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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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