In an article published in late September 2017, we pointed out that annual polls concerning national public school systems consistently, and by large majorities, give school systems a grade of C or less.
In those same polls, Americans tend to highly value the job being done by their specific local system, assigning poorer performance elsewhere.
This is not just a matter of misunderstanding what is not close at hand. Ample evidence suggests that several things are broken in the K-12 and post-secondary education systems.
Discussion of what is wrong and how to fix it gets sidetracked immediately by hometown bias, perceived threats to jobs, a sclerotic funding system that is seemingly immune to change, an unwillingness to confront the full picture of the social burden society has layered onto education systems and good old American party politics.
The Big Picture
For most of the nation's history, schools were looked upon as the place to prepare students for the world of work. Relatively small elites of students were preparing for a post-secondary system that was not open to all.
Schools were also expected to inculcate some sense of proper citizenship in their students.
With the explosion of higher education options following landmark federal education legislation in the 1960s, schools turned to preparing more and more students for the increasing variety of post-secondary education options.
Today, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show that 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in colleges and universities within the first year after graduation.
What those numbers do not show is the very high rate at which high school graduates are placed in remedial education programs at post-secondary institutions.
They also do not show that 40 percent of those students who enrolled in college immediately following graduation from high school do not get a post-secondary degree even when the measurement used is 150 percent of the time the institution says that degree should take.
An example is using a six years window for measuring whether or not a given entering cohort of students attained a four-year degree.
Attrition rates are high. Loans taken to fund the attempt at a college remain regardless of success. Today there is $1.3 trillion of student loan debt outstanding with growing default rates.
Here is where the quibbling will often start. Wonks will argue that measures like the 150 percent of time graduation statistic are flawed because they do not take adequate care to include those students who graduated from an institution different from the one they entered or because it has a focus only on cohorts of First Time Full Time students.
All true. But would the big picture change? The graduation rates of part-time students and returning full-time students are much worse.
The point is that the nation has invested vast sums of public money in a sprawling post-secondary system to which there are a large number of under-prepared students.
Society has also become so enamored with the lifetime “pay bump” earned by those who went to college that it has adopted a bias against other forms of workforce preparation that can lead to solid, well-paying jobs and careers without a four-year or better degree.
So What Does The Picture Look Like?
Regularly the Pew Research Center publishes the results of international assessment for students in Math, Science, and Reading. Consistently the United States sees its students placed in the middle of the pack behind many other industrial nations. The nation tends to uniformly ignore such comparisons. Should it?
When education systems are looked at seriously, often the wrong problems become the focus.
Politicians seem convinced that the biggest problem with post-secondary education is access; it is not.
There is plenty of access with many institutions facing life-threatening enrollment shortfalls.
Cost and academic preparation are major factors in failure rates.
The nation has convinced itself that the greatest barrier to access and completion in post-secondary institutions is the high cost students must face, leading to government loan programs that have left many students with high, and in some cases debilitating, loan balances.
This reality leads many to engage in public policy discussions about funding, with talk of making parts or all of the post-secondary experience free.
Such discussions make it easier to sidestep the problems of preparation, the skill set issue that students carry with them from the earliest grades and pass on to the next level institution in our tiers of elementary, middle, secondary and post-secondary institutions.
A student who has to sit for two years in a multi-course sequence of remedial courses in college is a problem regardless of who pays for the courses.
Federal financial aid has accomplished much that is good and noble, but it also helped contribute to the exponential cost increase in higher education.
To shift the burden of payment for those costs to the public at large does nothing to address the cost structure itself.
Years after public school systems have been working to inculcate the testing regimens arising out of continuously changing federal policy, the current Education Secretary Betsy Devos has declared that Common Core is dead.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of her statement or her policies, the clear indication is that we still have no agreement on how to appropriately test students in ways that give some common weight to a high school degree.
In 2010, 24 states were members of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium established to create assessment tests for K-12 schools based on Common Core Standards. Only eight states, one of which is New Jersey, remain.
The linkage of high schools with post-secondary institutions is not serving a large number of students well. Students and their families are told that college is the answer to a better life, yet many of those students are left in remedial courses where they must take out loans to pay college-level tuition to master the work they should have mastered for free in high school.
Straight to Work
What of those who do not seek higher education?
The statistics don’t look all that much better for straight workforce preparation. These involve the 30 percent of high school graduates who go directly into the workforce.
The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates who did not go on to college is near 20 percent according to Labor Department numbers. This does not count those who leave the labor force completely; i.e., they are not employed and not looking for work.
National surveys by Achieve, a non-profit involved in education issues with membership by a number of state governors, show that less than 30 percent of employers feel they see high school graduates who have been adequately prepared for the workforce.
As some see it, the hard reality is that society has given undue status to a college degree, pushing students who may not be prepared or even inclined, in a direction where they do not succeed.
Undervaluing non-academic training aimed at enhancing an individual’s potential in the work place compartmentalizes education for trades, so they exist most prominently in select and limited technical schools.
This is not to argue that vocationally oriented programs are not part of many high school curriculums.
It is a call for greater favor for vocational education, often linked with two-year community college programs, to aid students whose skills, inclinations and academic preparation mean that college is not the best option.
In his State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump called for greater national investment in “workforce development and job training.”
He advocated a system where future workers can “learn a craft and realize their full potential.”
In 1982, Ronald Reagan called on the states to assume greater responsibility for workforce education arguing that the states knew better what their economies needed.
President Barack Obama reasserted an expanded federal role in job training and vocational education.
In both cases, the realities fell short of the rhetoric.
Fears exist that the same result will follow Trump’s call for investment since his proposed 2018 budget does little to support new investment in that area.
Regardless of where this sits in federal financial debates, the need is real.
A report from the Center for Children and Families urged more attention to linking associate degrees, technical and vocational certifications, apprenticeships, and worker training programs.
This includes paying attention to what employers claim are the necessary “soft skills” like understanding team work, punctuality, and basic social interaction skills.
The first-ever international comparison of workforce skills in industrialized countries shows the United States below international averages in reading and math skills and in basic problem-solving.
Can it be agreed that there is something wrong?
The debate on the education system has become highly polarized.
Yet, education remains supremely important not just for individual success but also for the success of a community. That makes the debate one that needs to be had locally.
The Herald and Cape Issues are inviting a dialogue through a series of fact-based articles. The first of these will be on standardized testing: its values, its burdens, and its results.
Together they will look at the results of state standardized testing in local public schools and invite comment on all sides of the issue.