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January 30, 2003

The Decline and Fall of American Education

American education is in serious trouble. Why aren’t we more concerned? By Paul E. Peterson.

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Perhaps this is “just” math and science, something American schools have never been good at. Besides, apologists say, Asian students (who score at the top on the TIMSS) are inexplicable math and science geniuses.

Yet low performance is not limited to these more challenging subjects. Americans barely reach the international literacy average set by advanced democracies, according to a report issued by the Educational Testing Service after looking at the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). Unlike the math and science surveys, the IALS was given to a cross section of adults aged 16 to 65. Despite the high expenditures on education in the United States—and the large numbers of students enrolled in colleges and universities—the United States ranked 12th on the test.

The United States is living on its past. Among the oldest group in the study (those aged 56–65), U.S. prose skills rose to second place. For those attending school in the 1950s, SAT scores reached an all-time high.

As the years go by, the United States slips down the list. Americans educated in the sixties captured a Bronze Medal in literacy, those schooled in the seventies got 5th place in the race. But those schooled in the nineties ranked 14th.

Have Americans sacrificed quality for equity? One could hope for such egalitarian bliss; unfortunately, the opposite is true. Among the 20 highest-income countries participating in the test, the United States wins the inequality Gold Medal.

Not true for the oldest group, however. For those educated in the fifties, the United States not only managed to achieve the second-highest literacy scores but, on the inequality index, scored no worse than average. Equity was not sacrificed for quality or vice versa.

Apologists will find excuses for these outcomes; immigrants pull down U.S. scores, it will be said, overlooking the fact that other countries have immigrants too. Lifelong learning opportunities are greater in the United States than elsewhere, it will be claimed, so young folks will eventually reach the levels of the oldest group.

But such excuses don’t ring true. All signs point to a deterioration in the quality of American schools. Europeans and Asians alike have rapidly expanded their educational systems over the last 50 years. In the United States stagnation if not decline has been apparent at least since the 1970s. Even our high school graduation rates are lower today than they were a decade ago.

Do we care? Economists tell us that human capital is more important than physical capital for long-term economic development. Weak educational systems won’t ruin the country overnight, but prolonged incompetence will eventually prove consequential.

Paul E. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, and editor in chief of Education Next: A Journal of Opinion and Research. He is also the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. His research interests include educational policy, federalism, and urban policy. Some of his current research efforts include evaluating the effectiveness of school reform plans around the country. Peterson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won numerous awards, including the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Prize.

Hoover Institution weekly essay, November 11, 2002. Available from the Hoover Press is Our Schools and Our Future: Are We Still at Risk? edited by Paul E. Peterson. Also available is School Reform: The Critical Issues, edited by Williamson M. Evers, Lance T. Izumi, and Pamela A. Riley. To order, call 800-935-2882.