How good is the US education system?

The US education system comes in for a lot of trash talk in the media and by politicians and business people. This has seeped into the public consciousness and it is now taken as a given that the US educational system is in dire straits and needs radical changes in order to be rescued from disaster. The 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa is another such book that pointed the finger at US college education as failing its students. Using a single measure of achievement, it compared a cohort of students from the first semester to the fourth semester and claimed to find negligible gains in learning, hence the title of their book.

This is hardly convincing on its face. The so-called ‘sophomore slump’ is a well-documented phenomenon (See the 1994 book Developing Reflective Judgment by Patricia King and Karen Strohm Kitchener) and by using this time period and ignoring the rise thereafter in the third and fourth years, the authors were pretty much assured of arriving at their conclusion. Yet from this limited data they drew some sweeping conclusions of the state of American higher education as a whole and since those conclusions were bad, they were seized on by the media and highly publicized.

I read the book and was really disappointed at how it arrived at its conclusions. Alexander Astin is a highly respected educator who has systematically studied the state of US higher education for decades and his review points out serious flaws in the study’s methodology and why we should not take its conclusions seriously.

Sweeping condemnations of the US education system are based on gross distortions of the facts. So why the propagation of the idea of widespread failure?

I have long felt (and argued so in my 2005 book The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine) that this denigration is part of a systematic campaign to discredit the public school system in order to destroy it and replace it with government-supported private schools. The systemic starving of public school budgets, the abuse directed at teachers and the teaching profession, the explosion of standardized testing, non-stop ranking of schools and teachers, ‘No Child Left Behind’, etc. all seemed designed to convince parents that the schools their children go to are awful and they should panic and look elsewhere. This has enabled people like Bill and Melinda Gates with their wealthy foundation to force through changes in the system that serve this ideological agenda even though they have no educational credentials.

The reality is quite mixed. The US public education system is not great and could be better but it has a lot of strengths. It has some schools and school districts that are floundering and others that are doing well. It is by no means a basket case and thinking of it that way is not helpful.


  1. Anonymouse says

    I agree with you; there is a full-fledged effort to dumb down the American public into credulous, low-information serfs. Also, destroying every type of education except for “for-profit” (private and trade schools) ensures a profit for the owners of these schools.

  2. unbound says

    I remember this argument from long ago. An economic professor pointed out, at that time at least, that the US was the only country that had a serious import of foreign students attending universities, so our education system couldn’t be that bad.

    One thing that I noticed a long time ago when they were comparing grades and graduation rates, was that the private schools don’t have to deal with learning disabled kids and that any parent who is willing to spend a lot of money to send their kids to private schools are a lot more likely to make sure their kids are success…which makes those stats highly suspect.

  3. machintelligence says

    Based on a limited perspective (Colorado Public Schools) I perceive at least two vexing problems. First and foremost is the reliance on teaching facts in order to do well on standardized testing. Memorization of facts is important and easy to quantify, but it is the ability to use critical thinking with respect to those facts that is the mark of true knowledge. Put another way, you need both facts and theory. It is true that college is a place where more of this occurs, but even in High School the attempt should be made.

    The second problem is that it is now assumed that virtually all HS students will go on to college. There are almost no practical or “shop” classes offered. If you want to study to be a plumber, electrician, or mechanic you need to attend a private trade school or join an apprentice program or the military.

    There are a couple of other more minor peeves of mine: Since it is now well known that the “window” for truly learning a foreign language closes at age 10, why are additional languages only taught in HS ? Also, a course in probability and elementary inferential statistics would be much more useful to most students than trigonometry. I suspect that the reason is tradition and inertia.

  4. slc1 says

    The United States system of higher education, particularly the public and land grant universities such as the one I graduated from, U. C. Berkeley, was, at one time the envy of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, as the support of higher education in state legislatures across the country has declined relative to the cost of doing business, their tuition and fees are becoming hard to distinguish from private universities like Harvard and Stanford, a process which could be referred to as creeping privatization.

    This plays into the hands of the right wing nutcases (and some more sane commentators like Michael Shermer) who believe that public education should be phased out and be replaced by a private system partially supported by the government, but independent of government regulation. Of course, the religious right vigorously supports this notion as it would provide government support for their mis-education schools without accountability.

  5. raven says

    75% of the world’s top research universities, 30 out of 40, are in the USA.

    This explains why an American university education is prized in much of the world and why so many grad students and scientists are foreign born.

  6. mnb0 says

    “The systemic starving of public school budgets, the abuse directed at teachers and the teaching profession, the explosion of standardized testing, non-stop ranking of schools and teachers,”
    Smells a bit like conspiracy theory to me. In The Netherlands the same is happening since 30 years ago, but nobody wants government supported private schools, not even Dutch right wing nuts.

  7. thewhollynone says

    Are those research universities private or public schools, and how much of their funding comes from government sources including student scholarships and grants? These research universities are the very top of the heap, accept only the top 1% of students, and, while they are very important to our technological culture, they are not what “public education” is about.

    When people denigrate “public education” and public schools in the US, they are usually referring to the K-12 system and maybe adding community colleges to that group– the schools which attempt to educate the vast majority of US citizens and which by law have to take practically all students who register without charging any fees. We are talking about free public education. Please do not mix apples and oranges and then try to talk about fruit; that discussion is useless.

    There is indeed a movement in the United States to demonize and dismantle the free public K-14 education system and replace it with private religious and commercial schools where tuition and fees would be paid with taxpapers’ funding, but there would be no government oversight or regulation of finances, curriculum, teaching credentials, or student admissions and discipline. In other words, there would be a monstrous raid on the public treasury by religious and commercial “schools” which would dwarf even the one occurring now. And most US students would be very ill served, much more poorly served than they now are IMO.

  8. smrnda says

    I attended a public land grant college where I studied mathematics and computer science, and within a semester I probably knew twice as much as when I got in.

    I’d say in some other fields ‘knowing more’ than when you started might be hard to measure – I don’t know how I’d assess how much a psychology student ‘knows’ since learning psychology is less about memorizing facts and more about learning to use proper methodology – that would be tough to measure with any ‘test’ that wasn’t asking someone to propose and design a study.

    The support for ‘private schools’ (meaning government sponsored schools that are not accountable to the communities they serve, but are to the shareholders) are just a way of creating a private sector monopoly without any accountability. Plus, private schools overall don’t do better than public schools.

    Also, public schools for affluent kids are pretty good – it’s more the plan is to phase out education for the lower classes entirely and instead turn to ‘charter schools’ run like prisons to teach the proles their proper place. They really just get government money to contain students, not educate them.

    As far as why schools haven’t evolved, it’s mostly since there isn’t much pressure for them to – parents don’t always know what to ask for and it’s so much easier to keep churning out the same shoddy product. We’ve known foreign languages should be taught early and that’s rarely done.

  9. says

    So many of the problems with Public Education are self fulfilling prophecies created by politicians.

    They say the schools should be better run, so they cut the budget. The budget cuts begin to undermine quality, so you have a further deterioration in some schools.

    With so many people saying schools or government should be run like a business, it’s a sham to say we’re going to lessen our investment in this enterprise but expect better results.

    How would investors feel if Apple decided to cut investment in designing new products, fired all of their tenured creative teams, and then claimed that they would get better results with less experienced design teams that have 25% less capital than the previous team of experienced designers?

  10. MatthewL says


    “One thing that I noticed a long time ago when they were comparing grades and graduation rates, was that the private schools don’t have to deal with learning disabled kids and that any parent who is willing to spend a lot of money to send their kids to private schools are a lot more likely to make sure their kids are success…which makes those stats highly suspect.”

    This is spot on. I attended one of the top private secondary schools in the world and what struck me was how poorly they did considering their selection of the best and brightest students, extraordinary facilities and excellent faculty. What I saw looked more like skimming the cream and taking the credit.

    All educational systems fail to some degree but, just as in life, those with the greatest assets can afford to fail and still look like successes, while for those that are struggling failure can be fatal.

  11. slc1 says

    Many of the top research universities are “public”, such as U. C. Berkeley, although, as I stated previously, it’s getting hard to differentiate between Berkeley and Stanford relative to charges.

    Even schools not in the top 30, such as UVA and the Un. of Maryland have a heavy research orientation, especially in the sciences and engineering. Assistant professors who don’t publish and bring in grants don’t get tenure.

  12. iknklast says

    I think the biggest problem is that public colleges have begun to operate with a similar mode to private – it’s all about money. Where I teach, we’re being encouraged to increase graduation rates, to encourage retention, to have high GPAs, and to have classes that are filled with “butts in the seats”. Yes, officially, my school talks about “butts in the seats”.

    This model is a problem. It isn’t about learning, it isn’t about education, it’s about mass-produced, assembly-line churning out of a “product” – kids with diplomas (or maybe that should be “butts” with diplomas, since we never talk about kids in the seats). The diploma has become the end goal, instead of being merely a certificate of authenticity for the real goal – education.

    Meanwhile, teachers are often rated more on how the kids “like” the classes than on how much they learn. I see nothing wrong with student evaluations; I see a great deal wrong with taking the comment of a single discontented student and elevating it to a position of prominence in an otherwise stellar performance evaluation, as has happened to some. I’ve seen good teachers driven out of the business, often because they are good teachers and ask the students to stretch themselves.

    Plus, post-modernism comes in for a bit of a hit here. Students have been brought up all their life being told their opinion is just as valid as every other opinion, even if there is not one shred of evidence to support it. So, when I present evidence for global warming, and they say, “Uh uh, I don’t believe that”, they consider that end of conversation. Their opinion is valid; my evidence irrelevant.

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