An intellectual decline

Tonight, of the three levers, I am only going to talk about smart people. Fundamentally, if you do not have smart people, the other two levers don’t make any difference. You need smart people to be able to do great things.

Let’s look at college education. Because smart people are important, college education should be important, and a country should be focusing on graduating more of its people from college.

In the past few decades, the United States has gone from being No. 1–having the highest percentage of our population with a college education–to now 13th or 14th place in the world.

Guess what? You fall behind in this category, you fall behind in smart people, and you fall behind in the ability to add value to what you do. And how do you justify the highest standard of living in the world if you cannot add value? It doesn’t work.

Another important metric is what fraction of our students graduate from high school. On average, 30 percent of the young people in America do not even get a high school diploma–the dark secret of American education.

Our workforce is constrained by the fact that 30 percent of our adults do not get a high school diploma. I’m not arguing about the quality or the value of a high school diploma. I’m just saying, whether a high school education is valuable or not, 30 percent of our children never get there.

So, we have 30 percent of our workforce without even a high school diploma. At the same time, we see the rest of the world increasing the fraction of its workforce with a college education. This isn’t good news for Americans.

If you start to look at internationally benchmarked tests that measure the performance of U.S. students versus those of other countries, out of 30 industrialized countries we rank 25th in mathematics; in science, 21st; in reading, 15th; and in problem solving, 24th.

For a country that wants to maintain the highest standard of living, wants to be the most entrepreneurial country in the world, and wants to add value to everything it does, being ranked academically in the lower quintile compared with other developed countries just doesn’t work. Our position in the world is unsustainable–we don’t have enough smart people anymore, comparatively. It is a prescription for decline.

You would think that these data would make headlines in the daily newspapers. But in America, our intellectual and academic decline is a non-event.

Are we crazy?

Let’s look at the international data in more detail. Let’s look at our students’ reading and math scores from the early 1970s to 2008.

In reading, our kids scored 285 in 1971 and they scored 286 in 2008. That is nearly 40 years of flat performance, while competition around the world is increasing.

In mathematics, our kids scored 304 in 1973 and 304 in 2008–absolutely flat for the last 35 years.  And on an international scale, our ranking is in the bottom 25 percent of industrialized cuntries.

Looking at our own internal performance improvement over the last 35 years, you see exactly zero on average. I would think this would generate some comment from the press. Let’s put this in the context of what we are seeing today.

We have an investment banking meltdown, and hundreds of billions of dollars are thrown at the investment banks. An automobile company meltdown, and tens of billions of dollars are thrown at those almost overnight. The head of GM was fired, and total restructuring of two major industries in the United States occurred, on the basis of short-term results–and here we have 35 years of stagnation in education and not a whimper. It’s not a crisis; it is readily accepted by the press … readily accepted by the institution that creates it … and readily accepted by the population of the United States. Are we just crazy?

We have had quite a few studies on this topic. “A Nation at Risk” in the early 80s said our educational system was subpar, and we had to do something. That was the study that said if another nation wanted to destroy the U.S., it would do what we are doing to ourselves with our K-12 educational system.

In the early 1990s our governors met at the National Governor’s Association and said our math and science performance was subpar, and they made a pledge: Within 10 years, our kids would be at the top of the world in math and science performance. That was about 15 years ago.

“Before It’s Too Late.” That was the title of a report from the Glenn Commission, which met in the late 90s and issued its report in 2000. Regarding K-12 math and science, the report basically said, “We’re in big trouble; we ought to do something.”

“Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences, reached the same conclusion: “K-12 education is in real trouble; we ought to do something.”

And “Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World Class Education,” from the National Governor’s Association in 2008, made the same point as well.

So, America has had 30-plus years of high-quality reports, all saying the same thing: K-12 education is in serious trouble. Yet nobody has done a thing. The system has not done a thing. Our children are where they were nearly 40 years ago–with flat results and declining abilities relative to an increasingly competitive world.