by J. F. Kelly, Jr. | Coronado

Most Americans tend to think highly of the schools their own children happen to attend. They may be critical of public education in general, but they tend to believe that their own kids are in good hands and that they are doing better than most in terms of academic performance. Chances are, they are deluding themselves but even if their own kids’ academic performance ranks relatively high nationally, they may be surprised at how it compares internationally.

The results of several surveys show that American students fare poorly when compared with peers in other industrialized nations in the critical areas of math and science. In addition to receiving mediocre to poor rankings in these subject areas, the United States also ranks 20th in high school graduation rate. The one area where we rank first is cost per student, demonstrating that spending more money on schools does not necessarily improve performance or solve problems.

Statistics provided by the Commissioner of Education Statistics comparing math and science proficiency in American fourth graders, eighth graders and high school students with peers in other industrialized countries is both revealing and depressing. The ratings, revised earlier this year, show U.S. forth grade students performing poorly in comparison, eighth graders even worse and high school students generally uncompetitive with their foreign peers. By the time our students leave high school, if in fact they graduate at all, and are ready for higher education or the labor force, they are significantly behind their peers in other industrialized nations in math and science.

The statistics show that in math, U.S. fourth graders ranked 12th. Eighth graders ranked 28th. High school students ranked 19th among 21 industrialized countries. In science, we fared a little better. Fourth graders were ranked third behind Japan and Korea. Eighth graders were ranked 17th out of 41 but high school students lagged behind their international peers with a below-average 16th place out of 21 industrialized nations. Moreover, high school rankings in both math and science would have been substantially worse had Asian nations been included at that level.

Other surveys show similarly dismal trends. Only 24% of the high school graduates in America-less than one-quarter-scored high enough on the ACT in math, reading, English and science to ensure that they would pass entry-level college courses. Much time in college is already spent on remedial courses designed to get students to levels they should have attained in high school. And the average ACT composite score has dropped since 2007. Some officials and experts blame this on a weakened high school curriculum and a higher percentage of Hispanic students who tend to score lower than their Asian and white counterparts.

The United States now ranks 12th among industrialized nations in percentage of adults with an associate or higher degree. Most U.S. college students tend to avoid math and physical sciences whereas foreign students studying in U.S. universities tend to gravitate to them. Unfortunately, most now return to their native countries when they graduate because of our immigration policies that make it easier for those with little education or advanced skills to remain while much-needed mathematicians and scientists leave. If these trends continue we will lag further behind China and India in producing university graduates with the technical and quantitative skills we need to remain competitive. In spite of a stubborn 10% unemployment rate, employers say that they cannot find enough qualified employees with the necessary math and science skills for even entry level jobs in some industries.

How did we get to this sorry state of affairs? Certainly not because of a lack of funding or a shortage of good teachers, Let me suggest a few possible reasons. We have a shortage of parenting skills. Parents play a critical role in the education process and we parents are failing at it. Whether because of our own academic deficiencies, insufficient time, work pressures or broken families, the results are the same: poor school performance. Other causes are the dumbing down of school curricula to accommodate those with language, learning and attention problems. Our kids don’t read enough and neither do their parents. Time spent on digital devices does not equate to reading and writing skills. Finally, there is, in my view, far too much emphasis on extra curricular, leisure and social activities.

It’s time to stop blaming the schools and teachers for all our problems. Parents and perhaps the students themselves need to examine their priorities. Why do Asian students tend to excel academically? Because there is, in their culture, a great emphasis on the value of education and on the parents’ role in instilling these values.


copyright 2010 J.F. Kelly, Jr

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California.

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