The Ongoing Deterioration Of U.S. Schools

Published June 28, 2023

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released last week were quite distressing. The scores on the reading and math tests administered in October-December 2022 showed the steepest declines ever recorded since the tests were first administered.

Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), explains,

“The mathematics decline for 13-year-olds was the single largest decline we have observed in the past half a century. 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.”

It’s worth noting that the result of the NAEP U.S. history and civics test, also taken in 2022, were no better. According to data released last month, just 13% of eighth graders met proficiency standards for U.S. history, meaning they could “explain major themes, periods, events, people, ideas and turning points in the country’s history.” Additionally, about 20% of students scored at or above the proficient level in civics. Both scores represent all-time lows on these two tests.

These dismal results beg the question: “Why is this happening?”

The immediate response is to blame the Covid-induced shutdowns that gripped public education in 2020 and 2021. And to be sure, the hysterical response to COVID did indeed leave scars. In addition, the time spent by many teachers advancing the political fads-du-jour didn’t help things.

But as The 74’s Kevin Mahnken importantly notes, 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.”

So, what factors other than Covid are dumbing down our students?

Teacher union honchos invariably blame a lack of money. But when you look at the numbers, this is a non-starter. 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% increase.

Looking at state-by-state comparisons, we see that Texas – demographically similar to California –  spends about 25% less than Golden State, yet its students scored higher on the 2022 eighth-grade NAEP. Similarly, teacher salaries in California are third highest in the country, while Texas comes at number 38 nationally.

Another teacher union mantra is that our classes are too large, and if classes were smaller, students would greatly benefit.

Again, no. Nationally, class size has been shrinking over time. Since 1921, the student-to-teacher ratio has been reduced from 33:1 to 16:1. An extensive analysis of the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement and found that 15% of the studies did show an improvement in achievement, while 72% found no effect at all, and 13% found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

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

Going well beyond the 35-student limit set by the teacher union contract, some of his classes had more than 50 supposedly “unteachable” students, and the union, of course, complained. But rather than submit to the union, Escalante moved on to teach elsewhere. Just a few years after his departure, the number of AP calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80%.

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

In California, there are about 300,000 teachers. If 5% of them aren’t fit to teach, that means we have 15,000 educators who should seek work elsewhere. If each of these teachers has 20 kids in a class, it means they are ruining the educational experience of 300,000 children a year.

And a middle or high school teacher in the bottom 5% can do even more harm, as he or she may have 150 students per year.

But we can’t follow Welch’s or Hanushek’s advice because teacher union-mandated permanence clauses – in place throughout much of the country – make it just about impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. It was revealed during a court case in California in 2012 that, on average, just 2.2 of California’s 300,000 teachers (0.0008%) are dismissed yearly for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance.

Something else worth consideration is that if a district must lay off teachers, it should not be done by seniority or the “last in, first out” regimen that teachers unions demand. This setup rewards teachers for the number of years on the job, irrespective of their effectiveness. Instead, the poorest performers should be the first to go.

Hence, to turn education around, we must change the system. Until teachers are treated as individual professionals instead of interchangeable union members, millions of children will suffer. Educating children should be the top priority for schools, not kowtowing to the teachers unions’ industrial-style work rules. As such, teachers unions must be limited in power or, better yet, eliminated.