First the bad news: Only about two-thirds of American teenagers graduate with a regular diploma four years after they enter high school, and only about half read well enough to succeed in college upon graduation.
Don’t even bother to ask how many are proficient enough in math and science to handle college-level work. It’s not pretty.
Of all the factors combining to shape the future of the U.S., this is one of the most important. Millions of American kids are not even making it through high school in an era in which a four-year college degree is becoming a prerequisite for achieving a middle-class lifestyle.
The Program for International Assessment, which compiles reports on the reading and math skills of 15-year-olds, found that the U.S. ranked 24th out of 29 nations surveyed in math literacy. The same result for the U.S. – 24th out of 29 – was found when the problem-solving abilities of 15-year-olds were tested.
If academic performance were an international athletic event, spectators would be watching American kids falling embarrassingly behind in a number of crucial categories. A new report from a pair of Washington think tanks – the Center for American Progress and the Institute for America’s Future – says an urgent new commitment to public education, much stronger than the No Child Left Behind law, must be made if that slide is to be reversed.
An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:
"Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting. … By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind nonpoor students. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of nonpoor students."
Not only is the picture horribly bleak for low-income and minority kids, but we find that only 41 percent of nonpoor fourth graders can read proficiently.
I respectfully suggest that we may be looking at a crisis here.
The report, titled "Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer," restates a point that by now should be clear to most thoughtful Americans: too many American kids are ill equipped educationally to compete successfully in an ever-more competitive global environment.
The report makes several recommendations. It says the amount of time that children spend in school should be substantially increased by lengthening the school day and, in some cases, the school year.
The report also urges, as many have before, that the nation take seriously the daunting task of getting highly qualified teachers into all classrooms. And it suggests that an effort be made to connect schools in low-income areas more closely with the surrounding communities.
The task force’s recommendations are points of departure that can be discussed, argued about and improved upon by people who sincerely want to ramp up the quality of public education in the U.S. What is most important about the report is the fact that it sounds an alarm about a critical problem that is not getting nearly enough serious attention.