We’re all familiar with the statistics. Over the past several decades, the United States has fallen from a global leader in primary and secondary education to an average performer at best. Researchers at Stanford University reported in 2010 that: “ ... the percentages of high-achieving students in the United States―and most of its individual states―are shockingly below those of many of the world’s leading industrialized nations.”
According to the latest assessment of 34 OECD nations, the U.S. ranks 14th in reading, 17th in sciences and 25th in math (OECD, 2009). In 2010, Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, referred to the OECD results as: “… an absolute wake-up call for America. The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”
Indeed. K-12 education is the foundation of our system of talent in the United States. Already, the results of substandard elementary and high school education are impacting colleges and universities. On the whole, the American post-secondary education system is widely considered to be the best in the world, yet how long can it survive a poor K-12 system?
According to the U.S. Department of Education, about a third of first-year students across the country had taken at least one remedial course in 2007-08.More recently, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education stated that 60 percent of new college freshmen need to take at least one remedial class and that only 17 percent of students who take a remedial reading class at college are likely to get their bachelor’s degree.
Failures in basic education often lead to bad outcomes at college, which then filter into the workforce either by making fewer people eligible for 21st Century knowledge work or by requiring employers to assume the burden of providing remedial training and education to new hires. To a limited degree, employers can turn to immigration for the answer to their talent needs. Already, 33 percent of U.S. graduates with engineering degrees are foreign-born, along with 27 percent of graduates in computers, math, and statistics according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2011). Moreover, almost half of all doctorate degrees in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are awarded to foreign born students.
Nonetheless, it is impractical to believe that we can recruit the tens of millions of skilled workers from other countries that would be needed to fill the gaps left by an aging population in the coming years. The crisis in basic education is bound to erode the American economy and our standard of living even further if quick and dramatic action isn’t taken at the primary and secondary levels of education.