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Debunking American Exceptionalism IV: Declining Educational Achievement

Work Ethic, Accountability, and Personal Responsibility Lacking as Core Values of our Education System

The United States has been slipping in educational achievement of middle and high-school students for years. Our national concern first started in earnest with the publication in 1983 of the influential report A Nation at Risk, which famously warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in American education that threatened "our very future as a nation and a people."  Since then, the U.S. has declined in competitiveness when compared to other countries raising the red flag about the value of our educational system and approach to educating students to be competitive in the 21st century.

Fast forward 30 years and we’re still dealing with the same problem. The current answer is the development of “common core standards.” According to its website,

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

The fact is that it has taken 30 years to deal with a critical problem that threatens our economic position in the world and future leadership in science, math, and technology. Why should we expect the current push to adopt common core standards to make a difference in educational achievement when very little has been accomplished with similar efforts during the past 30 years?

The educational achievement problem highlights the issue that I focused on in last week’s blog about the decline of ‘American Exceptionalism.’ In that blog I argued the decline in competence in all aspects of life has led to the acceptance of mediocrity in society. Competence is lacking in our educational system because of the lack of personal responsibility and accountability.

The statistics keep piling up against us. The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) increased our concerns when results showed 15-year-old students in the U.S. performed about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Those scores are all higher than those from 2003 and 2006, but far behind the highest scoring countries, including Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. The fact that Asian countries are in the lead in the ‘hard skills’ is not surprising – at least to me – because they have a work ethic second to none and make U.S. students – at least in my experience – look like a group of slackers who would rather play with their electronic devices than learn.

The US’ mediocre scores on the PISA exam have repeatedly been highlighted by the Obama administration and others pushing for education reform. A number of countries have made significant improvements in recent years, while the U.S. has made only incremental advancements.

Between 1995 and 2008, for example, the U.S. slipped from ranking second in college graduation rates to 13th, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Skills Outlook Report 2013. Of 34 OECD countries, only 8 have a lower high school graduation rate.

Responding to the grim figures, President Obama set a goal for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in 2020. It was part of the push towards common core standards to bring U.S. high school students up to the educational level required to be competitive with high-ranking countries.

Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, has said: "We live in a globally competitive knowledge based economy, and our children today are at a competitive disadvantage with children from other countries. That is absolutely unfair to our children and that puts our country's long term economic prosperity absolutely at risk."

Economists have long seen a connection between the strength of nations' education systems and their long-term economic prosperity. While myriad factors, including the stability of a country's economic, political, and legal institutions, can contribute to national productivity, researchers say, an educated workforce is widely regarded as critical to producing innovations and allowing businesses to make use of them.

So why are we doing so poorly in educational achievement? Why have we lost the right to say we are an exceptional country in education? It comes back to the basic values that are lacking in all areas of American life – a declining work ethic, a system that does not hold others accountable, and the failure to accept personal responsibility for one’s failings. The problem is not necessarily with the system, which is why 30 years of reform have produced minimal results. The problem is our young people are not driven to succeed as past generations. Without that drive and basic values to back them up, we will continue to languish in the middle of the pack of countries with high educational achievement.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 25, 2013