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Cross-posted at Education Week
In my last blog, I described how high school textbooks that used to be written at the 12th-grade level for 12th graders are now written at the 7th- or 8th-grade level. I cited a report that said that many community college teachers do not assign much writing at all to their first-year students because they cannot write. I revealed that the community college course called College Math is not college math at all, but is in reality just a course in Algebra I—a course that is supposed to be passed in middle school in most states—with a few other topics thrown in, and many community college students cannot do the work. I pointed to data that says that the students who go to the typical four-year college are no better prepared than those attending community colleges. I then pointed to another study that says that for close to 40 percent of our college students, the first two years of college add virtually no value at all, and “not much” value for the rest. I ended by pointing out that, if this is all true, then colleges are typically teaching most students what we used to teach in the high school college-bound track and are not doing it very well.
How could this be? What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years. All I can do is speculate on how and why that happened. Here goes…
First of all, the period I have just mentioned started when American business, riding high since the end of World War II, was challenged by Asian countries offering much cheaper manufacturing workers with the skills as high as the typical American manufacturing worker. Not long thereafter, automation began to replace Americans doing low-skill and routine work at an ever-increasing rate. This led first to a stagnation and then a fall in real wages for the average employed American worker, a steep decline in the labor participation of men in the employed workforce and an equally steep increase in the rates of childbirth among unmarried women. These trends have combined to greatly increase the proportion of children entering the first grade who live in poverty, one-parent homes and in poor health. The issues here are not simply lack of money and the things money can buy. They go much deeper to a collapse of middle class values as the middle class is demoralized and its numbers dwindle. Little wonder that school teachers believe that society has dumped all of its problems at the schoolhouse door.
But it only begins there, before children first come to school. As globalization and automation put increasing pressure on the middle class, parents everywhere put pressure on teachers to give their children grades that would enable them to go to college. Forty years earlier, Grandma was the first in the family to finish high school. Twenty years ago, Dad was the first to go to college. Now, all the kids have to go to college. For families in which prior generations were proud to be a boilermaker or electrician, now fear and shame would come if Junior were not a professional. In other countries, grades are the result of a student’s performance on an externally graded test. Everyone gets together to help Junior meet the high standards. In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college. So grade inflation made rapid headway in our schools.
Second, prior to the 1970s, teachers were often the first in their family to leave the working class and to go to college. There was pride and status attached to being a teacher. But, as more and more young people became college graduates and the relative standing of teachers among college graduates declined, and more then entered graduate school, the status of teachers declined. The emancipation of women and minorities in the professional workplace opened up opportunities for talented women and minorities who would otherwise have been teachers. So the absolute quality of our incoming teachers declined. As the level of literacy of teachers starting slipping, their mastery of the content they were learning slipped with it, which had consequences for the literacy levels of their students. Further, standards in the universities these future teachers were attending slipped as grade inflation became universal in higher education too, for reasons I will get to in a moment. This, too, contributed to the steady slippage in the literacy levels of our future teachers. As literacy declined, so did mastery of content.
Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement. Facing tough sanctions from the federal government for low test scores, many states lowered whatever standards they had for high school students, so they could escape the consequences of poor student performance.
Notwithstanding what I said about the long-term trends, there were many excellent teachers, many of them veterans, in our schools. But the accountability movement was the last straw for a large number of them. Many bailed. And the best of our high school graduates, seeing the pressure teachers were under to produce under appalling conditions, decided not to choose teaching as a career. Applications to schools of education started to fall and are now falling ever faster. Other nations, seeking higher student performance, have greatly upgraded their standards for entering teachers colleges and for getting licensed to teach. The United States did not do that, and we have been reaping the rewards of that failure.
In the 1980s, experts, seeing the baby boom winding its way through our colleges and universities, predicted that, when the cohort of college-age students retreated to its normal size, the number of places in the colleges and universities would fall dramatically and many would be forced to close. It did not happen. I interviewed a number of college admissions officers at the time. With surprising candor, they told me that they would take the best students they could find, but their primary goal would be to fill their seats, whatever that took. What it took was an across-the-board fall in admissions standards. Once those sub-par students were admitted, the word went out to college faculty that professors who continued to use their former standards for grading would be punished. The institutions could not afford to lose the students they had gained by lowering their standards.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau Data via Investors Insight, April 10, 2012.
Later, as the competition for students among institutions heated up, the arbiter in the admissions game became U.S. News and World Report. The rankings emphasized the quality of amenities provided rather than the quality of the academic program, for which there were no agreed-upon metrics. The institutions, forced to compete on these terms, invested heavily in nicer student accommodations, fancier dining halls, climbing walls and student mental health care facilities. As the competition for students stiffened, universities spent ever more on very sophisticated college recruitment schemes. As regulation of universities increased, administration blossomed. Facing these cost pressures, the universities considerably reduced the number of hours of instruction provided during the academic year. They charged more for what they offered, but they provided less instruction. The combination of lower admissions standards, less instruction and the need to retain the students they had admitted irrespective of their academic performance, led to a general across-the-board decline in standards.
Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that the ending of the draft after the Vietnam War ended brought with it a catastrophic decline in the skills of the American civilian workforce, because the military—previously the nation’s leading source of well-trained high school graduates for a wide range of civilian jobs when draftees reentered civilian life—kept their trainees in the military under the all-volunteer army. The phenomenon combined with the collapse of selective vocational high schools in our big cities after the Vietnam War and the rise of the standards movement, which crowded vocational courses out of the high school curriculum. Vocational education has also often been a casualty in our community college programs because vocational courses cost more to deliver then academic courses and carry less prestige for the faculty. All these forces contributed to a broad decline in the standards for vocational education in the United States in the period following the Vietnam War.
What this story comes down to is that the United States, having led the world in educational attainment for more than a century, thereby enabling it to produce the world’s best-educated workforce, has, since the 1970s, made no gains at all in either attainment or quality, while close to 30 other countries, some of them abjectly poor in the 1970s, have managed to outperform us on both quality and quantity of education, many by a country mile. Even more damning, we appear to have lowered our standards for our college students to the standards we used to demand of our high school students and, at the same time, to have more or less destroyed what was once a first-class vocational and technical education system.
The very high quality of our best public schools and independent schools, of a handful of colleges with strong liberal arts curricula, of a few leading community colleges, and of graduate education in our leading research universities generally has masked the collapse of standards in the great mass of institutions serving our students at all levels. Fixing all this is not impossible. It is actually essential. But it cannot be done at all until we fess up to the consequences of our willingness to tolerate an across-the-board decline in standards and a failure to modernize our system for 40 or more years.
Cross-posted at Education Week
In their magisterial book The Race Between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz tell us how the United States led the world in educational attainment from the middle of the 19th century well into the second half of the 20th century. They show how this accomplishment led to the United States having the best workforce in the world through much of the 20th century and how that fact became a major source of our economic, political and social success.
And then it all came to an end. Since then, other nations have exceeded us in attainment levels (which is to say that the average worker in those countries now has more years of education under his or her belt than the average worker in the United States).
The ground shifted under us in the 1970s and we did not shift with it. When virtually all of the advanced industrial countries had reached high levels of attainment, the focus went from the quantity of education a worker has to the quality of education that worker has. That was when the United States went from world leader in education to world laggard among the industrialized nations.
The numbers are very clear. It was in the 1970s that the United States began to measure what our students had learned in school, with the National Assessment of Educational Progress. What it shows is that, from the 1970s to the present day, there has been no meaningful improvement in the average educational achievement of American high school students in English or mathematics.
But no improvement is not by itself fatal. The question is how that performance relates to the performance of high school students in the other industrialized countries. The answer is provided by the OECD PISA studies of student performance in reading, mathematics and science. That performance is mediocre, at best. Like the NAEP, the PISA data show that American performance since 2000, when the first PISA surveys were done, to the present, has been flat to slightly down. But other countries have been exceeding our performance in ever-increasing numbers. The United States now places #24 in reading, #36 in mathematics and #28 in science in the most recent PISA league tables, among the 65 nations participating in the survey. A significant number of the countries participating in the survey are poor countries and some of those countries among the top ten in student performance were very poor countries as recently as 30 years ago.
However, though NAEP tells us about the academic skills of future workers, it does not measure the skills of current workers. We now have a way of doing that. The Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), operated by the OECD, now does a periodic survey of working-age adults in many countries, including the United States. ETS recently did a careful analysis of the PIAAC scores of US millennials, adult workers between the ages of 16 and 34. The results were appalling. The US millennials scored lower than all but three other countries in literacy, last in mathematics and second from the bottom in technical problem-solving. Even more troubling, the scores of our millennials had actually gone down since the last assessment.
A few years ago, the National Center on Education and the Economy researched the actual demands of a typical community college first year curriculum. Here is what we found. First-year community college textbooks are written at a 12th-grade level. But many, perhaps a majority, of community college students cannot comprehend them. Because that is so, their teachers prepare PowerPoint summaries, so that they will at least get the gist. The reason they cannot read them is that the typical high school text is written at the 7th-or 8th-grade level, four to five grade levels below the community college text, which is itself written at one grade level below where it should be. It was not always this way. There was a time when 12th-grade texts were the texts that 12th-grade students used.
We found that the initial credit-bearing course in mathematics for most community colleges is a course called College Mathematics. But when we analyzed the texts for those courses, it turned out that most of the topics covered are normally associated with Algebra I, with a few topics from trigonometry and geometry. The only mathematics that is really needed to be successful in a first-year community college course is elementary school and middle school mathematics. But a very large fraction of high school graduates, perhaps a majority, are unable to do the work required in a typical college math course. Which is to say that they are not able to do middle school mathematics.
You might suppose, as we did, that the students going from our high schools to our four-year colleges would know and be able to do more than those going to our community colleges. We called ACT for the answer. ACT keeps track of what scores students need to get on the ACT test to have a high probability of getting an A or B in their first-year credit bearing college courses. ACT told us that they can see no difference in the ACT scores needed to have high probability of getting an A or B average in the first year courses in community college and four-year colleges. The score is the same. That told us that the challenge level of the first year courses in typical community college and the typical four-year college is the same. That makes it very likely that everything I just told you about the college readiness of students entering community college holds true for four-year college students, too. Their entering freshmen would have the same problems reading texts written at the 12th-grade level and would have the same challenges doing middle school mathematics.
But, surely, you say, once a high school graduate has been admitted to college, they learn something of value that increases their productivity in the workplace! Why else would employers be willing to pay college graduates ever more than high school graduates? It could be that the answer to that question is that employers will pay more just to get someone who made the effort to go to college and passed the very low screen of the college admissions process. I say that because a research project done a few years ago that measured gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other higher level skills taught on college campuses might give you pause. It found that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college. Thirty-six percent “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. “Students who did show improvement showed only modest improvement.” Then the authors rhetorically asked themselves how much students are actually learning in higher education. Their reply: “not much.”
Consider the following summary of what I just told you. Whereas students in the 12th grade used to read at the 12th-grade level, our reading experts tell us that a large fraction, probably a majority, of our high graduates read at 7th-or 8th-grade level now. Similarly, we have learned that the same high school graduates are not being asked to do high school math in our open-admissions colleges and many other colleges because they cannot do it, and are having a hard time with middle school math when they get to college. The only possible conclusion is that the majority of our college students are not actually doing college level work, but are actually doing high school level work in college, and many of those are having a hard time mastering what used to be a high school curriculum. Further, we have learned that when our high school graduates go to college, they typically gain little or nothing in their mastery of skills of great importance to employers, skills that always lead the list of things that colleges also value highly. Could it be that a large fraction of college graduates do not graduate college with skills any higher than those that high school graduates in college-bound tracks used to possess? Could it be that many community colleges and even four-year colleges are really offering what used to be a high school college-bound curriculum and many college students cannot even successfully complete that?
If that is so, it would go a long way toward explaining the slowdown in wage growth in the United States. Why should employers pay a lot more for college graduates who can only do what high school graduates used to be able to do? In my next blog, I will share with you my hunches about why this apparent collapse of standards has occurred. In the one that follows that, I will have something to say about what I think needs to be done about it.
Cross-posted at Education Week
In my last blog, I told a rather inspiring story of how this very attractive country, a former Soviet satellite, flat on its back when the Soviet Union came apart, has come roaring back to create a vibrant internet-based economy and ascend to the top ranks of the PISA league tables.
But, at the end of that blog, I told you that we returned from out trip full of concern for our new friends.
Our first cause for concern is not very subtle. When we went to visit with the staff at Tartu University, they told us that last year they had no applications from students who wanted to become teachers of science, and very few applicants in several other critical subjects in the core curriculum. Much the same thing, it turned out, was true at Tallinn University. It turns out that the vast majority of teachers are female, people who decided to be teachers in an era when university-educated women had few choices other than teaching. The average age of teachers in Estonia now is a little less than 48. They are poorly paid relative to other occupations requiring five years of university education, even though the government has been raising their salaries in recent years. And they are perpetually exhausted because they are responsible for an exceptionally heavy teaching load of compulsory courses, and their school year is very short. If they don’t teach the full curriculum, parents complain: “My friend Mary’s children are on page 176 of the text and you are only on page 123. Why?”
It is this combination of low pay, the small number of days in the school year, the high workload for teachers and high student performance that makes Estonia’s system so efficient. But the sources of that efficiency may be a ticking time bomb for Estonia. The success of the Estonian economy has been a disaster for Estonia’s teaching force, since the opportunities for highly educated Estonians in the private economy, especially in the STEM areas, are far more attractive than teaching. The Estonian education system, it would appear, notwithstanding its enviable position in the PISA league tables, may be in for a big fall, one that is not likely to be forestalled by another modest increase in teacher compensation.
There is another reason for real concern. About 70 percent of Estonian secondary students are in the academic curriculum. The rest are in the vocational education system, which is widely viewed as a dumping ground for students who cannot make it in the academic curriculum. The academic curriculum, though very demanding, is very traditional and is delivered by most teachers in a very traditional way. Even when teachers would like to use modern pedagogical techniques, parents, ever vigilant, complain to the authorities if the teachers are not following the textbooks closely and, as I pointed out above, keeping pace with other teachers as they go through it. Employers told us that this combination of a very traditional curriculum with very traditional pedagogy is producing graduates who lack many of the most important skills they need now in the workplace.
Estonia’s population is falling, which means that a smaller workforce will have to support a burgeoning number of retirees. But Estonia’s productivity is low. The only way to prevent a fall in Estonia’s standard of living will be to increase the productivity of Estonia’s workers. But that will not happen unless Estonia embraces a curriculum that is much more applied, much less tied to the textbook, much more focused on helping students learn how to set their own goals, frame their own problems, work collaboratively with other students to achieve those goals and address those problems and start acting as if work and learning go together, inextricably, rather than thinking of learning as something that you do before you go to work. That will require a revolution in Estonia. And the parents will have to buy into that revolution or it will not happen.
Cross-posted at Education Week
You’ve never been to Estonia? You owe it to yourself to go. We just returned and the warm glow of the visit has not yet worn off. We cannot wait to go back.
What these modest, friendly and highly educated people have pulled off is quite remarkable. In case you have not noticed, although the Finns are visited by educators from the world overeager to find out how they climbed into the exclusive club of top performers on the PISA surveys of student achievement, the Estonians, just across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, have just about matched the Finns in those league tables. And that is not all. As in the case of Finland, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Estonian economy went down with it. The difference, of course, is that, while Finland’s economy had been highly reliant on trade with the Soviet Union’s, Estonia’s economy was part of the Soviet Union’s. The Estonians, unlike the Russians, had no oil to sell. Nor were the Estonians like East Germany, with a West Germany to lend them a helping hand. Nonetheless, the Estonians managed to haul themselves out of the depths of depression to create, from whole cloth, one of the most vibrant economies among all the countries of the former Soviet Union. We went to this very attractive country to figure out how they did it.
The feature of modern Estonia that is perhaps best known outside this country is its moniker: “E-Stonia.” When the Iron Curtain came down, a very young government was formed. People in their 30s took the reins, and they had an idea. They would take advantage of their clean slate to leapfrog the rest of the world and turn their country into a beachhead and showcase for modern information technology and, by so doing, vault Estonia to the head of the pack economically. Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, has a flat tax and no debt. Come tax time, the government sends out an e-mail to its citizens with their tax return attached and filled in. If all is in order, it takes about five minutes to review it, e-sign it and e-mail it back. Estonian citizens have been given an electronic identity, and, by law, that identity must be accepted in the same way that our physical signature is accepted for all forms of contract. So you can sign your tax form or a mortgage by tapping the keys on your keyboard from home while in your bathrobe. The Estonians don’t use paper checks any more. And it doesn’t just stop at banking; information technology is put to use in many sectors, including online voting and universal electronic health records. Skype was invented here, and the company still employs a quarter of its workforce in Tallinn. No nation on the face of the globe has more completely imagined the digital future and implemented it, seamlessly.
So, when our plane landed in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, we brought with us a working hypothesis. It seemed likely, we thought, that the educational policies pursued by the post-Soviet government had made possible a modern economy founded on very strong STEM skills. But that is not what we found. The strong STEM skills were there all right, and so was a very strong education system, but they were the result of centuries of development. Even so, what we found was a situation that made us very worried for our new friends.
Hundreds of years ago, when the Swedes held sway over much of Scandinavia, the Baltic and much of western Russia, they were ruled by a king who had an intense interest in education. He was responsible for, among other things, establishing a university in what is now Estonia’s second city, Tartu. It is among the oldest universities in Europe.
In the religious ferment that gripped Europe after Martin Luther tacked his theses to the cathedral door, what would become Estonia went Protestant. The central idea of the Protestant revolution was that each individual had a direct, personal relationship with God. What made that relationship possible was the Bible, which provided each Christian with direct access to the Word of God, without having to go through the priesthood. The Swedes, in their Lutheran enthusiasm for these ideas, made it impossible for Estonians to marry unless they could read. An 1897 Russian imperial census survey showed that 97 percent of Estonians were literate, compared to most of the other Russian provinces with an average literacy rate of only 30 percent at that time.
The nobility in Estonia had come from Germany, and Tallinn had become one of the most important of the wealthy trading cities in the Hanseatic League of Baltic ports. The German connection made Estonia ripe for the ferment in educational thinking that gripped Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Germans had pioneered the idea of a free public primary school education, had built a very strong system of elite secondary schools set to very high standards and, at the same time, were building the world’s first research universities. Estonia, because of the German connection, was part of these developments.
When the future Estonia became part of Imperial Russia, it had become a hotbed of education reform at the primary and secondary levels and home to advanced ideas about education and research at the university level. The Russians, seeing a strong asset in their Baltic crown jewel, made Estonia a major research and education center for their rapidly developing economy, further strengthening the education system of Estonia and giving its people an even stronger incentive to achieve academically. Later, after a brief period of independence between the world wars, Estonia would once again become part of Imperial Russia, this time as part of the Soviet Union. The high international standing of the Soviet Union in terms of mathematics and theoretical physics strengthened the Estonians already-high standards in these areas. Estonia became a key center of strength in high technology, including software development. But in those fifty years under the Soviets, the elitist system of secondary education that Estonia had inherited from the Germans became much less elitist. The high standards formerly reserved for the elite came to drive the whole system.
The Estonians and the Finns share a branch of the European language tree that is very different from any other European language. Helsinki and Tallinn are only a short boat trip away from each other. Estonian teachers and Finnish teachers have shared educational ideas and practices for ages. The teachers’ union leaders told us that they had sponsored joint conferences with their Finnish colleagues for decades. The Scandinavian commitment to a less hierarchical, more equitable society runs deep in this association, as does a deep cultural commitment to education.
When we asked our informants to identify significant changes that had taken place in education policy since Estonia gained its independence, they could not think of any, apart from a very imaginative effort in the late 1990s—the Tiger Leap—to teach Estonian youth computer programming and make sure that all Estonian schools were online. So the fact that Estonia is among the top ten performers on PISA worldwide does not appear to be the result of education policies pursued since Estonia gained its independence, as much as it is the result of hundreds of years of political, social and educational development which ended up supporting a strong, deep and widespread commitment to education as well as a tradition of very high education standards, a very demanding curriculum matched to the standards, high quality examinations built directly on that curriculum, highly educated teachers with masters degrees from research universities, a well designed qualifications system, a strong system of supports for families with young children, and most of the other drivers of high performing national education systems that we had found over the years in such systems.
Not only do Estonian students do well on all of PISA’s subject tests, but there is very little variation in student performance across schools in Estonia, and, on top of that, Estonia spends less per student than most OECD countries, so they are getting an excellent return on their investment.
So we saw in Estonia many of the hallmarks of nations that do very well on PISA: a well-functioning ministry of education; high academic standards translated into a powerful curriculum that is measured by a high-quality examination system, schools full of dedicated, well-educated and highly trained teachers; and an equitable funding system.
QED. Case closed. But not so fast. Despite the high PISA scores and the clear presence of most of the components of high performing systems, we also found cause for real concern. It turns out that the case of Estonia is both inspiring—that’s the story I just told—and cautionary, not just for Estonia, but for other nations as well. That is the story I will tell in my next blog post.
Date: April 24, 2015
Date: April 17, 2015
Date: April 10, 2015
Date: April 3, 2015
Date: March 27, 2015