at:

Posted by: dhelfman | December 23, 2009 7:11 AM | Report abuse

so concerned, I assume that people routinely took calculus and physics in high school 40 to 50 years ago? The Dropout rate was lower? More people had college degrees? Otherwise, I don't see how what you say makes any sense.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 23, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

for concerned36. That is anecdotal information. You have to show me the results of a standardized test, on phonics and other issues of concern to you, given to teachers 50 or 100 years ago and now before I will accept your analysis. As someguy100 pointed out, we have this great vision of teachers using old fashioned methods like phonics to teach kids to read very well, but that contradicts actual data on literacy rates in the US, which show that although we could do better, a higher percentage of adult Americans can read now than could do so 50 or 100 years ago.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 23, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I stand by anecdotal data far more than I do "doctored" data presented by state DOEs and US DOEs. Virginia seems to be doing pretty well according to its state standards (SOLs) but then look at the NAEP outcomes. 40% of 4th graders read at basic proficiency? I know for a fact that our school cheated to make AYP. They don't test the kids they think will not pass. Simple.

Also, Virginia fudges on the number of drop-outs, so these kids don't even get counted. (They should be counting the number of 9th graders who graduate 4 years later instead of counting the number of 12th graders who finish the year. Most kids drop out way earlier than senior year.)


You can close your eyes but when parents have to teach their kids to read at home because they aren't learning to read at school, there is a problem. How do we know that the entire 40% of those 4th graders who passed the NAEP test were taught by their parents at home, called "afterschooled"? Maybe not a single one learned to read at school. None of my kids learned how to read at school. We taught them at home in afterschooling. We weren't going to let them fall through the cracks, but many parents don't know how to play the "success game" that must be played.

Posted by: concerned36 | December 23, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Agreed on all your points concerned36 and I've shared your links with community members as well. Thank you.

Truth be known is that I to must teach my children to not only absorb what they've read doing research to identify translation methods to allow summarization formats.

These standardized test permit multiple choice answers that, in my opinion, does not translate "real" absorption skills.

Parents now need to become "educators" and if I could actually financially afford to homeschool my children, I most certainly would.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | December 23, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I would to like to add, that it is OVERtime individual school systems to provide annual parental surveys that contains questions that truly give an understanding of what parents actually need to do, sacrafices that must be made, and frustrations that are constant to make sure our children are successful students while enrolled in public schools.

These same findings are collected/reported simultaneouly with local school boards and state DoE, US DoE and NAEP.

Obtain and analyze "data" from those of us who very proactive in our childrens' education and are paying taxes to support respective public school system.

There are success stories within school systems, but there is a huge amount of disservice toward student achievement that exist as well.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | December 23, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

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