In April 1983, U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell created the National Commission on Excellence in Education, directing it to “examine the quality of education in the United States.” The panel found that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
The report famously asserted, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war.” It also insists that “…academic excellence [is] the primary goal of schooling [and it] seems to be fading across…American education.”
Edward B. Fiske, education editor of the New York Times at the time, described the report as “35 pages that “shook the U.S. education world [becoming] one of the most significant documents in the history of American public education.”
Sadly, however, a 1998 Hoover Institution report revealed that “little has changed” and that the nation was still very much at risk.
Here we are in 2024, over 40 years after the alarm bells sounded, and what have we done about the “act of war?”
Not much at all. What follows is a very brief overview of our current condition.
Learning deficiencies persist
The average scores on the American College Testing (ACT) exams, which are used for college admission, have fallen the last six years in a row and are the worst since 1991. The average scores for reading, math, and science all fell below benchmark levels that are necessary for students to have a chance at succeeding in their first year of college.
Too many Americans are not smart enough to join the Army
In 2022, the U.S. Army missed its recruiting goal by about 15,000 soldiers—or 25%.
While there are many reasons for this, a 2010 analysis from The Education Trust reports that too many of the nation’s high school graduates have not been adequately prepared to serve in the U.S. Army. “Shut Out of the Military,” the first-ever public analysis of the Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, reveals that more than one in five young people interested in enlisting don’t meet the minimum eligibility standard required for the Army because they don’t have “the reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving abilities that it takes to pass the enlistment exam, which is designed specifically to identify the skills and knowledge needed to be a good soldier.”
The study puts the blame on America’s educational system.
COVID and missing students
Our education establishment badly damaged children by forcing schools across the country to shut down when COVID hit. That action caused massive learning loss, and it subsequently led to an alarming uptick in student absenteeism.
According to an analysis from the American Enterprise Institute:
- Post-pandemic attendance has been far from consistent. Nationwide, chronic absenteeism—the percentage of students missing at least 10% of a school year—surged from 15% in 2018 to 28% in 2022.
- Falling in 33 of 39 states reporting data, chronic absenteeism rates improved in 2023 but still remained 75% higher than the pre-pandemic baseline.
- Chronic absenteeism increased for all district types, but rates were highest in districts with low achievement and higher poverty, affecting over one in three students.
- In 2022, 16% of Asian students and 24% of white students were chronically absent, compared to 36% of Hispanic students and 39% of black students.
- The urgent need to recover from pandemic learning loss will be severely hampered by current rates of chronic absenteeism, making it the most pressing post-pandemic problem in public schools.
Teacher training and licensing
While it’s true that the average teacher has more education than the average private sector worker, much of the added study is in our schools of education, which the renowned economics professor Walter Williams referred to as “the academic slums of most any college.” A 2011 paper in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives backs up Williams’ assertion, finding that education majors are subject to considerably “lower grading standards” than other college students.
Additionally, the National Council on Teacher Quality reports that California and most other states aren’t doing enough to support and train teachers to teach literacy effectively. In fact, only 12 states were rated strong in this area.
Heather Peske, president of NCTQ, explains, “While states are rightly prioritizing literacy, they are not focusing enough attention on teacher effectiveness and teacher capacity to teach reading aligned to the science. If these efforts are to succeed … the state needs to ensure that teachers are prepared and supported from the time that they are in teacher preparation programs to the time that they enter classrooms.”
The NCTQ report also found that 28 states have “weak licensure tests” and “leave it to outside accreditors to approve how teachers are prepared.”
We spend valuable teaching time on wokeism
Instead of teaching traditional basics, many schools have become indoctrination factories. Jered Ratliff, an Oregon high school math teacher, delivered a lecture called “Mathematics as a tool of oppression” at the Northwest Mathematics Conference in Portland on Oct. 14, which was sponsored by the University of Oregon. Ratliff’s description of the lecture reads:. “Mathematics is our single most powerful academic building block, but the power it holds frequently allows it to inhibit discovery and societal good.”
In California, Jill Tucker reports that a Hayward elementary school struggling to boost low test scores and dismal student attendance spent $250,000 in federal money for an organization called Woke Kindergarten to train teachers to “confront white supremacy, disrupt racism and oppression, and remove those barriers to learning.”
And then there is the annual Black Lives Matter Week of Action which is celebrated this year the week of February 5. The educators who champion this group will spend an entire week primarily talking about equity, social justice, and victimhood.
It’s worth noting that the percentage of black teens who seriously considered suicide rose 69 percentage points from 13% in 2011 to a startling 22% in 2021. While there are many causes for this, the ongoing left-wing mantra that racism is ubiquitous and that it hampers black Americans’ road to success is certainly one cause.
The infusion of sex-related issues is front and center
And then there is the ubiquitous sexual obsession of many teachers and schools. Typical is Los Angeles, where the school district proudly hosts a “Rainbow Club,” a 10-week district-wide virtual club for “LGBTQ+ elementary school students, their friends, and their grown-ups.” The poster specifies that it’s for children in TK–5th grade. (“TK,” or transitional kindergarten is comprised of 4-year-olds.)
Additionally, Los Angeles schools devoted an entire week in October to celebrating “National Coming Out Day.” A “Week of Action Toolkit – Elementary,” sent from the school district, outlines suggested lesson plans for elementary students around LGBTQ+ topics. The toolkit includes an “Identity Map activity,” the purpose of which is for “students to think critically about identity and intersectionality.” It’s important to note that every second spent on this type of sexual engineering propaganda is time when students could be learning traditional subjects.
The teachers’ unions are a big part of the problem
The teachers’ unions certainly bear much of the blame for our educational downturn. Two of their prime objectives are to decimate charter schools and quash any measures that enable parents to avail themselves of private school choice. The unions further educational rot by enforcing tenure and seniority rules, which guarantee that subpar and even criminal teachers stay on the job. They also pushed heavily for school closures during the time of COVID and regularly promoted woke curricula.
To ensure their goals are met, the unions strongly support politicians who will do their political bidding. In fact, the National Education Association spent twice as much on politics in 2021 as it did on representing its members—$66 million compared to $32 million, according to the union’s latest LM2, a report that must be filed with the federal Department of Labor. Additionally, Open Secrets reports that over 99% of the union’s political spending went to Democrats.
Student spending and the teacher shortage
The education establishment is forever pleading to increase spending. But over the last 40 years, our per-student outlay has about doubled—in inflation-adjusted dollars—and we have nothing to show for it.
Regarding the alleged teacher shortage, more bushwa. Nationally, class size has been shrinking over time. Since 1921, the student-to-teacher ratio has been reduced from 33:1 to 16:1.
Americans are becoming dissatisfied
American colleges have also fallen out of favor. Another 2023 poll from Gallup shows that public confidence in universities and colleges has plunged since 2015, finding that only 36% of Americans now express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, compared to 57% who expressed those views in 2015.
The best-case scenario for changing course would be to get the government completely out of the education business. But barring that highly unlikely event, all citizens must demand that their legislators institute a system of universal school choice.
Until then, the future of our children and the nation will become even riskier than it is now, and we will continue to lose the war.
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Larry Sand, a retired 28-year classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.