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Education Reform
Stagnation in K-12

Government education spending keeps rising, think tanks and universities keep churning out reports with policy suggestions, and Congress keeps passing clunky bills, but America’s K-12 system is not getting any better at giving students basic math and reading skills. The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest NAEP testing results:

Only 37% of American 12th-graders were academically prepared for college math and reading in 2015, a slight dip from two years earlier, according to test scores released Wednesday.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” said that share was down from an estimated 39% in math and 38% in reading in 2013.

Educators and policy makers have long lamented that many seniors get diplomas even though they aren’t ready for college, careers or the military. Those who go to college often burn through financial aid or build debt while taking remedial classes that don’t earn credits toward a degree.

There are three basic takeaways from this news. First, what we are doing now in K-12 is not working, but that emphatically does not mean that we need to lower expectations. It means that administrators and policymakers need to be much more aggressive about experimenting with instructional models that have been shown to work—but that probably won’t be possible without curbing the extraordinary power of teachers’ unions, which tend to successfully resist any and every disruption to the status quo.

Second, the mediocre college readiness statistics highlight the folly of the BA-for-all model. Public policy should do everything it can to make college accessible to every student who wants a degree and is academically prepared, but using subsidies to push more marginal students into expensive four-year programs is not an efficient use of resources. These students are likely to leave college with a mountain of debt but without a degree that will enable them to pay it off.

Third, as long as America’s K-12 program is not preparing a majority of students for higher education, and as long as people with only a high school degree are struggling to make it, our education system needs to start placing a heavier emphasis on vocational education. Training in trades can dramatically improve the career prospects of people who aren’t able to—or don’t want to—go to college. We need to do much more to meet the practical needs of this sizable population.

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  • Andrew Allison

    How ’bout colleges ceasing to admit freshmen who are not academically qualified for college? The would put the heat where it belongs, namely on the appalling K-12 education being provided in this country. A logical next step would to fire any teacher who advances a student to a grade for which they are not qualified, or has more than a threshold of repeating students. This nonsense of pretending to educate our kids has got to stop.

  • J K Brown

    It means that administrators and policymakers need to be much more aggressive about experimenting with instructional models that have been shown to work

    Good that you put the caveat of “shown to work”. However, one big problem in the modern k-12 is the growth of education Ph.Ds. Ph.Ds. are suppose to do research, which implies experimenting. And a Ph.D only gets ahead by selling their new theory. There is no bonus for confirming or continuing the old methods shown to work. Worse, all these new “theories” driven more by tenure and publication rather than actual improvement of education, need experimental subjects. These experimental subjects are known as children and there no ethical or legal requirements for these researchers to correct the damage done when their experiments prove ineffective. In fact, there is every incentive to hide such outcomes in order to sell more books and book more speeches.

  • PennsylvaniaPry

    Maybe the kids are just stupid and immune to any attempt at educating them. Has anyone thought of that possibility?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “It means that administrators and policymakers need to be much more aggressive about experimenting with instructional models that have been shown to work—but that probably won’t be possible without curbing the extraordinary power of teachers’ unions, which tend to successfully resist any and every disruption to the status quo.”

    I would never associate the terms “Aggressive” or “Experimental” with the bureaucrats inside the Government Monopoly. Bureaucrats by definition avoid risks or responsibility, and always seek to avoid being blamed for anything. As this is in their self-interest, and how bureaucrats get ahead. Since in order to avoid being blamed, any program must be signed off on by every bureaucrat, “because if everyone is responsible then no one is responsible”, getting a new program implemented is almost impossible as unanimous consent is required.

    And the only “Models” that have been shown to work are “Home Schooling” followed by “Private Schools” followed by “Vouchers” (none of which are monopolies).

    As far as the other monopoly involved, the Labor Gang Monopoly aka teacher’s unions, these need to face the anti-trust laws just as all other monopolies outside the Government Monopoly must.

    The Government Monopoly like all monopolies suffers from the same disease, the lack of the “Feedback of Competition”. It is the “Feedback of Competition” that provides both the Information and Motivation which forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price in free markets.

    This means that to improve the Quality, Service, and Price of the K-12 schools, if you aren’t talking about how to put the free market into the system, you are wasting your time with solutions that aren’t solutions at all.

  • Anthony

    Two points: i) cognitive psychology has achieved a degree of consensus about the fundamental nature of academic skills at the K-12 level; 2) gaining an academic skill such as reading and math is dependent on the specific curricular content through which each skill is taught. So, a question to ask then is our are schools successfully teaching the “higher-order’ skills in line with cognitive science and educational policy alignment. While acknowledging the three takeaways from Post, I recall (A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom) a discussion on “Content is Skill, Skill Content summarizing the current scientific understanding of academic skill (reading/math).

    As a point of reference and to underscore emphasis of Post, five principles are listed as a way to refute the trends highlighted in Stagnation in K-12. They are:
    1. The character of an academic skill is constrained by the narrow limitations of working memory.
    2. Academic skills have two components: procedures and contents.
    3. Procedural skills such as turning letters into sounds must initially be learned as content along with other content necessary to higher-order skills.
    4. An advance in skill, whether in procedure or content, entails an advance in speed of processing.
    5. A higher-order academic skill such as reading comprehension requires prior knowledge of domain-specific content; the higher-order skill for that domain does not readily transfer to other content domains.

    Essentially, the five principles provide a way to refute the trend represented in Post and avail a system of early education (K-12) that stresses a coherent approach to content as a way to successfully teach higher-order skills (reading/math). How do we as a country of tens of thousands (if not more) K-12 schools transfer broad academic cognitive science research on academic success into coherent curriculum. That is, given aforementioned stagnation and NAEP results if principles have proven effective can they scale up effectively. For me, if Post implies we are operating on a set of formalistic conceptions (incoherent curriculum) damaging to our K-12 population, then by all means let us look at the scientific consensus on the nature of academic skill acquisition.

    • CosmotKat

      Anthony you are regurgitating the brain-based education theories from the psych department and the last thing our schools need is more psycho-babble that is great in theory, but not in practice. Why did students do so much better before politicization, unionization and Democrats took over education?

      • Anthony

        “Are internet comments controlling your thoughts?” DISQUS – to learn more check in. I’m done here. God Bless.

        • CosmotKat

          Thanks for your thought, but there was no twisting of your intention, but simplicity in diagnosing the problem. The problem with education is that too many sociologists are looking for solutions in all the wrong places and the end result is continued poor performance and outlandish amounts of money spent on schemes that do not help. The questions you failed to answer was “Why did students do so much better before politicization, unionization and Democrats took over education?” Pretty simplistic and fair, no?

          Thanks for the link, but internet comments are not controlling me they are entertaining me. Wish you well.

          • Anthony

            For your notification, DISQUS is presently notifying me of “Trolls”. I trust your warning is a mistake and you’re welcome.

          • CosmotKat

            Do you feel trolled?

          • Anthony

            It’s not about how I feel. The site obviously has indicators. I’m done until further observation.

          • CosmotKat

            It’s not troll alerts, Anthony it’s the question you don’t want to or can’t answer, but that’s OK. See ya.

          • Anthony

            Honestly, I did not read your reply and have not looked at a question. The alert represents itself. I trust we’re finally done, thanks.

          • CosmotKat

            “The alert (comments attract attention from people with different backgrounds and alert descriptors may act as filtering perhaps) represents itself.”

            Does this represent your mother’s skirt” Because that’s what you are hiding behind and it’s truly cowardly. Yes, we are.

          • Anthony

            It represents my desire to be neither diverted nor engaged by your distraction (no offense intended) and DISQUS alerts gave me justification – not that I needed any. CosmotKat, ending may come before beginning. God Bless.

          • CosmotKat

            You are using a phony excuse to dodge a simple question. DISQUS does not monitor nor provide alerts. You are attempting to paint me an internet troll and you should be ashamed of yourself for such intellectual cowardice, Anthony.

          • Anthony

            Despite DISQUS most current “WARNING’ (just NOW to your reply), I tried to “finesse” out of a minor exchange (appreciating the nature of Political Commentary) rather than brusquely conclude. CosmotKat, you leave me no choice, since the former failed, therefore the latter takes precedence: I don’t want to waste my time with some internet stranger with an axe to grind. I do not care how you choose to interpret my decision (Men make definitive decisions). GOOD BYE!

          • CosmotKat

            Of course you don’t want to engage that would mean defending your ludicrous cut and paste commentary that had nothing to do with the premise of Mead’s article. It would also require defending said asininity and answer a simple, but pointed question that had everything to do with the article of record. Instead, like a trembling college freshman, you allude to trigger warnings and attempt to smear someone as a troll. You are a riot, Anthony.

          • Anthony

            For the record, I never cut and paste (requires no thought and an instrument of convenience for another generation – this narrative has gone over 60 hrs but no one is “trolling”.)

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