American education is a catastrophe. The evidence supporting this conclusion is overwhelming and has been for decades.
For example, a December 2016 article in The Atlantic reported that fifteen-year-old students in the United States placed “near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations” on the math portion of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.1 This was slightly worse than America’s showing on the 2012 PISA exam, on which American students scored below the PISA math mean and ranked twenty-sixth out of the thirty-four nations tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). On the 2012 test, 55 percent of students in Shanghai, China, scored at the highest or second-highest level, as did 13 percent of all students. However, only 9 percent of American students scored within these levels. And the top students in the United States performed poorly compared to those in other countries. Students in Massachusetts, a relatively high-achieving state, scored above the U.S. national average—but ranked two years behind Shanghai students.2
Even more appalling, various sources indicate that some 44 million American adults cannot read well enough to read a simple story to a child—and nearly half of adults in the United States are functionally illiterate, unable even to read a drug label.3
None of this is surprising. We have been inundated with bad news regarding the American education system for decades. For example, in 1988, a mere 5 percent of seventeen-year-old high school students could read sufficiently to comprehend information disseminated in historical documents, college textbooks, or literary essays. On the topic of history, “sixty percent did not know why The Federalist was written, 75 percent didn’t know when Lincoln was president, and one in five knew what Reconstruction was.”4
By the 1980s, the ongoing decline of education in America prompted the infamous report by an investigative commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. Published in 1983, its ominous opening line was “We are a nation at risk.” Even more baleful was its conclusion: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”5
This dire warning, although well publicized, did no good. The Educational Testing Service reported in 1994 that 50 percent of college graduates in the United States could not read a bus schedule and “that only 42 percent could summarize an argument presented in a newspaper article.”6
Why have we allowed this to happen to ourselves? Rather, why have we done this to ourselves? How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind?7 What caused this degradation?How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind? Click To Tweet
Toward answering such questions, it is important to understand that American schools have not always been so bad. Indeed, at one time American education was superb. . . .