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The American Education Diet:
Can U.S. Students Survive On Junk Food?
It has been 23 years since the National Commission on Excellence in Education
warned President Reagan and the nation of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American
schools with its report A Nation at Risk. Since then, little has improved. Meanwhile, as the
international economy has evolved in the last two decades into what Thomas Friedman
describes as a “flat” world of globally connected entrepreneurs, the nation’s stagnant
education system, bogged down by those vested in the status quo, has left new generations
of students even more at risk in an increasingly competitive society.
Consider that the U.S. ranks 21st out of 29 Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in mathematics scores, with nearly
one-quarter of students unable to solve the easiest level of questions. As globalization
makes increasing inroads on American culture and economy, our students’ tenuous
academic standing in the international community takes on a practical urgency. Too
many of our students are not making the grade.
Despite tax-payer spending of $11,000 per student on K-12 education (2nd most in
the world), American businesses and institutions of higher learning dedicate
approximately $16.6 billion each year to remedial education for millions of high school
graduates who still lack basic skills. And the problems of public education have become
not just the concern of policy wonks, academics, and employers. The mainstream media,
from Oprah and ABC’s 20/20 to major print, radio and TV news desks, acknowledge and
scrutinize, in hundreds of reports every year, the dismal state of education across the
The crisis has seeped into the national consciousness and millions are now calling
for the education reforms necessary to get students back on the right track. Stricter
demands for accountability, the creation of opportunities for parents to opt into better
schools, and a widespread review of curriculum, assessments, and teacher performance
will all top the list of potential prescriptions for change in the nation’s policy discussions
of America’s educational health.
There are many who dismiss the facts about stagnant, and in some cases declining,
educational attainment. They argue that Americans have never been better educated
because more minority students and traditionally disadvantaged students are college-
bound. And there is indeed evidence of progress in the face of pressures to respond. But
the fact remains that even among better performing students, proficiency in education is
nowhere near saturated. Consider: the nation’s most populous state, California, released
its latest test scores in August, and even in Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest communities in
America, nearly 25 percent of high school students are not proficient in grade-level
material. In average communities, proficiency hovers around 60 percent, meaning fully 40
percent of high-schoolers have not mastered what they need to know in a given grade.
And among those who need good schools the most – those from the most at-risk
demographics—proficiency is still far less than 50 percent in most conventional
Americans have become increasingly obsessed with good health. So why is it that
so many of our children are given a daily dose of educational junk food? The American
Education Diet is in dire need of a serious review and overhaul. What follows is a broad
and detailed look at what has led to this diagnosis.
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I. Math & Science
Researchers, scientists, and businessmen alike have recognized that the growing global
economy is threatening our nation’s economic standing. As the National Academy of Sciences
2006 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a
Brighter Economic Future notes, “In a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-
cost labor readily available, U.S. science and technology advantages have been steadily eroding.”
That steady erosion is the cumulative effect of years of mediocrity in math and science teaching
in our schools. An international comparison of student test scores paints a foreboding picture of
In 2003, American students trailed most industrialized nations in math and
science scores on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing.
In science, U.S. students ranked “significantly below the OECD average,”
finishing 19th out of 29 nations with a median score of 491. Japan and Finland
led all nations with a median of 548. The results were equally alarming for
mathematics testing, with U.S. students finishing 21st out of 29 countries. Just
10 percent of American students were ranked as “top performers,” while Hong
Kong/China had more than 30 percent of its students in that category.
The same study conducted by OECD dispels the myth that the disparities across
nations are the result of education spending. It says that the United States has
the poorest achievement outcomes per dollar spent on education. In fact, the
Czech Republic was one of the top performing nations in the study despite
spending one-third the amount per student compared to the United States.
An overwhelming majority of American students (72 percent) say they get good
grades in mathematics. Despite finishing well behind top performing Asian
nations, American students were particularly confident in their skills. Just 36
percent of U.S. students said that they agreed with the statement they were “just
not good at mathematics.” Comparatively, 57 percent of students from Hong
Kong and 62 percent of South Korean students agreed with the statement. But
for all their confidence, American students have not won over their future
professors or employers. Sixty-five percent of professors and 63 percent of
employers said students lack basic math skills.
In National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math testing, the
average score for 13-year-olds increased between 1999 and 2004 by 5 points.
However, the average score at age 17 remained stagnant from 1973 to 2004.
Those numbers suggest, as many researchers have concluded, that student gains
disappear the longer a child is in our current education system.
American students know that they could do more. 71 percent of U.S. students told the
Public Agenda Foundation that they do the bare minimum to get by.
3 The Center for Education Reform 2006
Reading comprehension is essential to all learning. Unfortunately, American students’
reading achievement is steadily declining and the results are being felt both during and beyond
the school years.
• Mean Verbal SAT scores have spiraled downward between 1972 and 2005. The
trend continued in 2006, when SAT scores experienced their largest single
drop in 31 years, with verbal scores falling 5 points over the previous year.
• Just as mathematics achievement dropped the longer students stayed in the
system, a gradual decline in knowledge was apparent in NAEP reading tests.
Nine-year-olds scored higher in 2004 than in any previous assessment year,
but 13-year-old students showed no gain between 1999 and 2004. And again,
17-year-old scores have remained stagnant since the first year the test was
administered in 1971.
The state-by-state numbers show that in the highest-performing states only 43
percent of 8th-graders scored at the proficient level on the 2003 NAEP Reading
Assessment. Washington, DC bottomed out with only 10 percent of its 8th-
graders reading at grade level. The average state proficiency rate of 8th-graders
nationally was just 32 percent, with 17 states educating less than 30 percent of
their 8th-graders to a proficient level in reading.
The Rand Corporation concluded, “Overall, the data show that our nation
faces a tremendous challenge to raise the literacy skills of our nation’s
adolescents. It is clear that simply mandating standards and assessments is not
going to guarantee success. Unless we, as a nation, are prepared to focus
attention and resources on this issue, our schools are likely to continue
producing students who lack skills and are ill-prepared to deal with the
demands of post–secondary education and the workplace. Policymakers,
schools, and teachers need to step up and accept the ‘orphaned responsibility’
of teaching students to read to learn. The costs of inattention are very high,
both in personal and economic terms.”
Businesses and institutions of higher learning are already feeling the effects of
students’ poor literacy:
• Seventy-four percent of professors and 73 percent of employers told Public
Agenda that American students lack basic grammar and spelling skills.
Roughly the same percentages said they also lack the ability to write clearly.
However, for literacy and reading comprehension to improve, teachers and
schools have to engage students in learning. The number of students saying they read for
fun almost every day has dropped in the last 20 years. During the same time frame, the
percentage indicating that they never or hardly ever read for fun has increased. These are
attitudes fostered and reinforced by our complacent education system.
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III. Language, History, and Cultural Studies
The 1978 report Strength Through Wisdom called on President Jimmy Carter to change
the way the nation learned history, languages, and foreign cultures. The report declared that
American schools “graduate a large majority of students whose knowledge and vision stops at
the American shoreline.” Unfortunately, American schools—and students—have made little
progress since that 1978 report.
• State graduation requirements, which have helped to improve achievement in
many subjects, still only require minimal coursework in world history,
geography, and political science. In college, fewer than one in ten students
enrolls in a foreign language class. That lack of focus on global studies has had
a staggering effect on American students. According to research cited in
Education For Global Leadership by the Committee for Economic Development
(CED), roughly 85 percent of young Americans could not locate Iraq or Iran
on a map and 25 percent of college-bound seniors could not identify the
Pacific Ocean. The statistics were not limited to geography. More than 80
percent of New York City 8th-graders did not meet state standards in social
studies in 2004.
• Surveys of corporations consistently find that businesses are focused outside
the U.S. to recruit necessary talent. In a 2002 survey, 16 global corporations
complained that American schools did not produce students with global skills.
United States companies agreed. The survey found that 30 percent of large
U.S. companies “believed they had failed to exploit fully their international
business opportunities due to insufficient personnel with international skills.”
One respondent to the survey even noted, “If I wanted to recruit people who
are both technically skilled and culturally aware, I wouldn’t even waste time
looking for them on U.S. college campuses.”
• In 1998, just 23 percent of 4th-graders, 22 percent of 8th-graders, and 26
percent of 12th-graders were at or above the proficient level in civics testing.
More than 30 percent of all grades tested didn’t even hit the level of basic
knowledge, and just 2 percent of fourth and 8th-graders ranked as advanced.
• In 2001, 57 percent of 12th-grade students scored below basic level in history
testing. Just 10 percent of the 12th-grade population scored at or above
proficient in history, showing no improvement since the previous test in 1994.
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IV. Overall Achievement
Author and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and University of Virginia
professor of education E.D. Hirsch has said that American students fall so far behind students
internationally because they lack the broad knowledge needed for real comprehension. Without
this basic curricular foundation, delivered in a more effective manner than our current
education system has demonstrated, all of the well-meaning math, science, language, and
history reforms will not change the growing disparity between American students and the rest of
• American 4th-graders finished ninth in international reading tests,
significantly behind Sweden, Netherlands, and England, according to
government data. Results of the 2003 PISA reading tests are even more
troubling, with the United States finishing 15th out of 30 countries.
• And more time in or advancement through the system does not improve the
outlook. Only 31 percent of the nation’s college graduates scored as proficient
in English literacy in 2003.
• And for large pockets of the population, the outlook is even worse: across the
country, major cities are failing spectacularly in their mission to educate
children. Some of the largest school systems in America, serving hundreds of
thousands of students, are struggling to teach even the most basic skills.
• In Baltimore, only 1.4 percent of the students at one high school passed the
state biology exam. Another Baltimore high school had just 10 percent
passing the algebra exam. Northwestern High, a school targeted for takeover
under NCLB, had an 8.8 percent pass rate on the state algebra exam;
nevertheless, the school conferred diplomas on 78 percent of its seniors in
2005. These and other schools in the city have failed to show improvement
for more than 9 years.
• In Los Angeles Unified School District, 2006 testing showed that just 31
percent of students scored at or above grade level in math and only 30
percent of kids are at or above grade level in English.
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V. Money & Time
The deficiencies seen in student achievement—even in the most fundamental elements of
learning—imply deeply entrenched problems with the American education system. As
politicians, researchers, and policy makers argue over ways to fix our ailing system, two issues
continually come to the fore.
• Between 1990 and 2005, federal, state, and local education spending for
grades K-12 has more than doubled from $248.9 billion to $538 billion. In
that same time period SAT scores have remained flat. Results are similar
with spending on teacher salaries. According to Education at a Glance:
OECD Indicators 2005, American teachers have the 6th-highest salaries in
the world, but their students have the 6th-lowest achievement in the world.
• Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2005 also found that the United
States leads the world in the number of instructional hours per school
year, with teachers spending an average of 1,000 hours per year on
classroom work. However, more time in does not seem to be turning out
better educated students.
• And while some parents in the United States complain that their children
receive too much homework, students from other countries might
disagree. A report by the Brown Center found that the typical American
high school student does not spend more than an hour per day on
homework. The report noted that, “of 20 nations, the U.S. ranked near the
bottom, tied for the next-to-last position [for time spent doing
homework]. Students in France, Italy, Russia, and South America reported
spending at least twice as much time on homework as American students.”
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VI. Dropout Rates & The Achievement Gap
Recent studies on American education have sent shockwaves through poor and minority
communities, where the achievement gap between white and minority students has grown to
alarming proportions and dropout rates are at an all-time high. “Individuals with a high school
diploma live longer, have better indicators of general health, and are less likely to use publicly
financed health-insurance programs than high school dropouts,” according to information from
Columbia University. For many inner-city and minority kids, the battle against the education
bureaucracy is a fight for their life.
• An estimated 1.2 million teenagers failed to earn a high school diploma in
2005. Among all public school students in the class of 2002-03, the average
freshman graduation rate was 73.9 percent. The worst graduation rate
belonged to Washington, D.C. (59 percent), but ten states had graduation
rates below 70 percent: Alaska, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, New
Mexico, Mississippi, New York, Georgia, and South Carolina.
• The Manhattan Institute found that the national high school graduation rate
for all public school students remained flat over the last decade, going from 72
percent in 1991 to 71 percent in 2002.
For inner-city and minority students in American, the prospects are even more grim.
• While the graduation statistics are alarming for the entire nation, “the
graduation rates are far worse for members of most minority groups. For the
2002-03 school year, the most recent year for which data are available, only
51.6 percent of black students, 47.4 percent of American Indian and Alaskan
students, and 55.6 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school
on time with a standard diploma,” according to Education Week.
• The same Manhattan Institute report also found a large difference among racial
and ethnic groups in the percentage of public high school students who leave
high school eligible for college admission: about 40% of white students,
compared with 23 percent of African-American students, and 20 percent of
• The 2002 National Opinion Poll on Education found that African-Americans
were far more critical of their local schools than other racial groups. In 2002,
35.2 percent of African-Americans rated their school as excellent compared to
53.7 percent of the general population.
• Nearly 50 percent of teachers in mainly minority schools - and 29 percent in
mainly white schools - say a high school diploma is not a guarantee that a
student has learned basic skills.
There is hope: International mathematics assessments in 2003 revealed some good
news—African-American test scores rose 15 points.
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VII. Grade Inflation
Since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January of 2002, the increase in
accountability for schools, teachers, and student achievement has helped to bring a level of
transparency to education that had previously been lacking. Those state tests now help the public
see every year where schools are most in need of improvement. But individually, students still
suffer from poor instruction and inconsistent standards. Too often teachers’ low expectations for
students result in inflated grades for work that is in fact sub par, leaving students woefully, and
unknowingly, unprepared for life after high school.
• A damning story of grade inflation was portrayed recently on Oprah, which
profiled Beth, a rural Tennessee valedictorian, who upon arriving at college was in
tears over how little she knew. “I had never been taught how to use a microscope,"
she told the show. "When I came into pre-calculus, I was completely left behind. I
had to go back and learn things that I should have already known from high
school." Now a college sophomore, Beth is a full year behind in science and math.
"I did everything that I could to prepare myself for college, and it still wasn't
enough," she said. "I don't feel smart at all in college…I feel like I'm stupid.”
Unfortunately, her story is not the rare exception.
• In the last 15 years, the percentage of SAT takers defining themselves as “A”
students has risen from 28 percent to 42 percent. Today, 89 percent of all SAT
takers define themselves as “A” or “B” students. However, in the same time
period, SAT scores among the “better” students have dropped.
• Approximately 60 percent of all employers polled believe their employees’ skills
did not meet current job requirements very well. That number rises to 69 percent
when looking forward two years.
• In 2000, 28 percent of all freshmen entering a degree-granting institution required
remedial coursework in reading, writing, or mathematics. In other words, 2.4
million American students graduate from high school without necessary skills in
the 3 R’s (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic).
• Seventy-five percent of colleges have to offer remedial education. Fully 22 percent
of students need math remediation in their first year. Stanley Fish, dean emeritus
at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches writing. Each year he inherits
students who start out ill equipped. He laments:
“We are at that time of year when millions of American college and high school students
will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the wider world, most of
them utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence. How is this possible?
The answer is simple and even obvious: students can't write clean English sentences
because they are not being taught what sentences are.”
9 The Center for Education Reform 2006
Research dating back to the 1966 release of Equality of Educational Opportunity (the
"Coleman Report") shows that among the various influences that schools and policy-makers can
control, teacher quality was found to account for a larger portion of the variation in student test
scores than all other characteristics of a school outside of student demographics.
• Researchers at the University of Tennessee have found that the effectiveness of
teachers has more of an influence on student achievement than any other
schooling factor. The report found that the least effective teachers elicited average
student gains of roughly 14 percentile points a year, while the most effective
teachers elicited an average gain of 52 percentile points a year. The effects of
teacher quality were also found to persist for years after a student had a particular
Unfortunately, our students are not guaranteed talented and honest teachers. A
study of Chicago testing and scores revealed widespread “cheating” in classrooms,
according to the bestselling book Freakonomics. Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist
Stephen J. Dubner analyzed 700,000 Chicago Public School test scores from 1993 to 2000:
• “An analysis of the entire Chicago data reveals evidence of teacher cheating in
more than two hundred classrooms per year, roughly 5 percent of the total. This is
a conservative estimate, since the algorithm was able to identify only the most
egregious form of cheating—in which teachers systematically changed students’
answers—and not the many subtler ways a teacher might cheat.”
• “In a recent study among North Carolina schoolteachers, some 35 percent of the
respondents said they had witnessed their colleagues cheating in some fashion,
whether giving students extra time, suggesting answers, or manually changing
While ineffective school systems are much to blame for the dismal results, it is
often struggling teachers, fearing reprimand for poor student achievement, that inflate
their students’ grades and push them on to the next grade level without the knowledge
they need to succeed. Poor achievement and grade inflation is exacerbated by a growing
number of teachers without qualifications in the subjects they are teaching.
• In 2004, over half of those teaching physical science classes (chemistry, physics,
earth, or space sciences) are without a major or minor in any of the physical
• More than 30 percent of public school math teachers did not major or minor in
mathematics in college.
• In high poverty schools, nearly 70 percent of science teachers were without a
major or minor in science.
Despite the incompetence of many teachers and the egregious behavior of some,
the unions make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. In New York over the last two
years, only two teachers out of 80,000 cases have been fired for incompetence, according
to ABC’s recent 20/20 report “Stupid in America.”
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- I. Math & Sc ience
- II. Reading
- III. Language, History, and Cultural Studies
- IV. Overall Achievement
- V. Money & Time
- VI. Dropout Rates & The Achievement Gap
- VII. Grade Inflation
- VIII. Teachers
- IX. Public Awareness and Opinion
- X. Conclusion