By Richard Vedder
Yesterday the Department of Education reported the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)results for 12th graders. Bluntly, the findings were awful. The percent of students who are proficient or better (good mastery) of English declined from 40 to 35 percent -- a large majority of graduating high school seniors do not have a good command of the English language, having either basic skills (only partial mastery) or, in the case of more than one-fourth of the students, even less.
The math test is not strictly comparable to earlier exams, but it shows even lower levels of competency, with barely two percent of students showing advanced, in-depth knowledge, and a very sizable (39%) minority having less than basic level mastery. Bluntly, for every math whiz we produce, we have 19 students who are or approach illiteracy in math skills. Meanwhile, we are told, that the average high school grade has risen significantly since 1990. We demand less of the students, and -- surprise, surprise -- we get less.
Couple this with the notion that Charles Murray, Harry Stilles, Jackson Toby and others have expressed, namely that many students go to college ill prepared, or lack the cognitive skills necessary for higher order learning. I am edging in the direction of writing a second book on higher education, entitled something like "the Overschooled but Undereducated Americans." (don't expect it soon --I am in the midst of another book on an unrelated topic.)
We in higher education ask little of our students, but take in ones that are ill equipped to learn in the first place, wasting billions of dollars and shattering many lives (via students who drop out) so we can maintain our nice lifestyles, meanwhile keeping our customers happy by giving them fancy recreational facilities while turning our heads at their binge drinking, sex, and other hedonistic dimensions of youth in this age of moral relativism. We also give some of our Sugar Daddies, the alums, some fun by spending millions subsidizing ball games that arouse their spirits and passions. Meanwhile, during our hours at the office (embarrassingly few), many of us do mostly what we like (research that often is of marginal true value), rather than what others think we are doing -- teaching, advising, encouraging students. Am I being a little harsh? Perhaps, but what I just said is also largely true.
No wonder the regression results keep showing: the more public money spent on higher education, the lower the rate of economic growth. We are squandering our resources. Does this mean higher education is bad or an ignoble pursuit? No -- au contraire, universities can -- and sometimes do -- lift the human spirit, make us wiser and more productive, and help us advance our civilization and even our life expectancy. But unfortunately the system is broke, and broke badly.