In 1983 a presidential commission warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American education. That report and other warnings about the crisis in education prompted bold talk of U.S. students becoming number one in science and mathematics by the year 2000.
Well 13 years later it's safe to say, forget that! If anything, the situation is even worse today.
The problems with education in the United States are not due to a shortage of computers or laboratory equipment or up-to-date textbooks. And don't worry about students becoming "computer literate." The problem is much more basic: We graduate students from high school and college who can't do reading, writing and arithmetic. Many high-school and college graduates (1) cannot understand fractions or percentages, (2) cannot write short, simple sentences, and (3) cannot read and understand clumsy sentences. (Writing simple sentences is important if you want to communicate ideas. The ability to read clumsy ones is important because those are what you often get, especially in legal documents.)
A teacher of college algebra cannot use a textbook from 30 or 40 years ago -- not because the book is out of date, but because it is too hard. Today's books must be "dumbed down." And the instructor cannot use tests given in the 1950s or 1960s. Today the questions must be easier.
But the message from American society is clear: It's OK. Intellectual ability is not very important. Americans applaud (you might say worship) athletes. Newspapers have entire sections for sports; and on occasion they also devote a quarter of the front page of the paper to a color picture of an athlete. When have you seen such recognition for intellectual achievement?
But lack of intellectual ability is costly. It hurts the individual and it hurts society: A machine-shop owner in Rhode Island rejects job applicants who cannot convert 0.625 to a fraction and cannot convert 3.7 feet to inches. Bankers reject applicants who cannot fill out the application forms. And society pays the welfare costs for people who cannot qualify for more than a minimum-wage job.
Society pays again when legislators pass bad bills because they cannot understand them. You and I and our children and grandchildren will pay until 2023 for the Rhode Island credit-union collapse, which was brought on in part by a bill passed by the General Assembly in 1988. Legislators could not understand a key sentence well enough to see that this bill would undermine the credit unions. (Several times since 1988, I have given copies of this one-page bill to my freshman university classes as homework, and offered a $10 prize to the student who could tell me what the bill says. I still have the $10.)
The crisis in education is not unique to Rhode Island. Something has gone wrong nationally; and it is unclear whom or what to blame. There are probably a number of causes -- the distractions of television, alcohol, drugs and sex; reduced supervision and discipline by parents; the expectation of instant gratification.
But high on the list is the tendency for teachers to tell students that their work is satisfactory, or excellent, when it isn't! (No one wants to damage a student's self esteem or impede his or her "advancement" to the next class, or to college or a job.) Later, when students do poorly on standardized tests, they and their parents can blame the tests.
By the time they get to college, students know that good grades and a diploma are desirable. But many have no idea that learning is what really matters. So they seek out the easiest courses and the easiest instructors. (Graduate programs in science and mathematics at many American universities would wither if they could not enroll students from Europe and Asia, where excellence is still expected.)
The solution to the problem has nothing to do with spending more money. What it requires is a basic change in educational philosophy and stronger backbones for teachers, school administrators and parents. Teachers, administrators and parents must simply stop telling students their work is okay if it's not okay! We must stop telling students they have passed a course or earned a diploma if they haven't met reasonable minimum requirements.
It is time to set meaningful standards, and let the students rise to the challenge. Students in other countries can handle it. Why not ours?
Rod Driver is a professor of mathematics at the University of Rhode Island, as well as a former state representative and congressional candidate.