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Is the concern over the crisis in American education overblown?

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September 27, 2010 07:30 pm


NewYorkerLogoIn the September 27, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, suggests that the rhetoric surrounding school reform overstates the problem. Taking the long view, Lemann notes that American education is a remarkable success story. He writes:

One hundred years ago, eight and a half percent of American seventeen-year-olds had a high school degree, and two percent of twenty-three-year-olds had a college degree. Now, on any given weekday morning, you will find something like fifty million Americans, about a sixth of the population, sitting under the roof of a public school building, and twenty million more are students or on the faculty or the staff of an institution of higher learning. Education is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; the creation of the world’s first system of universal public education—from kindergarten through high school—and of mass higher education is one of the great achievements of American democracy.

Lemann is certainly right that the American education system is a remarkable accomplishment and that educational attainment has advanced considerably in the last century. But he fails to note that this success story stalled about thirty years ago. Today, about 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate on time, and the college graduation rate, once the highest in the world, has been overtaken by many other nations. Currently, the U.S. is tenth in the industrialized world in the percentage of 25-to 34-year-olds with college degrees, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

This stagnation in progress has had, and continues to have, enormous consequences, both for individuals and for the nation. As a recent report from the College Board shows, the income gap between college graduates and high school graduates is large and rising; in 2008, women aged 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree earned 79 percent more than high school graduates, compared with 60 percent more a decade earlier.

This wage premium and the resulting inequality are the direct result of the stagnation in educational attainment, according to the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. In their book, The Race Between Education and Technology, Goldin and Katz show that educational stagnation has dried up the supply of educated workers, driving up their “price,” or wages. In contrast, in the 1940s, when educational attainment was rising, income levels were more equal, because the available supply met the demand for educated workers.

The stagnation in the high school and college graduation rate also has a consequence for society. As data from the Alliance for Excellent Education shows, reducing the dropout rate of the class of 2008 in half in the nation’s fifty largest cities would result in $1.1 billion in increased earnings, 30,000 new jobs, and $536 million in increased tax earnings.

As important as getting more students through school may be, students also need to learn more in order to succeed. A study by the OECD, which followed nearly 30,000 Canadian students who had taken the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test at age 15 in 2000, found that the students’ scores on PISA were the most important factor, by far, in determining whether the students went to college, stayed in college, and earned higher wages. Students who scored at Level 5 on the assessment, demonstrating the highest levels of knowledge and skills, were 20 times more likely than those who scored at Level 1 to attend a university, even after taking into account factors like family background.

Yes, the United States can and should take pride in creating the idea of universal public education and in its strides in realizing that dream. But the nation has a long way to go until all Americans share in that dream. The rhetoric might be overblown, but the problem is not.


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