Education Decline


Excerpts from

The Other Crisis in
American Education

by Daniel J. Singal,
November 1991


Two crises are stalking American education. Each poses a major threat to the nation's future. The two are very different in character and will require separate strategies if we wish to solve them; yet to date, almost without exception, those concerned with restoring excellence to our schools have lumped them together. The first crisis, which centers on disadvantaged minority children attending inner-city schools, has received considerable attention, as well it should. …

The second crisis, in contrast, is far more academic than social and to a surprising extent invisible. It involves approximately half the country's student population--the group that educators refer to as "college-bound." ….. Beginning in the mid-1970s these students have been entering college so badly prepared that they have performed far below potential, often to the point of functional disability. ….

Consider the recent history of the Stanford Achievement Test, which has long served as one of the main instruments for measuring pupil progress in our schools. According to Herbert Rudman, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University and a co-author of the test for more than three decades, from the 1920s to the late 1960s American children taking the Stanford made significant gains in their test performance. They made so much progress, in fact, that as the test was revised each decade, the level of difficulty of the questions was increased substantially, reflecting the increasing level of challenge of the instructional materials being used in the schools.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, however, we managed to squander the better part of that progress, with the greatest losses coming in the high schools. During the past few years the Stanford and other test results have shown some improvement in math and science, and in language skills at the elementary school level. But there has been little or no movement in the verbal areas among junior high and high school students,

The blame for this wholesale decline in test scores is often put on a throng of underachieving minority students thought to have been pulling down national test averages, but in fact just the opposite is true. ….

"Perhaps the most untold story of American education in the past few years is the achievement of black students," Gregory R. Anrig, the president of the Educational Testing Service, declares. …. While students in the bottom quartile have shown slow but steady improvement since the 1960s, average test scores have nonetheless gone down, primarily because of the performance of those in the top quartile.

This "highest cohort of achievers," Rudman writes, has shown "the greatest declines across a variety of subjects as well as across age-level groups." Analysts have also found "a substantial drop among those children in the middle range of achievement," he continues, "but less loss and some modest gains at the lower levels." In other words, our brightest youngsters, those most likely to be headed for selective colleges, have suffered the most dramatic setbacks over the past two
decades--a fact with grave implications for our ability to compete with other nations in the future. If this is true--and abundant evidence exists to suggest that it is--then we indeed have a second major crisis in our education system.



The news is not encouraging. In 1972, of the high school seniors taking the SAT 11.4 percent had verbal scores over 600; by 1983 the number had dropped to 6.9 percent, and, despite modest gains in the mid-1980s, it remains in that disheartening vicinity. That's a decline of nearly 40 percent.

The decline since the mid-1960s has probably been closer to 50 percent….. The math SAT presents a somewhat different story. Though the percentage scoring over 600 dropped from 17.9 in 1972 to 14.4 by 1981, it has climbed back up to 17.9 in 1991.However, an influx of high-scoring Asian-American students (who now make up eight percent of those taking the test, as compared with twopercent in 1972) has apparently had much to do with this recent upsurge.

….. In 1970 students arriving at top-ranked institutions like Columbia College, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, and Pomona College posted average verbal SATs from 670 to 695; by the mid-1980s the scores ranged from 620 to 640, and they have stayed roughly in that neighborhood ever since.

The same pattern appears at colleges a notch or two lower in the academic hierarchy. To take a few examples from different geographic areas, from 1970 to 1987 average verbal scores went from 644 to 570 at Hamilton College, from 607 to 563 at Washington University, from 600 to 560 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and from 560 to 499 at the University of California at Santa Barbara.The point is not that these particular schools have slipped in their relative standings. ….: with a 40 percent decline in the proportion of students scoring over 600, there are far fewer high-scoring students to go around.

When a national poll in 1989 asked professors whether they thought undergraduates were "seriously underprepared in basic skills," 75 percent said yes and only 15 percent said no. The same poll asked whether institutions of higher learning were spending "too much time and money teaching students what they should have learned in high school." Sixty-eight percent said yes. ….

It's not that freshmen in 1991 are unable to read or write...... But is that enough for college? Do they have sufficient command of the English language to comprehend a
college-level text, think through a complex issue, or express a  reasonably sophisticated argument on paper? Those of us who were teaching in the early 1970s can attest that the overwhelming majority of freshmen at the more selective colleges arrived with such "advanced" skills. Now only a handful come so equipped.




."While the nation's students have the skills to derive a surface understanding of what they read,.....they have difficulty when asked to defend or elaborate upon this surface understanding." That's what most college faculty would say. Emilia da Costa, a Latin America specialist .... estimates that whereas 70 percent of her students can pick out the general theme of an essay or a book, only 25 percent come away with in-depth comprehension of what they read.

David Samson, a former lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, likewise observes, "No one reads for nuance. They pay no attention to detail." My own experience confirms this. ..... So much escapes them; even those of above-average ability absorb no more than a dusting of detail from a printed text. ....
Equally distressing is the rate at which today's students read. A friend of mine at the University of Michigan remembers that in the 1960s the normal assignment in his courses was one book a week. Now he allows two to three weeks for each title. He has also reluctantly had to adjust the level of difficulty of his assignments: even a journalist like Walter Lippmann is too hard for most freshmen and sophomores these days, he finds. Again, this is typical. Twelve to fifteen books over a fifteen-week semester used to be the rule of thumb at selective colleges. Today it is six to eight books, and they had better be short texts, written in relatively simple English.

As one might expect, students who don't read at an advanced level can't write well either. Their knowledge of grammar is not bad, according to Richard Marius, the director of the expository writing program at Harvard, but "the number of words available to express their thoughts is very, very limited, and the forms by which they express themselves are also very limited." The average incoming Harvard student, he observes, has a "utilitarian command of language"

.....Harvard, of course, gets the cream of the crop. Those of us teaching at lesser institutions would be happy with utilitarian but serviceable prose from our freshmen. More often we get mangled sentences, essays composed without the slightest sense of  paragraphing, and writing that can't sustain a thought for more than half a page.Along with this impoverishment of language comes a downturn in reasoning skills. Da Costa laments that students are no longer trained in logical analysis, and consequently have difficulty using evidence to reach a conclusion. R. Jackson Wilson finds this to be the greatest change he has observed during a quarter century of teaching history at Smith College. "Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing attitudes toward things rather than analyzing," he says. "They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions." .... On one test of analytic writing measuring "the ability to provide evidence, reason logically, and make a well-developed point," only four tenths of one percent of eleventh graders performed at the "elaborated" (what I believe should be considered college-freshman) level.

Finally, no account of the present condition of college students would be complete without mention of the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic abound--and they are probably all true. I will never forget two unusually capable juniors, one of whom was a star political-science major, who came to my office a few years ago to ask what was this thing called the New Deal.

I had made reference to it during a lecture on the assumption that everyone in the class would be well acquainted with Franklin Roosevelt's domestic program, but I was wrong: the two students had checked with their friends, and none of them had heard of the New Deal either. Another junior recently asked me to help him pick a twentieth-century American novelist on whom to write a term paper. He had heard vaguely of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but did not recognize the names of Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Saul Bellow. Indeed, one can't assume that college students know anything anymore.

Little wonder that so many students experience great difficulty in absorbing detail; since they have no context in which to fit what they read, it quickly flows out of their minds. Unable to retain much, they find little profit in reading, which leads them to read less, which in turn makes it harder for them to improve their reading skills.

 .... The real problem, I'm convinced, is that college-bound youngsters over the past two decades have not received the quality education they deserve. As R. Jackson Wilson observes of his students at Smith, this generation is typically "good-spirited, refreshingly uncowed by teachers' authority, and very willing to work." They enter college with high ambitions, only to find those ambitions dashed in many cases by inadequate skills and knowledge. The normal activities required to earn a bachelor's degree--reading, writing, researching, and reasoning--are so difficult for them that a large number (I would guess a majority at most schools) simply give up in frustration. Some actually leave; the rest go through the motions, learning and contributing little, until it's time to pick up their diplomas. We rightly worry about the nation's high school dropouts. Perhaps we should worry as well about these silent college "dropouts."



What has caused this great decline in our schools? The multitude of reports that now fill the library shelves tend to designate "social factors" as the prime culprit. Television usually heads the list, followed by rock music, the influence of adolescent peer groups, the increase in both single-parent families and households where both parents work, and even faulty nutrition.

Those who attribute the loss of academic performance to social factors don't take account of the small number of high schools around the country that have managed to escape the downturn….There is no indication that the children attending these exceptional schools watched significantly fewer hours of television, listened to less heavy-metal music, were less likely to have working mothers, or ate fewer Big Macs than other children. Rather, they appear to have had the good fortune to go to schools that were intent on steering a steady course in a time of rapid change, thus countering the potentially negative impact of various social factors.

The report identifies one main characteristic that successful schools have shared--the belief that academics must invariably receive priority over every other activity. "The difference comes," we are told, "from a singular commitment to academic achievement for the college-bound student." …

Two other factors help …. against deterioration. The first is a dogged reliance on a traditional liberal-arts curriculum. In an era of mini-courses and electives, the tiny group of high schools that kept test scores and achievement high continued to require year-long courses in literature and to encourage enrollment in rigorous math classes, including geometry and advanced algebra. Though the learning environment in those schools was often "broad and imaginative," in the words of the NASSP, fundamentals such as English grammar and vocabulary received heavy stress. The other key factor in preserving academic quality was the practice of grouping students by ability in as many subjects as possible The contrast was stark: schools that had "severely declining test scores" had "moved determinedly toward heterogeneous grouping" (that is, mixed students of differing ability levels in the same classes), while the "schools who have maintained good SAT scores" tended "to prefer homogeneous grouping." If attaining educational excellence is this simple, why have these high-quality schools become so rare? The answer lies in the cultural ferment of the 1960s.



In every conceivable fashion the reigning ethos of those times was hostile to excellence in education. Individual achievement fell under intense suspicion, as did attempts to maintain standards. Discriminating among students on the basis of ability or performance was branded "elitist." Educational gurus of the day called for essentially nonacademic schools, whose main purpose would be to build habits of social cooperation and equality rather than to train the mind.

A good education, it was said, maximized the child's innate spontaneity, creativity, and affection for others. To the extent that logic and acquired knowledge interfered with that process, they were devalued. This populist tidal wave receded by the late 1970s, but the mediocrity it left in its wake remains. The extent of the devastation has varied by subject area: …. Consider the teaching of English. The Great Books, of course, are out of fashion. A few get assigned as a token gesture, but are rarely set in chronological order. The results of a questionnaire I recently distributed at Hobart and William Smith Colleges suggest that less than a quarter of the college-bound population now gets a real year-long survey of American literature, with probably no more than 15 percent taking such a course in British or European literature.

Instead, students all too often are given works that, as the English department at one highly ranked independent school puts it, are "age-appropriate" and "reflect [a] concern for social pluralism." "Age-appropriate" means giving students assignments "that reflect their interests as adolescents, that they can read without constant recourse to a dictionary, and from which they can take whatever they are inspired to take." Nor are they asked to read much.

Most ninth- and tenth-grade English reading lists are limited to four or five titles a year. According to Arthur N. Applebee, the director of the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning, the typical college-bound high school student reads only sixty-five pages a week (even with Advanced Placement courses factored in), or less than ten pages a night. The rest of the English curriculum also reflects the impact of the sixties. If the reports I get from my students are accurate, it would appear that formal drills on grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and diction are infrequent these days. .... As for writing, when it is assigned (there seems to be wide variation among schools on this), it tends to take the form of "personal expression"--with assignments calling for first-person narratives that describe what the student has seen, felt, or experienced. Essays in which the writer marshals evidence to support a coherent, logical argument are all too rare.

 "Analytic writing was difficult for students in all grades," the National Assessment of Educational Progress noted in summarizing the results of its various writing tests in 1984, while students "had less difficulty with tasks requiring short responses based on personal experience."

In sum, this is a generation whose members may be better equipped to track the progress of their souls in diaries than any group of Americans since the Puritans. But as for writing papers in college, or later producing the sorts of documents that get the world's work done, that's another story. In contrast, a survey conducted by the Educational Testing Service in the mid-1960s, just before countercultural innovations swept away the old curriculum, discovered that over twice as many high school students of that era said that they "frequently" wrote papers criticizing the literary works they were studying (a valuable pedagogic strategy because it forces the student to become a much closer reader) as said that they "frequently" wrote papers based on personal experience.



The same tendency appears in other key subjects. Students headed for college used to get a solid grasp of both American and European history at the high school level. Now, .... they pass through an array of social-studies courses designed to impress upon them the central values of the sixties, including concern for the natural environment, respect for people of different racial and ethnic groups, and women's rights. ....this spotty social-studies approach deprives students of that vital base of in-depth knowledge they must have to succeed as undergraduates.

Accompanying this pervasive dumbing-down of the curriculum has been a wholesale change in school philosophy. In place of "stretching" students, the key objective in previous eras, the goal has become not to "stress" them. One hears again and again that kids growing up "need time to smell the roses." .... But the stress they avoid in high school often comes back to haunt them in college. An extensive survey of college freshmen recently found that an increasing number say they are "overwhelmed by all I have to do." .... Perhaps most crucial, the sixties mentality with its strong animus against what it defines as "elitism," has shifted the locus of concern in American education from high to low achievers. ...

The prevailing ideology holds that it is much better to give up the prospect of excellence than to take the chance of injuring any student's self-esteem. Instead of trying to spur children on to set high standards for themselves, teachers invest their energies in making sure that slow learners do not come to think of themselves as failures. ... one often senses a virtual prejudice against bright students.

There is at times an underlying feeling, never articulated, that such children start off with too many advantages, and that it would be just as well to hold them back until their less fortunate contemporaries catch up with them.....  the prime mission now was to produce equality rather than excellence. As the test scores tell us,....the bottom quartile have shown slow but steady progress, while those in the top quartile have exhibited a sharp decline. Only since the appearance of A Nation at Risk, in 1983, with its warning about "a rising tide of mediocrity" sweeping over the schools, have we started to realize the sizable hidden cost that this currant educational strategy has exacted. Here it is necessary to be precise: the problem is not the pursuit of equality as such but the bias against excellence that has accompanied it. If anything, the effort to help children who start off life severely handicapped by their socioeconomic circumstances deserves more money and attention than it has received to date. However, that effort need not and must not obscure from view the quite separate problem of restoring academic quality to our schools. If real change is to occur in this regard, we must make clear to teachers and administrators that their mandate has been revised--that we want to move toward social equality AND academic excellence.