How Our Education System Fell into Decline
Sixty-three percent of employers said that recent college graduates don’t have the skills they need to succeed, the Association of American Colleges and Universities found in 2010. A separate survey showed that 25 percent of employers say that entry-level writing skills are deficient. What went wrong?
Some simplistically attribute the decline in our public education system to the drain of skilled students by private schools, but far more significant events were at work.
Public schools worked well in the United States, France, and other countries until about the 1970s. In fact, until that time, French public schools provided far better education than private ones. It was the underperforming students who were thrown out of public schools and went to private ones.
A prominent reason public schools did well was that many highly qualified women had few options for working outside the house other than being teachers or nurses. They accepted relatively low pay, difficult working conditions, and gave their very best.
Having such a large supply of talented women restricted to these two occupations meant that society could pay less for their services. Women’s liberation opened up new professional opportunities for women, and, over time, some of the best left teaching as a career option, bringing about a gradual decline in the quality of schooling.
Also around that time, regulations, government, and unions came to mandate pay, prevent adjustments, and introduce bureaucratic criterion for advancement. Large education bureaucracies and unions came to dominate the landscape, confusing activity with achievement. Bureaucrats regularly rewrite curriculums, reshuffle “innovative” papers about theories of education, and require ever more administrators. The end result has been that, after all the spending, students in Western countries (including the United States) have worse math and reading skills than both their foreign peers and earlier generations spending far less on education – as all the accumulating evidence now documents.
Another factor in our education system’s decline was the large expansion of universities after the passage of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, a reaction to the Soviet Union’s success in sending Sputnik to the skies. The quick, large amounts of money thrown at universities led to a rapid expansion of student body and faculty – the latter having had to be hired at greater compensations than at their previous jobs. Typically, what was meant to be temporary funding became ongoing. This, combined with the hiring of people who were not particularly interested in teaching, led to the decline of studies at universities, which were then judged by their numerical output in diplomas granted and articles published – words, jargons, and papers, rather than actual learning.
With this influx into universities of accidental tourists and, later, their mediocre apprentices, and with a critical mass of female talent fleeing the pre-university institutions, the vitality of both declined. The results came to be reflected in the quality of schools’ and universities’ textbooks and courses, in the discipline being imposed, in students’ respect for their teachers and learning, and elsewhere.
The respect toward teachers and faculty declines because smarter students can quickly see the mediocrity of most teachers and textbooks, and become bored to death. How can one expect the quality of schools to improve when, at present, teachers may be just one lesson ahead of students, teaching history one year and mathematics the next? How can such teachers even be expected to inspire students? In the vastly expanded “education departments” in universities – in some of them this is the largest department – most of the education majors’ four years is dedicated to studying abstract, jargon-laden “theories of education,” and relatively little is spent on subject matter. This has gradually led to an emphasis on promoting “self-esteem,” a fad not backed by any concrete knowledge and that has brought about much narcissism at best, and venality at worst.
Since education bureaucracies are measured by how many students graduate and what grades students get, no wonder that students graduate with top grades and little knowledge. As a result, whether students graduate has long stopped signaling selection of smarter, harder working, more ambitious kids. As Arum and Roksa put it, gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills have either been “exceedingly small or nonexistent for a larger proportion of students,” with 36 percent of them experiencing no significant improvement in learning whatsoever over their four years of “learning.”
Can these trends be reversed by hiring people who would be dedicated and inspiring teachers? Can education be drastically shortened and have far stricter selection, with smaller faculties and administration and fewer universities – all without reducing this country’s ability to truly educate and prosper? The answer would seem straightforward.
This article originally appeared in The American magazine, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.
Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, serves on the Board of the McGill Pension Fund and is member of its investment committee.
He worked with Bank of America, Knowledge Universe, EEN, Bell Canada, Repap Enterprises and with investors in Canada, Mexico, the US and Europe. He has been involved in the private equity markets as partner in Match Strategic Partners, has been investing in start-ups across Canada, as part of an “angel group,” and also created his own start-up, “e-mortal.com.” He has also been serving on boards of companies and institutions.
He was expert witness in cases covering anti-trust, bankruptcy and financial matters. In other spheres, Quebec’s government asked him in 1995 to be member of a commission whose mandate was to examine all aspects of Quebec’s possible separation. He was also asked to testify before US Congressional Commissions and Canada’s Senate’s Banking and Finance Committee, and worked with Poland’s central bank during the recent crisis.
His recent books are A World of Chance (2008) and Force of Finance (2002). His regular columns appeared in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Asia Times and other financial press around of the world. Forbes’ journalists put two of his earlier books in their all time recommended list, and Forbes Global dedicated a cover story, titled “Leapfrogging,” to his works and endeavors. Brenner also received the Killam Award (1992), the Royal Society elected him as “Fellow”(1999), and he received a Fulbright Fellowship Grant (1976).
Brenner was born in Rumania and immigrated to Israel in 1962. He served in the Israeli army between 1966-69, during the Six-Day War, and again during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Fulbright fellowship brought him in 1977 to Chicago, after completing his PhD at the Hebrew University and working at the Bank of Israel, where he received the First Prize from Israeli banks (for work with Saul Bronfeld, designing indexed securities). He lives in Canada since 1980. He is fluent in English, French, Hebrew and Hungarian.