Our Failing Schools Are a National Crisis

Published July 18, 2023

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results in reading and math, released in June, are appalling. The scores on the test, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” administered in October–December 2022, showed the steepest declines for 13-year-olds since the tests began.

“The mathematics decline for 13-year-olds was the single largest decline we have observed in the past half a century,” explains Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). “The mathematics score for the lowest-performing students has returned to levels last seen in the 1970s, and the reading score for our lowest-performing students was actually lower than it was the very first year these data were collected, in 1971.”

Results on the NAEP U.S. history and civics test, also taken in 2022, were no better. Released in May, these scores revealed that just 13 percent of eighth-graders met proficiency standards for U.S. history, meaning that they could “explain major themes, periods, events, people, ideas and turning points in the country’s history.” Additionally, about 20 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level in civics. Both scores represent all-time lows in these areas.

Most analysts blame students’ dismal showing on the Covid-induced shutdowns that gripped public education in 2020 and 2021. The hysterical response to the pandemic certainly did damage. But, as Kevin Mahnken notes for The 74, the latest scores, which highlight long-term trends that extend back to the 1970s, “widen the aperture on the nation’s profound academic slump.” In doing so, the latest test serves “as a complement to the 2020 iteration of the same test, which showed that the math and English skills of 13-year-olds had noticeably eroded even before the emergence of COVID-19.”

What factors, then, other than Covid are causing our students to stumble?

Teachers’ union honchos invariably blame a lack of money. That claim doesn’t add up, to put it kindly. According to NCES data, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending rose from $7,089 in the 1971–72 school year to $17,013 in 2019–20, a whopping 140 percent increase (figures are adjusted for inflation). Looking at state-by-state comparisons, Texas (demographically similar to California) spends about 25 percent less than the Golden State, yet its students scored about the same on the 2022 eighth-grade NAEP (a few points higher than its California counterparts in math and a few points lower in English). Similarly, teacher salaries in California are the nation’s third-highest, while Texas comes in at number 38 nationally.

Another teachers’ union gripe is that classes are too large. With fewer students per teacher, they argue, children would greatly benefit. This argument isn’t much stronger than the one about money. Nationally, class sizes have been shrinking steadily, going back a whole century: since 1921, the student-to-teacher ratio has been cut in half, from 33:1 to 16:1.

And besides, research on the relationship between class size and achievement has been inconclusive. Sometimes students in small-size classes score higher than students in large classes, and sometimes they don’t. And of course, to get to smaller class sizes, you have to hire more teachers, which dilutes the teacher pool.

Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek did perhaps the most extensive analysis of the effect of class size in 1998, when he examined 277 studies on the effect on student achievement of reducing teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages. He found that 15 percent of the studies showed an improvement in achievement, 72 percent found no effect, and 13 percent found a negative effect. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class-size environment, he sees no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

Jaime Escalante’s experience is instructive when examining class size. Escalante is probably the most acclaimed teacher of our time; his calculus class was hugely popular at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. In 1983, the proportion of his students passing the AP calculus test more than doubled. That year, 33 students took the exam, and 30 passed.

Going well beyond the 35-student limit set by the teachers’ union contract, some of Escalante’s classes had more than 50 supposedly “unteachable” Latino students. The teachers’ union, of course, complained, but rather than submit, Escalante moved on to teach elsewhere. A few years after his departure, the number of AP calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams had dropped by more than 80 percent.

This leads us to the most likely cause of failing American students: too many underperforming teachers. To be sure, the great majority of our educators, as in every field, range from adequate to good, and some are terrific. However, as former GE CEO Jack Welch once suggested, the bottom 10 percent of any field should be replaced. In a similar vein, Hanushek asserts that, if we just got rid of the bottom-performing 5 percent to 7 percent of teachers, American education could rival Finland’s world-class system.

California has about 300,000 teachers. If 5 percent aren’t fit to teach, that translates to 15,000 educators who should be let go. And if each of these teachers has 20 students in a class, that translates to 300,000 children a year subjected to poor quality or incompetent instruction. A middle school or high school teacher in the bottom 5 percent can do even more harm, as he or she may have 150 students per year.

Teachers’ union mandates make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent instructors. A 2012 court case in California revealed that, on average, just 2.2 of California’s 300,000 teachers (0.0008 percent) are dismissed yearly for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance. The question of dismissal raises another issue: if a district must lay off teachers, it shouldn’t do so on the basis of seniority—the “last in, first out” regimen that teachers’ unions currently demand. Instead, schools should let the poorest performers go first, regardless of how many years they have been in the game.

To turn American education around, we must seriously change the system. Until teachers are treated as individual professionals instead of interchangeable widgets, millions of children will pay the price academically. It ought to go without saying that educating children should be the top priority for schools, not submitting to the industrial-style work rules of teachers’ unions. As for the unions themselves, we must find ways to reduce their power—or better yet, abolish them.